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Subjectivity and Simplicity

February 17th, 2003 · No Comments

The east end of the blogosphere is all atwitter about this Wall Street Journal op-ed, which has been mirrored by the Gryph for you registerophobes. Susan Lee offers a quick-and-dirty brief for libertarianism, with two main contentions that have some fellow travelers applauding, while others are rushing to distance themselves.

The first of these is Lee’s contrast between libertarians, who “are not comfortable with normative questions,” and conservatives eager to codify their value hierarchies in law. Various people felt complelled to observe in response that, of course, full-blown moral relativism is normatively inert — you cant use it as a foundation for a political theory, in its strong form. That’s true, but uninteresting in this context. Obviously, if you’re going to deny that we can be confident about any moral principles, you don’t have much ground to stand on when you object to government encroachment on your liberties. The problem is, you pretty much have to assume, in violation of basic standards of interpretive charity, that Lee is a full-out imbecile if you think that such an obvious point somehow escaped her. In other words, you need to calm your twitchy knee for long enough to inquire whether that’s what she’s really saying.

I don’t think that it is — after all, she follows the line about our discomfort with normative questions with a stripped-down version of the moral principle we do take as foundational: “individuals have the right to control their own bodies [and justly acquired property, I'm sure she meant to addâ?¦], in action and speech, as long as they do not infringe on the same rights for others.” Now, how can we read this in a way that doesn’t just assume an astonishing tolerance for contradiction on Ms. Lee’s part? One obvious way would be in terms of the distinction, long part of the liberal tradition but most familiar from Rawls, between the right and the good.

The distinction is best illustrated by means of example. In a teleological theory like utilitarianism, the relation between the two is pretty simple: the good is identified with pleasant mental states, and the right is just whatever maximizes (the net sum of) the good — or, in some variants, whatever maximizes the average amount of the good across its individual loci (aka persons). Of course, some libertarans are utilitarians, but typically they’re rule utilitarians, so the right/good relationship is somewhat more convoluted — we’ll let that pass for now. The upshot of all this is: theories of the good purport to tell us what ends are worth pursuing, while theories of the right give us a framework of rules within which to pursue them.

Now, lots of theories work in this roughly teleological way. That is, they start with a theory of the good, possibly one more complicated than the monist one held by utilitarians, and then develop a theory of the right as a means of assigning proper weights to those goods. Libertarianism (like several other forms of liberalism) generally works the other way: it takes no position on what forms of life or experience are intriniscally good, and instead build a theory of the right that sets boundaries on our actions that allow each of us to pursue our own disparate conceptions of the good without demanding that these conceptions be weighed in any common metric. If we want to know who has a right to publish their point of view, we don’t ask whose views are best, we ask who owns the paper and ink, or the broadcast equipment, or the server space. This is not, pace the Objectivist crowd, nihilism, but rather pluralism and fallibilism.

There are actually two ways to spin the emphasis on autonomy and the forging of a framework allowing simultaneous pursuit of different conceptions of the good. One is that the good really just is whatever an individual values, at least for that individual, and on this account, we can see the libertarian theory of the right as being of the maximizing kind. The other is that some theory or other of the good may actually be correct, but either we can’t be sufficiently sure which it is to warrant imposing it on others, or that even if we could be, each of us has a kind of natural inviolability that prevents the imposition of even a correct theory of the good.

Lee actually shows a surprising degree of philosophical subtlety here, in that, like Rawls, she is careful not to commit herself to either variant. A libertarian theory of the right is compatible with either, and therefore capable (in Rawlsian jargon) of serving as the focus of an overlapping consensus among reasonable citizens who take seriously the equal resonableness and autonomy of their fellows. It does not require us to be “uncomfortable with normative questions” in our private lives, where we might have strong things indeed to say about the aesthetic value of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work or the character of people who hoard large fortunes without giving a thought to the destitute. It only requires us to be uncomfortable with embedding those value judgments in the “basic structure of society,” which is to say, through the political apparatus. That’s why, I think, Lee talks not about giving a negative answer to the question of whether one marital form is more valuable than others, but about “eschew[ing] the question.” It’s also worth noting that being “indifferent” to certain moral questions, at least in one’s role as an adherent of a particular political theory, is quite different from giving one or another sort of reply to those questions.

