May 24, 2011

Let’s Have at Those Caveats! (V): Conflating Science and Ethics (2)

To review: the direct aim of a scientific activity is knowledge, which is one kind of good. The common, interpersonal good of justice is a rather different kind. We pursue ethical science in order to attain knowledge of the good, including justice. Such knowledge is related to our extra-scientific, real-world pursuit of justice as means is related to end.
Austrian praxeologists claim that among the many objects of scientific inquiry is human action, formally considered: the human effort to substitute a less satisfactory with a more satisfactory state of affairs.1
We cannot stress formally enough. The claim is that human action may be fruitfully examined apart from the ethical motivations and consequences of those efforts. That is, human beings act purposively, and acting on purpose has a logic of its own, to which logic moral judgment of the purpose is irrelevant.2 It is an abstraction that illuminates the concrete from which it is abstracted, and such illumination is its sole justification. That is, it is an enriching rather than an impoverishing abstraction, or so praxeologists claim.
Reasonable people can and do debate whether we may profitably and responsibly consider human action apart from the moral quality of the ends of human action. Not so for Mr. Ferrara: his ipse dixit is that economics it is an ethical science, and therefore one may not prescind from the moral quality of either the means or the ends pursued.
Mr. Ferrara’s preference for an antiquarian definition of “economics”3 would not merit extensive criticism had he not expressed it with disrespect for those with whom he disagrees. It is the glory of the human mind to analyze and synthesize, to differentiate what is compact in human experience and then reflectively reintegrate those features, aspects, or dimensions into a systematic cognition of the object.
The claim of the praxeologists is that each human action has not only a particular telos or purpose, but that human action as such has a universal logos or intelligibility that we can grasp intelligently and affirm reasonably. From our knowledge of that logos we can deduce historically invariant principles. We invite the reader to engage in such self-reflection and logical analysis as we examine Mr. Ferrara’s distortion of a school of thought whose writings more than meet the standard of intelligent, reasonable, and responsible discourse. Unfortunately, however, the road to that examination is littered with sentences like this:
We will examine the Austrians’ attempt to disguise as technical economics, with the aid of “praxeology,” a pseudo-science of human behavior based on subjective utility theory, what are really a priori value judgments underlying a “philosophy of liberty” that stands in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine and even the simple rational recognition of man’s nature as an ensouled creature of God. (Emphasis as in the original.—A.F.)
Let’s ignore Mr. Ferrara’s imputation of bad motive (“attempt to disguise”) and the scare-quotes—par for the course in this “fraternal appeal” to fellow Catholics. Much more interesting is his ironic failure—given his professed subscription to what he will later refer to as “the Aristotelian-Thomistic system” (50)—to recognize that praxeological reflection and deduction qualify as episteme or science in the Aristotelian sense.
A few comments.
Praxeology, far from being “based” on marginal utility theory, is its theoretical ground.4 As we shall see, there is no evidence that he understands the whole any more than he does the part.
As for a priori value judgments, they are inevitable, even for Mr. Ferrara. (Or did he find out empirically that murder is morally objectionable?) The germane question is whether, and how, they can be justified. A common way to justify a claim to have discovered an a priori truth is retortion, whereby the very attempt to deny the putative truth depends on its being true. (In this chapter he fails to specify the a priori value judgments Austrians allegedly make, so we cannot yet test their rational undeniability.)
In any case praxeology, the subject of Chapter 6, only presupposes that human beings act, that is, move their bodies with conscious purpose in order to enact causal scenarios for realizing their purposes, scenarios they envision and from among which they freely choose. But that is not a value judgment (except in the sense that every act of judgments presupposes the value of truth). It is a wertfrei claim about reality.
We postpone a full answer to the charge of “direct conflict” between the philosophy of liberty and Catholic doctrine. Like so much else in his “caveats,” it is a gratuitous assertion, which we are within our rights to gratuitously deny.
By way of promissory note, however: we will show a harmony between the two. That is, we are not content to argue that the libertarian philosophy and Catholic doctrine are merely logically compatible. We rather hold that the philosophy—its essence, not every conclusion of every adherent of that philosophy—illuminates an aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and has implications for living and implementing the Gospel by believers.5
Catholic doctrine is nothing without the Gospel, which can be discerned in its essence (but not in its fullness) apart from the former, by “a simple rational recognition,” to borrow Mr. Ferrara’s phrase. That is, a person hears or reads the Gospel and is immediately attracted to it. Catholic doctrine offers an explanation of that attraction and builds on it, which doctrine subserves. Our distinctive claim is that the Gospel is essentially libertarian, spiritually, ethically, and politically.
If Catholics can learn from Aristotle, who thought some human beings were slaves from the moment they are born (Politics, Bk. 1, V-VI), while others ought to be killed before they are born (Politics, Bk. 7, XVI), perhaps they can also learn from a libertarian admirer of the Church like Murray Rothbard, despite his own grave blunder regarding abortion. How Catholics may learn from this or that non-Catholic is to be decided only by reflection on what the latter wrote, not a priori. (Stay tuned.)
As we quoted Mr. Ferrara in our last post:
. . . this book [TCATL] is not concerned with “economics” as an academic discipline involving such technical matters as supply and demand curves and schedules. (11)
You bet he’s not concerned with such things. Unfortunately, they’re interwoven into the things with which he is concerned.
Thus there will be no discussion of the purely technical economics in Austrian economics. The focus, rather, will be on the Austrian School’s ventures into areas in which it can have no claim to special competence: human action, philosophy, ethics, politics, liberty and justice. (11)
The consideration of evidence of the Austrians’ allegedly unqualified venturing lies in the future. In the meantime, it is good to remember that an expert in one field can, and usually does, have broad knowledge in areas beyond that of his or her expertise. Provided he or she qualifies his or her labors in another’s vineyard and is willing to defer to qualified experts, there is no problem. If there were, then ipso facto Mr. Ferrara was unqualified to have written TCATL (although I’m not sure pointing that out to him would have had any effect).
Finally, here’s what we meant the other day when we said he “exempts himself from his own anti-theoretical proviso.” (11)
One seemingly technical matter, however, will come under examination: the role of Austrian utility theory in Austrian arguments in favor of a “market society” and against Catholic social teaching on the errors of economic liberalism. (11)
Let’s see . . . no discussion of purely technical economics of the Austrian school . . . except for one of the technical doctrines for which it is best known (which is, after all, only seemingly technical).
Let us not dilute the impact of Mr. Ferrara's self-exemption with further commentary.
We confess that we were not able to resist the temptation to “review this strategy-summarizing section line-by-line” and “confine our comments to a few characteristic sentences.
It’s time to get into heart of TCATL, beginning with Chapter 2, “The Illusory ‘Free’ Market.”

