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November 04, 2018



"Something else, though, is happening. This urge to express all arguments in consequentialist terms is an admission that liberal technocracy has won. The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off."

I read the same thought ages ago by Roger Scruton, of all people. He wrote that it was a consequence of the influence of Marxist thought (and was opposed to it, for that reason).

David Friedman

From the piece you link to in defense of your claim that those arguing economic benefits from Brexit are making fools of themselves:

"Indeed, we know of no cases where an industrialised country has ever implemented full unilateral liberalisation"

England's abolition of the corn laws in the 19th century and Hong Kong's free trade in the 20th century were both unilateral. Both were followed by extraordinarily successful periods of economic growth--in the post war period Hong Kong went from dirt poor to richer than England in a few decades. Apparently the authors you are relying on are unaware of both examples.

We all know, and have since Ricardo, that a nation imposing a tariff is, with rare exceptions, hurting itself as well as its trade partners. What then is an economist to do if he finds it necessary to defend trade barriers? In the case of both the article you link to and the rare economists who defend Trump's trade policy, they do it by arguing that we raise barriers in order to persuade other nations to lower theirs. We will stop shooting ourselves in the foot if you stop shooting yourself in the foot.

It is not a completely indefensible argument—strategic behavior is a hard problem, as demonstrated by Von Neumann's failure to solve it—but claiming that it is so obviously correct that someone who is not persuaded is making a fool of himself is.


1. The value of options. Having the option to do something at a future date may be highly valuable, but that value is hard to quantify right now. There is no Black-Scholes formula for options on rights and laws.

2. the issue is not whether immigration per-se is a good or bad, but whether controlled immigration is better than uncontrolled immigration. so a straw man there.

3. Remainers were singularly unable to articulate what vision of the EU they wanted - coalition of states or full federal, and how they were going to bring about that vision. The federalist axis in the EU have been much more clear and consistent about how they intended to bring Federalism to the UK. Remain simply utterly failed to understand that their opponents were not Leavers, but Federalist Europhiles, and they lost that argument. Arguing that we must remain in the EU no matter what form that EU takes, no matter what the commission decides, no matter how ineffectual our representatives are, isn't a solid case for Remaining in the EU.


What is good? What is moral? What should we value? There is only philosophical quicksand here. We bring to bear our natures, our preferences, our upbringing, and our experience, but there is no rational logical basis underlying these however much we wish there were, only those who can find common ground and those that cannot.

Larry Hamelin

The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off.

I think the problem here is the "materially" qualifier, not consequentialism. There are a couple of reasons: it's much easier to measure how much stuff we have than how happy we are. But that's just looking for our key near the lamppost.

Also, our major problem has for millennia been mostly material deprivation (likely caused by exploitative agriculturalism). Capitalism's major story was, "Put up with material deprivation now and your children will have enough stuff," which is not the worst story. But we have enough stuff now, and we're still not happy, so materialism is not enough.

The best case for Brexit is an intrinsic one – that it’ll give us a sense of independence and sovereignty. When its advocates try to argue that it’ll also make us better off [presumably materially - LH], they make fools of themselves.

Reading this as an intrinsic case does not, I think, make much sense. If independence and sovereignty make British people happier, then the case would be consequentialist, just a different sort of consequence that economists are trained to look at. I think to make an intrinsic case, Brexiters (or mutatis mutandis anti-pornographers etc.) would have to argue that sovereignty and independence are good regardless of the consequences, in a Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum sense. Otherwise, we're all consequentialists, and the argument is which consequences to look at and how to weigh them.

Maybe Alasdair MacIntyre was right. We’ve lost the ability to make coherent moral arguments and so have retreated into a (pseudo-)scientific managerialism.

Or maybe MacIntyre was wrong: we haven't lost the ability so much as that there are no coherent moral arguments at all; the moral arguments of the past fail without a foundation in the moral authority of church, king, or tradition. We've stopped making a whole class of bad arguments, and we're working on trying to figure out how to make good arguments with a foundation of human happiness.

