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I Will Not Become An Ethically Hollow Shell, I Will Not Become An Ethically Hollow Shell, I Will Not Become….

May 22, 2009

The David Ogles you know and, uh, tolerate, may soon be transformed into a purely self-interested, pre-kindergarten husk of his former self.  This according to new research done on Yale Law School students showing:

students taught by economically-minded professors were both more selfish and more likely to see fairness as a form of kaldor-hicks efficiency. By contrast, students taught by humanists were more generous and also likely to see fairness as a matter of equity.”

from Concurring Opinions

As a person heading to law school at the University of Chicago in the fall specifically because it pioneered and continues to be at the forefront of law and economics, this hits pretty close to home.

We should be somewhat skeptical of studies like this, especially since Yale Law students are such a special breed that by definition they are not representative of the population, or even the law student population, as a whole.

However, law students in general are relatively analytical, especially at schools like Yale where an LSAT score in the 99th percentile is essentially a requirement.  I don’t doubt that a first encounter (or second, as individuals with economics degrees fared no differently in the study) with the ‘dismal science’ can unduly weaken the sense of justice and fairness we are raised with, if unprepared.

This is one reason I decided to major in both economics and philosophy in college; while economics does an excellent job of describing the world, it paints an incomplete picture for prescribing. My law and econ professor at Emory liked to remind us that his discipline was concerned only with efficiency.  At first I thought that, like musicians must learn the major scale before they can ‘break the rules’ and improvise,  we were simply going over the fundamentals.  I expected a more nuanced and humble application of the discipline to the law.

Instead I was treated to lectures arguing for the abolishment of the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration (because people are rational and thus can perfectly weigh the risks of taking experimental drugs), arguments on behalf of expanding the death penalty to minimize deadweight loss (though not the dead), and ending pollution laws (because it’s more efficient for people to pay companies to stop pollution).

In theory these ideas are great, and at some point I expected him to tell us, “Ok, but obviously in the real world, transaction costs and, hell, common human decency demands that we not always prefer the most efficient solution.”  But that moment NEVER CAME.  He genuinely believed, in fact, staked his career upon, the cartoonish extent to which he replaced a robust ethics with the philosophical wasteland of Homo Economicus.  (If I am misrepresenting, at least this is the only reasonable interpretation from the classes I attended, further damning this pedagogical approach.)

Efficiency is a value, and an important one at that.  It is not, however, the prime value.  When fairness, equity, honor, honesty, chivalry, or anything else come in to conflict, we must order them with a consistent set of priorities.  What we don’t do is let assumptions we make out of convenience to model the world turn into the assumptions we hold for how we want the world to be.

One way is to set the amount of fairness we want first in a policy, then see what the most efficient way of achieving that goal is.   Or set a limit on the maximum amount of inefficiency we are willing to suffer if the trade-off with other values is direct (as it often is with equity).

As most economists do actually understand that eliminating waste is a goal but not the goal of the law, I’m going to interpret the results on YLS students as an example of temporary insanity.  The study admits that it doesn’t know how long the beliefs will last (disillusionment is hopefully inevitable with any extreme set of misanthropic principles).  Perhaps these students, constantly challenged by the Socratic Method, whose core beliefs and values are likely unprecedentedly vulnerable, may not have quite figured out the appropriate balance between ivory tower theory and just plain acting like a dick.

Laboratory settings are also not necessarily indicative of the real world.  Taking an extra $10 in an artificial economic game doesn’t make me less likely to take a moment to hold the door open for an old lady.

Regardless, the study is as fascinating as it is disconcerting.  Though the sample size is small, the clarity of the results certainly give us enough reason to look forward to a broader, more conclusive studies about the effect of professor ideology on even very mature pupils.  And I will certainly be on my guard not to let my knowledge of how to be a selfish ass influence me to act like one to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

(h/t to Matt Veckman’s Google Reader feed, which honestly has become for me a blog in itself.  See?  Unselfish.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    May 24, 2009 1:35 pm

    This Yale study sounds like an interesting variation on previous priming research. By priming I’m referring to the phenomenon where by exposure to an earlier stimulus influences the response to a later stimulus. Priming people to unconsciously adopt certain mindsets has been found to influence everything from stereotyping to physical behaviors. Funny you should state that a lab experiment would not make you less likely to hold open a door for an old lady because research probably suggests otherwise. People primed with hostile words behaved more rudely and aggressively than people primed with polite words. So yes, even your unconscious may subject you to dickishness given the right situation. It is a bit disturbing how easily people are influenced by external forces. Fortunately these effects, at least in lab studies, are short lived. In addition, being aware of a priming stimulus seems to eliminate the effect. An interesting follow up to this Yale study might be to make students cognizant of their current course ideology and see if that has any effect on preferences. In any case, how ironic that economics classes adopting the philosophy that humans act as completely rational beings are a key condition in a study finding that we respond in autopilot more than we’d probably like to admit.

  2. Rhett permalink
    May 26, 2009 4:46 am

    I am going to reach through internet and kick your ass in Chicago if you become an ethically hollow shell. Or i’ll get tony to do it. Unless, of course, its immensely efficient to do otherwise.


  1. See? Economists Aren’t Only Advising Us To Be Selfish Pricks « Generalissimo

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