It took me a while to realize this is not satire

I usually don’t link to bad pieces, or enjoy criticizing them, but there is an exception to every rule.  Excerpt:

Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!

Today, institutions which help individuals do that (corporations, lobbyists) are flourishing; the others (public hospitals, schools) are basically left to rot. Business and law schools prosper; philosophy departments are threatened with closure.

Or this:

The neat causality of rational choice ontology, always at odds with quantum physics, was further jumbled by the environmental crisis, exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “The Silent Spring”…

The author is a professor of Germanic languages.

I agree with Reihan that the recent web critique of Nozick, which I will not link to, was just awful.  David Gordon should write a critique of it and send me the link.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.


Well douche-bag to you care to take on any of the arguments of McCumber?

Dude, arguments need to be at least somewhat coherent to respond. That was a train wreck.

"Dude, arguments need to be at least somewhat coherent to respond."

This is what happens when someone questions your whole paradigm. To classical physics, quantum mechanics isn't even coherent enough for response!

Who is classical physics?

Yes, that's one possibility. He's just too bright for us to follow his 3D verbal chess refuting rational choice with quantum physics and Rachel Carson.

The other possibility is that McCumber is following the old adage "if you can't blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit."


Oh, "ontology." One of the words that when you read, you know that there's nothing to learn here. I love playing with the nature of existence of items and how they're defined, but to call it ontology is silly, as opposed to just "what is".

'Oh, “ontology.” One of the words that when you read, you know that there’s nothing to learn here.'
Well, nothing YOU are willing to learn, at least.

Oh, really? I've already learned it. And I'm laughing.

If there is nothing to learn when you see the word 'ontology,' then how could you have "already learned it"? John Searle's work on the ontology of social objects and Tony Lawson's on economic ontology are both strong disproofs of your contention. As is the fact you think "ontology" is a fancy way of saying "what is," while that, in fact, would be called "ont."

The difference is whether "ontology" is being used to be specific in the manner of definition. Its use in the eighth paragraph does assist in understanding the facets of the definition of rational choice philosophy. That's a reasonable use of the term.

However, many times ontology is also invoked just to demonstrate intellectual superiority, as it was in the quote above. It offers no additional detail to the author's argument. The first two paragraphs are another similar example, by first establishing a Hegelian idea, positing an "almost everybody else" who refutes is, then shows how this imaginary "almost everybody else" is wrong, demonstrating a superiority to "almost everybody else."

Kind of like what you're doing here, trying to make my laughter an argument. Well-crafted rebuttal, though.

Brain... melting...

Booga booga! Quantum physics! My colleague Deepak Chopra and I clearly demonstrate that the universe itself demands a Rawlsian meta ethical narrative ...

"Though it would be couched, one must hope, in clearer prose."

Pegged the irony-meter.

C'mon Tyler, the New York Times doesn't do satire (even on the associated blogs).

It wouldn't surprise me that professors with the cognitive virtues of the NY Times editorialist outnumber professors with the cognitive virtues of Tyler Cowen.

his mention of quantum physics reminds me of the professor from futurama who once explained that quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason

No a fair comparison. The futurama interpretation is an order of magnitude more sensible.

A better analogy: It would be like me trying to bash Apple by saying "the linear ontological framework posited by the IPhone is at odds with the neo-synthesis of evolutionary sociology and further complicated by Ehrlich's 1968 book 'The Population Bomb'".


This is the most succinct refutation of that column of bullshit. Summed up nicely!

Funny thing.

I got my Bachelor's in philosophy, and frankly I agree that philosophy departments should languish or be closed, for the most part.

An intro-phil course doesn't do anyone any good unless they're the sort of person who really doesn't need the course; and those very very few with a calling in the field can shop around a little. Most schools, it's a damned waste of everyone's time and money, and just an excuse to keep a few more poor bastards who got suckered into a Doctorate employed.

(That and most philosophy instruction is mediocre at best. Far too much of it is actually history of philosophy, which is different. Closely related, and you can't do the real thing decently without some, so I'm not against it being taught ... but it's not really teaching philosophy in the sense worth preserving, if that's all they teach, and the whole focus.)

