Reductionism Roulette

philosophy and human sciences.jpgI was very happy to see my favorite philosopher, Charles Taylor, recently won the Templeton Prize for his work in social philosophy. The award is a bit of a surprise because the Templeton Foundation has usually pushed a rapprochement between religion and the hard sciences. Taylor is a philosopher of social science–especially the type of empirical research that legal scholars are increasingly appropriating to buttress our arguments.

What can empirical research gain from a spiritual perspective? It looks like Taylor’s current work revolves around understanding ethnic and religous conflict in war-torn areas. But I think it can be brought closer to home. Consider this argument for the “rationality of gambling” (quoted in a 3/11/07 NYT article):

”The people who denigrate lottery players are like 10-year-olds who are disgusted by the idea of sex: they are numb to its pleasures, so they say it’s not rational,” said Lloyd Cohen, a professor of law at George Mason University and author of an economic analysis, ”Lotteries, Liberty and Legislatures,” who is himself a gambler and a card counter.

Dr. Cohen argues that lottery tickets are not an investment but a disposable consumer purchase, which changes the equation radically. Like a throwaway lifestyle magazine, lottery tickets engage transforming fantasies: a wine cellar, a pool, a vision of tropical blues and white sand. The difference is that the ticket can deliver.

Now here the “revealed preference” axiom of neoclassical economics is pushed to its limit. An “irrational” gambler is suddenly transformed, by the magic of language, into an empowered consumer. Pushpin, poetry, minuscule chance at a fortune–all are self-validated as revealed preferences. Once we stipulate the impossibility of intertemporal comparisons of utility (us nonplayers are just “numb to [lotto’s] pleasures”), the mass gambling becomes uncriticizable, or at least sinks into the background of not-so-necessary consumption.

What would a Taylorian social science of lotteries look like? Having lunched with him once, I sense he’s no killjoy. But I feel he would very quickly want to understand more about the meaning of the lotto to its participants, and to society. What kind of hope is being sold to them? Do such games essentially amount to a regressive tax? To what extent does a fantasy of instant wealth (however farfetched) detract from the habits of mind necessary to build real financial security?

As Taylor suggested in his early essay “What is Human Agency,” “what is distinctively human is the power to evaluate our desires, to regard some as desirable and others as undesirable.” Sure, for some clear-thinking people, the lotto is but one more (admittedly high risk) investment strategy. But how do general lottery frenzies figure in this list of evaluative language: “higher [or] lower, virtuous [or] vicious, more [or] less fulfilling, more [or] less refined, profound [or]superficial, noble [or] base”? These may seem heavy terms on which to evaluate a lottery, but if social scientists cede the field to reductionism, they have little chance of properly articulating the harms at stake in the spread of a culture of gambling.

I don’t know if these terms can bring lottery proponents and opponents into serious dialogue, but even if they fail, they do us another service; namely, they show that sometimes there is no single “scientific” account of a phenomenon, but only rival narratives. As Taylor puts it in Interpretation and the Sciences of Man:

[T]here can be a valid response to “I don’t understand” which takes the form, not only “develop your intuitions,” but more radically “change yourself.” This puts an end to any aspiration to a value-free or “ideology-free” science of man. A study of the science of man is inseparable from an examination of the options between which men must choose.

I am sure that at some point in a dialogue between committed libertarian and paternalist thinkers on gambling, one will have to say something like the above to the other. This is not the mark of a failed language of evaluation. Rather, it just sharpens our understanding of how deeply riven are the worldviews behind each position. We may well use “incompletely theorized agreements” to paper over such differences, but we should never lose sight of the ways certain social practices reinforce and reward certain types of persons and character traits, and discourage and punish others.

You may also like...