A Strange Argument for the Commonplace

Arguments tend to begin from plausible premises and end in novel or counter-intuitive conclusions. They leverage what is palatable to force feed you what you find harder to swallow. Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments may be the first work of philosophy to travel the opposite road: it moves from the radically counter-intuitive to the status quo.

Cowen’s starting point could be described as utilitarianism run rampant—by which I mean, utilitarianism unconstrained by temporal discounting. Utilitarianism is the moral theory that instructs us to evaluate a proposed course of action in terms of the sum of its consequences for human welfare. Temporal discounting says that the farther away something is in the future, the less important it is. Rejecting temporal discounting means giving full voting rights to future people—the impact of your action on people alive now is no more significant than its impact on the next generation, or the one after that. The utilitarian slogan is, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and on Cowen’s understanding, that number is large indeed: it includes everyone who will ever live.

On an even a vaguely optimistic construal of the prospects of the human race, the vast majority of people have not yet lived. It follows that the effects of, e.g., a particular trade policy on the lives and fates of everyone in China and the United States is a trivial consideration compared to its effects on all the human beings who are to come. Cowen wants us to dispense with the blinders of spatio-temporal contingency: just as we should overcome the prejudice that leads us to give preference to those physically proximate, we should stop assuming that human lives decline in value as they recede into the future. But those blinders form a big part of how action, and preference, and decision are possible for us.

Benefiting future humans poses a much worse version of the kind of problem we face when we want to buy a gift for a teenager we last encountered as a toddler: in order to help someone, you need to understand how they live. In a thousand years, are we all computer programs?

It is counterintuitive in the extreme to think of myself as acting with reference to a future so distant I cannot even envision it. What happens here and now is what I can control—it is, as Aristotle said, “up to me”—the downstream thousand-year effects are so far outside my ken that they do not seem “mine.” Nonetheless, according to Cowen, those effects really matter. It is as though I am operating a puppet who is operating a puppet who is…leading to some (hopefully) large forms of happiness, somewhere down the line. The most important good I do is one I will never see or know, and perhaps comes in a form where I cannot even envision it as good.

So much for premises. Now let us look at Cowen’s conclusions. What does he think we ought to do, given that the most important practical considerations are profoundly inaccessible to us? The answer is to follow common sense morality, be loyal to your friends and family, stay healthy, guard against nuclear war, work to preserve currently existing social and political institutions, respect human rights, protect the environment, be a productive member of society, use leisure time to enjoy cultural pursuits or intellectual endeavors or sports or travel—he is a pluralist about value. So, roughly speaking: as you were!

Unlike many utilitarians, Cowen does not propose any radical redistributions of income. Utilitarians are, as a crowd, drawn to play Robin Hood, since the dollars in the billionaire’s bank account seem to produce much less welfare than they could, were they spread over a group of starving children. Unlike most utilitarians, Cowen is not exercised over the possibility that maximizing utility might violate human rights—what if I could make a million people a bit happier by torturing one innocent baby? Cowen says: don’t do it! Cowen does not use his utilitarian lever to chastise us, to reform us, to urge us to change course. He proposes no bitter pills. Even where his recommendations are corrective—we wealthy Americans could all stand to give a bit more to charity than we do—they are gentle, prodding us in the direction we all already knew we needed prodding.

Cowen wrote a book about how radical utilitarians can be regular folk just like you and me. The remainder of this response considers two questions:

(1) How did he do it?

(2) Why did he do it?

Let’s start with the easier of the two, how. There the answer is economic growth, the importance of which is the argumentative fulcrum of the book. Cowen’s thought is that redistributing wealth is a less efficient mode of welfare promotion than using that wealth to create more wealth for future people. The magic of compounding, combined with the rigors of undiscounted utility calculations, means that we should privilege lifting all future boats over leveling out present ones. Cowen takes this lesson from economic history: large gains in well-being are possible through the iterated operation of the marketplace, since the compounding of present gains make greater future ones possible. We should not equalize the rich and poor, but rather endeavor to make the poor of tomorrow wealthier than the rich of today. This is not a crazy goal: Cowen has us recall that, holding location fixed, the welfare of today’s poor compares favorably to that of the rich of yesteryear. An advancing economy advances welfare, measured in respect of goods such as (e.g.) life expectancy, cultural offerings, healthcare options, nutrition, travel prospects, quality of work experience, leisure time, and so on.

Thus Cowen is in favor of maximizing sustainable economic growth. Is this, perhaps, the one non-commonsense, radically corrective prescription he has to offer us? Not really. Cowen does not offer much detail on what we should do to maximize sustainable economic growth, but his description of the right course—avoiding economic (and especially nuclear) disasters, favoring tempered government intervention, preserving current institutional structures, suggests that he envisions the United States, at any rate, holding steady at about a 2-3% growth rate. If there were a way to sustainably achieve a 4% growth rate, presumably Cowen would tell us about it. So economic growth is yet another element of the status quo to which Cowen tips his hat—with, perhaps, an especially vigorous enthusiasm.

