Since moving to the NYU-Stern School of Business in 2011, I’ve been interested in the many ways that moral psychology influences economic thinking. I was surrounded by professors and MBA students who see business as a force for good, and I was periodically riding my bicycle a mile south to study the Occupy Wall Street movement, which saw capitalism as a great evil. Over the next two years I came to see that there were two diametrically opposed stories about capitalism circulating in Western cultures: capitalism is exploitation, and capitalism is alchemy (i.e., it makes gold out of base metals, and we are all better off). I began to write out those stories and make them explicit in the business ethics courses I was teaching at Stern.
In February, I was given the chance to tell those two stories at an unusual panel discussion. It was held at the American Enterprise Institute – one of the foremost free market think tanks – a place devoted to promulgating the positive story about business. Its president, Arthur Brooks, has been scrambling culture war categories recently by proposing that Republicans need to “declare peace” on the safety net, and they need to make the moral case for capitalism. As one way to explore the moral case for capitalism, Brooks invited The Dalai Lama for two days of discussions. I was invited to take part in the second day.
I had met the Dalai Lama once before, at a discussion on secular ethics at USC in 2011, and was shocked to hear his answer to my question about what kind of ethics he would like to see in Tibet: Marxist. You can see our exchange here. His Holiness firmly embraced the exploitation story. So I figured that this second meeting would be a good place to bring up the two stories about capitalism and ask him if he really meant to embrace the exploitation story told by Marxists everywhere, despite the fact that Marxism usually leads to poverty and secret police forces.
Here is the video of my talk and his response. I paste below it the transcript of my written remarks, which are quite close to what I actually said. These two stories, plus a third, yet to be written, is the topic of my next book. My remarks start at 47:20.
Overall it was a lovely event – not overtly partisan, just an exploration of some of the most important issues of our day: capitalism, happiness, and ethics. At one point before my talk, the Dalai Lama said that, as a result of hearing the speakers, he had “developed more respect about capitalism.” You can read more about the event in David Brooks’ column.
=================== TEXT OF MY REMARKS ======================
Three stories about capitalism
What a wonderful world we live in, when a religious leader most beloved on the left [The Dalai Lama], comes to speak at a free-market think tank led by a man who wants conservatives to strive for social justice [Arthur Brooks]. This day gives me hope.
In my remarks today, I’d like to tell you three stories about Capitalism. His Holiness endorses the first story. I will try to convince him that he should put more credence in the second story, and then help us to write the third.
Here is the first story, Capitalism is exploitation. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, work was real and authentic. Farmers raised crops and craftsmen made goods. People traded those goods locally, and that trade strengthened local communities. But then, Capitalism was invented, and darkness spread across the land. The capitalists developed ingenious techniques for squeezing wealth out of workers, and then sucking up all of societies’ resources for themselves. The capitalist class uses its wealth to buy political influence, and now the 1% is above the law. The rest of us are its pawns, forever. The end.
In their recent book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show that there is a great deal of truth to this story. In most countries and at most times, economic institutions have been extractive, not inclusive and generative. This exploitation story activates many aspects of our innate moral psychology. One is that we judge people based on their intentions. When a merchant or businessperson makes our lives better, we give them no moral credit because their goal was profit. As Adam Smith put it…. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” We may praise their skill, but we never praise their virtue. In fact, we see them as selfish.
This, I believe, is the story about capitalism that His Holiness embraces. When I first met him at the U. of Southern California, 3 years ago, I asked him what kind of government he’d like to see in Tibet. Here was his response:
Between socialism and capitalism, I’m socialist, and furthermore, I always describe myself as a Marxist…. But not a Leninist. In my mind, Marxism is the only economic theory that expresses a sense of concern about equal distribution. That’s a moral thing. Whereas capitalism…. Is about “how to make a profit,” only that. And in order to get more profit, there is no hesitation to exploit.
