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June 22, 2007


Seth Baum

Thanks, Dave, this is a nice next step. Some quick thoughts:
1. Common sense can tell us many different things. Indeed, at least some of the time, my common sense tells me utilitarianism is correct! :)
2. Common sense ethics can lead to important self-contradictions. For example, racism, sexism, homophobia, and speciesism have all been supported by common sense ethics. Meanwhile, utilitarians (among others) have spoken and continue to speak out against each of these, even when it has not been socially palatable. See for example John Stuart Mill with sexism or Peter Singer with speciesism.
3. Do we want to trust common sense, with its very mixed track record, to matters as important as global climate change, resource depletion, or any other long-term threats to our survival? I'm reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker of Jared Diamond's book Collapse:

"The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal."

I'm concerned that common sense may tell too many of us that it's OK to not intervene on the planet's behalf. Meanwhile, utilitarians today, in speaking out against "temporalism" (valuing one point in time more than other), utilitarians are, implicitly or explicitly, recommending we place more priority on these longer-term threats. I'll discuss this more on a post dedicated to discounting/valuing the future.
4. Anderson wrote: "But the very features of commonsense ethical thinking thought to constitute philosophical vices are indispensable for self-understanding." I agree, but this is "descriptive ethics", that is, it describes what ethics we _actually_ use, not "prescriptive ethics", which describes what ethics we _should_ use.
5. Anderson wrote: "they believe that critical reflection requires that we bypass reasoning in terms of socially embedded thick concepts and think directly in terms of value-neutral facts, plus the good and the right alone". If I understand Anderson correctly here, I think she's making an excellent point. To dip briefly into "meta-ethics", I'm concerned with the "moral realism" popular among philosophers, meaning that they seem to view right and wrong as an intrinsic property of the universe and not a social construction.
6. The ethics of economics is an interesting one. Perhaps a separate post on that sometime will be worthwhile.


>> I'm concerned with the "moral realism" popular among philosophers, meaning that they seem to view right and wrong as an intrinsic property of the universe and not a social construction.

This is where I see the merging of ethics, psychology, genetics, and even economics as inevitable and tremendously exciting. Books like Hauser's "Moral Minds" (which I haven't read yet, to be clear) bring up the question, "what does our -DNA- say about human behavior?" This is something I hope economists are talking about, but I really don't know. From my uneducated position, I believe that right and wrong are somewhere in between "intrinsic property" and "social construction." The intrinsic property portion is our DNA (nature), which interacts with environment (nurture) to create our moral sense.

I don't subscribe entirely to the postmodern "make your own truth" views, but I also question the thought that we can tell people what they -should- do. But if it were stated as such: "this is what you -should- do if you want -this- outcome" vs. "this is what you -should- do because it is -right-," then I can be on board. I don't know if you imply the first rather than the second when you talk about prescriptive ethics.

Dave Iverson

. . . "racism, sexism, homophobia, and speciesism have all been supported by common sense ethics."

I suspect all have in fact been supported by common nonsense, not common sense. In Value in Ethics and Economics, Anderson carefully explains the "common sense" frames she uses. Here is a snip of Anderson's frame around common sense, as well as an snipe at "instrumental" reasoning:

"The instrumental conception of the self fails to provide us with a choerent basis for self-understanding and requires disturbing divisions among different aspects of the self. Common sense agrees with the expressive view that to fail to integrate the perspective of justification, deliberation, motivation, and intention is to engage in expressively incoherent and hence irrational action. . . . On the expressive view, a person's conception of justification, of who, what, where, when and how to sensibly value, is directly expressed in her attitudes, motives, deliberations, intentions, and actions. She need not adopt a false or delusional standpoint of deliberation and motivation to do the rational thing." (p. 43, Value in Ethics and Economics)

PS. For more Anderson commentary, see posts at Left2Right: http://left2right.typepad.com/main/elizabeth_anderson/index.html

See also Anderson's work-up of the Moral Philosophy of John Dewey here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-moral/

PSS: I certainly agree that in common use, "common sense" very often refers to whatever is popular - often more the stuff of nonsense than sense. But not so in Anderson's carefully crafted frame.

Seth Baum

C! - Interesting you should bring up "evolutionary ethics". I just saw something on the topic from a piece on the idea of an "artificial intelligence singularity"
The AI thing is a big can of worms in its own right, which I wish I had a better take on than I do. But that's off-topic...

When I talk prescriptive ethics, I mean "This is what you should do" or "This is what is right", which I think are more or less equivalent and corresponds to your "this is what you -should- do because it is right". However, since, as a moral skeptic, I'd consider those statements to be false, I usually replace them with something like "I recommend that you do this". Is this clear? Perhaps I could word it better.

Dave- Thanks for the Anderson quote and links. I'm afraid I can't respond well from this quote. However, our library does have her book available. I'll try picking up. Even if you and her end up not changing my views, yinz are broadening my ethical horizons. Some questions:
1. How does one distinguish between "common sense" and "common nonsense", using her definitions of these terms?
2. What are the (or some) prescriptive differences between utilitarianism and Anderson's ethics?

Dave Iverson


Do get and read Anderson's VALUE IN ETHICS AND ECONOMICS. That will give us a base from which to talk further, and develop more posts on these important matters.

In the meantime I have Mark Sagoff's PRICE, PRINCIPLE, AND THE ENVIRONMENT on order and plan to make a post about it sometime soon, including Frank Ackerman's review of the book in which he chides Sagoff for slipping too far into non-economics land. I mention Sagoff since his book THE ECONOMY OF THE EARTH is a favorite in the link between ethics and economics, and Anderson's work builds in part from a base Sagoff laid down earlier. So does Margaret Jane Radin's work in CONTESTED COMMODITIES. Again another story, another book for another time.

