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catallaxy in technical exile

Economics is to sociology as Hume is to Aristotle?

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On Andrew’s post about the leading light of the Hairshirt Left I made a half-serious crack about sociologists:

Bad’ Peter Saunders is a sociologist. Sociologists can never really be liberals. You can take the sociologist out of university but you can’t take the sociologist out of the man;-)

to which Don Arthur responded:

Jason – why do you say that, as a sociologist, ‘bad’ Peter Saunders can’t be a liberal?

As I explained on the thread and thought I’d highlight and develop here, I think there are a number of related reasons why people trained in sociology are more likely to have reservations about liberalism:

1) Liberalism is most compatible with (though not necessarily completely dependent on) the normative methodological approach that we should take preferences as given (even if we know that in reality they are endogenous). This approach is less likely to be seen as controversial by economists than sociologists.
2) Part of the reason for this is that, at least until recently, sociologists have been more concerned with the study of preference formation than economists and therefore one would expect this to spillover into their normative treatent of whether/how individual preferences should be satisfied.

More fundamentally this could be generalised to say that sociologists are more inclined to an Aristotleian view of humanity which in turn would lead to greater tolerance for social engineering:

The human individual has been developed in and through society. In the order of Nature, therefore, the state is prior to the individual, just as the whole must be prior to its part.(16*) It is the function or faculty of a thing which makes it what it is; and the individual outside of the state has lost his function as an individual.

Finally, man is a political animal in a higher sense than a bee or any gregarious creature; for man is the only animal endowed with articulate speech …

The elements of welfare or of a happy life for the individual, Aristotle says, are three: external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul.(39*) The happy man must possess all three, but in different proportions. For external goods, like instruments, have a limit, namely, their utility, and it follows that the excess of them is either hurtful or in no way beneficial to their possessor; whereas, if we take any good of the soul, the greater the amount of it, the greater is its utility.(40*) It is for the sake of the soul that the body and property are naturally desirable and should be desired by all sensible persons, not the soul for the sake of these. Happiness for the individual, therefore, ultimately depends upon the goods of the soul, which are character and intelligence.(41*) The same is true of the state. The best state is one which is happy and doing well; but it is impossible to be happy and do well without acting virtuously; and the virtues of a state are in effect and form identical with those of an individual

A lot of this sounds like something that neoconservative/sociologically inclined rightists like Irving Kristol, Peter Berger, Theodore Dalrymple, and yes, even the ‘bad’ Peter Saunders would approve of.

Economics and the most mainstream brands of classical liberalism, which are essentially based on utilitarian foundations talk more in terms of ‘bundles of preferences’. This view of humanity and its ends along with the Enlightenment-based disdain for talk about ‘higher ends’ and even the liberal preference for deterrence over retribution goes back to Hume

We tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we’ve changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then. We might start thinking about which features can be changed without changing the underlying self. Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly bears those features. After all, Hume pointed out, when you start introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you could call “the self”. So as far as we can tell, Hume concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions …

Most of us find some behaviors more reasonable than others. Eating aluminum foil, for example, seems to have something unreasonable about it. But Hume denied that reason has any important role in motivating or discouraging behavior. After all, reason is just a sort of calculator of concepts and experience. What ultimately matters, Hume said, is how we feel about the behavior. His work is now associated with the doctrine of instrumentalism, which states that an action is reasonable if and only if it serves the agent’s goals and desires, whatever they be. Reason can enter the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but never deigning to tell the agent which goals and desires he should have …

Hume’s view is that human behavior, like everything else, is caused, and therefore holding people responsible for their actions should focus on rewarding them or punishing them in such a way that they will try to do what is morally desirable and will try to avoid doing what is morally reprehensible.


Written by Admin

March 31, 2006 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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