But what if we were to judge people, and ideologies, by their results, rather than by their intentions? That would lead us to the second story about capitalism: Capitalism is our savior.
Here’s how it goes:
Once upon a time, and for thousands of years, almost everyone was poor, and many were slaves or serfs. Then one day, some good institutions were invented in England and Holland. These democratic institutions put checks on the exploitative power of the elites, which in turn allowed for the creation of economic institutions that rewarded hard work, risk-taking, and innovation. Free Market Capitalism was born. It spread rapidly across Europe and to some of the British colonies. In just a few centuries, poverty disappeared in these fortunate countries, and people got rights and dignity, safety and longevity. Free market capitalism is our savior, and Marxism is the devil. In the last 30 years, dozens of countries have seen the light, cast aside the devil, and embraced our savior. If we can spread the gospel to all countries, then we will vanquish poverty and enter a golden age. The end.
We heard this second story in Glen Hubbard’s remarks, and I believe the historical facts strongly support it. Free markets really are miracles. They can quite literally turn water into wine, in vast quantities, and at low, low prices, as long as vineyard owners can get access to capital, labor, and transportation networks.
But because free markets are so astonishingly good, some people come to worship them. A basic principle of moral psychology is that morality binds and blinds. When any group of people makes something into a sacred object, the joint worship of the object binds them together, but then prevents them from seeing any faults or flaws.
Pope Francis pointed this out in his controversial Exhortation last November. He criticized those who embrace the second story too firmly as exhibiting “A crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” And this brings us to the third story about Capitalism, the story that has yet to be written. It begins like this:
Once upon a time, in the 1990s, capitalism triumphed over all other forms of economic organization, and the entire planet began moving toward prosperity. But we didn’t all live happily ever after. In fact, it was just the beginning of a new chapter, in which new challenges were discovered.
The long compression of income inequality, which had begun in the 1930s in many Western nations, ended. The gap between rich and poor within nations began to shoot upwards. Economic gains went mostly to the rich, who then used their money to buy legislators and laws, just as was charged in the first story.
The problem of global warming was first recognized, just as Asia was beginning to industrialize, leading to apocalyptic forecasts of submerged cities.
The fragility of the world’s banking systems was exposed in the crash of 2008, shaking global confidence in capitalism’s ability to work without strong government oversight.
And as market values expanded beyond the marketplace, and started taking over medicine, education, and other domains of life, many people felt lamented the crass and degrading materialism of modernity.
So this is our challenge for the 21st century: We celebrate the fact that the wide embrace of free markets has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty. Yet we know we can do better. If we can strip away the anger, the worship, and the ideology, we can examine capitalism and its ethical challenges more openly.
We can see that the supply chains that keep our shelves stocked have their origins in the deadly sweatshops of Bangladesh. We can measure the polluted air and empty oceans we are bequeathing to our children. And we can have a more nuanced discussion of equal opportunity, particularly in America where schools are funded by local taxes and money buys your children a better starting line.
So let us be grateful to the butcher, the brewer, and the baker for the bounty they bestow upon us, even when they are corporations. Let us look back in awe at the political and economic changes that brought us from the first story to the second. And then let us work together to write the third story, a story that must draw on insights from left and right, and from secular thinkers and religious leaders.
Is there a story about capitalism that could be embraced by Pope Francis, His Holiness, and the rest of today’s panelists? Let’s find out.Read More
Several commenters have said I should not just critique the excessive certainty of the New Atheists. I should respond directly to Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge. I should say why I think the argument he makes about a science of morality are wrong. (Harris argues that what is right and wrong can be determined scientifically, just as we can determine truths in the natural sciences). Fair enough. So this morning I submitted the following text as my entry in his challenge.
I see two principles errors in The Moral Landscape.
1) The claim that well-being can be measured in an objective way that is similar to measurements in the natural sciences.
