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November 21, 2015


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I’m not sure the discipline of economics should be invoked as exemplar to make the point if one considers not only the many cogent and persuasive critiques of conventional and popular models and theories from both within the profession (e.g., and apart from Marxist critiques: Amartya Sen, John Quiggin, Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. McPherson, Deirdre McCloskey, Christian Arnsperger, Ha-Joon Chang …) and outside the profession (e.g., Elizabeth Anderson, S.M. Amadae, Philip Mirowski, Debra Satz, Michael J. Sandel, Martha Nussbaum …). And to the extent that economics is a “social” and thus human and not a “natural” science, nuance would seem to remain a virtue, given the complexity of human motivation and behavior in a “morally messy” (C.A.J. Coady) world. As Jon Elster writes in the conclusion to Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2007), questioning the relevance of “ingenious mathematical models,” “An interesting question in the psychology and sociology of science is how many _secret practitioners_ there are of economic science fiction—hiding either from themselves or others the fact that this is indeed what they are practicing.” Moreover, “what rational-choice practitioners do is often so removed from reality that it is hard to take seriously their claims that they are engaged with the world” (see pp. 462-63, where he summarizes his argument in ten points). Thus quantitative and formal models (the use of measurement, data analysis, and modeling in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences) do not necessarily trump the so-called “soft” and qualitative dimensions of the social sciences, wherein the lines between the descriptive and normative are blurred and porous (i.e., we cannot make hard and fast distinctions between facts, values, and theories). What “counts” for science, I believe, should be different in the two cases (making the social sciences sometimes, if not often, closer to literature and history or the humanities than the natural sciences, much in the manner humanistic and neo-Freudian psychology could be said to aspiring to something like a “science of subjectivity,” the normative criteria for which are only beginning to be articulated). Indeed, with ample reason Elster reminds us, for example, that “with respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights, that from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology,” that form of psychology that today that casually and derisively dismisses the work of Freud and those inspired by him. In the end, “Some of us are impressed and overwhelmed by the complexity and instability of human behavior. Others have a gut belief in the underlying regularity that, when uncovered, will enable us to put the social sciences on a par with the natural sciences — be it with physics, chemistry, geology, or meteorology.”

Legal scholars and theorists might in fact learn a bit about nuance from those in philosophy, for unlike many economists and now, it seems, some sociologists, moral philosophers cannot say, “fuck nuance.” To wit:

“…’[C]omplicity’ is loosely employed in ordinary discourse as a catch-all term referring indiscriminately to the whole multitude of sins arising from ‘what … I … do by way of contribution to what you do,’ when you do wrong. The generic term ‘complicity’ is used to describe what are, in truth, several distinct practices.

Among those that we [later] characterize more precisely … are ‘conniving,’ ‘conspiring,’ ‘contiguity,’ ‘collusion,’ ‘collaboration,’ ‘condoning,’ ‘consorting,’ ‘conspiring,’ and ‘full joint wrongdoing.’ Lumping all those phenomena together under the generic label of ‘complicity’ is morally misleading …. Those terms are not all interchangeable. Each points to a distinct way of engaging with someone else who is committing a wrong; each differs not only in degree but also in kind.

Furthermore, playing close attention to all those intermediate practices is genuinely important. It is all too tempting, both politically and philosophically [which I take to include ‘morally’], to fixate on the limiting cases. One such limiting case occurs when other people share completely the wrongful purposed of the wrongdoers and do whatever they can to help them accomplish their dastardly deeds. At the opposite extreme, the other limiting case comes when genuinely well-meaning people, with great reluctance and regret, find themselves contributing to the wrongdoing of others because that is the only way that they themselves can accomplish the greater good. But those limiting cases are just that: limits. Real life is live well inside those limits. There, matters are much more nuanced.” — From Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, On Complicity & Compromise (Oxford University Press, 2013)

I would think such moral distinctions might have a measure of legal resonance and value as well.

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