Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Lived Experience and Moral Knowledge

We’ve talked a great deal about John Tomasi’s book, Free Market Fairness, here on this blog. But on re-reading one of the chapters this afternoon, I noticed a nice point that I don’t think we’ve yet discussed here.

The point is broadly about the value of economic liberty. More specifically, it’s about the kind of value economic activity can have in giving meaning to one’s life. Political philosophers have, since Mill, tended to downplay this value. But most ordinary people, Tomasi notes, haven’t followed philosophers in this trend. He cites polling data that seem to show that people have come to value economic liberty more over time.

Should political philosophers be troubled by this discrepancy between their views and the views of ordinary folk? Well, if political philosophy was like probability theory, the answer would be no. The fact that most ordinary people get the Birthday Problem wrong is no reason for mathematicians to revise their solution to the puzzle.

But political philosophy, Tomasi argues, isn’t like probability theory. An important part of political philosophy involves deciding questions of value – the value of certain goods, of certain freedoms, and certain experiences. But whatever expertise political philosophers have, there is no reason to suppose that they are necessarily better than older people at making these kinds of value judgments. After all, sometimes one cannot really understand the value of an experience – of being a parent, of being a spouse, or of being an entrepreneur – without having experienced it.

The point is not that people who do political philosophy, in order to do philosophy well, must actually have had experiences of each kind just mentioned— becoming a parent, joining a campaign, or owning a business. The point, rather, is that if one has not had experiences such as these (or if one has personally eschewed the sort of life that might include them), there exists a danger that one might be insufficiently sensitive to the moral role such experiences play in the lives of other people. If many people in one’s professional cohort have followed a similar pattern of eschewal, the danger of such distortions may be enhanced (p. 67).

In a way, we can read Tomasi here as answering the question Robert Nozick raised in his influential essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” – an essay that has sparked a great number of interesting replies, most recently Julian Sanchez’s neat essay, “Why Do Intellectuals Favor Government Solutions?” Tomasi’s answer is that intellectuals as a group tend not to have the experience necessary to appreciate the value of economic liberty. And so, when it comes to draw up their list of basic liberties – of the freedoms they think necessary to protect what’s most important in people’s lives – economic liberties get short shrift.

I think Tomasi is on to an important point about moral epistemology here. And I suspect it is one that libertarians and conservatives will generally applaud. But notice that the point generalizes. What’s true of economic liberty is also true of blackness, or womanhood, or being gay. Just like philosophers who’ve never worked as an entrepreneur will struggle to understand the significance that entrepreneurial activity can have in one’s project of self-authorship, so too will philosophers who’ve never been black, or a woman, or gay, struggle to understand the distinct moral experiences of many members of those groups. And so, when it comes time to think about, say, what kinds of threats to freedom are most significant, those political philosophers might tend to give short shrift to the kinds of non-state, social oppression and marginalization that members of these groups experience as highly salient.

So, I ask you, has Tomasi given us a libertarian case for affirmative action? Or, less provocatively but more accurately, at least a libertarian case for putting a high value on diversity within academic philosophy?

  • I think there are many good reasons for putting a high value on diversity within academia in general, so that would apply to philosophy as well. Any social psychologist knows that people see the world from their own perspective and often cannot or will not see it otherwise. Often they may be unaware or in denial that they have a bias; that we all have built-in biases, even though by now there are any number of books on cognitive biases. One way to work against such biases is to have many different points of view academia and by that I don’t mean different white heterosexual men. Ergo, if what we teach is to represent *all* of humanity and not just the standard WHM, then we must have diversity.

    • Adam Ricketson

      Zwolinski makes a good point that diversity is especially valuable in philosophy (and probably the humanities in general). While the sciences rely on systematically collected empirical data to settle disputes, the humanities have to rely on subjective factors. If those professions want to maintain relevance to society as a whole, they need to incorporate as much of the subjective diversity of society as possible.

      That’s not to say that there is no subjectivity in the sciences — the creation of theories definitely depends on one’s own experiences. However, I think that the sciences have been and will continue to be very effective at integrating the ideas of non-Western scientists (e.g. Indians, Chinese). I wonder if political philosophy is likewise effective at integrating non-Westerners.

    • Sean II

      An academia which accepts the idea “that people see the world from their own perspective and often cannot or will not see it otherwise” is an academia that has given up its purpose. The only thing a university can become from that starting point is a 5.5 year hospice for the palliative care of terminally closed minds.

      • Apparently you are unaware of the spate of books on the topic of cognitive biases or else don’t understand their implications. The fact that we all have cognitive biases in no way means that we cannot do anything about them. The first step toward dealing with them appropriately is to become aware of them. Social science research methodology has ways to take this problem into account in doing research as does teaching. So you apparently totally missed my point and have come to an erroneous conclusion.

        • Sean II

          When it comes to cognitive biases, everyone always says “the first step is to become aware of them.” I’ve heard that ten times more often than I’ve said it myself.