I am active in positive psychology. I believe that well-being can be measured. But there is no one measurement, and no way to aggregate measurements in a way that removes the need for philosophical discussions about what matters to people in a particular culture and era. The form of measurement Harris seems to assume is a utilitarian approach: sum up all the well-being of each person at each moment, perhaps estimating it by taking brain scans. Whatever way of life leads to the maximum objective well-being across all people is morally better than one that leads to less.
This approach to measurement is similar to the approach that Dan Kahneman took in the 1990s, when he thought that happiness was the area under the curve, when you graph out a person’s well-being from moment to moment. The more moments spent in high well-being, the better. But Kahneman eventually renounced this view, recognizing that experienced happiness is not the only criterion, and that the duration of experiences does not matter in a linear way. To give one example, which life would you rather lead:
Life #1: You have an easy life, full of intense pleasures, and you are very happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 you take stock of your life and spend your last 20 years unhappy, with a sense that your life has been a waste.
Life #2: You work hard, have repeated failures, and are rarely happy for your first 60 years. But at age 60 your hard work finally pays off, you have great accomplishments, and you spend your last 20 years happy, with a sense that your life has been profoundly meaningful.
If we stipulate that the total well-being experienced in life #1 is twice as high as in life #2, would it then be wrong to choose life #2? According to Harris’s logic, a society that pushes people toward life #1 is morally superior to one that pushes people toward life #2. It has a higher peak on the Moral Landscape, even though most people would probably choose life #2.
There is no single metric of well-being; there is no way to eliminate the need for reflection, or for philosophers. There is no way to turn values into the sorts of non-contested facts that we find in the natural sciences, where variables of interest can be measured with no need for cultural or historical knowledge.
2) The claim that moral facts are non-anthropocentric facts.
The philosopher David Wiggins (1987) distinguishes between “Non-anthropocentric” and “anthropocentric” facts. (This is similar to Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities). Facts of chemistry, physics, and other hard sciences are non-anthropocentric. They do not depend on any aspect of human nature. If intelligent aliens had come to visit the earth long before humans appeared, they would have found that the earth is the third planet from the sun, and that copper is a better conductor of electricity than is aluminum.
Anthropocentric facts, in contrast, are only true given the kinds of creatures that we happen to be, due to the twists and turns of our evolutionary history. Examples include the facts that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid, and that extended solitary confinement is painful. Those are not just my personal opinions; they are facts about sugar and isolation.
Harris is asserting that correct moral claims are non-anthropocentric facts. He is asserting that if intelligent aliens came to Earth today, they could in principle judge the moral worth of human societies, as long as they learned about human brains and could take accurate measures of well-being.
But moral facts are anthropocentric facts. If intelligent aliens came to visit, we can have no confidence that they would reach the same moral conclusions that Harris reaches, based on his utilitarian ethos. Perhaps these aliens evolved by cloning rather than sexual reproduction, and, like the Borg on Star Trek, are concerned only about the strength of the collective, with no concern for individuals.
Even within the category of anthropocentric truths, there are subtypes. Perceptual claims are generally (though not always) true across cultures and eras. Because of our shared evolutionary history, it will be an anthropocentric fact everywhere that sugar is sweeter than ascorbic acid. Yet many other anthropocentric facts are emergent –– they emerge only when people interact, in a particular cultural or historical era. Prices are a good example: It is a fact that gold is more valuable than silver. That is not just my opinion. Other examples include judgments of humor, sexiness, or deliciousness. Some comedians, fashion models, and restaurants really are better than others. Standards emerge at particular times, and the aggregated judgments of experts are actually ratings of quality. There are facts, but they are very different from the facts of chemistry and physics. We might call such facts “emergent culture-specific anthropocentric truths.”
