David R. Henderson  

My Response to Scott Sumner

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I'm still scratching my head at co-blogger Scott Sumner's recent post titled "You're not special." It seems like a combination of extreme subjectivism, denial of subjectivism, putting his thumb on the obvious, and argument from authority.

Extreme Subjectivism

Scott writes, "There's no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other person."

"Any other person" includes a lot of people. I assume he would apply it to those who are dead also. So Scott is saying that there is no objective reason to prefer the views of someone who believes in liberty to those of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or Mussolini. He would also have to say that there is no objective reason to prefer his views or my views to those of people who defended slavery.

Maybe it's all in the word "objective." Maybe Scott would say that murder isn't objectively wrong.

I'm flabbergasted.

Denial of Subjectivism

But Scott doesn't stick with subjectivism. He writes:

The hope is that if all economists research their issues, and report their conclusions, then society will consider all of these arguments and enact good public policies. Not all the time, but at least more often than not. And when you look at North Korea or Afghanistan, there's reason to believe the developed countries have done many things right.

But if our views are not superior to anyone else's, then we can't know what "good public policies" are. And what would we learn by looking at North Korea or Afghanistan that would tell us that we've done many things right? Now I happen to believe that Scott's making a good argument here. But the person who shouldn't believe he's making a good argument is --Scott. If no one's views are superior to anyone else's views, then he can't make a judgment that what's happening here is superior to what's happening in North Korea of Afghanistan.

Thumb on the Obvious

Scott writes, "there is no objective reason for me to assume that just because I inhabit Scott Sumner's body, my ideas are somehow special." I agree with him here. Who wouldn't? That's obvious. Ideas don't get special because of the particular body with the head on top from which they come.

Argument from Authority

Scott writes:

When I debate issues like immigration, I find that some commenters want to argue that admitting lots of this or that sort of immigrant will lead to bigger government. The implicit assumption is that since the commenter and I both think big government is bad, then admitting those immigrants is a bad idea. I wonder if they realize how arrogant they are being? Their view of the optimal cultural make up of America in 2116 is a country with the same economic views as they have. Not the economic views of Paul Krugman. Not the economic views of Joe Stiglitz. (Both Nobel Prize winners). Rather the views of the commenter.

The only reason I can think of for his mentioning Krugman and Stiglitz is that he is arguing from authority. They won Nobel prizes and, therefore, their views on issues that have little or nothing to do with the research that won them the Nobel prizes are to be taken more seriously than those of others.

But go back to the "Extreme Subjectivism" heading and you'll see that Scott thinks that there is no reason to prefer their views to anyone else's.

I don't know what category to put this last under, but I do disagree with Scott about leaders. He writes, "When the aliens say take me to your leader, they don't mean you." Maybe they don't mean me, but I mean me. I don't see anyone but me as being my leader. And I don't see me as being Scott's or your leader.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy




COMMENTS (18 to date)
Greg G writes:

>---"Maybe it's all in the word "objective." Maybe Scott would say that murder isn't objectively wrong."

It IS all in the word "objective." But that's a very important word.

Humans do NOT have access to anything like total objectivity. This does NOT mean there is no objective reality out there. It's just that even if there is (extremely likely in my opinion) we don't have direct access to it.

This does NOT mean that we shouldn't gather the best information we can, make decisions based on that, and act on that. Of course we should.

This sounds like merely a dispute about language but it is more than that. It is a dispute about the right way to think. It results in a more civil discussion with more willingness to consider evidence that conflicts with your priors.

"Murder" is the term we use for the homicides that we think are not justified. And people sometimes disagree a lot on which homicides are justified. I'm sure Scott thinks the homicides he calls "murder" are unjustified and that we should act to prevent and punish such acts.

>---"But go back to the "Extreme Subjectivism" heading and you'll see that Scott thinks that there is no reason to prefer their views to anyone else's."

No. He is saying there are lots of good "reasons to prefer" just not fully "objective" reasons.

Twice Scott wrote:

there is no objective reason [blah, blah].
Which show two instances of a general truth. We can omit the blah part.

There is no objective reason. Because of the meaning of "reason". Reason takes meaning in the context of some goal. And goals are properties of living things, I would argue.

Scott Sumner writes:

Greg, I actually don't think there is any meaningful distinction between "objective" and "subjective" I use those terms here in the way ordinary people think of those terms.

David, Thanks for pointing out that typo. When I said:

"Similarly, you may have distinctive, well thought out political views, but so do lots of other people, who are just as smart as you and I. There's no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other person."

I meant:

"Similarly, you may have distinctive, well thought out political views, but so do lots of other people, who are just as smart as you and I. There's no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other similar person."

Otherwise you are right, my statement makes no sense.

Hopefully my post will make sense after that correction.

Dan W. writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

August Hurtel writes:

The 'objective truth' really comes down to whether or not your map fits the territory correctly.

And then the implied school yard spat that the 'you're not special' suggests rests heavily on whether or not you actually do have a more accurate map, and whether or not your interlocutors are smart enough to understand it.

db writes:

David,

Thanks for writing this. I had exactly the same reactions and puzzlement when I read Scott's post, but didn't have the time or inclination to formulate a response to what I read as a wholesale denial of the possibility of any objective measure of policy. The argument from authority (regardless of which authorities were cited) was particulary grating. If there is no objective measure of policy, then how can any authority have validity?

To Scott, I really don't see how correcting the single "typo" of failing to include a qualifying adjective in one sentence can recover the rest of your post.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Dan W -
re: "Is there objective truth? Are there beliefs, laws and customs that produce better social outcomes? That there exists a world with such a diverse range of socioeconomic outcomes would suggest yes."

