Why Philosophers Hate Economists

 

I can’t be the first person on Ricochet to have noticed that philosophers and economists don’t always get along. The tension between the two bears some resemblance to the tension between conservatives and liberals. As the old trope goes, conservatives believe that liberalism is wrong, while liberals believe that conservatism is evil. Similarly, when economists and philosophers disagree, the economists believe it’s because the philosophers aren’t making sense, while the philosophers believe it’s because the economists are morally bankrupt.

Do you have a theory about this? I do. Here goes:

Perhaps the main reason philosophers hate economists is because philosophers and economists both use the same word to mean very different things. To be fair, philosophers used the word first (philosophers existed way before economists). But you’d think philosophers would have no problem understanding that some words are simply semantically overloaded, and this word is one of them.

If you haven’t guessed what the word is by now, it is “rational” (along with its sister word “rationality”). My understanding of philosophy is somewhat on the shaky side, but it seems to me that philosophers generally consider a rational actor to be one who is both self-aware and capable of discursive reasoning.

To an economist, being a rational actor requires neither self-awareness nor discursive reasoning. Rather, being rational in the economic sense simply means responding fairly predictably to incentives. By this logic, even trees could count as rational actors, as Milton Friedman hypothesized:

Let us turn now to another example, this time a constructed one designed to be an analogue of many hypotheses in the social sciences. Consider the density of leaves around a tree. I suggest the hypothesis that the leaves are positioned as if each leaf deliberately sought to maximize the amount of sunlight it receives, given the position of its neighbors, as if it knew the physical laws determining the amount of sunlight that would be received in various positions and could move rapidly or instantaneously from any one position to any other desired and unoccupied position.

Now some of the more obvious implications of this hypothesis are clearly consistent with experience: for example, leaves are in general denser on the south than on the north side of trees but, as the hypothesis implies, less so or not at all on the northern slope of a hill or when the south side of the trees is shaded in some other way. Is the hypothesis rendered unacceptable or invalid because, so far as we know, leaves do not “deliberate” or consciously “seek,” have not been to school and learned the relevant laws of science or the mathematics required to calculate the “optimum” position, and cannot move from position to position?

Clearly, none of these contradictions of the hypothesis is vitally relevant; the phenomena involved are not within the “class of phenomena the hypothesis is designed to explain”; the hypothesis does not assert that leaves do these things but only that their density is the same as if they did.

Despite the apparent falsity of the “assumptions” of the hypothesis, it has great plausibility because of the conformity of its implications with observation. We are inclined to “explain” its validity on the ground that sunlight contributes to the growth of leaves and that hence leaves will grow denser or more putative leaves survive where there is more sun, so the result achieved by purely passive adaptation to external circumstances is the same as the result that would be achieved by deliberate accommodation to them.

Most likely, a philosopher’s gut reaction is that calling a tree a rational actor debases the very concept of rationality.

Hopefully, his second reaction is that different disciplines may use the same word in different ways without debasing each others’ concepts, but I doubt many philosophers get that far. Not because philosophers are unusually obtuse, but because our own conception of rationality is so bound up in our self-identity that we instinctively want to defend “our” definition of the word in order to defend who we are:

Being human means being a motivated reasoner, even when you’re a philosopher.

Philosophers might find some consolation in the fact that good economists do indeed know how weak the economic notion of rationality is. As Ronald Coase (an economist so insightful that he won a Nobel prize for work that included no calculations beyond simple arithmetic) put it,

The rational utility maximizer of economic theory bears no resemblance to the man on the Clapham bus [the British equivalent of the man on the street] or, indeed, to any man (or woman) on any bus. There is no reason to suppose that most human beings are engaged in maximizing anything unless it be unhappiness, and even this with incomplete success…

[W]hatever makes men choose as they do, we must be content with the knowledge that for groups of human beings, in almost all circumstances, a higher (relative) price for anything will lead to a reduction in the amount demanded. This does not only refer to a money price but to price in its widest sense.