(PS. "Because of Quantum", as Terry Pratchett was fond of writing.)

Terry Pratchett would be a good choice for a philosophy professor methinks.

"Far too much of it is actually history of philosophy..."
As Collingwood demonstrated, that is by far the best way to study philosophy.

Well, hey, you know, if Collingwood said it...

Very humorous, Silas. You've now taken to stalking me around the Internet to make dumb remarks? Because what I said was Collingwood "demonstrated" it -- I'm not advising one takes his word for it, but that one go read his demonstrations of it.

No stalking. I'm an equal-opportunity ridiculer of phonies and posers. You just happened to be in a thread I visited anyway. And, your worldview happens to lead you to say lots of stupid things.

You're just like Stephan_Kinsella: if I engage you in public spaces intended for that, I'm somehow a stalker. Even when I'm the official jeerer on your blog!

Wahhh! Mommy! Gene_Callahan is stalking meeeeeee!

Psst: Your past history has shown your recommendations to be a waste of time, so your suggestion that I go burn time reading something that met the very low threshold of convincng *you* is still unpersuasive.

(Remember your story about the Buddhist _top_ monk who was never capable of articulating the relevant importance of not touching women? You actually thought it was insightful!)

I want to make fun of this article, but you guys have already done such good work here.

If you're not going to provide it, anyone have a link to, or can provide, a full critique of either the NY Times Opinionator piece or Metcalf's piece on Nozick for Slate?

Make it a homework. It's easy, too! Start with Google and Wikipedia

And it is a confused, emotional, petulant mess.

I just don't get this guy's point. He wants to say that rational choice philosophy is bad, so he comes up with reasons.

He points out that it started out as anti-communist propaganda, but so what? That doesn't make it wrong.

And then he points out that we don't know everything so each of us might try to get stuff that's bad for him or bad for the world. Again, so what? We probably won't find out how bad it is unless we get to try it out. Should I stop trying to get what I want just because it might turn out bad?

Suppose I do everything I can to accumulate wealth and power, and then it turns out that I'm not all that rational after all and I use it to do things I should have known (or even did know) would be bad for me and everybody else. Again so what? If it wasn't me doing it, it would be somebody else.

The social function of American philosophy is to tell people that what they are doing is right and proper and they don't need to worry about it. And here is this man telling people they shouldn't get what they want! How can he hope to sell that? It's unappealing from the first sentence. He has no hope. He might as well try to promote celibacy.

The obvious choice is for each of us to gather as much money and power as we can, taking them from others whenever the game is not positive-sum enough to gain more by cooperation. How could it be otherwise? If Americans had realized this in 1860 the Civil War would never have happened.

What an idiot.

If people had realized this in 1860, I'm not sure there would still be an America.

"always at odds with quantum physics": anything unscientific that alludes to Quantum Physics, or Relativity, or Multiverses, or Nonlinearity, is bound to be crap - that we can surely all agree with?

Reminds me of the Sokol parody published in Social Text except without the irony.

Oh, the irony is still there. It's just less intentional.

We have an older word for "unintentional irony" - stupidity.

"Today, institutions which help individuals do that (corporations, lobbyists) are flourishing;"

"Institutions," "Individuals." Well, that's one Turing attempt Fail.

I was surprised to learn that, prior to the Cold War and the RAND Corp., nobody had ever spoken of the individual as an autonomous being with choices that matter. Certainly not, oh, the entirety of mainstream Western tradition until the 19th century?

I was also surprised to see this professor of German speak highly of Hegel's notion that there is no meaning without a broader communal tradition. While perhaps true in the "soft" sense, this is precisely the aspect of German philosophy that led Heidegger to side with the Nazis -- that is, he did so because the individual on his/her own suffers from angst and meaninglessness, one must integrate oneself into one's tradition, and the Nazis were clearly the fullest expression of the Germanic tradition during that time and place.

Hegelian philosophy led to Marx, and it also led to 19th-century nationalism, which found its highest expression in 1930s Germany. Both philosophies demand the subordination of the individual to the collective. The collective is merely defined differently.

PS: this is NOT a violation of Godwin's Law -- it's an observation from the perspective of intellectual history. I do not believe the columnist is a Nazi.

