Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Twice Upon a Time

I like my moral philosophy like I like my economics: descriptive rather than prescriptive. I see Adam Smith's two big works (Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments) as written in precisely the same manner: Big Daddy Smith observed and reported rather than sermonized. The tradition that proceeded from this approach (which has roots in the Western canon) is reflected in one of the first exhortations breathed in the direction of ruddy-faced first year grad students in economics: economics is a positive science. It's okay to have normative views, but keep them partitioned from your work.

Let's commit a utopian fallacy and say that this advice sticks. Moral philosophy isn't concerned with what should be, but rather with what is. A positive moral philosophy takes intuitions as exogenous. Jon Haidt's half-dozen dimensions lay the foundation for a moral analysis of, for example, voter opinion. And the origins of moral intuitions can be examined with neither approbation nor disapproval.

Ur-morality, the genesis of the thing, may be ultimately inscrutable. It's plausible that a long, arduous guess-and-selection process eliminated those societies with dysfunctional common moralities, and only those with good group preservation characteristics survived to spread their memes far and wide, but this is difficult to test for pre-civilization societies, since they left no record of their stories. But it's an appealing hypothesis. And we can certainly observe what happens to the transmission mechanism under duress.

In that last link, Sarah plucks the heart from what F. Spufford hinted at in chapter 3 (I think it was chapter 3) of Red Plenty: fairy tales are how societies ensure morality survives. Crack open a compendium of bedtime stories and you'll find wee nilla wafers of temperance, prudence, wit, wisdom, courage, excellence, love, harmony, patience, faith, and all nicely resolved in the time it takes a toddler to fall asleep. Under the totalitarian panopticon in Spufford's Soviet dystopia, the fairy tales evaporate, even in the minds of the elders that drifted off to dance in the Dreaming with iron-toothed Baba Yaga beating the sides of her mortar chasing them there when they were but babes in their mothers' arms. Luckily, after the Iron Curtain fell, a number of former Soviet state universities funded efforts to collect and record the many regional folk tales and songs across their lands. The University of Vilnius boasts 1.9 million folk artifacts. And that's just for dinky little Lithuania, a nation of scarcely 3 million people. Granted, not all of those are concerned with the intergenerational transfer of moral foundations, but it's a great relief to find that this sort of lore is at least being preserved.

I'm needled by a concern, however. Fairy tales are nicely adaptive for the purposes of their society. They are cultural capital, if you will. And like ordinary capital, they are suited to the production of a particular output. And like the farriers' foundry optimized to produce horseshoes in the age of the automobile, it could be that some fairy tales have outlived their usefulness. But, and here's the bit that troubles me, how do we know which tales have outlived their usefulness? How do we liquidate old ones? How do we create new ones?

I commiserate with folks who bemoan the bowdlerization of the old stories at the nibs of Disney's screenwriters, but I don't think it follows that the old stories in their original forms are necessarily best suited to the moral challenges of today's social orders. Sure, I'm classicist (and classist) enough to insist that Aristotelian virtue ethics still have a place in modern society, but I'm not so naïve to imagine that parents will read the Ethics to put their children to sleep at night. Nor do I fancy that there exists a silver bullet that will permit the technocratically-minded to develop era-appropriate morality tales ex nihilo. Morality emerges from the complex interplay of history and individual choice. And it has a natural lifespan linked inextricably to the lifespan of the men and women in whose righteous minds it inhabits. The dilemma of the intergenerational exchange in morality is how to make this trade in intuition more euvoluntary without overmuch risking either incoherence or sclerosis. It's a worrying puzzle, one unlikely to become less so as the pace of cultural change increases.

For those of you who can't wait that long, you can pre-order Augie and the Green Knight here.

1 comment:

  1. Well more often than not they end up losing money because of the short time span that they have at their disposal to predict and time the markets.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?