The Good, The Bad and the Greedy
I spot in my little fellow nihilists lot, the Doctor One. The last piece I read on his Blog falls right within my purview, so to speak. I have been studying economics for a long time, I’m still at it, but with his own piece on a seemingly unrelated matter, I realized I have been spending little time on philosophical economics.
This provides me therefore with an opportunity to expand my own thoughts on the matter, plus, it is always a pleasure to write back to a fellow blogger and a personal friend.
I will deal with the immediate material I claim I can master, i.e. the relationship between “good” and economics. I put advisedly the word “good” between brackets because in the world of economics, this cornerstone of philosophy (alongside Beauty and Truth) is defined in such broad and smudged manner that many economists didn’t bother discussing it and ended up with different definitions, and ultimately, with different theories about it. In a nutshell, the dominant paradigm economic science moves on is of utilitarian nature.
The second video Hisham uploaded is very interesting, because M. Friedmann explains, in quite simple terms, the essential axioms of Economic theory, the very ones the Founding Fathers provided economics with, so that it would run like a core science. Greed, in Milton’s scientific world, is defined as the systematic maximization of one’s utility by choosing or not to “enjoy” an additional unit of a definite good, regardless of what others might suffer as a consequence of one’s own acts.
In mathematical terms, it goes like this:
I fancy this mathematical formulation (upon which I warn those with advanced skills in economics, it merely expressing in simple mathematical terms the consumer maximization program) because it leaves a great deal of interpretation on how the utility function U(.) changes from one individual to the other.
However, it gives no precise information on how an individual is supposed to quantify as it were, the utility each merchandise delivers. Incidentally, the utility in question is the economic translation of the philosophical concept of good. That’s why merchandise is dubbed as good, and that’s why economists, and more specifically Walras, thought of ordinal utility. Because no scientific measure can be provided for measuring good, Pareto had the clever idea to derive it from the preference one has for one good (or bundle of goods) over the other. Trade-off is therefore the ultimate criterion.
We do now have a closer definition of what Friedmann defined as Greed: The systematic preference of the best bundle of goods, regardless of other individuals. The fact this takes place in a capitalist economic system is irrelevant; Indeed, the founding axioms for neo-classical economics are oddly similar to those that shaped centralized/plan economies.
That, of course, is merely the description of economic science. Much has been done on that issue since Friedmann stood in front of the camera. The standardized economic idea -upon which Gekko in “Wall Street” coined the famous quote “Greed Is Good“- considers this maximization program to be Pareto-efficient.
Meaning, Good and Happiness are achieved when each individual cares solely about themselves and only so.Truth and the constraints of real world are of course, quite complex to fit in this model. That’s why economists use concepts such as “Externalities“, and later on, “Cooperative Game Theory” to explain how a higher commonwealth (and therefore the ability to achieve a larger amount of Goods, and presumably, reach a higher scale of “Goodness”) could be reached without a systematic Laissez-Faire policy. (I know I am at odds with my fellow neo-liberal enthusiasts economic students, but the academia as well as the data confirms it, under a set of conditions that remain very controversial, but that is the essence of economic policy) If I may, I would like to summarize my statement: Good in economics is a matter of individual materialistic preferences.
On a society scale, this does not necessarily hold through a systematic maximization trade-off. In these cases, good is achieved collectively, as Nash famously considered, one’s utility is defined through their own direct personal utility, as well as their collective action contribution return. Let me now turn to the full-philosophical discussion of Good.
I don’t think Good/Evil-Bad are solely a matter of religious beliefs. I still think one can have an ethical compass independent of any religious or moral beliefs. In a society, people, individuals or communities, are expected to behave following a pre-defined pattern of behaviour, what sociologists call “norms”. These norms are the one that shape the scale of values, these define what is good and what is not. The fact some of them integrate the idea of tolerance towards deviance (I borrow here the Durkheimian definition of the word) makes them more democratic than others.
In any case, Good is defined through these norms, and how these come to be dominant is a matter of historical course and the very object of human action. The problem with societies like Morocco is that the norms are still dominant, and are expected to be followed scrupulously. Deviants are socially punished, when labelled as “outcasts”, and, in extreme cases, physically liquidated. Therefore, when my friend asks the question “What is Good?”, and in the Moroccan context, it means yielding the perfect behaviour the myriad of norms requires from each one of us to be so. In a western context, good is of a somewhat blurred definition, and is left for individuals to define their own set of references.
How to achieve it is even trickier. In Morocco, the mere façade of Good behaviour is enough to buy the respect of “society“. I restrain myself to the Moroccan case because I have to confess my lack of knowledge of other MENA countries, but I expect it should be similar in Egypt for instance, or even Saudi Arabia.
In any case, my own Good-Evil analysis is heavily influenced by Popper’s epistemology; i.e. I don’t believe there is a paramount good, and any action that seeks to achieve it has at least one self-contradiction (which eliminates religions from that lot, oh, my agnostic creed came out so unexpectedly…)
I posted something quite beside the point put forward by my fellow blogger. It may go back to the fact I don’t take my own principles as “Good”. I have to confess my ammorality when it comes to social contact, for it boils down to a matter of politeness. When it comes to politics, I am a partisan of policy-relativism.
I don’t think socialism -which I support- is the best set of policy to achieve good, I merely wich to put it to practise and see if it works. I hold all policies in equal skepticism until one or all of them acheive their objectives. Does good exist? Perhaps. Can we achieve it? I don’t think so, but some actions could embody the idea of it.
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