Morality and dispassionate analysis

A while ago a few people drew a contrast between a more dispassionate style of (blog) analysis and a more explicitly moralizing approach.  I would frame it differently.  Pluralism reigns and there are many different moral values of import.  The moralizing approach tends to leave a writer stuck in emphasizing a single value or a single comparison of values.  The so-called dispassionate approach is more likely to lead the writer to see a broader range of values and moral trade-offs.  The moralizing approach is most of all impoverished when it comes to…morality.


Agree. Nobody wants to be preached at, and only the choir wants to be preached to.

I look forward to your dispassionate analysis of slaughtering the wealthy for organ meat.

Considering how few wealthy there, wouldn't rich person's liver just become another luxury item that would only be afforded by the wealthy?

No, you see, that's the genius of it: only the wealthy could afford it, so anyone who buys it has cheaply identified themselves as wealthy and can be harvested in the next cycle. Best of all, this is a costly signal of wealth, so the wealthy will stampede to it!

I think you just invented vampires.

And the cycle of life is complete.

At least in blog form.

"Organ meat". Your are proposing that we feed the wealthy to the organs? I didn't know that organs had digestive systems. I guess if we do it right we could feed the stomach etc., but...

Yes, but the dispassionate approach too often fails the Caplan/Turing Test with respect to moral theories to which the writer does not subscribe, thereby elucidating very little.

Put another way, I would rather read 5 "moralizing" articles that cover 5 different theories than I would 1 "dispassionate" article that attempted to cover 5 theories.

I feel people do a better job providing information when they're arguing in favor of something than they do when they attempt to coldly summarize a plurality of positions.

"I feel people do a better job providing information when they’re arguing in favor of something than they do when they attempt to coldly summarize a plurality of positions."

Maybe, but people arguing in favor of something are also much more likely to provide biased/false/half-true information. They are eager to stretch things.

And so are those who present themselves as dispassionate. The bias is still there, but the spiel is an attempt to get us to believe otherwise. It is a different type of preaching that appeals to some, just like other types appeal to others.

Its the difference between spin and advocacy. Advocacy is unabashed, spin is hidden.

Just wait for the contrarians in the comments section.

It's sort of like that principle in statistics: If you know what the bias is going into it, it's no longer a bias.

So, genuine question, if you prefer the moralising approach to the dispassionate approach, why are you reading Marginal Revolution?

(Several possibilities come to mind, eg you came here via someone linking this post, or this post only crystalised this realisation in your mind and you're going to stop reading Marginal Revolution from now on, or you do find Marginal Revolution to have a sufficiently moralising approach for your tastes, despite Cowan aiming for a more dispassionate approach).

Two reasons:

1 - I prefer Tabarrok's posts.

2 - The comments section attached to Cowen's posts often make up for the shortcomings of the original posts themselves.

Thank you for explaining.

What Tyler calls the "so colled dispassionate approach" doesn't have to be neutral, or even dispassonate. You can still argue for a position if you stay calm - and I really do prefer that sort of writing to the moralising style.

Tyler seems to be saying that an advantage of this approach is that you can weight a proposition up within several different moral frameworks.

"The moralizing approach tends to leave a writer stuck in emphasizing a single value or a single comparison of values."

the evidence is clear. the earth revolves around the sun.

"The so-called dispassionate approach is more likely to lead the writer to see a broader range of values and moral trade-offs."

we can't know for certain if the earth revolves around the sun. it could all be perception bias, or cultural conditioning. regardless, there are likely other suns in the galaxy that revolve around their planets, and perhaps those solar systems are better places to live.

You are clearly exhibiting a sun-centric frame of reference.

Agreed. I'd go so far as to call him a terraphobe.

Your old-fashioned notion of fixed reference frames is so quaint!

Many people (most economists?) confuse "morality&ethics" with political positions that promote certain policies. Given the politics they support, they assume that whatever morality or ethics promote that kind of policy is the right, indeed only, moral position that is valid. Economics used to be a discipline inside philosophy, with a strong emphasis on ethics, but no modern economics graduate school trains students in moral philosophy any more. If anyone tried, it would be resisted. Economists should therefore stick to the technical issues associated with aggregating individual preferences into consistent social choices. They should not voice any opinions that are in any way associated with morals or ethics. They are not trained in it, they are not qualified to do it, and they should stick with the techniques they know something about. This includes the ethical limitations on cost-benefit analysis -- which I believe is based firmly on a simple utilitarianism and which fail as a rule to override preference aggregation. So, TC, don't lecture us on morality, but feel free to suggest your own policy preferences, from which we can make our own judgments as to whether we believe that our own morals and ethics would support those policies, or something else.

