Tag Archives | rationality

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →

Recovering Adam Smith’s Ethical Economics

Contemporary economists have been eager to claim Adam Smith and his ‘Invisible Hand’ as an early forerunner for modern ideas of people as self-interested, utility-maximising creatures. The truth, as Thomas points out, is a good deal more complicated than that.

Adam Smith

Originally published at The Philosopher’s Beard. Gratefully reproduced here with permission from the author.

“While some men are born small and some achieve smallness, it is clear that Adam Smith has had much smallness thrust upon him.”Amartya Sen

Adam Smith is famous for founding economics as an independent field of study by synthesising and systemizing classical economics in The Wealth of Nations. But he was also a significant moral philosopher in his own right who deserves to be recognised alongside his close friend David Hume as a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith saw economics as a branch of moral philosophy, and he saw capitalism as an ethical project whose success required political commitment to justice and freedom, not merely an understanding of economic logistics.

These days Adam Smith is most familiar to us as an economist, and specifically as the defender of the famous Invisible Hand of free-market economics, wherein the private self-interested actions of private individuals, mediated through free markets, generate results that are good for all. The market-system comprehends the true level of demand for any good and provides the appropriate incentives – profits – for producers to adjust their output to match. No external intervention or guidance is necessary. A great deal of contemporary (neo-classical) economics can be understood in terms of translating Smith’s Invisible Hand metaphor into a systematic theoretical form, with a particular emphasis on the economic efficiency of perfectly competitive markets.

Anyone who cares to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations for themselves will find an economics discussed and justified in explicitly moral terms…

However the popular view of Smith that has resulted from this emphasis is twice distorted. Firstly, it is based on the narrow foundations of a few select quotations from The Wealth of Nations (WN) that are taken in isolation as summing up his work (Smith only mentions the ‘all important’ Invisible Hand once), and secondly these quotations have been analyzed in a particularly narrow way. Both selection and interpretation have been driven by contemporary economists’ interest in justifying orthodox economic methodology and their peculiar (Mandevillian) assumption of the selfish utility maximising homo economicus. The Chicago School economist George Stigler once famously declaimed, “I bring you greetings from Adam Smith, who is alive and well and living in Chicago”. What such ‘historians’ have achieved is the diminution of Smith’s economics to those bits which can be claimed to be early (and flawed) fore-runners of contemporary economic concepts and techniques.

But anyone who cares to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations for themselves will find an economics discussed and justified in explicitly moral terms, in which markets, and the division of labour they allow, are shown to both depend upon and produce not only prosperity but also justice and freedom, particularly for the poor. With those concerns in mind, it should not be surprising that Smith was a staunch and vehement critic of those particularly grotesque sins associated with early capitalism: European empires and the slave trade.

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McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

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