Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions

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… and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them," declared philospher David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature. In The New Yorker, John Cassidy, writing about the implications of neuroeconomics, argues, "If emotional responses often trump reason, there can be no presumption that people act in their own best interest." Cassidy's solution? Good old-fashioned paternalism.

The Cato Institute's resident philosopher, Will Wilkinson, shows in this outstanding article that Cassidy misunderstands what neuroeconomics is really telling us about human rationality and liberty. Just one point here: Cassidy seems to assume that people are more "rational" in picking their politicians than they are in choosing between desserts.

As Wilkinson correctly notes, this is highly implausible:

If you really think people make systematic "mistakes" in judgment and choice, there is no reason to believe that democratic voters—who have less at stake when casting their ballots than when choosing what to have for lunch—will be especially good at populating the government with Spock-like rational legislators interested in tweaking cognition through expertly targeted policy rather than with well-coiffed primates interested in hoarding status and power.

It turns out that Hume got it basically right more than 250 years ago.

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  1. Which is why we need to develop benevolent artificial intelligence to run things for us. Philosopher PCs, if you will.

  2. Our robotic overlords will still be dependent on the passions of whomever programs them.

  3. From I.G.Y by Donald Fagen:

    A just machine to make big decisions
    Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
    We’ll be clean when their work is done
    We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

  4. Hmmm. Maybe we need to design some sort of test. If you pass it, you can do whatever you want. If you don’t, you’re a dumbass and your bad decisions shouldn’t be allowed to affect others.

    Breaking it down to reason or passion for comparison is one thing. But the minute you start applying that to populations, well, then you’re into new territory.

    Applying reason itself, for instance, is a point of comparison. Two people could be applying reason but one person is competent and the other is an idiot.

    Or two people can be applying well-established but different reason-based approaches to, say, the stock market. One makes money while the other loses.

  5. what a beautiful world this will be, what a glorious time to be free.

  6. David,

    Oh, great, just what we need. Crazy robot overlords. Don’t ruin my dream of benign, enlightened oppression.

  7. Here’s why Hume was so popular with the ecclesiastical set in his time:

    If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

  8. PL,

    Sounds like a moderating influence in his time

  9. Here’s why Hume was so popular with the ecclesiastical set in his time:

    And here I thought it was just because he could out-consume Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

  10. Madpad =

    Applying reason itself, for instance, is a point of comparison. Two people could be applying reason but one person is competent and the other is an idiot.

    well, intelligence is really independent of the issue, depending on how you define intelligence. I think most of the world’s worst decisions/arguments have been forwarded by extremely rational people.

    In practical terms, intelligence can be defined as ‘choosing what helps yourself and does no harm/helps others’.

    Stupidity would be choosing what hurts yourself and hurts others.

    http://www.cantrip.org/stupidity.html

    But many ‘intelligent’ people can hold very reasonable positions – that when measured by their apparent consequences are incredibly stupid.

    Monkeys will be monkeys.

    Anyway, whatever. I post that link constantly cause it’s @#*&@ awesome.

    JG

  11. Hume was one of the few “jolly” philosophers. For that reason alone, he’s worth reading 🙂

  12. I’m not gonna lie. I know almost knowthing about philosophy other than a little about Enlightenment philosophers who inspired the Founding Fathers’ vision of American government that I picked up from high school AP US History. Them and Adam Smith.

    Any recommendations for someone who might want to be able to hold his own in a conversation about philosophy? No Objectivism, please.

  13. Any recommendations for someone who might want to be able to hold his own in a conversation about philosophy? No Objectivism, please.

    Hmpf!

  14. “Maybe we need to design some sort of test.”

    How about this: Anybody who displays any evidence of a desire to be a Congressman (President, Senator, et c) shall automatically be excluded from consideration or eligibility.

  15. Any recommendations for someone who might want to be able to hold his own in a conversation about philosophy? No Objectivism, please.

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/

    or
    Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson. (1999) Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

  16. “If emotional responses often trump reason, there can be no presumption that people act in their own best interest.”

    The unspoken presumption is that reason is a more accurate measure of what is in our “best interest” than emotion. Not necessarily true. There’s no reasonable test that will tell me to choose coconut pudding over chocolate. But emotionally I know I like the taste of coconut better than chocolate. Therefore it’s in my interest to choose by emotion. (Your results may vary.)

    Then there’s the “emotional” response we call instinct. I saw a program recently where studies are showing that stimuli triggers instincts that cause people to select sexual partners that are more genetically suitable matches. That seems like a lot better criteria than a reason-based approach based on the other person’s bank balance or social position.

    Then there’s the utterly false presumption that some legislator’s reason-based but generic choice serves my individual best interest.

  17. A purely rational creature would do nothing but lay down on the ground till it died of thirst. There is no purely rational explanation for continuing one’s existence, after all.

  18. Anyone interested in this topic should read the work of this guy

    http://www.uihealthcare.com/depts/med/neurology/neurologymds/damasioa.html

    He has made a good case that the emotional/rational split is a false dichotomy.

    You can’t be reasonable and act upon your reasoning without a properly functioning emotional system.

  19. How about this: Anybody who displays any evidence of a desire to be a Congressman (President, Senator, etc) shall automatically be excluded from consideration or eligibility.

    Add and killed to the end and you’ve almost got something.

  20. Cassidy’s solution? Good old-fashioned paternalism.

    The paradox in this is that the paternalists are equally prone to such behavior, so all one may be doing is layering like behavior on top of like behavior.

    Ron Bailey,

    It turns out that Hume got it basically right more than 250 years ago.

    I think Kant would disagree. It does depend on how you think the noumenal and phenomenal world interact though. I don’t think that this data necessarily undermines the Humean or the Kantian position though.

  21. There may be a difference between objectivism and those who hold themselves as objectivist…if that is your objection.

  22. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”

    May this be the last thread attempting to glorify our sorry-ass server squirrels.

  23. Any recommendations for someone who might want to be able to hold his own in a conversation about philosophy?

    Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy will give you the whole stream (at least up to his time) to sample.

    Know this: Aristotle got a bad rap through the excessive devotion of Aquinas, but Plato is the sumbitch that really causes trouble down to here and now.

  24. Economists and the philosophers who influenced them: Adam Smith and David Hume…John Maynard Keynes and G.E. Moore. For someone with the energy, there’s a good book there.

  25. Any recommendations for someone who might want to be able to hold his own in a conversation about philosophy?

    See the Routledge series on the history of philosophy.

  26. There’s always A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston. It’s nine volumes long, but it’s pretty thorough.

  27. Didnt I hear all about this in a King Crimson song?

    Cats foot iron claw
    Neuro-surgeons scream for more
    At paranoias poison door.
    Twenty first century schizoid man.

    Blood rack barbed wire
    Politicians funeral pyre
    Innocents raped with napalm fire
    Twenty first century schizoid man.

    Death seed blind mans greed
    Poets starving children bleed
    Nothing he’s got he really needs
    Twenty first century schizoid man.

  28. Herrick, the Bertrand Russel is definitely a good one stop shop. However if you are short on time and don’t mind a much less rigorous treatment at least initially you can get thru Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder in a couple days

  29. Or, as discussed in another thread, you can skip reading anything about philosophy and become an extreme skeptic. Taken to its logical end, such thinking will lead you to solipsism. Since that would mean that you are everything, philosophy beyond the act of navel gazing is pointless. Of course, it’s all a lie, because only I exist.

  30. So how did Hume get from that is to an ought?

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