Suggests yes to which question? Those are two very different questions. I'd say we've got good reason to say there's no objective truth (or at least we DON'T have good reason to say there is objective truth), but there are beliefs, laws, and customs that produce better social outcomes.

Ben Kennedy writes:

I don't think David meant to smoke out all the moral skeptics and error theorists with this post! I'm a bit surprised.

I agree with Daniel - no to "murder is objectively wrong", yes to "societies without murder are better"

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I like that formulation Ben Kennedy. I'm going to steal it. Which of course is not objectively wrong.

RPLong writes:

The notion that "you're not special" falls flat on its face, in my opinion. No one else is more relevant to your own life than you are. You are the most special thing in the context of your own personal existence.

I think it's good to have a strong sense of moral and intellectual humility, but if that's what Scott Sumner was shooting for, it certainly wasn't the message I received.

What stood out most for me was his apparent denial of individual identity:

I do understand that the illusion of personal identity creates the related illusion that we ourselves are special, and that our precious views of things are special. But we aren't, and they aren't.
But I suppose such a claim makes sense, coming from a macroeconomist who thinks a lot about human action in aggregate.

Greg G writes:

Scott,

>---"I actually don't think there is any meaningful distinction between "objective" and "subjective" I use those terms here in the way ordinary people think of those terms."

Wait. What? Ordinary people DO think there is a meaningful distinction between those two terms. This sure looks like a difference in usage to me.

If you accept the first Google definition as a pretty good proxy for how the ordinary person uses these words, then "objective" positions are NOT influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions.

"Subjective" opinions ARE influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions.

Apparently it is the term "meaningful distinction" that we should be addressing.

If so, then I take you to mean that saying "Murder is wrong." is not meaningfully different from saying "It is objectively true that murder is wrong."

Scott Sumner writes:

Greg, You said:

"If so, then I take you to mean that saying "Murder is wrong." is not meaningfully different from saying "It is objectively true that murder is wrong.""

Yes, that's Richard Rorty's view, and it's also my view, although we'd both delete the term 'objective' as we both think there is no meaningful difference between subjective and objective beliefs. If you want a meaningful distinction, it should be couched in terms of our confidence that something is true.

If you say "X is the case" it's the same as saying "It's true that X is the case." Thus if you say "I am certain that Paris is the capital of France", it's like saying, "I am certain that it is true that Paris is the capital of France." If you say "I'm pretty sure that Paris is the capital of France", that's like saying "I am pretty sure that it's true that Paris is the capital of France". The term 'true" adds nothing.

Philo writes:

Even professional philosophers, when philosophizing, produce mostly bad philosophy, so it is no surprise that Scott Sumner's post was bad. But criticisms of philosophical productions are often spot on, as is David Henderson's here.

bdavi52 writes:

If there truly is "no objective reason to view your or my political views as being superior to those of any other (similar) person."...then we might as well stop right here.

That's it. We can all stop reading and go home.

For if there is no objective reason to evaluate and rate any human expression -- or every expression from similar...whatever that means...sources -- as being better or worse, more right or more wrong, more true or less true than any other then, as they say, everything is possible, everything permitted, and nothing has meaning.

And that is nonsense.
As Dee & Dum so aptly put it: "I know what you’re thinking about,’ said Tweedledum: `but it isn’t so, nohow.’ `Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, `if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.’

Of course there are clear, objective measures we can apply to any perspective as we seek to understand what is being said and whether or not it contains anything of value (or more value than other 'similar' expressions). Are the information sources valid? Are they comprehensive? Do they most truly reflect reality (even though we know reality only through a glass, darkly -- etched in shadows on the wall of a cave)? Are the conclusions which are offered drawn logically, in a righteous manner from that source data? Is the argument whole? Is it compelling? Does it align with other truths we know? Does it lead us to more insight & increased understanding? Or -- Are there gaps? logical lacuna? data potholes which derail us?

Ultimately we must always ask, does this thought, this view, take us closer to or further from the Truth (as best we know it)? Does it illuminate or obscure?

To pretend that everything is relative...nothing superior, nothing inferior, nothing more or less compelling, real, or truthful than anything else is silly, absolutely untrue, and incredibly unproductive (as Alice herself would protest!).

Henri Hein writes:

Scott's post made sense to me. I took it in context. The point I got from it was as a warning against cultural elitism.

Let us stipulate that there is objective truth. It is unlikely you personally, out of all people, stumbled on it. (I mean 'you' here in the general sense.) Out of all your ideas, it is extremely unlikely they are all objectively true. Thus, a call for humility, as Scott's post was, is always a good reminder to all of us.

As for the appeal to authority, it is not the case here. Scott was not using Krugman's or Stiglitz's credentials to advance their ideas. When you can, it is useful to distinguish between crackpots and serious thinkers. If somebody earned a Nobel prize, you can assume that they have done some serious work in their field, and that others are taking them seriously. It does not mean you should assume they are correct, but it does mean you should take their arguments seriously.


Mark writes:

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Scott Sumner writes:

Henri, Thanks, that's a good summary of what I had in mind.

Referencing Krugman and Stiglitz was not an appeal to authority in the ordinary sense, as I do not want people to agree with them. It was merely pointing out that there is no objective reason to assume my views are better. They might be better, and I hope in the long run they are viewed as better, and I've provided reasons why I think they are better. But ultimately that's for others to decide, not me.

LR writes:

If this is all a reminder to be humble, I'm all for it.

But it smacks of moral relativism, something I typically associate with progressives. Sumner seems to like to talk about how he isn't a progressive, but as Bob Murphy has mentioned on his blog a few times, Sumner often sounds like one.

So, yes to humility, especially since we economists are not very good at stepping outside cold utilitarianism when it comes to policy conclusions.

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