I believe that moral truths are of this sort. This still makes it possible to critique practices in other cultures. All cuisines are not equal – French cuisine was better than 1950s American, and Julia Child offered Americans a way to improve. Similarly, a culture that oppresses categories of people against their will is worse than one that does not. Massive human rights violations, in which large numbers of victims are crying out for foreign assistance, can justify a military response from other nations. But the fact that humanity has reached that point is an emergent fact about modernity and our changing moral standards. I do not think it was morally incumbent upon ancient Rome to stop human rights abuses in neighboring kingdoms. Moral facts are not eternal and universal in the way that non-anthropocentric facts are. But if moral facts are unlike facts in the natural sciences, then Harris’s attempt to collapse the fact/value distinction fails.
In a recent essay in the evolutionary magazine This View of Life, I analyzed Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge, in which he offers to pay $10,000 to anyone who can convince him to change his mind and renounce his views. From the perspective of The Righteous Mind, it seems unlikely that anyone who is heavily invested in an idea, and who writes about it with high levels of certainty, can be persuaded to change merely by the force of an essay words written by a stranger. So I offered to pay Harris $10,000 if he changes his mind.
Please read that essay first. This blog entry just gives lots of additional details, particularly about the word-count analyses. I’ll update this entry as people ask me additional questions.
I) How did I choose books to analyze?
I started by analyzing the three big New Atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and Breaking the Spell. I then chose 3 recent books that were written by scientists who seem focused on explaining religion, not condemning it. I chose my own book, plus the two books that I knew about which came out shortly after mine, on the origins and psychology of religion: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, and Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods. (I also examined some older books, to be confident that I wasn’t cherry picking, and they too were almost all below 1.6, so I just picked the 3 most recent of all the books I analyzed.) To pick the right-wing writers, I chose three of the most prominent, and then went onto Amazon to see which of their books was the most reviewed, which I took as a proxy for most read, or more influential. That led me to Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver us from Evil, and Ann Coulter’s Treason. But here too, I analyzed a bunch of other books by these and other authors, and found that they typically fell in the middle range, between 1.4 and 1.7. [see below, in section III-B]
II) How did I do the analyses?
I obtained plain text files of all the books (I also bought Kindle versions of all the books, to ensure that the authors would get the royalties they deserve). I checked the text files carefully to make sure there were no issues that would skew the word count, such as headers that repeated on every page. I stripped out all the front-matter before the first word of the main text, and all the end-matter after the last chapter. I kept in introductions and epilogues, but cut out acknowledgments, notes, appendices, and references. I then ran each text file through LIWC, using the built-in 2007 dictionary, outputting the Certain category. Here are all the words that LIWC scores when computing its “certain” score:
absolute, absolutely, accura*, all, altogether, always, apparent, assur*, blatant*, certain*, clear, clearly, commit, commitment*, commits, committ*, complete, completed, completely, completes, confidence, confident, confidently, correct*, defined, definite, definitely, definitive*, directly, distinct*, entire*, essential, ever, every, everybod*, everything*, evident*, exact*, explicit*, extremely, fact, facts, factual*, forever, frankly, fundamental, fundamentalis*, fundamentally, fundamentals, guarant*, implicit*, indeed, inevitab*, infallib*, invariab*, irrefu*, must, mustnt, must’nt, mustn’t, mustve, must’ve, necessar*, never, obvious*, perfect*, positiv*, precis*, proof, prove*, pure*, sure*, total, totally, true, truest, truly, truth*, unambigu*, undeniab*, undoubt*, unquestion*, wholly
III) What are the actual mean scores?
A) Here are the original results I posted.
LIWC Certain score
|Harris||The End of Faith||2.24|
|Dennett||Breaking the Spell||1.77|
|Dawkins||The God Delusion||1.7|
|Hannity||Deliver us from Evil||1.49|
Note that there are no standard deviations, and no error bars on the graph, because these numbers are not samples from a larger population. They are the exact measurement done on the total population of words in each book.