1We call contentment or satisfaction that state of a human being which does not and cannot result in any action. Acting man is eager to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory.” Mises, Human Action, Chapter 1, Section 2.
2On the formal fact that man uses means to attain ends we ground the science of praxeology, or economics; psychology is the study of how and why man chooses the contents of his ends; technology tells what concrete means will lead to various ends; and ethics employs all the data of the various sciences to guide man toward the ends he should seek to attain, and therefore, by imputation, toward his proper means.” Murray Rothbard, The Mantle of Science, 1960.
3 Ultimately, nothing hangs on a word, everything on what we mean by our words. The Austrian Nobelist Friedrich Hayek proposed to replace “economics” with “catallaxy” or the science of exchange. Were that ever to catch on and displace “economics,” Ferrara and other advocates of (empirical) Catholic Social Teaching could keep the term.  The problem of how knowledge of man’s catallactic situation informs ethical reasoning would remain.
4 In Human Action, marginal utility is defined in the seventh chapter; praxeology, the first.
5 As I wrote in an early post: “. . . the Catholic worldview is a congenial philosophical home for libertarianism . . . . Catholicism should move out of the shadows of libertarian discourse and onto center stage. Catholics can make a difference to the libertarian movement by stressing rather than soft-pedaling their distinctive worldview.” “In Few Things Charity?” March 9, 2011