          Eventually, I stopped saying it. You know why? Because there is no second step. No one ever says what the second step is supposed to be in fighting cognitive biases. Everyone acts like there is a series of steps, but really, they just have that one, not very helpful step.

          And do you know how people actually use their awareness of cognitive biases? They run around and accuse other people of suffering from them to score points in debates, that’s how (for reference, see this blog just about any day of the week). What they don’t is very much in the way of introspection.

          I didn’t miss your point, Sharon. I just didn’t think very much of it. There are plenty of ways to make people see the world from different perspectives – good novels and good films do that, good friendships do that, even perhaps good philosophers.

          But hectoring people about how hopelessly trapped they are behind a wall of cognitive biases works about as well as a poke in the eye from a sharp stick.

    • “Any social psychologist knows that people see the world from their own perspective and often cannot or will not see it otherwise.”

      According to Jonathan Haidt, social psychologists in particular should take a look in the mirror. It’s an overwhelmingly homogeneous group of folks, intellectually speaking:

      • And so? And they are different from other academics how? I fail to see the relevance of this to the point I made.

  • If values are subjective, then what purpose does weighing the values of different concepts (e.g. freedom) have? Further, if people experience things differently, and therefore attach different values to different concepts, then how can a political philosopher talk about the relative importance of each of these? Isn’t political philosophy more concerned with how social systems deal with the interaction of different values? That is, should a political philosopher argue that the freedom from the fear of starvation is more important than economic freedom? Or, should the political philosopher argue about in what system can the matrix of valuations best interact to create a polity that reflects the values of its citizenry?

    • SimpleMachine88

      You know who you should ask about the importance of economic freedom? Economists. Philosophers try to tell people what is valuable, economists just try to get people whatever they want and call that value. If you want to respect diverse opinions, switch departments.

  • SimpleMachine88

    there are black or gay academics. There are no non-academic academics though.

    • This is the point I was going to make. I will expand a bit, though.

      Generally, entrepreneurs are practical rather than intellectual. In fact, most of humanity have only weak, if any, academic inclinations. We can bring it about that there are more black, female, gay, etc. academics; but they will still be people who are academically inclined. (Incidentally, are gays really under-represented in academe? I wouldn’t have thought so; at least, not in the UK.) Could we bring it about that more entrepreneurs become academics? It would be a kind of death to most of them. Academic work attracts people whose value-system is unusual in that, in stark contrast to most of the population, they place a high value on intellectual pursuits and on giving everything an intellectual twist.

      So it is not just that academics generally do not have the types of experience enjoyed or suffered by non-academics, it is also that academics have little inclination to acquire those types of experience (and may even think that some such types of experience should not be had, because they do not want to have them).

      • SimpleMachine88

        “Generally, entrepreneurs are practical rather than intellectual”

        The real difference is that entrepreneurs respond to what their customers want. Philosophers tell their customers what to want.

        Ford Motors worked not because Ford thought the Model T was good, (there were any number of car makers who though their car was the best), but because people chose to buy a Model T. Then he tried to tell them what color to buy – “they can get any color as long as it is black”. This did not work out. An Academic would still be arguing that all cars should be black, rather than listening.

        Ford was also horrible anti-Semite, and yet still listened to what other people, including Jews, wanted and got them it. Namely, a Model T. An anti-Semitic philosopher probably wouldn’t be listening to what a Jewish person thought about his philosophy, like “hey, that’s really stupid”.

        Entrepeneurs inherently act in an open-minded and humble manner, despite usually having none of those personal qualities. An academic inherently acts in a close-minded and superior way, and also usually has none of those personal qualities. They’ll tell you either Rand or Marx is an idiot, and the other one is great. A bookstore will sell you either one you want. Heck, they’ll even “sell you the ropes with which to hang them” they’re such nice guys.

        • I disagree with you here.

          While it is true that entrepreneurs SOMETIMES respond to what their customers want, what distinguishes the entrepreneur (the entrepreneurship of the entrepreneur) is that he, or she, pursues a new idea, and attempts to give people something they never realised they wanted until it was brought to market. Entrepreneurship involves creating new wants by creating novel goods and services. At least, it does when it is successful. The entrepreneur is subject to the market test. If people turn out not to want what the entrepreneur offers, then that entrepreneurial venture is a failure. It is a matter of conjecture and refutation. I love Kirzner’s stuff on entrepreneurship, except that he makes the positivistic mistake of characteriising entrepreneurial flair as ‘alertness’ rather than as having the balls to stake one’s livelihood on a guess. Some guesses are lucky ones, many are not. The consumer decides.

