At the Library of Law and Liberty’s site — Stephen Hicks discusses Leonidas Zelmanovitz’s ambitious work in the philosophy of money:
Archive for December, 2016
Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.
Hicks: I’m Stephen Hicks, executive director of CEE, and our guest today is Dr. William Kline, an expert on David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. He spoke today at Rockford University in the Ethical Theory class on Hume’s contribution to the foundations of moral and political thought. Why, in the 21st century, should Hume matter to us?
Kline: There are at least a couple of reasons. One is Hume is very concerned with the origin of property rights and how and when they apply, which I think is is perennially important. I also think, two, there are certain questions that arise about the extent to which free and self-directed human interaction should be allowed to the extent that it’s beneficial for us all — basic questions of liberty — and I think Hume painted a picture that deserves to be examined.
Hicks: If we paint that picture in broad strokes, certainly Hume’s conclusion is a conception of a society that is just. For him, justice is a fairly expansive concept. What are the major constituent elements of the just society that he would like us to work toward?
Kline: Well, his theory of justice is actually going to be constrained to basically property, trade, and contract, which is consonant with writers that have come before him, whether Hobbes or Locke. So, those who want look at a more expansive view of social justice aren’t going to find all of those elements there. But with that said, Hume focuses on this because he thinks that they are central to any society, that they are necessary, and that they have to be stable. And that point you do find even reflected in people saying, like John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, the basic rules of justice have to be stable. And so, in that sense, his project is the same. Another reason to read Hume for today.
Hicks: So part of the just society is going to be a set of stable principles. But in terms of content, respect for property, respect for trade, respect for contract is going to be essential, firm principles that we have to realize. Now if we go back to the beginnings or foundations of Hume’s philosophy and his moral thinking, he has a reputation — how deserved or not is subject to interpretation, though — for being a radical subjectivist in his moral theory. So, there is obviously a big gap that has to be bridged if you are starting from radically, subjectivist foundations to ending up a fair, relatively firm, socially-wide conception of a just society. How deserved is Hume’s reputation for being a subjectivist in his moral theory?
Kline: Well, he is a subjectivist in the fact that moral approbation will be in the eyes of the beholder. The disconnect happens when people don’t realize is that the subjectivity is going to be some sort of intersubjectivity, it is not going to be, it’s not a solipsistic argument, that somehow moral judgments are just generated by me, by my passions, by my sentiments, not in reference to anybody else. That’s not going to be his argument. In fact, the whole reason you want society is you can’t even live like that. So, whatever subjectivity we are going to talk about is going to be in an intersubjectivity of human beings that have a certain nature and have certain needs to be met and have to figure out how exactly to do that.
Hicks: So, if we then start the process where Hume says certain principles will emerge, even we do start off more atomistically or more individualistically each with our own subjective evaluations, how does some sort of coordination, right, emerge or some principles emerge with? Can you sketch that process?
Kline: And I think it’s good the way you said it too: Hume began and definitely it ends with a sort of methodological, subjectivist, individualist in almost like an economist would begin. And you find this approach reflected in modern game theory. You’ll find people like Axelrod, Brian Skyrms, Robert Sugden, asking ‘Here are individuals with their own subjective preferences interacting with other such individuals, what kind of solutions to different problems can they find?’ In Hume’s case, he is going to talk about property. And the upshot of it is that the strategy people find is that if I leave you alone, and you leave me alone, we are both better off. And I will leave you alone if you leave me alone. And there is a lot of traction to be gained from that. Hobbes doesn’t see this as a possibility. Hobbes thinks we are just going to attack each other and we need Leviathan to stop us. Hume doesn’t. Hume says we can actually learn from our mistakes and we can actually learn to conditionally structure our activities, much as Axelrod tells us today, that if I cooperate with you, and you cooperate with me, I will keep cooperating with you.
Hicks: So this is in keeping them with the rest of Hume’s empirical philosophy, where it’s a matter of learning through trial and error, as opposed to a priori principles being dropped upon us to which were supposed to conform. So the idea then is that individuals can’t start out with their own subjective preferences, but through the process of trial and error learn that through cooperation and respect for each other’s stuff they will be better off?
