Power, Passion and Policy

Steven Levitt lists a number of ‘dangerous’ questions asked by Steven Pinker (eg. ‘Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?’, ‘Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?’), and notes that he doesn’t find himself in the least outraged by them. His approach to the list neatly encapsulates my own views on how economists approach a lot of controversial topics.

I must confess that my blood pressure did not rise as I read this list. In fact, I felt kind of bad that my blood didn’t boil. So I went and read them again, hoping I could find one that really set me off. My second pass also left me feeling quite calm. True, I don’t agree with some of the conjectures — but they are not things that I get emotional about. I know this would be the reaction of most economists (and, I suspect, of scientists and engineers as well, although I know fewer of them). I’m not sure, however, that is always a good thing; while economists and scientists tend to pride themselves on their objective analysis, emotion and morality also play an important role.

One of the things I loved about studying economics was how it gave me a very clear framework for thinking about problems where I cared deeply. But at the same time, I noticed that on issues where a simple perspective had made me feel passionate, a more nuanced understanding made me feel a lot less angry/feisty/self-assured. Fortunately, there are still social justice problems that make my blood boil, but my passion is almost entirely confined to outcomes, rather than particular policies. I’ll man the barricades for ends, but not means.

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7 Responses to Power, Passion and Policy

  1. Leopold says:

    Spooky. I had exactly that experience as I learnt more about economics.

  2. I don’t know. I doubt ends and means can be so clearly separated. Just because people use the same word to describe an end does not mean they believe in the same thing. Third wayers might sincerely argue that they stand for the same values of equality and equity as the old left and just propose different means but actually their ideas of equality and equity were significantly different from that of the old left. Perhaps old left ideas were unrealizable and dangerous but it would be more honest for third wayers to say that one dissented on ends rather than means alone. Political ideologies 101: concepts are essentially contested.

  3. The means and ends divison doesn’t work on the Haneef issue.

    The process is what concerns me.

  4. Sacha Blumen says:

    “But at the same time, I noticed that on issues where a simple perspective had made me feel passionate, a more nuanced understanding made me feel a lot less angry/feisty/self-assured.”

    This is understandable as one is relying moreso on rationality than emotion, and a more nuanced understanding of the incredible complexities of the world lead to a less one-eyed view.

  5. Sacha Blumen says:

    Andrew, I’ve noticed that I consider all kinds of questions that just horrify other people – eg wondering what it would be like if a building fell over in the Sydney CBD but not so that anyone was hurt (I wondered this before 2001). What I don’t understand is why people are so horrified by these questions – I’ve always been curious, and to me, I’m curious about these questions. This doesn’t mean I’m cold – quite the converse!

  6. Verdurous says:

    Obviously difficult question (means vs ends). I guess utilitarians would generally lean toward “ends” being all-important. Someone once said “happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a way of travelling” – maybe means are important too.

  7. ABC says:

    you can rescue the ‘means and ends’ division by not defining ends too narrowly: ‘liberty’, say, is an end as well as a means to other ends.

    I’d agree with Levitt that “emotion and morality also play an important role”. They point us in the right direction; analysis and rigour subsequently either give us ammunition to argue our case, or point us to flaws in our initial reaction.

    More generally, ‘intuition’ surely precedes ‘analysis and exploration’, which precedes ‘well formulated good idea’, when doing science. I guess experience of “emotion and morality” might be a source of intuition for the social scientist, since, after all, emotion and morality drive the actions of nearly all those people we’re studying. You could call this the ‘act like an anthropologist’ argument.

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