Whether men are rational or not in deciding to walk across a dangerous thoroughfare to reach a certain restaurant, we can be sure that fewer will do so the more dangerous it becomes. And we need not doubt that the availability of a less dangerous alternative, say, a pedestrian bridge, will normally reduce the number of those crossing the thoroughfare, nor that, as what is gained by crossing becomes more attractive, the number of people crossing will increase.

It’s unfortunate, in retrospect, that “rationality” should be the economic shorthand for “responding fairly predictably to prices in their widest sense”. If economists had simply used a different word, I think they’d get a lot less hate from philosophers. Moreover, us ordinary folk would have one less overloaded term to deal with. It’s difficult to carry on a conversation when people use the same cluster of letters to refer to such wildly different concepts, especially when both concepts are intimately tied to human identity.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Economics is a branch of philosophy.

    I’d say it would be more accurate to say that sophists hate economists.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Misthiocracy: Economics is a branch of philosophy.

    Fair enough. But if I entitled the post “Why Non-economic Philosophers Hate Economists”, that would just look funny.

    Plus, the two sides don’t really hate each other. I think there’s just a lot of bad blood over confusion of terms, especially among us amateurs.

    • #2
  3. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    There is also bad blood over the way some economists consider Economics a hard science.  It is not, it is just another artful tool for figuring out human existence.  It is a lense and filter system for trying to isolate data from background noise, and for trying to explain why things happen.

    Russ Roberts of Econ Talk frequently chides his fellow economists on this point.

    • #3
  4. user_339092 Member
    user_339092
    @PaulDougherty

    Would it be off base to describe economics as the study of what people do while philosophy as being why they do what they do?

    • #4
  5. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Paul Dougherty:
    Would it be off base to describe economics as the study of what people do while philosophy as being why they do what they do?

     Economics is one branch of philosophy that looks at aggregate human behavior.  It is very often concerned with the “why”.  “Philosophy” looks at this, but also more abstract concepts.

    • #5
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    skipsul:
    There is also bad blood over the way some economists consider Economics a hard science. It is not, it is just another artful tool for figuring out human existence. It is a lense and filter system for trying to isolate data from background noise, and for trying to explain why things happen.

    To be fair to these economists, “a lens and filter system for trying to isolate data from background noise, and for trying to explain why things happen” is a pretty fair descriptor of hard science as well.

    Nonetheless, I’d agree economics is not a hard science.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Misthiocracy: Economics is a branch of philosophy.

    Fair enough. But if I entitled the post “Why Non-economic Philosophers Hate Economists”, that would just look funny.
    Plus, the two sides don’t really hate each other. I think there’s just a lot of bad blood over confusion of terms, especially among us amateurs.

     
    It’s not about being a “non-economic” philosopher.

    It’s about the difference between a philosopher and a sophist.

    A philosopher is, by definition, a lover of wisdom. A philosopher seeks truth. When two philosophers with different backgrounds meet, they are not competitors. They are collaborators, exchanging ideas and uncovering more truth.

    A sophist, by contrast, is a practitioner of wisdom. The sophist makes his living selling his version of “the truth” to whoever will pay the cover charge. To the sophist, any philosopher with a different perspective (or any competing sophist) is a threat to his reputation and livelihood.

    • #7
  8. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    No surprise that Thomas Sowell is Ricochet most beloved commentator, then, because he is both an economist and a moral philosopher.

    • #8
  9. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Misthiocracy: Economics is a branch of philosophy.

     I don’t think this is accurate. Economics is a social science. Economics and philosophy often intersect and inform one another, but it is not the case that economics is a branch of philosophy. To claim that it is is as much of an overstatement as claiming economics is a hard science.

    • #9
  10. user_339092 Member
    user_339092
    @PaulDougherty

    I always understood economics to more heavily into the study of the various mechanisms for the allocation of scarce resources. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to employ Hayek’s term praxeology instead of economics for the aggregation of human behavior?

