We Have Lost Our Way in a Fundamental Manner

My main outstanding disagreement is with Agnes Callard, who has doubled down on her claim that Stubborn Attachments is status quo-oriented. But there is simply no reason to think the status quo already maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth, and the book is full of statements to the contrary. Consider the opening sentence (p.15): “When it comes to the future of our world, we have lost our way in a fundamental manner, and not just on a few details.” Or the beginning of the book’s concluding section (p.123): “My utopian political vision is a society that follows these principles. That means a society that lets individuality, happiness, and autonomy flower to their maximum extent. I don’t expect something so good to actually come about, but it is nonetheless a vision to live by…”

I am happy to admit that most of my specific suggestions for policy I have presented elsewhere, still the book itself is clear on its radicalism while maintaining a deliberate focus on abstract principles.

When it comes to valuing lives, different lives are either commensurable or they are not, again as I discuss in the book. If they are not, nobody is going to produce meaningful rankings of different social states of affairs, not even by summoning up the mysterious ghost of “philosophy.” If human lives are commensurable in some way, we are back to sustainable compounding growth as giving us a decisive answer. When it comes to real world policy, we must indeed choose, and it is simply punting to claim there is no basis for comparison or trade-offs. Economics and the logic of social choice return, whether we like it or not.

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.