Stripping Away the Moral Part

October 28, 2009

Steven Levitt, one of the Freakonomics duo, went on last night’s Daily Show to defend himself against critics (and to stir up another million or so suckers to buy his book). Anybody paying attention knows that Levitt and Dubner’s geoengineering chapter has created a good deal of consternation around the blogosphere. John Stewart, noting the sharp criticism coming from the environmental establishment, asks whether Levitt has “stepped on a secular religion.” Roger Pielke Jr. then picks up on Stewart’s faux disbelief to ask whether Stewart will get the same treatment that others have gotten, tangentially referencing a thread discussed at length here a few weeks ago.*

Roger knows the answer to his question, of course: probably not. Stewart will likely be given a pass. But that’s cool, because Stewart didn’t flesh out a substantive position. He just prodded Levitt, who I think sought in this interview the moral high ground. And that is where we, intrepid philosophers, enter the picture.

How did Levitt seek the moral high ground? By tragically misunderstanding his own discipline, of course.

More after the jump…

At several points Levitt claims that he and Dubner “strip the moral part away,” “take away the moral part,” and “put the moralism away.” They’ve apparently said such things in numerous other places as well. How quaint. How delicious. How stupid.

What’s stupid about Levitt’s claim is that economics very much is predicated upon an applied moral view. There is no sense in which they’re stripping the moral part away. They’re just burying it under a pile of numbers.

Economics is fundamentally a value-oriented discipline, aimed at understanding the ebbs and flows of utility. (Here, see for yourself.) Most economics talk is framed in terms of objectively quantifiable value-units, like dollars or euros, but the dollar signs shouldn’t fool you. What those units are measuring is unadulterated value. And, as it turns out, value is the core concern of morality.

When I choose to exchange one of these value-units, say, to purchase a dollop of cheese, I reveal my values. I value cheese over beanie babies, say, so I spend my dollars on dollops of cheese and not on other things. If we sum up all of the things I value by approximating my willingness-to-pay for various goods and services, and then plot these out on a complicated network of interweaving indifference curves, we arrive upon a massive value infrastructure — which is to say, a moral view.

The disclaimer of Levitt’s that he is stripping “the moral part away” should itself be stripped away. It’s a deceit; a ruse; a pile of bullshit so hot and steaming that all the snow now covering my driveway couldn’t cool it off.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s also dispense with the view that morality and religion are inextricably intertwined, whereas science, pure as the snow soon to be heaped on Levitt’s pile of bullshit, avoids value considerations. Levitt says, to support his ruse, that he and Dubner “start with the science,” instead of “jumping to the conclusion that mankind owes a debt to future mankind to not put carbon in the air.”  He says that they try to look at the question of what we should do if we really wanted to cool down the air quickly and cheaply. He adds, to temper his claim, “in a way that’s reversible,” though it’s not at all clear how geoengineering is reversible.

Spoken like a true economist. Unpacking this will be my pleasure, and hopefully your delight.

The language of “debt,” for starters, is indeed morally loaded, though perhaps not in the way he suggests. It is wrong to assume that the singular moral position available to us is that we owe a debt to future generations. Generalized obligations to future generations can come in many forms, including debt-free responsibilities, like those that we may have to help people in need. I don’t help a lost toddler because I owe a debt to him. I do it because it is my responsibility to help him. I realize that Levitt is not ruling out other moral positions, but I think he’s caricaturing morality as somehow rooted in something spooky.

Second, he claims that people are “jumping to the conclusion” that we owe a debt to future mankind. As someone who has been studying environmental ethics, in earnest, for more than 15 years, I’ll tell you that the history of moral philosophy belies the stupidity of this claim. The future generations literature has been going strong for quite a long time now, far predating my input. There are many views for and against the position that we have obligations to future generations. Nobody in the literature is “jumping” to any conclusions. We are working it out; and it’s a very difficult problem.

Finally, he says that he and Dubner try to answer the question of “what we should do, if…” And this brings us full circle. That is a fantastic friggin’ question, because the question of “what we should do” is exactly the question that ethicists seek to address. Ethics is all crazy up in the House of Should. That’s our rightful domain. That’s where we hang, yo.