As for "common sense" and "common nonsense" (the latter being my invention, not Anderson's), let's consider two paragraphs from Anderson's book:

"Advocates of the economic view may reply that the act of choosing an option, as long as it is informed, and not enforced by threats issued from the person offering the option, implies that the agent prefers and accepts it. And to accept a choice is to find its consequences acceptable, which is equivalent to consenting to those consequences . . . . This inference trades upon an equivocation between two different notions of acceptance. When people accept a job, knowing its attendant risk, they do "accept" these risks in one sense. But this does not imply that they find these risks acceptable, fair, legitimate, or worthwhile. When I choose to walk home at night, knowing that I may be mugged or raped, I do not thereby find it acceptable, fair, or legitimate that these risks are involved in waking home, nor do I consent to being mugged or raped. This is true even if I could have called a taxi or even if someone pays me to walk home at night . . . . To consent to an option is neither to consent to all of its foreseeable consequences nor to judge that it is all right that those consequences attend one's choice.

"How then, do we tell whether people find the outcomes of their choices to be acceptable, fair, or legitimate? The only adequate evidence is found in their ATTITUDES [italics in original], not their "revealed" preferences or choices. Individuals have positive or negative attitudes toward their choices which reveal how well their choices reflect the valuations they have of themselves and others. If they make a deliberate, informed choice with equanimity, this shows that they have no regrets of misgivings, which in turn suggests that they view its consequences as acceptable for everyone they care about whose interests are at stake in the choice. Even this judgment does not imply that they view its consequences as good for the people whose interests are at stake, since it is consistent with their not caring for anyone, including themselves. It also does not imply that they view the choice itself as fair or legitimate, since it is consistent with cynicism and resignation. If they make a choice with misgivings or mixed feelings, this suggests that they do not find its consequences acceptable for everyone they care about, or perhaps that they think the choice morally wrong, or unfair. Again, no straightforward welfare or legitimacy judgment can be derived from the fact of choice or preference. A person need not endorse all the consequences and meaning of even her most preferred choice [referencing back to the section, 2.4: Consequentialism]. Economists make a fundamental mistake in inferring people's values directly from their choices or preferences. A person's attitudes embody conceptions of the significance or her preferences and choices that the economist's bare consequentialist representation of her preferences cannot capture." (Value in Ethics and Economics, Anderson, Ch. 9: Cost-Benefit Analysis, Safety, and Environmental Quality, pp. 201-2)

PS.. I have no idea what Anderson is trying to say in the second half of this sentence: "Even this judgment does not imply that they view its consequences as good for the people whose interests are at stake, since it is consistent with their not caring for anyone, including themselves." Perhaps you can help, Seth. I thought about leaving the second half of the sentence out, and instead inserting ". . ." as I did ONLY with embedded literature citations above, but then I thought again and left it in. I did, however, look at the passage about three times to make sure (no guarantees) that I copied it correctly.

As per differences between utilitarianism and Anderson's ethics and value theories, we'll deal with that over an extended number of posts and comments. It's too deep to deal with in any quick way.

Seth Baum

Hi Dave,

First- see
It appears that utilitarians' track record on race and colonization might not be as spotless as I made it out to be. It is interesting to see them judged according to the standards of their own philosophy.

Regarding Anderson, if she means to critique the conventional economic view of rationality and behavior (i.e. homo economics), she is of course correct in doing so. I was glad to see good discussion of this topic at the USSEE conference. But regardless of how we actually make decisions, we still may prefer an option without preferring all of its attributes, and just because something is the best available option does not make it the best imaginable option or even a good option. If economists conclude that we necessarily find all attributes of our choices to be good, then Anderson is correct to call them on this too. However, this does not seem to be either a critique of utilitarianism or an explanation of common sense ethics.

Regarding fairness, people seem to have a very useful but quirky intuition which favors more even distributions. This works well where diminishing marginal utility exists, but we apparently also tend to display a sense of "diminishing marginal utility of utility"- see

"Even this judgment does not imply that they view its consequences as good for the people whose interests are at stake, since it is consistent with their not caring for anyone, including themselves."
I think that Anderson is claiming here that we can be apathetic towards stakeholders, including ourselves. From my experience this is true; I'd guess that you've had similar experiences to this effect.

Dave Iverson

Thanks Seth,

I'll try to find time this weekend to delve more into the links above. While you are struggling to learn more about and from Anderson, I highly recommend her work on the "Moral Philosophy of John Dewey": http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-moral/

It is about learning, being, doing, sharing, evaluating, reflecting ... in a "contextualism' frame. It also talks to Dewey's take on utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and his disdain for "reductionism" generally.

I suspect that Anderson's and Dewey's views are not that far apart, at least as viewed through Anderson's refining lens. Have a look and lemee know what you think.. d.

Dave Iverson

I would be remiss if I didn't point to the little gem from THE ECONOMIST, Dec 2006 on "Happiness and Economics" http://utilitarianism.com/happiness/economics.html

I especially like the embedded insights from Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman whose work I generally admire. One snip:

"... Mr Kahneman, who is not shy of extrapolation, thinks people often choose to repeat experiences that seem better in retrospect than they did at the time. Contrary to Bentham, the 'sovereign masters that determine what people will do are not pleasure and pain, but fallible memories of pleasure and pain.'

If people are bad at recalling their feelings, they are worse at predicting them. ..."

Seth Baum

Hi Dave,
I've enjoyed Kahneman's work too. Regarding the happiness surveys, I tend to hold them in higher regard than most "mainstream" economists- see for example
but while I expect they can be a useful tool, I doubt they can be a panacea- see for example
I'm reading Anderson on Dewey now and will have a critique.

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