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 didnâ€™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 donâ€™t agree with some of the conjectures â€” 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). Iâ€™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 stillÂ 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.