          You are too harsh on academics. They are not bad people, let alone inherently so. They are usually out of touch, which is reinforced by the fact that most of their serious talk is with other academics. But, then, who else wants to talk about academic things? This does result in dogmatism, which is not intolerance, though it may look like it. It can also result in a perceptible smugness in the less bright academics. It is therefore a notable fact that many advances in our knowledge have come from people outside of academe. It is interesting that you mention Edison: he produced his light bulb despite the fact that scientists were unanimous in declaring that such a light bulb was impossible. But let me mention some others. C S Peirce spent most of his life working for the US Coastal and Geodesic Survey and, although he did get university appointments, he could not keep them; Santayana left the university system as a relatively young man but continued his work outside.; Nietzsche resigned his professorship at the age of 34; Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer never held university posts (though the latter scheduled lectures at Berlin which were apparently unattended); and Bertrand Russell held only a few university posts, and for relatively brief periods, and got into difficulty in almost every post he held (being dismissed from two of them). Einstein developed the special theory of relativity while working at the patent office; Faraday worked mainly outside the universities; and Darwin, Mendel and Galton did their work independently of universities.

          • martinbrock

            You make an interesting point. Entrepreneurs don’t produce what consumers want as much as consumers want what some, would be entrepreneurs produce. Other, would be entrepreneurs fail to satisfy consumers. “Entrepreneurs create goods for consumers” is like “nature creates fit living things”. Nature creates all sorts of living things, but we only see the fit ones.

            The most successful entrepreneur is not the most creative as much as he has the most common tastes. He isn’t alert to other people’s wants as much as shares their wants. He doesn’t travel further in his dreams as much as he travels further in the waking pursuit of his dreams, and when he reaches his destination, other dreamers eagerly follow him.

            If Darwin never joined an academy, was he ever an academic? The whole idea of “the academic” seems increasingly archaic. An academy is a place where people congregate to gestate and distribute ideas. In the future, people gestate and distribute ideas far more effectively outside of these congregations.

            Web sites and similar “places” are the new “academies”, and I expect fewer professional academics (of the conventional, “brick and mortar” sort) to survive in this age, outside of statutory institutions. Already, academics are far more statist than others largely because states provide so many of their professional opportunities.

  • Tomasi’s answer is that intellectuals as a group tend not to have the experience necessary to appreciate the value of economic liberty.

    The way I would put it is that a lot of intellectuals have little direct, experience-based understanding of economic systems and commerce. But for that matter, they also have little direct, experience-based understanding of governing systems and governance. What they know comes primarily from books, and the useful breadth of that knowledge is offset by its being schematic and abstract – as well as impractically moralistic, and encrusted by wishful imaginative ideals with no foundation in human nature or capacity. I think this applies to intellectuals of both the strongly pro-organization tendency and the strongly pro-liberty tendency.

    For what it’s worth, after I left academia and moved into the business world, I moved politically further to the left. From my perspective, that’s because the actual implementation of the system of economic liberty viewed close up doesn’t at all represent to jolly outcomes of classical economic theory. Economic liberty looks to me like a license for predation, and the only way for groups of people to protect themselves against predators is to band together in strongly organized subdue and govern the predators.

  • Sean II

    There is another solution to this, and indeed a very libertarian one. Being a libertarian (should) include a sense of deep humility toward the experiences and especially the unique knowledge of other people. The “I, Pencil” story has a moral corollary. In economics the point of that story is “no one person knows how to make a Sanford HB No. 2”. The moral version would be “only one person knows everything it takes to be Matt Zwolinski, philosopher, husband, blogger, friend, …etc.”

    But if someone accepts that premise, if someone accepts the idea that Matt’s life is Matt’s life, what is to prevent Matt from sharing the key elements of that experience with him, and transferring the distilled knowledge (if never the total sum) of that experience?

    If one simply gets out of the habit of blithely deciding what other people should feel or value, then it is a lot harder to remain deaf and miss the benefit of their experience.

    One of the most valuable lessons of my own libertarian experience is exactly that: once you stop trying to tell other people how to live, and particularly once you stop claiming the right to force them to do what you want, it becomes much easier to understand them and their experiences, different as they may be from my own.

    • martinbrock

      Well put.

    • Exactly right Sean, Or as Penn Gillette put it. “I am a libertarian because I don’t think I know what is best for other people.”

  • martinbrock

    Libertarianism requires respect for diverse academies, not diversity within each and every academy. Libertarianism also requires respect for non-state, social “oppression” as long as the “oppressed” choose it, and self-appointed, academic champions of these “oppressed” demanding state action to combat their “oppression” are “libertarian” only incoherently. Requiring diversity within each and every academy is more totalitarian than libertarian.

  • jeffmoriarty

    Jane Mansbridge’s article “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes'” (Journal of Politics, 1999) provides some indirect support for your suggestion, Matt. For a variety of reasons, Mansbridge thinks (e.g.) women’s interests are better represented by women than by men. (There are lots of caveats and qualifications in her piece, but that’s one of the general points.)

  • adrianratnapala

    Ok, this is a bit late, but in the 4th paragraph”better than older people” probably should be “better than other people”

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