Stripping Away the Moral PartOctober 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.