The other point to which folks have objected is Lee’s praise of the “simplicity” of libertarian theory, which objection is captured in this post by Ross Douhat. (Ross’s co-blogger on that site, by the way, is my old Koch Fellowship compatriot, staunch Straussian Steve Menashi.) Now, in one sense, this is a better objection. Many libertarians seem drawn to the theory because of some unaccountable belief that the correct morality must fit inside a fortune cookie, which is surely a mistake. Still, I think we can salvage Lee’s point.

I’ll go Douhat one better: not only is it true that “when it comes to human affairs, invoking Occam’s Razor doesn’t settle all arguments,” but indeed, Occam’s Razor is not germane to normative questions at all. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that the principle that we should accept the simplest explanation which comports with all the facts is an epistemic one, not an ontological one. It is not, in other words, based in some belief that the universe is especially parsimonious, or harbors a special affection for the KISS principle. We need to bear in mind that the Razor only comes into play in deciding between empirically equivalent theories, which is to say, theories which donâ??t differ when it comes to accounting for observed facts. By stipulation, then, the Razor is needed to pick one over another only when both would do equally well given infinite cognitive resources: it is a way of keeping our models (and our heads) uncluttered, not some deep statement about reality.

Bearing that in mind, it’s not even clear what it would mean to use Occam’s Razor to decide between normative theories. In science, the “direction of fit,” to borrow John Searle’s phrase, is “world-to-mind.” We want our models to, well, model the physical world. But the point of normative theories is not to tell us how the world is (though, to cash them out for practical purposes, we may need to know something about that) — it is to tell us how the world ought to be, or rather, how we ought to behave in it. The direction of fit is “mind-to-world.” Whatever it is that makes moral theories correct or incorrect, I very much doubt that it is their fit to some “moral realm” analogous to physical reality, and there’s quite a long tradition of ethical writing that argues why this couldn’t be the case.

Still, I want to say that simplicity is important for very different reasons. Consider what Hayek writes, in The Constitution of Liberty, about state intervention in the economy. He observes that because effective intervention is going to have to deal with quite a lot of complex information, and will have to be fairly adaptive and sophisticated, it is necessarily undemocratic. Maybe you can show on a blackboard that a certain set of price controls or some other such regulation will actually produce a result that improves on real-world market outcomes, but the right price level and other details of the intervention can’t possibly be decided upon by democratic vote. Necessarily, such interventions require handing over power to panels of experts if they’re to have any hope of accomplishing their intended goals.

The value of employing what Richard Epstein calls “simple rules for a complex world” is not that simple rules are more likely to capture some fundamental moral truth, but that they are less apt to go awry in their implementation, because they provide a stable basis for individual planning, with less room for the discretion of authorities to muck things up. The analogy to physical theories is that often, for practical purposes, a stripped down model that get things approximately right is more useful than a more precise one that tries to take many more variables into account. You can build a decent house using Euclidian geometry. Similarly, let’s suppose you show me an elaborately worked out and convincing moral theory with very specific distributions of resources assigned to individuals, and nuanced weightings of competing values. And for a society of chess-pieces, that kind of theory might be all well and good. We might even think it’s quite valuable to hammer out the details of such a theory. But then we have to worry about instantiating it in a world of people who we can’t count on to act perfectly in all instances — indeed, people who we can count on to try and “game the system” in a variety of ways, or, even when perfectly well intentioned, to lack all sorts of relevant information. Under those circumstances, we might — I think we should — prefer a more stripped down set of rules that get us to a first approximation of the right outcome, than a set which self-defeatingly aims at perfection.

Did Lee have all this in mind when she wrote her piece? I have no idea, and perhaps it doesn’t much matter. We want to look at the best version of any given argument, after all, rather than being satisfied with the easy objections the brevity of an op-ed will always allow.

Addendum: The above has been edited for pointless snark.

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