This request could also be made to teachers, union leaders, parents, voters, congressmen, engineers or any other social group outside of ethical philosophers.

Contrary to your opening, I find that economists are some of the only people who routinely distinguish between normative and descriptive recommendations.

"Contrary to your opening, I find that economists are some of the only people who routinely distinguish between normative and descriptive recommendations."


The normative prescriptions suggested by economists are, as I noted, based on utilitarianism. That's only one possible ethical viewpoint, and it is insufficient to by-pass the problems of preference aggregation -- as I also noted.

This exchange illustrates precisely that we do think about morals--consciously and with some rigor. I know of no other profession that contains so many members who are aware and take seriously these questions.

"I know of no other profession that contains so many members who are aware and take seriously these questions."

You must be an economist then, to be so limited in your viewpoint. Ever discuss chemotherapy options with a patient dying of cancer that wanted to see his first grandchild born?

So only trained and qualified philosophers should be expected to act ethically?

Doesn't the *right* approach depend on your audience and objective? Blogs are an odd space for discource since neither is particularly well defined. Seems like this post relates somewhat to the gargoyle complaint: Both you and the blogger at Washington Monthly basically came to the same policy conclusion...the supporting arguments differed a lot in their degree of moral underpinnings. The careful, dispassionate analysis should (in my opinion) come first, but that may not be the best form to sell the idea. But again that depends on the audience.

The so-called dispassionate approach is more likely to lead the writer to to ignore confirmation bias and, oddly, believe the values they promote were arrived at objectively. At least the explicitly moralizing are being honest with themselves and their readers.


Compare this blog, and its comment section, to Krugman's. Both have their biases, but the more moralizing one is the one least likely to link to articles contrary to his biases and is also least honest with himself and his readers.
Tyler clearly makes a point of challenging himself to find useful ideas from sources that could easily by written off. I don't see how you could write that comment if you have been a long time reader of this blog.

I just listened to the moralizing Rush Limbaugh radio show while driving to lunch, and listening to 5 such shows from 5 different political positions would shed no serious light on any problem.

I am a loooongtime reader, familiar with all Tyler's rhetorical devices. This is par for the course. He notices flaws in other's thinking he would never recognize in his own. Read what he writes about Greece, always maintaining a thin veneer of objectivity hiding a vast foundation of moral judgement.

Anything Tyler Cowen says about Greece is 100% true if it is disparaging. Yes I live there, for years. Anybody who is anybody has gone and left. Finding a competent professional in Greece is about as rare as finding a major intellectual in a beach town like Santa Cruz or Ocean City in the off-season, myself and a few others excepted. Not gonna happen. GR (and the Balkans) = Third World. Nice place to visit though.

+1 I agree. Tyler lets me, a known internet flamebaiter and provocateur, post here. True, I cannot post too fast, as I get the dreaded "SLOW DOWN" comment, but contrast this to blogger Brad DeLong, who closed his comments section, the right-wing leaning Greg Mankiew, who also closed his blog right after I started posting, and the ignorant choir of Krugman's comments section (stupid NYers!). This place is by far the most best econ blog site, and I'm not just saying that because I tend to agree with Libertarian leaning TC. And TC will even answer an occasional email! Imagine Krugman or DeLong or Mankiew losing face by replying to hoi polloi. Of course once Tyler wins the Nobel Prize I'm sure he'll chance for the worse but let's hope not!

Two things:

1 - Don't forget that Alex Tabarrok also writes for Marginal Revolution and a lot of people enjoy his posts.

2 - My having a preference for explicit moral sentiment over "dispassionate analysis" is certainly no criticism of Tyler Cowen.

The dispassionate approach leads to more bias, because the bias that is there is hidden.

This is an interesting point but I don't think it holds up; we should look at the issue from the point of view of the reader, not the writer. Which approach is more likely to offer a reasoned and careful argument? The whole point of a moralistic argument is that it obfuscates and elides important issues into a garbled but emotionally potent mess. It relies on our instincts and ethical hunches almost by definition. A dispassionate argument, even if it's flawed or misleading, has to provide some sort of data, evidence, reasoning or other content in other to be worth reading. That, in turn, means there is something for other dispassionate debaters to critique.

Even if a writer falsely believes himself free of confirmation bias, a dispassionate product is going to be either more interesting/reasoned or more easily attackable/flawed.

It amazes me that those that want a 'more' moralizing approach read this blog, let alone post to it. This doesn't seem to be the place to go if you desire a sermon. The web is full of blogs of that type, this is one of the rare blog's that's more thoughtful than passionate.

Use the dispassionate style when you are trying to get yourself to discover the truth.

Use the moralizing style when you are trying to get others to discover the truth.