Peter Hancock

There's some very erudite and interesting stuff in the article and comments above. I've little to add, except maybe this: when thinking about right and wrong, and such things, it can be clarifying to think about misery. I'm not at all sure what prosperity is, or happiness, or the benefit of the greatest number (etc.), but I know a little bit about what misery is, at least at second hand, or through fiction.

Ethics (morality, justice, etc) is a million miles from logic, but there is this: if something is false, it is false in just one way (one is more than enough). If something is wrong, I feel, it leads to misery of a living, suffering being or creature (a concept I imagine non-psychopaths basically know).

There may be many reasons why something is true, and it matters, in practice, what precisely they are, just as it does in logic. It is the same, I think with "right", which is much more open-ended than "wrong".

Dennis Smith

I won't try to argue the case here why consequentialism taken on its own is ethically insufficient. I just want to include a puff for Antara Haldar's article on 'Intrinsic goodness' in the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (2 November) - the best demolition I have read in a long time of the pseudo-scientific pretensions of mainstream economics.

Larry Hamelin

Not particularly helpful, Dennis, since the article is behind a paywall. Could you at least summarize it for us?

Larry Hamelin

And I want to repeat my point: there's a difference between consequentialism and non-consequentialism on the one hand, and what sort of consequences we should evaluate on the other. There are rational grounds for disagreement on both questions, but I think it's important to accurately identify what precisely we're disagreeing about.

I think the most common argument against consequentialism is that consequentialists restrict their evaluation only to *some* consequences, especially short-term material consequences. This argument is not a total straw man, because a lot of people do in fact argue only short-term material consequences. However, the argument still, I think, fails to address consequentialism at a fundamental level. People can make bad arguments in any framework: just that people make bad arguments about physics doesn't mean that physics is itself wrong.

I think to make an argument against conseqentialism that really gets at the crux of the biscuit one has to argue that something is good or bad *desipite* that *all* the consequences, short- and long-term, material and psychological, are clearly negative or positive respectively. I think this sort of argument is difficult to make without an appeal to authority or without defining consequences to be negative *just because* they follow from an action assumed wrong.

We can find, I think, a paradigmatic case of this kind of anti-consequentialism by definition in economics: whatever the consequences of market-based exchange happen to be, some economists (and Libertarians) argue, they are the best consequences *just because* they happen from market-based exchange. I think this argument doesn't really hold water.


I would tend to argue that everyone's a virtue-ethicist for Team A and a consequentialist for Team B. We all find reasons to put stuff we like beyond the reach of an assessment of its consequences and demand a forensic audit of stuff we don't.

Dennis Smith

@ Larry - Antara Haldar’s article is an impressive piece of sustained reasoning, so any summary will inevitably simplify and falsify it. I’ve made an attempt but some my phrasing may mispresent her views.

Haldar starts with well-known objections to the Homo economicus model of human beings as utility-maximising algorithms. This model gives an empirically inaccurate picture of how humans actually make decisions, as shown by Kahneman and Tversky inter al. Actual humans are computationally inferior to Homo economicus but morally superior. Behavioural research shows that people have a deeply ingrained tendency to cooperate with others and to treat them fairly. There are obvious evolutionary advantages in such behaviour (citing E.O. Wilson and others).

The Homo economicus model has been defended as a simplified model of complex behaviour but this overlooks the fact that models in the human sciences, unlike the physical sciences, can influence the behaviour that they purport to describe. Poorly designed policies can have perverse consequences (people donate less blood when they are offered payment). “Assuming the worst about people can make them behave badly”.

There is empirical evidence that “old-fashioned values [like] pride and shame and guilt and loyalty” can influence behaviour more effectively and more consistently than self-interest. One example cited is the microfinance project in Bangladesh. Mainstream economists have responded to this type of evidence from behavioural economics by refining their conception of preferences. By treating material self-interest as the explanatory core of human behaviour mainstream economists (like Donald Trump) inhabit “a parallel moral universe: a space untarnished by the by the basic constraints of human decency”. “Assumptions about self-interest
become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

The neoclassical conception of preferences is infinitely flexible: it can be redefined to include all kinds of values and principles. But this kind of redefinition changes what it purports to describe, falsifying the way that people actually think about their own identities. People see (some of) their values as constitutive of who they are.

