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Jun 16, 2014

Universal Empathy and Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?

The idea of universal empathy may sound nice. But, Kuznicki argues, upon closer examination, it’s actually rather troubling.

As mentioned earlier, G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? analogizes between a camping trip among friends and society at large: If the morality that prevailed on a camping trip also prevailed in society, Cohen suggests we would have a socialist society, or something much like it. What’s more, we would probably find it superior to the society we have today. That is, if it’s simply a moral failing that keeps us away from socialism, then let us amend our morals!

It’s a difficult argument to engage with—at least, not without ceding the moral high ground: Replies that stress the practicality of capitalism may be both well-evidenced and true. But they leave open the obvious rejoinder that whenever morality and practicality conflict, moral people will still choose to be moral, come what may.

Jason Brennan’s newly published response, Why Not Capitalism?, attempts therefore a moral defense of capitalism. Brennan concedes that universal empathy (UE from now on) is an ideal worth striving for. But he goes on to argue that capitalism, not socialism, is the social system that best meets the demands of UE. Capitalism isn’t merely practical; it’s also what we would want if we cared sufficiently for all mankind.

Brennan I think successfully argues that Cohen’s defense of socialism isn’t really a defense of socialism at all: it’s a bunch of glowing generalities about friendship, followed by the state owning the means of production. Which shouldn’t follow at all, of course. Most are very happy, and perhaps too happy, to be told how nice they are. But that’s simply not the same thing as collective ownership. As Brennan puts it:

Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.

As such, it is best compared to other systems of distribution of control rights. Not to friendship, which isn’t at all a system of distribution of control rights.

As I argued in my previous column, friends very often behave capitalistically toward one another, without any hard feelings as a result. Such counterexamples make generalizing from friendship to socialism a doubtful enterprise. Friends give to one another both with and without any expectation of immediate material return. There are times when each seems appropriate, and times when each seems wrong.

Brennan’s book also describes some of these interactions, and he makes it very difficult to continue to assert that profit-based friendly exchanges come from some hitherto unrecognized moral failing. So why prefer capitalism over socialism? Why think capitalism the better ideal to work toward? Simple: private property powerfully assists us in the project of conserving and increasing resources, in identifying their most beneficial uses, and—ultimately—in the project of enjoying these resources, both with friends and with nameless strangers whom we will never meet. This is precisely what UE would demand, he claims. As Brennan writes:

[P]rivate property is justified in order to ensure that people maintain rather than destroy resources… If we want to leave enough and as good for others, if we want our children to inherit a world full of resources, we often must remove resources from the commons. If we leave things in the commons, the resources will be destroyed. At the same time, because privatized resources can and will be used more productively, privatization increases the stock of what can be owned, even if it decreases the stock of what can be [originally] appropriated. (p 74)

I admit I somewhat chafed at Brennan’s extended analogy to a kids’ TV show. The choice struck me as funny at first, but it seemed increasingly odd the longer I thought about it. Still, though, this is a type of work that philosophers do all the time: Brennan grants many of Cohen’s premises, then shows that his argument doesn’t work anyway.

My most serious difficulty with Brennan’s book lies in what he concedes for the sake of argument. I’m aware that this isn’t quite a proper thing to dislike in a philosophy book. And yes, I’m a little embarrassed about it.

That said, I must admit I have grave problems with UE as a moral ideal. It isn’t at all obvious to me that humans endowed with UE would be morally better than what we are right now. Consider the following scenarios.

Grief: If my daughter were to die, I would experience perhaps several days during which I was not at all myself. I might make bad decisions, because distraught people often do. Or, because I am at least somewhat meta-rational, I might decide to make no big decisions at all for a few days, just to be safe. The Jewish custom of sitting shiva makes good sense in this way.

Now imagine that I felt a similar grief whenever anyone died. A typical day—no major battles, genocides, or natural disasters—sees the death of around 150,000 people. Even if I felt 1/150,000th the grief of my own daughter’s death, it would be as if she had died every single day. Could I sit shiva for everyone? How would I ever do anything? As Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

[T]his disposition of mind, though it could be attained, would be perfectly useless, and could serve no other purpose than to render miserable the person who possessed it. Whatever interest we take in the fortune of those with whom we have no acquaintance or connexion, and who are placed altogether out of the sphere of our activity, can produce only anxiety to ourselves, without any manner of advantage to them. That we should be but little interested, therefore, in the fortune of those whom we can neither serve nor hurt, and who are in every respect so very remote from us, seems wisely ordered by Nature.

Mania: I might have some problems with joy as well. I was enormously joyful at my wedding and when my daughter was born. If I were equally joyful for every wedding and every birth in the world, I would probably literally die from joy.

Now consider experiencing both the grief and the joy of the entire world. Equally. For all people, just as you do for close family members. It’s hard even to imagine the ups and downs demanded by deepening our fellow-feeling until we treat everyone as a friend.

Coldness: Another possible approach to UE might be to dull the emotions. Yet it isn’t clear that what’s failing in our social system is our excessive empathy for family and friends. Socialists seem much more often, and much more fairly, to cite our indifference to the plight of strangers. They want to raise up the empathy we feel for strangers, not to stamp down the empathy we feel for our family. Socialists would reject the anempathetic world I propose here—but this would only throw them back to the manic worlds I described earlier.

Knowledge and Empathy: It could be that our lack of UE is not due to a moral failing, but to a cognitive one: It’s simply impossible to know everyone else well enough to have meaningful empathy with them.

That is, I may claim that I am as joyful for the marriage of a couple in Sri Lanka as I was for my own. But if I don’t know anything about them, the claim seems patronizing and smarmy. I can always wish them well, as Smith recommends, but I can’t get much further than that without vastly augmented powers of perception, insight, and memory. To say nothing of the problems of emotional equilibrium discussed above.

The beings described in this set of considerations seem decreasingly human. In a few cases, they are strangely deficient, even powerless. In others, they approach the godlike: They have godlike knowledge, godlike depth of feeling and—I’m tempted to say—godlike passivity.

I have none of those, but I don’t see this as a moral failing, bridgeable or otherwise. Would I wave a magic wand to become one of these creatures? I honestly don’t know. I’ve never given much thought to becoming a demigod, and I don’t have anything to compare it to.

By now we are far removed from a camping trip among friends. We are still farther from any intelligible guide to society at large. We have had to add not just Cohen’s universal empathy, but many further superhuman capacities. All are either entailed by it or else necessary to keep our own sanity in despite of it. At present we have no idea how to attain any of these capacities. Lacking them is not clearly a moral failing, and adding them in does not clearly lead to a New Socialist Man (or to a New Capitalist Man, for that matter). The quest for universal empathy seems to lead to a creature whose reactions are not readily inferrable, and who may not be what we would term human at all.

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