B) Analyses of additional books [added on 3/3/14]:
Rahul in the comments asked me to post analyses of some other random works, e.g., from Gutenberg.org, to give us more context within which to interpret the certainty scores I posted. I agreed that this was a good idea, and asked him to pick some texts from Gutenberg, ideally works of relatively modern non-fiction. Rahul obliged, and provided this list. I show each work with its LIWC certainty score in parentheses: Darwin: On the Origin of Species (2.04); United States Presidents’ Inaugural Speeches: From Washington to George W. Bush (2.18); Gandhi: My Experiments with Truth (1.68); Speeches & Letters of Abraham Lincoln (2.05); Albert Einstein: The Meaning of Relativity (1.81); Works of Martin Luther (2.26); G. K. Chesterton “Orthodoxy” (2.85). I was surprised to find a relatively high score for The Origin of Species, which did not fit with my general sense of Darwin’s careful writing. So I added in all of his other books, which turned out to score quite low on certainty: Darwin: Descent of Man (1.43); Darwin: Expression of emotions (1.32); Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle (1.31), so Darwin’s average certainty score across his four books was 1.52 . I do grant that there is variation within each author, depending on the writing task at hand. Ideally, one would analyze multiple books from each author.
To put this all together, I provide below the LIWC certainty scores of all the books I have now analyzed, including the 9 I presented in my original essay; the 7 suggested by Rahul, plus Darwin’s others; the right wing authors I did not show in my original analysis (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, and Mark Levin); and two older books on religion by non-new-atheists (David Sloan Wilson and Scott Atran). I sort the table by declining avg score for each author, given that I have more than 1 work for 6 of the authors.
|Work analyzed in LIWC||Avg certainty for each author||Certainty score for each book|
|harris.end of faith||2.24|
|harris.The Moral Landscape||2.37|
|luther.works of martin luther||2.26||2.26|
|lincoln.speeches and letters||2.05||2.05|
|einstein.the meaning of relativity||1.81||1.81|
|dennett.breaking the spell||1.77||1.77|
|gandhi.my experiments with truth||1.68||1.68|
|beck.common sense [right wing]||1.66||1.66|
|wilson.darwins cathedral [not a new atheist]||1.65||1.65|
|limbaugh.the way things ought to be [right wing]||1.64||1.64|
|O’REILLY AVG [right wing]||1.59|
|bering.the belief instinct||1.56||1.56|
|COULTER AVG [right wing]||1.56|
|HANNITY AVG [right wing]||1.53|
|hannity.deliver us from evil||1.49|
|hannity.let freedom ring||1.57|
|darwin.on the origin of species||2.04|
|atran.in gods we trust [not a new atheist]||1.43||1.43|
|savage.liberalism is a mental disorder [right wing]||1.43||1.43|
|levin.liberty and tyranny [right wing]||1.41||1.41|
IV) Miscellaneous Methodological Issues
A) Some people on Twitter have pointed out a possible confound in the analyses: the LIWC certainty dictionary contains roots like funtamentalis* and fact. If the New Atheists are talking ABOUT religious fundamentalists, or if Harris’s book The Moral Landscape is about values as facts, its unfair to give them points for using those words. I agree, those are false positives. So I will re-run all analyses using a very restricted dictionary, which uses only the most unambiguously dogmatic words, such as “always” and “never.” I propose using this subset of the LIWC dictionary: Absolute, absolutely, always, certainly, definitely, every, inevitab*, must, necessar*, never, obvious*, totally, undeniab*, undoubt*, unquestion*. Please comment below if you think I should cut any of those words, or add back any from the full list given in section 2.
[Text added 3/3/14]: Commenter Bianluca Barbetta, below, suggested cutting “absolute.” So I did that and then re-analyzed the original 9 books (plus Moral Landscape) using the restricted dictionary listed above. The resulting numbers are much lower, of course (because many fewer words are captured), but the basic picture that emerges is little changed. In declining order, the scores are: Harris-End of faith (.47); Beck-Common Sense (.47); Harris-Moral Landscape (.46); Dennett-Breaking The Spell (.39); Dawkins-God Delusion (.38); Hannity-Let Freedom Ring (.37); Coulter-Treason (.36); Bering-Belief instinct (.30); Haidt-Righteous Mind (.21); Norenzayan-Big Gods (.15). These scores show the percentage of all words used in each book that were in the list of words coded by the dictionary. For Harris and Glenn Beck, it’s nearly a half percent of all words.