Godwin's law wasn't that you can't bring up the Nazis, it's that someone would and you did. Of course, that it makes it not a violation, but a confirmation of the law.

Without fail, it is impossible to bring up Nazi Germany without some blowhard bringing up Godwin's Law. To use another worn-out axiom, Godwin's Law has jumped the shark.

But, you see, the community decided the Nazi outcomes were bad.

"Both philosophies demand the subordination of the individual to the collective."

Rubbish. Marx exalted the individual, and held that only under communism could individuals truly flourish:

"His belief was that the crowning achievement of the proletarian movement would not be the production of a socialist state that would organize society's product in such a way as to benefit the greatest number of people possible, thus producing a picture of Marx as a radical or revolutionary utilitarian, but rather that the dynamics of development and struggle that characterized modern bourgeois society would result in a situation where, for the first time, real individuals would be created that were liberated from the restrictions of class existence." --

Now, if you say, "But in practice that's not what happened!" then I quite agree. But to say his philosophy plpaced the collective above the individual is just plain false.

"I was also surprised to see this professor of German speak highly of Hegel’s notion that there is no meaning without a broader communal tradition. While perhaps true in the “soft” sense..."

So it's true, but we just shouldn't talk about it?

So, "real individuals would be CREATED [my emphasis] that were liberate from the restrictions" etc etc. Well, isn't that the problem? Individuals can't be created in this (Marxian) manner, without them being rather radically disassembled first, usually by education camps. Marxists and Marxians are therefore bound to be radical social constructionists. But that will only work if it is the case that individuals can be shaped so profoundly.

Marx believed that history led to inevitable, scientifically determinable results - economic determinism in other words. That doesn't give the individual much of a role in history (besides perhaps being either someone who either tries to hinder or help the process that is). Also, you have to ignore a lot of Marx's racist notions regarding the need to civilize the folks in the colonies for their own good to come up with your thesis as well. But yeah, Marx was also all about pining for the fjords when it came to worker alienation, so that works with your argument, however, Marx was also extremely nostalgic when regarding said alienation - that nostalgia (a very romantic variety of such) was infused with a lot of normative claims for how workers ought to be living - so the question is, what happens when a person doesn't want to live the Marx imagined people ought to live?

"Hegel, for one, had denied all three of its central claims in his “Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences” over a century before. In that work, as elsewhere in his writings, nature is not neatly causal, but shot through with randomness. Because of this chaos, we cannot know the significance of what we have done until our community tells us; and ethical life correspondingly consists, not in pursuing wealth and power, but in integrating ourselves into the right kinds of community."

So, Hegel was hard-form EMH?

I'm amazed by how positive the comments from NYT readers are. They must be a lot smarter than me.

Tyler, that first quote is yanked badly out of context: in reading the article, it is clear the author is saying, "In effect, rational choice philosophy *winds up* (perhaps unwittingly) persuading people that it is best to increase your wealth and power. And I think, once that is said properly, it is true.

I do not think people have ever needed Rational Choice Philosophy to be persuaded of that.

Does it matter if you define wealth as number of hours gone fishin'?

I hate people who comment without linking. It is bad bad form. If you hate the piece so much you refuse to link to it, just ignore it. It's a bit like reading media takes on amazing new science that don't link to the actual studies that underpin said amazing.

What's funny (and disappointing) about this post is that Tyler doesn't even bother rebutting or even summarizing the posts. He does bother to point out that the author is a professor of Germanic languages and thus not an economist, so he must be an uninformed moron! How dare non-economists tackle issues of economics, since mainstream economists have such a great track record in understanding the economy and predicting how it will function! Err, wait..

His argument might indeed be totally wrong, but usually one has to engage with the ideas of others directly instead of standing back and hoping your commenters ridicule him on your behalf.

The proof was by inspection.

No, it's ok. I'm happy to ridicule it on Tyler's behalf. From the article: "It defined individualism as the making of choices so as to maximize one’s preferences."