    • #10
  11. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    In my experience it is fairly common for professional philosophers to consider themselves to be engaged in the quest for a higher level of wisdom than are economists. Though I certainly don’t think this is true of all, or even most, philosophers, I think that part of the antipathy some philosophers hold toward economists is the result of the contempt held by those who deal in the transcendent often hold for those who deal with the practical.

    • #11
  12. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Do philosophers hate economists? I think most philosophers would probably understand that economists and philosophers would use the same words with different meanings. I understand some philosophers who may disdain social sciences as sources of knowledge, but that may be because they have other views about the world– perhaps they deny free will exists, or perhaps to them, everything  is a post-modernist power struggle. 

    I most agree with Salvatore Padula: economics has grown sufficiently far from philosophy that it is a “social science.” It isn’t and won’t be a hard science. But economics depends heavily on its origins in moral philosophy– more so than many economists would like to think. In that respect, I can see philosophers perhaps getting annoyed at the diminishment of (some) philosophical assumptions economists make.

    • #12
  13. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Salvatore Padula:
    In my experience it is fairly common for professional philosophers to consider themselves to be engaged in the quest for a higher level of wisdom than are economists. Though I certainly don’t think this is true of all, or even most, philosophers, I think that part of the antipathy some philosophers hold toward economists is the result of the contempt held by those who deal in the transcendent often hold for those who deal with the practical.

     It’s the sort of contempt academics have for working proles.

    • #13
  14. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    I’ve been reading Ilya Somin’s mindbendingly good new book, in which the idea of rationality figures prominently. The last paragraph of your Ronald Coase quote reminds me of a Hayek passage that Somin quotes:

    [R]ational behavior is not a premise of economic theory, though it is often presented as such. The basic contention of theory is rather that competition will make it necessary for people to act rationally in order to maintain themselves. It is based not on the assumption that most or all the participants in the market process are rational, but, on the contrary, on the assumption that it will in general be through competition that a few relatively more rational individuals will make it necessary for the rest to emulate them in order to prevail. In a society in which rational behavior confers an advantage on the individual, rational methods will progressively be developed and be spread by imitation. It is no use being more rational than the rest if one is not allowed to derive benefits from being so.

    • #14
  15. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f_p0CgPeyA

    I always liked Python’s take on philosophers.

    • #15
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Misthiocracy:
    It’s about the difference between a philosopher and a sophist.
    A philosopher is, by definition, a lover of wisdom. A philosopher seeks truth. When two philosophers with different backgrounds meet, they are not competitors. They are collaborators, exchanging ideas and uncovering more truth.
    A sophist, by contrast, is a practitioner of wisdom. The sophist makes his living selling his version of “the truth” to whoever will pay the cover charge. To the sophist, any philosopher with a different perspective (or any competing sophist) is a threat to his reputation and livelihood.

    I agree that a philosopher is  by etymology   a lover of wisdom, but the common definition of  philosopher  these days is “someone who studies philosophy”, where  philosophy is seen as a discipline distinct from other disciplines in the arts and sciences. Likewise,  sophist  did, in ancient Greece, mean “one who gives intellectual instruction for pay”, but these days, it’s more likely to be used to insult a fallacious reasoner. Semantic drift. It happens.

    I agree your use of etymology is quite funny, though. And revealing, in a certain way.

    • #16
  17. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    Quite a lot of economists are philosophers, and vice versa. Adam Smith taught, and wrote, moral philosophy. I got quite a lot of Marx in my theology degree (admittedly, partly because I grew to like him and seek him out, but I only discovered that because I was forced to read quite a lot of him first). Sowell on our side and Thomas Friedman on theirs…. it’s not a strong divide.  Was Hayek a philosopher or an economist? Foucault thought that his work had a lot in common with Hayek’s, but Foucault was definitely a philosopher. Martha Nussbaum writes stuff on developmental economics, and plenty of economists deal with philosophical questions (does inequality matter? Why? etc.)

    I’d say most philosophers have or had some economists they liked and some they oppose. To the extent that they tend to object to neo-liberalism, I think this is more about their being liberals than about their being philosophers.