B) To get an independent check on whether the effects I report are real and robust, I hope somebody will create large text files for each author I chose, composed of, say, 20 blog post available on the internet, and then run LIWC on those files. If someone does that, i”ll post a link to the results here.
C) [added on 2/18/14]: Many of the critical commenters below note that there are many ways of using words like “certain” or “certainly” which don’t indicate anything about the mindset of the author. They are right. LIWC is a simple word count program; it does not analyze words in context, and it does not control for negation (e.g., “it is not certain that…”). So there are many false positives. A LIWC does not by itself prove that the new atheists are more dogmatic than other groups of authors. But it can test one’s subjective impressions; it can add or subtract confidence in one’s impressions. When I read the New Atheist books, Dawkins and Harris sounded angry, whereas Dennett did not. But all three authors seemed to to me to use certainty formulations to an unusual degree. I then ran LIWC to measure both of those categories, and it turned out that the New Atheists were high on both (except for Dennett, who scores low on anger, confirming the impressions of many readers). But then I examined the LIWC output to see the words in context, and it was clear to me that Harris scored high on anger in large part because he is talking about violence and killing related to religion. That’s his subject matter, not his emotion. There were so many of these false positives that I decided it would not be fair or accurate to publish the anger findings. The certainty findings, however, hold up much better. Those word uses did seem to be capturing something about Harris’s prose style. In response to a commenter below, I opened up The End of Faith at random, to page 40, and found this passage:
“The basis of our spirituality surely consists in this: the range of possible human experience far exceeds the ordinary limits of our subjectivity. Clearly, some experiences can utterly transform a person’s vision of the world. Every spiritual tradition rests on the insight that how we use our attention, from moment to moment, largely determines the quality of our lives.”
Surely, clearly, and every? This is not the way most scientists write.
V) Additional Stuff:
A) Here is my entry in the Moral Landscape Challenge, where I say why I think Harris’s claims about morality are wrong.
B) [added on 2/18/14] What will it take for me to pay Harris the $10,000? I will send him a personal check (or donate to his foundation, whichever he prefers) if two conditions are met: 1) Harris pays someone the $10,000 of his own money for writing an essay that changed his views about morality, and 2) this payment is accompanied by an explicit acknowledgment that his “case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken,” as he puts it in the challenge itself. Harris and I both agree that a scientific understanding of how morality and moral judgment work, descriptively, is appropriate, and is proceeding well. (We both participated in an Edge.org project on The New Science of Morality). We agree that scientists can study morality just as they can study language, or sexuality, or color vision. The dispute between us arises over whether science can tell us what is in fact morally right and wrong, in the same way that science can tell us facts about the natural world. That is Harris’s most provocative and interesting claim in The Moral Landscape. If he renounces that claim, or in some other way says that his argument in The Moral Landscape was largely wrong, I’ll pay him the money. If he pays the money while admitting only a minor error, or conceding some peripheral points, that would not count as having changed his mind or accepted the refutation of his thesis.
The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants.
D) The full opening paragraph from Section I of Hume’s Enquiry, is worth reading:
DISPUTES with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind. The same blind adherence to their own arguments is to be expected in both; the same contempt of their antagonists; and the same passionate vehemence, in inforcing sophistry and falsehood. And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.
(Note that Hume is describing two different kinds of disputants – the pertinaciously obstinate kind, and the disingenuous kind. That is why he says “either disputant” in the last sentence. But since I’m only talking about one kind, I changed it to [such a].)
Note to commenters: You can be as critical as you want of my ideas, but any comments that use obscenity or insults will be deleted.