Well, let's pretend that the last time you read about "rational choice theory" was 15 years ago when you were an undergrad, and it's kind of fuzzy in your head, so you want to know why this article about it is wrong.

one has to engage with the ideas of others directly instead of standing back and hoping your commenters ridicule him

Fair enough. Please provide a carefully reasoned critique of the following:

I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that trolls/axe-grinders like Nobody/Callahan don't show up here very often.

Back again! I made a very specific claim: Tyler had taken the quote badly out of context. Do you dispute that claim, or is name calling the extent of your critical abilities?

That text just needs to be translated:

"The neat causality of rational choice ontology, always at odds with quantum physics, was further jumbled by the environmental crisis, exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “The Silent Spring”"

Translates into English as:

"Rational choice economics contradicts quantum mechanics and causes people to use DDT to destroy the environment."

So the people saying that the problem is the jumbled prose are wrong. That's not the problem at all. It's actually his understanding of the world that's deficient. I defy anyone to try to make that statement sound intelligent without jumbling the prose to the point where it's almost indecipherable.

Also, the prose may sound like ornamental, deliberately obtuse nonsense, but there are also some advantages to this style of writing. I discovered that using Google language tools to convert the prose into German did not detract one bit from the information content. Incredibly that held true even when I read the German text despite the fact that I understand almost nothing in the German tongue.

"Die saubere Kausalität des rational choice Ontologie, immer im Widerspruch mit der Quantenphysik, wurde durch die ökologische Krise durcheinander, ausgesetzt von Rachel Carson von 1962 Buch "The Silent Spring""

For comparison I translated some of Cowen's writing into German and found that the translation process significantly detracted from the information content I could absorb.


“The neat causality of rational choice ontology, always at odds with quantum physics, was further jumbled by the environmental crisis, exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “The Silent Spring””

Translates into English as:

“Rational choice economics contradicts quantum mechanics and causes people to use DDT to destroy the environment.”

You are being unfair. Which I suppose is fine when the host has invited you to ridicule the text.

But he's writing for NYT readers. So QM has traditionally been invoked when the meaning is "You can't know everything". They used to use Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle for that, but now they don't, maybe because HUP is ancient while QM gets used today to make computers and telescopes and plastic.

And the environmental crisis gets used in a similar way. You don't know the consequences of your actions, and even when you do know, your short-run benefits may conflict with humanity's long-run benefits. Your insecticide or spray-on deodorant may seem good for you, but maybe bad for everybody. And I have met libertarians even this year who argue that the ozone data is fudged and there was and is no human-caused UV problem, and also that DDT has benefits for humanity that far outweigh any possible (but in reality fraudulent) harm.

So I think a better translation is:

"The neat causality assumed by Rational Choice theory is wrong because you don't and can't know everything, and also because what you want might be bad for you, or bad for others and even maybe bad for everybody."

This is still wrong, but it isn't absurd on the same level.

Speaking loosely, this argument invites a change from:

"People are going to do whatever-the-hell they want, and let's pretend they're rational because the alternatives will make your brain hurt" to:

"You might as well do as you like, because you can't understand the consequences of your actions anyway".

"So QM has traditionally been invoked when the meaning is “You can’t know everything” ...
And the environmental crisis gets used in a similar way."

Why does the fact that other people are also intellectually irresponsible mitigate the absurdity of the piece?

Because the intention was to translate into english.

You could do the same thing with conservative or Randite screeds.

Language which at first sight looks absurd can actually make a sort of sense, even if wrong.

here's the translation I sent to some colleagues yesterday: "My version: "The neat causality of rational choice ontology, always at odds with quantum physics, was further jumbled by the Vietnam War, exposed by Garry Trudeau's 1968 comic strip 'Doonesbury,' which revealed that the causal effects of human actions were much more complex, and much funnier, than previously thought."

Could someone define "power" for me in the way an economist would think about it?
Is it "getting what you want"? So is it just a matter of income and markets in everything? Is it the ability to boss people around? Why is that desirable? Is it because it feeds our ego? Or is it the ability to direct resources which you do not actually own in terms of property rights? Or perhaps the ability to avoid accountability?

I have a problem with the concept, philosophically speaking.

Bwa-ha-ha! I especially like the scattershot, drive-by reference to Libya to try to bolster the article's "timeliness".

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