Cowen is not distinctive in his degree of optimism about how much economic growth is possible, nor in his zealotry over maximizing it—the import of human rights, sustainability and common sense morality temper his enthusiasm for any radical growth-positive proposals. He does not lie at any kind of extreme of opposition to government regulation of economic activity. He is distinctive in the argumentative role he sees economic growth as playing, in leading us from the counterintuitive premise of rampant utilitarianism to a conclusion we can recognize as the world we already live in. And this is, indeed, an interesting move. Perhaps the most interesting question about it is: why make it?

My answer will begin with a true story. Six years or so ago, I asked my (then) nine-year-old son: if you were walking past a shallow pond and saw a baby drowning in it, would you go over and pull the baby out? Of course, he said. Even if that meant getting your clothes muddy and dirty? Yes. Now what if you could not save him directly—he’s in a big lake, you would drown if you tried to swim—but there’s a machine that can save him if you insert $5. I would put in the $5. What if the lake were far away, in California? That wouldn’t matter. What if it were on the other side of the world, in India? It makes no difference! What if there were lots of babies in the lake? I would spend all my money. What if there were lots of other people who could help, but aren’t doing so? I would still spend all my money.

Readers will, by this point, recognize that the argument I was giving my son was lifted from Peter Singer’s seminal article “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”[i] Singer argues that given globalization, physical distance doesn’t generate a moral difference. And there are in fact a lot of people “drowning” all over the world. How can we possibly justify spending money on movies, restaurants, tech gadgets, and books, when the click of a computer key could transfer it to those in dire need? My son was overwhelmed with the power of this argument. At the end of the conversation he insisted on donating his entire life-savings, about $50 at that time, to Oxfam. He was appalled that I was not prepared to do the same. I saw myself, perhaps for the first time, fall rapidly in his estimation. He wouldn’t go to bed until he could see that the transaction had gone through on the computer—someone unmoved by this argument was obviously not trustworthy.

As it happens, “Famine Affluence and Morality” was published in 1971, when Cowen was himself 9. I suspect that he encountered its argument later than that, but long ago nonetheless. He reports that he has been revising Stubborn Attachments for 20 years, and presumably there was some time before that, during which the ideas for it were germinating and developing. Whenever it happened, Cowen’s first contact with Singer’s argument must have been as visceral and powerful as my son’s—for he has evidently spent decades doing what Freud called “working through” that experience. So have many others, of course. Singer’s argument has generated a vast literature that attempts to explain why its counterintuitive conclusion—give to the point of impoverishing yourself—doesn’t follow from its intuitive premise—save drowning children, wherever they are located. Cowen’s approach is different. He grants that Singer’s conclusion follows—on the conventional, and widely shared, assumption of temporal discounting. If you remove that premise, however, you transform the argument from one where, if it were accepted, “our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed” (Singer, p.231, op cit.) to one where its conclusion simply is our present society, and our present world.

How does Cowen refute temporal discounting? He doesn’t. He doesn’t have to. The argument he offers for not discounting future people, in the book, reads as a half-joke—it involves a wacky hypothetical about travel at relativistic speeds. The real argument is a pointed analogy: If space doesn’t matter, morally, why does time? What’s doing the argumentative work is Cowen’s out-Singering of Singer.

If you have read Cowen’s book, you may have balked at my opening description of his starting position as one of “rampant utilitarianism.” Cowen’s self-presentation is far more diversified, embedding the point about zero-discounting in an affirmation of value-pluralism, human rights, common sense morality, and more. I hope that by now it is clear that my strategy was one of isolating the signal from the noise. The load-bearing premise is the one that defuses Singer’s bomb: if you add temporal discounting to spatial discounting, you add enough ignorance to redirect a Singerian sideways glance towards the forward-looking march that the economy already represents. Your movie ticket supports the movie-industry, and the people it employs will, in turn, spend their earnings paying for the goods or services you contribute, and this circle is not a circle but an ever growing spiral, adding up to more and more welfare. You can eat your cake and also, thereby, bequeath cake to the starving children of the future! That is Cowen’s main point.

Cowen’s other premises—common sense morality, human rights, value-pluralism etc.—divide through, in the sense that they also show up in his conclusion. I don’t doubt that he believes them, but I experience them from the point of view of my son, as a kind of blanket of normalcy enveloping the book. Because suppose you’re not normal. Suppose you are so persuaded by a clear and well-stated argument that, in a matter of minutes, your mother has been transformed into an alien. Indeed, the world seems filled with aliens: people who seem to see differences where there aren’t any, whose world is textured by prejudice and emotion and reactions that strike you as arbitrary and irrational. Can you share in their “common sense morality”? Sure. You just need a fancy argument, one that starts from the kind of premise you find intuitive, and lands you in the crazy, mixed-up world you have, apparently, been born into.


[i] Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.