Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page


In Admin on April 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

for finals.

Seal screams like a man

Wax and justice

In Posts on April 19, 2011 at 11:56 pm

René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher, conducted a famous thought-experiment with a ball of wax. He took the wax, heated it at a fire, and observed that its appearance to his senses—its shape, color, and texture—changed completely. Yet it was still the same ball of wax. Descartes concluded that he apprehended the true nature of the wax, its “waxness,” with his mind alone.

I think Descartes came to the wrong conclusion. Rather, the idea of “wax” is only that—an idea. Descartes labeled the thing in his hand “wax” before and after melting it, but that doesn’t make his label the object’s “true nature.” Isn’t it more accurate to say that a ball of wax has no true nature (in the way Descartes meant) except what our minds give it? Didn’t Descartes miss the evident fact that concepts don’t exist separately from the people having them? Shakespeare, writing around the same time, nailed this question twice: first with “A rose by any other name…” and next with “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” England wins again.

This bears on things more interesting than wax. We often ask questions like, “What is justice?”—as if we could catch justice with a butterfly net, or land a spaceship on it. In fact, justice is a subjective human experience, inseparable from the humans experiencing it. To the extent that we enjoy shared values, most people will find our sense of justice triggered by similar stimuli; but to conclude that justice is a real thing somewhere out there, separate from our experience of it, is mistaken. “Justice” is a shared experience, like “the taste of strawberries”: not identical for all, irreducibly subjective, but closely enough agreed upon to allow for meaningful discussion about it. Rather than looking for justice out there in the solar system, we should recognize its malleability, and work on developing the most useful personal experience of it—an experience that treats others as ourselves, and includes people (and animals?) we normally overlook.

Wealth maximization

In Posts on April 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm

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I’ve been reading Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. One interesting recurring theme in the book is that wealth maximization is not an end in itself. In fact, I’ve begun hearing attacks on the theoretical foundations of wealth maximization from all quarters—Harvard Business School professors, eminent psychologists, and increasingly in casual conversations with other graduate students. From my very limited vantage point, it seems that wealth maximization is an idea whose time has run out.

The crazy thing is that it never made sense. Sen describes the divergent views on value held by eminent past economists, none of whom concluded that money was a perfect proxy for the good. That simplifying assumption was driven not by any coherent worldview—who could argue from principle that life is nothing but money?—but by economists’ own convenience, since money is relatively easy to measure. Wealth maximization’s subsequent metastasis into a supposedly general fact of life is the result of groupthink among economists, sustained by a sophisticated academic language that excluded all but highly trained (and, hence, basically like-minded) people from the discussion. Arrogance, too, played a role: the use of the term “rationality” for such a distorted and stylized portrait of behavior has damaged many individuals and institutions who took the bait.

Interestingly, Development as Freedom was born as a series of lectures, in 1996, to the World Bank. The Bank in the 1990s was the epicenter of many of the worst excesses of neoliberalism, and it’s not difficult to imagine that many of “rationality’s” worst offenders were in the room as Sen was speaking. It’s embarrassing that it took a thinker of Sen’s caliber to point out that the connection between “our economic wealth and our ability to live as we would like… may or may not be very strong and may well be extremely contingent on other circumstances.” But kudos to the Bank for at least inviting him into the room.

Value coherence

In Posts on April 8, 2011 at 10:16 am

I recently attended a lecture by Jerome Kagan, an eminent child psychologist, who spoke broadly on the nature of modern society. Parts of his presentation had an almost spiritual tone: he told us that modernity had seen the collapse of “value coherence”—“broad agreement on the same set of core values”—because of the decline of ethnic and cultural homogeneity and of monolithic religion. The result is paralyzing uncertainty, and a frequent default to materialism as a measure of value on which there is at least some consensus.

I agree with Prof. Kagan, and I think his perspective helps situate our materialism, nihilism, narcissism, and disaffectation in a context that makes sense of them as something other than some vague generational corruption. But what to do? How to reestablish “value coherence” without signing on to something silly—or brutally dangerous?

I think we’ll have to find shared meaning in commonsense statements about what makes life good, without looking for a profound reason why we’re alive in the first place. Compassion, for example, makes the world a better place, and we should direct a lot of our efforts toward cultivating it. Yes, maybe we could just as well be ax murderers if there are no gods to judge us; but at that point we’re thinking too hard.

Time as a universal currency

In Posts on April 6, 2011 at 1:17 am

I’m writing a research paper about measuring social value. It’s extremely tricky, in part because many kinds of social value are outside economic exchange: measuring the financial value of a program to plant trees in poor urban neighborhoods might capture only the rise in property values—by no means the main thrust of the program.

To help solve this problem, I suggest measuring social value using time, not money, as the basic unit of analysis. Every activity competes for our time, so the “time market” extends into even non-economic activities: we can measure people’s valuation of, for example, free education or public parks by the amount of time they’re willing to commit to attending, enjoying, or defending their access to those resources. Moreover, “time wealth,” unlike financial wealth, is roughly evenly distributed: a day is precisely the same length for all people, and even average life expectancy at birth varies by a factor of no more than 1.7 worldwide. And we can even transform financial statistics into time statistics, simply by dividing by the relevant wage rate. (So the actual cost of a $5 bottle of medicine is either 15 minutes at a wage rate of $20 per hour—or 8 hours at $5 per day.)

I’m really excited about this approach to measuring value, and it’s even paid dividends as I work to understand my own life. But I can’t imagine it’s entirely novel, and the concept of “opportunity cost” seems quite close to parts of it. Suggestions welcome!