Oh, sure, economists, policy peeps, businessfolk, and clergydudes all titter around in our house, in the normative sphere, drinking our beer and kicking over our plants. Generally speaking, when they hang in our house, they’re doing ethics too. They’re asking “should” questions, maybe without knowing they are. They’re painting the morality on, not stripping it off.

That’s precisely what Levitt is doing when he makes his ridiculous and wrong-headed ethical proclamations endorsing geoengineering as a climate mitigation strategy. He’s making an ethical claim.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s cut the pretense and avoid the preposterous dodge. Levitt is making an ethical claim, whether he knows it or not. On my read, it is likely that it is his reckless foray into the normative sphere that has people tripping over themselves to demonstrate the wrongheadedness of his science. It is helpful, of course, to get the science right; but at base, it is the ethical suggestion that he’s advancing that has people hot and bothered. He’s making a moral claim, even though he begs to differ.

* That thread, note, was not about whether belief in AGW functions like a religion, but whether belief in AGW should legally be considered a religion.



  1. Interesting post. Levitt’s language – really, anyone’s language – on these point is indeed value laden; thanks for making that clear.

    I would add that, rather unnecessarily perhaps, that Levitt’s claim to be looking only at the science is also bogus – he’s got the science wrong, both on the AGW evidence and the geoengineering “fix.”

    So, he’s not actaully stripping away the moral part to address only the science, and he’s got the science wrong anyway. What’s the expression about digging a hole?

  2. I don’t have the time to think this through deeply right now, but there is some resonance with the drubbing that Levitt and Dubner are taking from the feminist blogosphere for their chapter on prostitution and pimping.

    • Very interesting. Thanks for that. I’m not as plugged into that community as maybe I should be. There again are those _deeply embedded_ moral claims.

  3. Ben – You are committing an equivocation (in the technical sense) on the word “value”.

    • Care to elaborate?

      • He was taling about definitions 1-6. You are talking about definition 10.

        val⋅ue  /ˈvælyu/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [val-yoo] Show IPA noun, verb, -ued, -u⋅ing.
        Use value in a Sentence
        See web results for value
        See images of value
        –noun 1. relative worth, merit, or importance: the value of a college education; the value of a queen in chess.
        2. monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade: This piece of land has greatly increased in value.
        3. the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange.
        4. equivalent worth or return in money, material, services, etc.: to give value for value received.
        5. estimated or assigned worth; valuation: a painting with a current value of $500,000.
        6. denomination, as of a monetary issue or a postage stamp.
        7. Mathematics. a. magnitude; quantity; number represented by a figure, symbol, or the like: the value of an angle; the value of x; the value of a sum.
        b. a point in the range of a function; a point in the range corresponding to a given point in the domain of a function: The value of x 2 at 2 is 4.

        8. import or meaning; force; significance: the value of a word.
        9. liking or affection; favorable regard.
        10. values, Sociology. the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, or education, or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy.
        11. Ethics. any object or quality desirable as a means or as an end in itself.
        12. Fine Arts. a. degree of lightness or darkness in a color.
        b. the relation of light and shade in a painting, drawing, or the like.

        13. Music. the relative length or duration of a tone signified by a note.
        14. values, Mining. the marketable portions of an orebody.
        15. Phonetics. a. quality.
        b. the phonetic equivalent of a letter, as the sound of a in hat, sang, etc.

      • Wrong. I am talking about value generally, which includes, but is not limited to, definitions 1-6. I’m talking about ethics, which is the study of value — and not just in value theory — of what’s valuable, of what should be done, of what ought to be, of what has worth. Economics covers only a very small subset of questions in the big, wide House of Should. It most certainly is not insulated from questions of value.

        Read the Hausman article.

    • While you’re at it, enjoy this recent and free article by Dan Hausman and Michael McPherson:


      It’s just one of many in this journal… and I’m only linking to it because it’s free; though Daniel Hausman is an absolutely fantastic philosopher of economics and a great place to start.

  4. I think its clear that “striping away the moral part” is NOT some ex post facto justification.

    It was the guiding principle that Levitt and Dubnet used to write the book. Just look at the choice of material.

    In the case of climate, conventional wisdom about how to deal with AGW has produced congressional legislation that gives vast handouts to politically connected polluters while having a negligible effect on US emissions versus business-as-usual.

    If this is the best that congress can do, it is powerful evidence that the emissions reducing path is a mistake. If congress can do better, then why aren’t they?

