Economists and Moral Relativism

I was listening to an interview with economist Eric Finkelstein on Fair Game with Faith Salie discussing his book The Fattening of America.  Now I want to make it clear that I have not read the book and my comments here are based solely on the contents of the interview I heard and what I’ve read at the book’s website, which appears to be largely inaccessible to me from outside the U.S

The gist of his interview is that being overweight is rational, in the economic sense that the choices that lead one to be overweight (eating fast food, not exercising) are rational choices that people make in their daily life.  He gives the example of a wealthy fat uncle who goes out to a lot of business lunches and is too busy to exercise.  This argument is exactly what we may expect from an economist, especially considering that rational choice is somewhat of an underpinning of classical economics. 

Like any concept in social science rational choice theory is in use because it is useful, not because it is proven to be true.  People are bounded by the amount of information they have access to, the amount of time and resources that they can devote to a choice, and their emotions.  For example, it is impossible to make an informed rational choice about any one of the many ingredients in a Snickers bar without access to massive amounts of information.  This is not groundbreaking stuff.  Before economics took up rational choice theory in order to better understand people’s actions, it would have been assumed by any rational human being that people’s decisions aren’t perfectly rational and are influenced by irrational factors, including emotions, all the time.  It’s only in the hands of people like Finkelstein that what used to be a tool for better understanding becomes a liability hindering true understanding.

Finkelstein says that from the perspective of people like his fat uncle, choosing to do things that will make him fat is synonymous with making good rational choices, and thus policymakers should not do anything to attempt to change obese adults’ actions and instead focus their efforts on children who “unlike Uncle Al are unable to make good choices.”

We can assume that Finkelstein means that they are unable to make good choices for themselves because they are having bad choices made for them by adults, but then this raises another question: why are adults’ decisions about what they themselves eat perfectly rational while their decisions for their children are not?  I suppose one could make the argument that parents’ decisions to shut their kids up with candy are rational means of gaining some peace and quiet for themselves but have negative effects on their children.  What I’m getting at is the fact that even Finkelstein can’t maintain his ‘everybody makes rational choices all the time’ posturing all the time, but he doesn’t acknowledge that fact.

So what is he saying in this interview?  He’s essentially positing a tautology:  fat people’s choices are rational because all choices are rational.  The net effect is giving a lot of people who don’t understand the difference between ‘rational’ and ‘good’ the impression that economists think pretty much anything is OK to do.  A closely related concept that’s flotsam floated through the public radio outboard motor is the idea that drug addicts are perfectly rational actors.

The best analogy for Finkelstein’s interview I can come up with is a climatologist going on the radio to say that, while many consider hurricanes disasters, they are in fact natural phenomena.  Groundbreaking stuff, I’m sure.

This is a classic case of horse pre-carting.  Rational choice is used in social science because it describes many human behaviors but not all (in particular, addiction).  Social scientists make advances using the theory but remain unable to apply the theory to areas where it doesn’t seem to apply.  Rather than allow the unexplainable (again, addiction) to be explained by a different social science (say, neuropsychology) the economists go through hoop after hoop to try to shoehorn the unexplainable into the existing theory.

Remember in middle school science class, when you learned about all the bygone theories of astronomy, like the crystal spheres and the circular orbits within circular orbits all revolving around the Earth, and how right before it was discovered that planets travel in elliptical orbits around the sun, the astronomers who were totally invested in the orbits within orbits model were piling orbit upon orbit in a desperate attempt to fit their theory to the facts.  Yeah.


~ by Joe on February 22, 2008.

2 Responses to “Economists and Moral Relativism”

  1. Mmmmm. Snickers.


    Like your blog. Stumbled upon it via Faith Salie search.


  2. Great book on this very subject: Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I had a great deal of trouble disagreeing with much in that text. He gets into why we’re ideologically prone to buy into social science theories at any cost to avoid letting sociobiology or neuroscience explain things at the cost of our precious assumptions about ourselves.

    (Sadly, a friend told me she dropped out of psychology (I think it was) in grad school for this very reason: so much ideologically-motivated falsification of test results, often by simply retesting until the desired outcome was found.

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