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April 22, 2008

Comments

Joyless Moralist

Well, you're glossing over to a considerable extent the way in which medieval theology navigates the is/ought distinction. In fact it denies that there is one... the extent to which things "are" is the extent to which things are good. Evil is a deficiency of goodness, and figuring out what a thing ought to be like is in essence figuring out what is (really) *is*.

I don't think economics does anything much like this.

Nato

JM's formulation/explanation seems deeply opaque to me. While I agree that with taking the position that evil is the absence or frustration of good, that alone does not seem to dissolve the is/ought distinction because it leaves us saying things like "The amount of good *is* this, but could create more in the following ways, so we *ought* to" or, more prosaically, "This child has not gotten nearly the good (love, safety, education) she deserves, and so it is a moral imperative that we correct this". The alternative to this formulation in which there are no is/ought questions are those in which whatever is, is always already the greatest good.

It doesn't seem to me that that could be what JM means.

Nathan Smith

"medieval theology... [with respect to] the is/ought distinction. In fact it denies that there is one..."

I know Joyless Moralist knows medieval philosophy much better than I do, but I've never quite been able to believe this claim. The is/ought distinction is too obvious, too fundamental, too well rooted, at bottom, in natural language, to be simply *denied.* Perhaps it can be explained away or incorporated into a broader scheme, or something, I don't know. But you have to make sense of the basic fact that people are always making statements like "He should have gone to the market," and "He went to the market," and understanding the difference between them.

Joyless Moralist

Well, sorry, I wrote that in the few minutes while waiting for my husband to get ready to leave for a concert, so naturally it was a little thin. And actually there *are* some very deep paradoxes embedded in this metaphysical idea, most profound among them perhaps the "felix culpa" paradox highlighted by St. Paul, wherein we're supposed to simultaneously despise sin and rejoice that Adam's sin has enabled God to work out our salvation in a supremely magnificent way that would not have been possible had Adam not fallen.

But you don't have to penetrate all that to get the basic idea. Actually it seems to me that MacIntyre has explained things pretty well, but let me throw something else out to see if it helps. There can be a distinction between "is" and "ought" when it comes to *states of affairs.* Our affairs quite often are not what they should be. But "is" and "ought" are identical when it comes to *natures*. To figure out what a thing should be, figure out what it *is* -- that is, what sort of thing it is -- and if you want to improve it, make it more fully what it is. Figure out what the broken watch is supposed to do (tell time) and make it do that. Figure out the farmer's function in society, and find ways for him to fulfill that function supremely well.

I know Tom doesn't buy into the function argument, and I've never had leisure to engage him about it at the times when it's come up. Anyway, to you Nathan, I'd just say: when you say that the function argument as applied to man is a funny "starting-point", I'm not sure what you mean. It's not likely to be the starting-point of our *deliberations*; quite often we need to do a lot of thinking before we figure out certain bedrock principles. But it might, at the end of the day, be the right way to understand the matter.

Anyway, this doesn't seem to me to have any clear parallels in economics. Does a market have a nature to be realized? Economists seem to conceive of themselves more as *coming up with* goals and then figuring out how to achieve them.

Nathan Smith

"Anyway, to you Nathan, I'd just say: when you say that the function argument as applied to man is a funny 'starting-point', I'm not sure what you mean..."

If man has a function, what is it? How do we know what it is? It's far from self-evident. Much less so than right and wrong, which is what we're trying to use the functionalist argument to explain.

"Economists seem to conceive of themselves more as *coming up with* goals and then figuring out how to achieve them."

No, that's not what they do. They're agnostic about goals. That is, it's true individual economists may have personal preferences, and there are certain overarching goals-- GDP growth, say-- that almost all economists would regard as desirable. But economists are methodologically agnostik, and this would become clear if you ask them "Why do you want GDP to grow?" The answer, ultimately, is: because GDP lets people get more of *whatever* they want. That is, GDP is a statistic that summarizes (imperfectly but it's the best we've got) people's abilities to achieve whatever their own goals are. Economists delegate the decisions about what the good life is to individuals.

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