Ripples in political theory

The daily bread of neuroethics is in understanding the impact of new technologies in the neurosciences upon society – new drugs that affect the brain, new ways of imaging the brain, etc.  But there are other ways in which the neurosciences affects society, and one really interesting one is that modern neuroscience is changing politics.  This is a version of the neuro meme about which I have written about before, but two items made me realize that this is happening more than I had even imagined.

The first is the implosion of the Chicago School of Economics.  Both a formal academic enterprise – its brain trust populates the economics faculty at the University of Chicago – and a school of thought, the Chicago School has had a very influential run.  The particular specialty of the Chicago School is libertarianism, the philosophy which puts individual liberty at the top of the list of important freedoms, and emphasizes that the best choices are usually made by individuals rather than by organizations, even if the latter are peopled by experts.  Among the more vocal proponents of the Chicago School has been Richard Posner, a judge who is also a prolific public intellectual: Posner has written at least 38 books, innumerable scholarly, magazine and newspaper articles, and received 11 honorary degrees, all while sitting on the US Court of Appeals (in Chicago).  Sometime after the 2008 debacle in the financial markets, Posner committed heresy: in an article in the New Republic, Posner dumped the Chicago School in its entirety, suggesting that deregulation was a root cause of the financial meltdown.  In an in-depth profile of this change of heart, John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker

“As acts of betrayal go, this was roughly akin to Johnny Damon’s shaving off his beard, forsaking the Red Sox Nation, and joining the Yankees.”

Cassidy’s article is illuminating in many ways, and anyone who wants to learn more about how the world of economics is reeling from Posner’s acerbic attack would do well to read it in full.  The relevant observation for neuroethicists is the reason that Posner gives for his new perspective. According to Cassidy, Posner was particularly dismissive of rational expectations theory, “which posits that individuals and firms are hyper-intelligent decision makers who have a correct model of the economy in their heads.”  In other words, that the world is populated by homo economicus, the hypothetical but utterly unrealistic individual that economists (in particular the Chicago School) have upheld as the best model of human decision-making.  [In truth, they are not quite so naive as to believe that this is how people actually behave, but rather have assumed that homo economicus is the best model to use for developing economic theory.]

What is most surprising is that took an economic tsunami in the real world for Posner (and surely some others for he is nothing if not influential) to come around to this point of view.  What the Posner was recognizing was something that Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated in the 1970’s, and for which Kahneman, a psychologist, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics! Had he and his fellow members of the Chicago School orthodoxy missed the Nobel Prize announcement, they might have listened to Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Economics department (some diversity is apparently allowed), who as a young economist was heavily influenced by Kahneman and Tversky and went on to extend their ideas into the real world with Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge.  The essential conclusion of this school of thought is that people are not rational decision makers, and that emotion often affects our decisions such that they deviate from what economists had predicted.  In the real world, people do not behave as homo economicus.

Posner’s defection was public, thorough, and completely honest.

A completely different sort of desertion was committed by David Brooks, conservative columnist for the New York Times, in a talk entitled “The Cognitive Revolution and Civic Life Today” that he recently gave for the Hastings Center.  It probably comes as no surprise to readers of his column that Brooks has fallen in love with neuroscience, and he used the occasion to recount many findings that have found their way into the popular press (the neuro meme strikes again).  What came through over and over in Brooks’ presentation was the importance of social interaction in satisfying human existence.  What convinced him on this point was not sociology or politics  – no, it was neuroscience which turned Brooks from an ardent individualist to someone who values interaction between humans.  At one point during his talk, he was so excited about social neuroscience that he said he wished the term socialism was not taken, because he would be all for adopting it.

We may be at a particularly ripe moment for modern neuroscience to be influencing on political thinking.  Sometimes it seems as if a confluence of events and science cause a shift, other times a particularly influential individual catches the neuro meme, but suddenly the influence of neuroscience is widespread,   Within the neurosciences, we would be wise to avoid the hubris that can arise with such fawning attention – public fascination with the brain might be a fad, only to be replaced by equally ardent fascination with something as banal as pet rocks tomorrow.  But with its implications for understanding who we are, for getting at the deeper questions of what it means to be human, it is hard to replace the human brain.  That remains the key attraction of neuroscience, and is unlikely to fade for some time to come.

Update:  I had not read it before writing this post, but Paul Volker has a very thoughtful piece in The New York Review of Books which concurs with the ides that I put forward here.

One basic flaw running through much of the recent financial innovation is that thinking embedded in mathematics and physics could be directly adapted to markets. A search for repetitive patterns of behavior and computations of normal distribution curves are a big part of the physical sciences. However, financial markets are not driven by changes in natural forces but by human phenomena, with all their implications for herd behavior, for wide swings in emotion, and for political intervention and uncertainties.

Link to John Cassidy’s article in The New Yorker

Link to Richard Posner’s article in The New Republic

Link to David Brooks’ talk

Link to Paul Volker’s article in The New York Review of Books

Image Credit: Homo Economicus Weblog


4 thoughts on “Ripples in political theory

  1. You said
    “But with its implications for understanding who we are, for getting at the deeper questions of what it means to be human, it is hard to replace the human brain. That remains the key attraction of neuroscience, and is unlikely to fade for some time to come.”

    Surely, the key attraction of neuroscience is that it advances the popular (but erronous) idea, meme, or what-have-you, that the brain can inform us about who we are. You, yourself, must be a part of this memetic production.

    The brain, of course, tells us nothing about who we are. This is because our nature, who we are, and the reports we give of our nature and experiences, are used to construct the physical limits of the object we call the brain. It’s circular reasoning to say that the brain then informs us of who we are.

    The neurosciences are prescriptive, not instructive.

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