Hicks: So at least we’ve gotten past the bootstrapping, right, the initial moment, we’ve got some principles here. But, as you mentioned in your talk, at this point, it’s still based on self-interest in a narrow sense and there is no reason why people won’t defect, say, or just see the mutual backscratching and mutual respect as something that is short-term and not necessarily to be extended to all of the members of society, and so on. So, how do we get from these initially emergent agreements among individuals to where Hume wants to end up, which is to say, with social-wide or all-of-society agreed-upon principles that are firm and binding? What do we need to add?
Kline: Yeah, and this is a problem too, historically. It occurs in Plato, and we find it in Hobbes as well, where you start out with this methodological individualism, it’s run by self-interest, self-interest is all I recognize, it is on self-interest to leave you alone, you recognize this in yourself interest leaving me alone, and everything is all alone and good until you say ‘Wait a second, what about these cases where you realize it’s not in your self-interest anymore’? Maybe I am way more powerful than you, maybe you’ve turned your back and I can get something and you don’t know it. If all it is is self-interest, it would seem that, well, then, that’s what you should do, take the ring, go kill the king and make the queen your wife. You would be a fool to do otherwise and there’s certainly no moral rules stopping you.
The point is that Hume’s takes methodological individualism up to convention, but then after that, conventions are really what is running the game. I think that Hume does think, just as Aristotle, that we are social creatures. We are not these solipsistic creatures, right? We are social creatures and these conventions, once they are running — once we are respecting each other’s property, once we are trading, once we’re recognizing that these mutual strategies are beneficial, we are interacting as the social creatures we are meant to be — this has an effect on our psychic makeup, just like cause and effect does, where the repetitive, constant conjunction of continuous objects, whether they are pool balls or whatever, in principle upon our minds, that, well, that’s going to be happen again. We develop the same expectations, but it’s not a rational calculation, we develop the same expectations with regards to other people. And also we begin to put this into language. And once we start having concepts of mine and thine, if you will, and language that says those certain actions — and this is actually his terminology in the Enquiry — ‘certain actions are odious’. These then now apply in a general fashion, it goes beyond me. Odious means to anybody and that’s what we are really then go beyond. It’s now no longer about whether it’s in my self-interest or not, it’s whether the activities is odious.
And if I can add one more thing here, it’s a very interesting article by John Rawls, called ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, and really what Hume, I think, is arguing is how summary rules, which are conventions, they are rules of thumb, that have a general utility become practice rules, and a practice rule is something that actually defines the practice. That one is not free to violate based solely on self-interest. So, the rules of baseball has certain rules that are practice rules, I don’t care how much is it in my self-interest, I am now allowed to go to first base unless I do certain things to earn getting to first base.
Hicks: So, you mentioned, historically, a connection from David Hume in the 18th century to the 20th century figures such John Rawls, Axelrod, both of them you mentioned. Are there other important figures in the transition from Hume’s generation to ours, who are carrying on the Humean legacy, Humean approach?
Kline: Well, Smith, definitely. Adam Smith takes, I think, Hume’s analysis of how conventions are formed and then applies it to economics. Smith says things work once you have property, trade and contract in place. And Smith’s natural liberty as allowing people to pursue their self-interest for their own ends within those constraints, mirrors agents pursuing their own ends and making a property. Of course, that’s not recent, that’s 1776. More recently, Robert Sugden, Brian Skyrms. Hayek draws on Hume, greatly draws on him. And those are the ones that I can think of right now that have a huge influence in Hume.
Hicks: All right, so Hume’s influence is alive and well in the late 20th through the early 21st century.
Kline: It is, and I think it is getting better, but there was a time, and it stems from Rawls, Rawls is very Kantian and admittedly so, and you look at a lot of Rawls’s students that graduate from him, they get key positions at key universities, so, if you really look at the decades from the mid-80s up and through pretty much even now, academia, I mean, there is an emphasis — Kant has it right, Hume opened Kant’s eyes, but Kant is the one that had it right, Hume didn’t. I think that is changing slightly. There certainly have been big names that have championed Hume, but you would be hard-pressed to go to the literature and find a Humean theory of justice. Find Kantian, Rawlsian, utilitarian, Hobbesian, all defended as correct systems of justice, but it’s really hard to find one that defends a Humean theory.
Hicks: Thank you for your lecture today.
Kline: Thank you, I had fun.
[The video interview with Dr. William Kline follows.]