The behavioural sciences suggest that no sharp line can be drawn between the economic and the social. “The epistemic hubris of neoclassical economics stems from seeing itself as a value-neutral pure science, like physics. Behavioural analysis muddies the picture by introducing not only emotions, but also ethics into the picture.” Individual and collective interests need not be at odds: the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. “Until economics agrees to its script being rewritten, its plot is doomed to remain a tragedy.”

Pro Cynic

I accept that this is not a very popular way of looking at the world but the richer I am, the happier I am.

Robert Mitchell

The richer I am, the more depressed I get because the arbitrariness of inequality becomes so obvious. I want to rise with the ranks not from them.

Tom trey

Not only is this a patronising and pontificating post, it suffers from amnesia.

For years there has never been a 'coherent' argument for the EU. Not a single Remainer made one. The Economist - via its Charlemagne column - for years wrote critical articles of the EU. A few months before the EU vote, it quickly stepped back into its corporate, pro-EU comfort blanket. Why couldn't Nick Clegg, well versed in EU politics, persuade enough people against Nigel Farage?

Sovereignty is not difficult to understand on moral grounds. It enhances social cohesion by having shared values that cannot be replicated at the EU level, partly because it is too impractical for voter representation. Tower of Babel is a coherent moral analogy.

Furthermore, why not a stronger Commonwealth or any other groups of countries? EU nationalism with a proposed EU army is likely to end in moral tears.

Next dissect the inadequacies of your beloved social groups? Nope, thought not. Hypocrisy abounds.


The problems with bringing morality in here is the silent assumption that it will be the morality that you like, or at least don't fundamentally disagree with that will be brought in.

The reality is that when morality starts to be the steering light, it can be _any_ morality that will end. Including the morality that says Jew/woman/black/white/educated/poor etc. is not really a human.

I'd rather than a material, consequentialist policy. I'd like to point out that all the (real) technocratic rule did way less damage to the human race than the "moral" one. For those talking about austerity and like - you know what? It was a morality decision (debtor is bad, debts have to be paid), NOT a technocratic one.

Larry Hamelin

Thanks Dennis. That seems like an excellent summary, given I've not read the original work. I appreciate the effort.

Duty calls, so I have limited time this morning, but I will share my first impression that Haldar does not make an argument against consequentialism, but rather an argument that economists use an impoverished kind of consequentialism. As an economist myself (of the decidedly mediocre sort), I must agree with much of the thrust of that argument.

I will respond in more depth as time permits.

Larry Hamelin

Since I largely agree with Dennis's summary Antara Haldar’s article, I won't comment much on it.

It's easy to make bad arguments in *any* framework; pointing to any number of bad arguments tells us little about the framework. So that many economists make bad consequentialist arguments tells us more about economists than it does about consequentialism.

And it will always be difficult to make good arguments. The question really is: is it *possible*, however difficult, to make good arguments?

I am convinced that it is not just difficult but simply impossible to make good deontological moral arguments: such arguments either rest on a foundation of moral authority or are really consequentialist arguments in disguise. For example, from Dennis's summary, "There is empirical evidence that 'old-fashioned values [like] pride and shame and guilt and loyalty' can influence behaviour more effectively and more consistently than self-interest." That's kind of a consequentialist argument on its face, since it relies on the consequences, determined empirically, of values.

But more importantly, how should we evaluate what sort of values should influence behavior? A lot of reprehensible behavior (i.e. behavior that I don't like) has been effectively and consistently influenced by values. Again, I would prefer a directly consequentialist approach: "good" values are just the sort of values that influence people to behave in the ways that I approve of; "bad" values influence people to behave in ways I disapprove of.

I'm very up front about what behavior I approve and disapprove of: I approve of behavior that reduces human misery and improves happiness, and I disapprove of behavior that increases misery and decreases happiness. (Yes, I'm more than a little speciesist.)

If you agree, then I think you are a consequentialist, although there is a lot of room to argue about what constitutes misery and happiness. I think that to disagree with me not just on the implementation details but at a fundamental level, you would have to say that something is good or bad *despite* its consequences for human misery and happiness. I find it difficult if not impossible to imagine making a good argument for such a position.

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