Friday, May 11, 2007

Who do Robert Frank and Mark Kleiman imagine they are ?

Commentators offer advice to some entity and pretend that they actually have influence. It is common to advise "America" meaning the people of the USA to do something which the commentator thinks would have good effects if all US citizens followed the advice. Sometimes the commentator imagines advising the government or the Democratic party or the Republican party or a single person.

Kleiman and Frank give excellent advice to the conscience of a nation full of fallible people who are tempted to be selfish. That is if the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, what should the spirit will. Since, unfortunately, the conscience of the nation doesn't take instructions from Kleiman and Frank, I think they are open to criticism.

Below I argue with Mark Kleiman who thinks that it is unsound to tell Americans that they have to care as much about foreigners as their fellow citizens.

Now Robert Frank Joins the discussion arguing in support of Kleiman that we ignore our moral sentiments at our peril. He contrasts "consequentialist" ethics (which used to be called utilitarianism until thought experiments (monster barring) convinced utilitarians to fudge a little) with our inate sense of right and wrong. He seems to believe that consequentialist statements about right and wrong are true, but he argues that a coherent consequentialist will keep his beliefs to himself "The twist, then, is that consequentialist prescriptions that treat moral intuitions as irrelevant may not lead to very good consequences."

I certainly agree. I want to criticize Frank, but, to be Frank, I am intellectually intimidated. I recall the advice my PhD advisor gave me once. He said "read "Choosing the Right Pond" by Robert Frank. Smart guy. Major leader in the effort to convince economists to think about economies populated by actual human beings.
But, sad to say, not the conscience of the nation.

One way for a mere individual to contribute is to write frankly as oneself expressing one's opinions and saying what one thinks is true not what one thinks could usefully be said by a powerful adviser or the conscience of a nation. This has the advantage that it leads people to inject new ideas into the discussion. Another is to imagine what can usefully be achieved with limited influence. This means pulling views a tiny bit in this or that direction. It requires strategy in two ways. First it is wise to understate one's uncertainty. To make strong claims. Second it is unwise to make extreme claims. In the case at hand, I think there is no risk that we will abandon patriotism or innate revulsion to participating directly in violence. Thus I see no risk in arguing for equal concern for all people in the world.

Frank, even more than Kleiman, makes it clear what he is and is not saying. He is reflecting on what norms work given human nature. He is honestly expressing his intelligent and wise thoughts on the subject. Still he is not really able to chose norms so he is pretending to be something which he isn't during his thought experiment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An especially important post, and I am thinking through Lawrence Kohlberg who deserves to be thought through. Israel Scheffler was sitting in his office reading Kohlberg when I walked in a few years ago, and without waiting fro me to ask Scheffler told me he was reading Kohlberg because he always wanted to think he would remain close to him. I loved Scheffler for that, and more.