    • #17
  18. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    skipsul:

    Salvatore Padula: In my experience it is fairly common for professional philosophers to consider themselves to be engaged in the quest for a higher level of wisdom than are economists. Though I certainly don’t think this is true of all, or even most, philosophers, I think that part of the antipathy some philosophers hold toward economists is the result of the contempt held by those who deal in the transcendent often hold for those who deal with the practical.

    It’s the sort of contempt academics have for working proles.

     There’s a bit of that too.

    • #18
  19. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    So I’m on a train to Scotland and have terrible and spotty internet. I wrote comment 17 when there were no comments, and apologize to the various people whose work I restated with inferior clarity.

    • #19
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    skipsul:
    I always liked Python’s take on philosophers.

     
    I was expecting this clip:

    • #20
  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Son of Spengler: The last paragraph of your Ronald Coase quote reminds me of a Hayek passage that Somin quotes:

    [R]ational behavior is not a premise of economic theory, though it is often presented as such. The basic contention of theory is rather that competition will make it necessary for people to act rationally in order to maintain themselves… In a society in which rational behavior confers an advantage on the individual, rational methods will progressively be developed and be spread by imitation. It is no use being more rational than the rest if one is not allowed to derive benefits from being so.

    Well, yes. Thanks for the quote!

    David Friedman likewise has a pretty great quote about people’s irrationality. It seems to me that it’s just so handy to use terms like “rational actor” and “rationality” as a sort of shorthand in economics that it would be “irrational” not to :-)

    Mathematicians likewise use a specialized sense of “rational” as convenient shorthand, despite the fact that this shorthand makes π  (which every schoolchild knows is defined as the  ratio  of a circle’s circumference to its diameter)  “irrational“.

    • #21
  22. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Son of Spengler:
    I’ve been reading Ilya Somin’s mindbendingly good new book, in which the idea of rationality figures prominently. The last paragraph of your Ronald Coase quote reminds me of a Hayek passage that Somin quotes:

    …. a few relatively more rational individuals will make it necessary for the rest to emulate them in order to prevail. ….

    An interesting quote, but his use of “rational” could easily be replaced by “pragmatic”. It has no moral reference. As such, rationality needn’t be socially benign, let alone beneficial. Abusing others in the market can be rational if the actor is likely to escape negative repercussions.

    For the past century, it has been rational/logical/pragmatic to take advantage of political corruption and/or to keep silent about government overreach in order to either boost or protect one’s company.

    Economics can explain why companies taking advantage of political corruption will hurt the overall economy or a particular industry in the long run. It cannot explain why an individual company should forgo the obvious benefits of political schmoozing.

    • #22
  23. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Aaron Miller: Economics can explain why companies taking advantage of political corruption will hurt the overall economy or a particular industry in the long run. It cannot explain why an individual company should forgo the obvious benefits of political schmoozing.

     If your point is that economics is not the ideal lens through which to explain everything I happily agree with you, but this particular example isn’t necessarily true. Economic analysis can and does explain why an individual company should forgo the benefits of rent-seeking under certain circumstances. In fact, the first sentence of your comment provides common economic answers to the question posed in the second (the applicability will depend on the particulars of the situation). That the economic answer to the question might be different from one derived from moral philosophy is not the same thing as economics not having an answer.

    • #23
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:
    David Friedman likewise has a pretty great quote about people’s irrationality. It seems to me that it’s just so handy to use terms like “rational actor” and “rationality” as a sort of shorthand in economics that it would be “irrational” not to :-)

     
    “Rational” is not a synonym for “correct”.

    Rational means making a decision after weighing the merits of the competing options. That does not mean that the “rational decision” will be a “correct decision”.  It simply means that the ration decision is a considered decision based on cause and effect.

    By extension, an “irrational decision” is not necessarily an “incorrect decision”. It is merely a decision made without any consideration of alternative options.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of those who clearly despise etymology ( ;-) ), please note that “rational” comes from “ratio”, which is latin for calculate, tally, reason, or system.