You must be a fun guy to hang out with.

Tyler is correct, but what many will fail to see is that Tyler's point applies equally to libertarian-style arguments

Indeed, I think it was Stigler who once said that arguments based on some moral code (including Hayekian arguments from "liberty") simply shows a lack of analysis

Stigler was incorrect. All economics arguments are based on a moral code, he was just obfuscating his own.
Yes, I am arguing that there is no such thing as positive economics.

I prefer to see it as skeptical vs. polemical. Skeptical in the original sense of investigative. Of course our temperament picks our philosophy, so maybe I just prefer the humility of holding beliefs not preaching irrebuttable knowledge.

I'm not sure he was thinking about the lower bounds of monetary policy, but I like Bastiat's humility:

Let us, therefore, not have the presumption to overthrow everything, to regulate everything, to seek to exempt all, men and things alike, from the operation of the laws to which they are naturally subject. Let us be content to leave the world as God made it. Let us not imagine that we, poor scribblers, are anything but more or less accurate observers. Let us not make ourselves ridiculous by proposing to change humanity, as if we stood apart from it and from its errors and shortcomings. Let us permit producer and consumer to have their respective interests, to discuss, debate, and settle their differences through fair and peaceful arrangements. Let us limit ourselves to observing their relations and the ensuing results.

The explicitly theological grounding here is interesting, to say the least... Economics as divine providence. Nice political theology.

Religions have no insight into morality? Wow.

no such thing as morality.

Where's TallDave? I haven't see a TallDave comment in ages. Along with Andrew', the two commenters I find invariably worth reading.

Well, Claudia Sahm is worth reading, too, but I wonder whether they yanked on Claudia's leash at the FRB. Nothing from Claudia in months. (Claudia would better spend her time as a speechwriter, a la Peggy Noonan, I suspect.)

Aw shucks, Steven, thanks. I actually weighed in above as anon and have been commenting as such for awhile. I was not following orders from anyone to stop using my name here (don't want to feed Sumner's claim of a culture of fear at the Fed, which in my experience is not true). Don't worry they keep me plenty busy, but I doubt I'll be able to resist sounding off here on's a pretty interesting chorus here.


Hmmm, I thought I would recognize your writing style, Claudia. Shows what I know.

I am experiencing vitriol fatigue. It's splendid that some people hate Obama and others hate Romney. But does it move the world forward? Or is it just a dark emotion on an endless repeat loop?

And I'm kept busy, too. So I tend to skip down to commenters who are either witty or insightful, or both. Curiously, some commenters are becoming shadow columnists. I look for their byline.

As for the FRB: I think institutions often have a certain ambivalence towards blogs and commenting therein. It's a kind of gray market activity. And the default setting for some institions is "closed". (Exxon is the exemplar of this in our field.) I personally welcome the perspective of professionals in the field, for example, to explain the background, context or analytics related to a policy position. I like to learn, and I think the nature of communication nowadays--via blogs--is much more open and immediate. That's the society we live in now.

Maybe commenting anonymously does affect one's writing?

The FRB, like a lot of other large established organizations, tends to be conservative (in the non-political sense). Dispassionate (or objective, fact driven) analysis is the main form of our internal and external communication. On blogs (even this one), the passions are either closer to the surface or boiling over. It's not all that surprising that organizations that want to maintain a clear message steer clear of the messy, noisy blogs. Not to say that's right. Sometimes a message needs to be delivered in different forums and formats. As I noted above, I even think there's a time and place to make a value-driven or subjective argument. After all, there are people behind those data points. Every economist knows that; we just are trained not to sound like it.

What if I prefer attempts at dispassionate analysis (analysis is never actually dispassionate) from people with clearly established polemical positions, who attempt to account for how their passions affect their descriptions? Let me know what your bias is and I'll judge for myself how good you are at controlling it.

I agree with Mencken:

"What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance... when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour-prope by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest - and perhaps, after all, right."

Mencken sure lived up to that one...

Reminds me of my favorite Mencken essays, which opens thus:

"Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore. To Hell with him, and bad luck to him. He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack. He deserves all that he ever suffers under our economic system, and more. Any city man, not insane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile."

In general, I have limited patience for knowledgeable people who moralize without discussing tradeoffs. If I were to make a list of Things to Improve the Prevalence of Good Ideas in Society, having a guy like Paul Krugman adopt the presentation style of Sean Hannity would not be near the top, is what I'm saying.


While your point that dispassionate analysis creates clarity stands, the senses are moral, and the use of dispassionate analysis to EXPLAIN our moral senses, including where they are correct and incorrect, provides insight that people need in order to understand economic phenomenon. Our moral sense fail us.

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