    • Well, it may be evidence that this particular emissions reduction path is a mistake, but it’s not clear that the all emissions reduction paths are a mistake, nor is it clear that the alternative offered in SuperFE is anything close to morally neutral.

  5. I’m wondering if maybe Levitt’s use of the word “morality” isn’t simply intended to refer to a more knee-jerk-reaction kind of behavior, a behavior that seems to be exhibited by the people typically concerned with these sorts of issues (global warming, etc.). In fact, I think Stewart’s speculating that Levitt has “stepped on a “secular religion” is good evidence indicating that knee-jerk-reactions are *exactly* what he (Levitt) is referring to with the word “morality” and thus, a behavior he is consciously trying to avoid doing himself.

    I agree that Levitt is making implicit moral claims when he is doing *any* type of economic analysis. However, I think the sentiment he is trying to express is something like: “We ought to look at the available data and interpret it *through the lens provided by (reliable?) statistical methods* rather than interpret it using popularly informed conceptions and vague political misgivings, etc.”

    Now, I agree with you that Levitt is seeking moral high ground and runs the risk of being, in a certain sense, condescending, but (I think) Levitt is really attempting to justify a certain methodology in solving problems.

    • Yeah, good point, that seems reasonable. I owe apologies if my criticism is a bit over the top regarding Levitt’s comments on last night’s Daily Show. At the same time, I think he’s hiding behind the claim that he’s stripping away the morality, and he appears to be claiming so in more places than one. He’s very much importing a moral view.

      The issue I’m concerned with is actually much bigger than Levitt and Dubner. It appears and reappears in our public policy discourse, as economic discussion tends to shut out other ethical angles.

  6. Dubn and Dubner may indeed be digging a hole for themselves, but it probably won’t be anywhere large enough to hide the buckets of money they expect to make from their new tome. Excuse the mixed metaphor, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I would submit, in other words, that what we are witnessing here is an exercise in amorality. The issue of whether the science backs their view on geo-engineering didn’t enter into their calculation at all, rather it was just a matter of whether it would stir up enough controversy to sell books.

    We’re seeing here an interesting test of the extent to which economics and journalism are self-policing. I’m not sure how far that will go with Levitt since the book is not strictly speaking a publication within the field of economics, but it is very much an exercise in journalism (and by a reporter for the “newspaper of record,” no less), so it will be interesting to see if Dubner’s colleagues allow him to survive with his reputation even remotely intact.

  7. Try to keep in mind that Jon’s show is on the Comedy Channel and he has for the most part a young and unsophisticated audience that most likely have never even read a peer reviewed paper on climate. I have no problem with Levitt claiming that he is trying to separate economics and morality in response to Stewart’s assertion of having “stepped on a secular religion.” All of this “ado” seems to have gone viral and that will likely increase book sales which is why Levitt is on the Comedy Channel in the first place.

    It seems every author needs a hook to hawk their wares. Agassi and crystal meth, Magic Johnson back stabbing Isiah Thomas or Mackenzie Phillips tales of incest with Dad. What’s the harm in Levitt taking a hypocritical cheap shot at those that rule out alternative solutions because of a self-imposed morality? He is on the Comedy Channel and he should be allowed some slack to wear his entertainment “hat” and have fun. I find it funny.

    P.S. I also found it funny that a blog writing about someone who may have “stepped on a secular religion” chose to link to a site notorious for banning those who are heretics of their climate beliefs. 😉

    • Well, the problem is that he’s not just saying it on Comedy Central. He’s said it elsewhere too; and he appears to believe it. Moreover, lots of public policy economists believe themselves to be representing an objective view that has nothing to do with morality. They’re just wrong about economics.

  8. Ben-

    Good post. Of course I agree (see The Honest Broker).

    But am I correct in understanding that the philosopher’s principle of charity does not apply equally to economists? 😉

    • There’s charitable and then there’s misreading. From what I can tell, I think Levitt actually believes that he’s “stripping away the morality,” so I want to assess that claim on its face. It’s just false, as you and I both know.

  9. […] lot of books, but in doing so, they’re being disingenuous: acting one way and simultaneously decrying what they’re doing; doing ethics and claiming not to do ethics. For what follows, I’ll ignore their scientific […]

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