    • #24
  25. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    As an amateur philosopher I have no problem with economists. But maybe the professional philosophers don’t like me much. I wouldn’t know. I stopped trying to get into that club. Or did I start?

    The overuse of words within disciplines is common. Heck, in mathematics I learned that the word “Normal” is the most overused term in mathematics alone and it has different meanings depending on which specific branch of mathematics (and sometimes sub-branch) you’re presently studying.

    “Normal” — we’re takin’ it back. Goodness I hope that doesn’t hit the CoC.

    • #25
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    skipsul:

    I always liked Python’s take on philosophers.

     Me, too. It’s by far the most comprehensible summary of philosophers I’ve encountered so far.

    James Of England:
    So I’m on a train to Scotland and have terrible and spotty internet. I wrote comment 17 when there were no comments, and apologize to the various people whose work I restated with inferior clarity.

    Don’t worry. The same thing happens to me all the time (having comments not post till long after I started writing, that is, not being on trains in Scotland). It’s always a pleasure to have you around.

    I’m gonna want you to explain the bit about “I grew to like [Marx] and seek him out” at some point, though. Why the infatuation, and how did it stop?
     

    • #26
  27. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    C. U. Douglas:

    Heck, in mathematics I learned that the word “Normal” is the most overused term in mathematics alone and it has different meanings depending on which specific branch of mathematics (and sometimes sub-branch) you’re presently studying.

    Oh yeah, I love the many abnormal ways in which mathematicians use normal. “Normal” is for that reason my favorite mathematical word. My favorite application so far is “normal subgroup”, as if it were somehow abnormal for subgroups to not be normal.

    • #27
  28. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    Part of the gulf between economics and philosophy has to do with meaning. Here’s an example:

    A family gathers together for a meal. There are many ways to understand meals. A biologist might say that the meal reflects nothing more than the need for sustenance. An economist might say that the meal is an example of economic activity, e.g., that families gather to reduce total cost.  An anthropologist might see the family meal has an artefact of the tribe. A philosopher will ask “is there a higher meaning? For example,  love of one another, a means by which the individual is given expression in the presence of others. As an experience that assures the satisfaction of the need for roots.

    A philosopher, well some anyway, will see knowledge as a hierarchy, with one branch of knowledge giving partial answers, but each with a higher level of meaning. Aristotle helps here. He would say, as I interpret him, that first a man needs to have his basic needs satisfied. Then he seeks comfort. Then he seeks knowledge. Then he seeks virtue. All these are necessary to happiness, which means each is aimed at being fully human, which is happiness.

    • #28
  29. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Sometimes two people share values but prioritize them differently.  Labels are often assigned depending on which issues or considerations a person emphasizes, rather than for the totality of that person’s views.

    In any case, it’s often an unnecessary distinction. Consider again Thomas Sowell. Which of his statements regard economics (economic philosophy, even) and which regard moral/political philosophy? However you slice it, each philosophy informs the other. Both rely on fundamental observations about human nature and history.

    I blame Ricochet 2.0’s subject tagging feature for this obsessive categorization.

    • #29
  30. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Misthiocracy:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: It seems to me that it’s just so handy to use terms like “rational actor” and “rationality” as a sort of shorthand in economics that it would be “irrational” not to :-)

    “Rational” is not a synonym for “correct”.Rational means making a decision after weighing the merits of the competing options. That does not mean that the “rational decision” will be a “correct decision”. It simply means that the ration decision is a considered decision based on cause and effect.

    Note, though, that a rational decision doesn’t have to be  consciously  considered (and if tree  are  capable of “considering” where their leaves go, we’re left with a very odd notion of consideration indeed). People don’t need to realize that they’re responding to incentives in order to respond to them “rationally”.

    At this point, it would be extremely (and needlessly) bothersome for economists to stop using “rational” as a convenient shorthand for an economic idea, hence my calling avoiding its use “irrational”.

    We could play this game all day, of course ;-)

    • #30

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