27 July 2022

science and morality don’t mix

• We are continuing our reading of Professor Paul Collier's book The Future of Capitalism. This is proving to be a useful way of exploring a range of issues in political theory. My reason for choosing this particular book is not because it's an especially egregious example of leftist academia. Collier's brand of ideology is relatively mild, and his book shows some recognition of opposing points of view. Collier isn't fundamentally opposed to capitalism as many of his peers are. It's because the book's approach is relatively sober and unemotive — compared to similar publications by other humanities professors — that it provides a convenient springboard.
   Despite the book's relative mildness, many of its core themes are essentially the same as those of most other books on politics or society written by academics over the last forty years. Indeed, the regularity with which the same ideas recur in each new book that comes along is nothing short of remarkable, and suggests the possibility of some kind of underlying motivational bias.
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• Chapter 2 of TFOC is entitled 'The Foundations of Morality'.
   Let us start by noting that there is not, nor can there ever be, a science of morality.* Science and morality occupy different parts of the intellectual landscape. A long line of philosophers, stretching from David Hume to A.J. Ayer and beyond, have pointed out that the gulf between is and ought blocks the possibility of proving that any particular moral position is correct.
   That hasn't stopped other philosophers persisting with the search for proof. People want to know how they ought to be behave, and intellectuals of course would like to know what to tell them. This leads to the temptation to believe that, given a clever enough mind working with the latest ideas, irrefutable moral or political truth is potentially accessible. In his 1993 book How Are We to Live, for example, philosophy professor Peter Singer endorsed the view that, with further advances in academic philosophy, we could arrive at ethical propositions that are as indisputable as those of mathematics.
   Since science has now become the only generally accepted basis among intellectuals for generating objective truth, attempts to provide firm ethical or political conclusions often try to hang their arguments on some scientific finding or other, but this endeavour is doomed, and usually relies on a fudging of the issues.
   For instance, TFOC cites a study purporting to show that the regrets which people say they feel most keenly, in relation to decisions they might have made differently, are about social bonds or obligations and not about financial or other economic choices. That is interesting, but hardly enables us to say anything profound that goes much beyond the raw data. Collier treats it as evidence about "the relative psychological importance" of wants versus oughts. This is a good example of a tiny piece of data, probably highly dependent on the way the study is framed, and on how exactly the questions are put, being used to support a grand narrative about psychology or politics. Simply because some factor features larger in the conscious mind at any one time need not necessarily reveal much about how big a driver of behaviour that factor is, quite apart from the question of how honest subjects are in questionnaire studies.

• There are three tasks facing someone who wants to write a political philosophy book — at least one that seeks to offer 'solutions'. First, they need to identify 'problems'. Second, they need to identify the root of the supposed problems. Third, they need to predict what policies will attack the supposed root in such a way as to eliminate or reduce the problem.
   None of these tasks is one that is particularly amenable to science. The best that can be done is to tell a convincing story. In the process, you can adduce some research that seems supportive, but the likelihood in that case is that your conclusions are reached via a sort of 'logic lite' that can easily amount to pseudoscience. The implications of the research finding are stretched way beyond its significance. The chain of argument seems loosely scientific because you cite some peer-reviewed academic paper, the data of which the reader is unlikely to investigate for themselves. It's pseudoscience in the sense that it's made to look scientific but isn't.
   Furthermore, task (1) inevitably involves the writer's own moral biases. In identifying something as a problem, the writer will have to make assumptions about other people's preferences, those assumptions typically being based on his own preferences. Or assumptions will be made about what other people's preferences ought to be.

• Having read chapters 1 and 2, it has not yet become clear what core problem Collier sees as plaguing modern society. He complains about social engineers inspired by utilitarianism, and about populist politicians; and seems to see the former as part of the cause of the problem, and the latter as a (bad) response to the problem. But what precisely is the problem? Apparently something to do with the loss of communitarian values, but this is not spelled out in any detail. What we do get is:
(a) allusion to the well-honed idea that capitalism tends to promote selfishness, and an assertion that what is needed is to "build reciprocal obligations";
(b) the idea that there's a way to tackle the selfishness issue that is different from the old paternalist-utilitarian approach.

• By the end of chapter 2, Collier confidently asserts:
We now have a coherent picture that shows us how individual behaviour is shaped by obligations, why it matters, why it might "go wrong", and how it might be put right.
The chapter started with a discussion of the possible origins of communitarian behaviour (Collier uses the analogy of sheep — is this sending the right signals?), and ends with the claim that a coherent picture has been generated of what might "go wrong" and how it might be "put right". What logic is used in between, to get from one to the other?
   Collier proposes that a society can be wrong and yet stable, in the sense that everyone would prefer another kind of society but agreed norms mean that no one is in a position to bring about change. Though he doesn't use this as an illustration, it seems plausible for example that Soviet-style communism was unloved by the vast majority of its subjects for many decades but nevertheless remained highly stable, and that it required a revolutionary movement to flip Eastern European societies into a different configuration. Of course, this is speculation: we have no way of knowing for sure what the majority of (say) Poland wanted, and no doubt there were some Poles who preferred communism. This is the problem with getting into the position of having opinions about 'wrong' and 'right', beyond simply describing such models as theoretically possible: you need to make assumptions and/or value judgements.**
   Beyond this reference to the possibility of stable but suboptimal collective outcomes, there is nothing in chapter 2 to explain how the specific defects of "individual behaviour ... shaped by obligations" might be identified for a particular society, and nothing about how to ensure that proposed remedies will make things better rather than worse. The basic problem of how to identify right and wrong in relation to a society, in a way that is objective and not dependent on an intellectual's own preferences and prejudices, is left wholly intact.

* I am not talking about the kind of science that investigates what moral beliefs people actually hold (a question of fact); or the kind that asks why particular moral beliefs might have developed in response to particular drives or needs (a question of biological or sociological theory). Both can be illuminating but don't get us very far. One might be told that most societies commit genocide, one way or another; or that genocide is beneficial for the genes of the survivors; but one would not find either a compelling reason for regarding genocide as a good thing.

** There may be a good reason why it was not in Collier's interests to mention communism at that point, as an illustration of a suboptimal social configuration, given that TFOC is trying to promote the idea that the state can be used to change configurations to more positive ones. Communism and its collapse is too suggestive of the opposite idea: that the use of the state to improve things generates a worse (but stable) outcome, and that societal improvement may require rejection of the state as an instrument of welfare.