Monday, April 24, 2017

A methodological individualist mistake

I was just told that because individuals in a nation have diverse interests, the "national interest" does not exist: I was trying to "homogenize" these different groups and treat them as if all of their interests were identical.

As pointed out many times here before, methodological individualism is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense to boot: it leads smart people to say silly things like the above.

Not every cell in my body needs to benefit from a course of action for that course of action to be in my self interest. My foot may need to be amputated for me to survive, but this is very bad for the cells in my foot. (They might have lived another month if left attached, but now they die immediately after the operation.) The interest of cancer cells in my body may run directly against the survival of my body.

Not every player on a sports team needs to benefit from a course of action for that action to be in the team's interest. Benching Callahan might be the best thing for the team, even if it signals that Callahan's career is over.

The people in a corporation may be there for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them may be corporate saboteurs. And many of them may be there just to get a paycheck, and not care at all about the survival of the corporation beyond the last day they are going to work there. Nevertheless, we can still reasonably talk about what is in the interest of the corporation: whatever helps the corporation to survive and become stronger is in its interest.

It is no different with the nation: that which promotes the survival of France as an entity is in France's interest, and that which retards that survival runs against its interest. It makes no difference at all that there may be many residents of France who are indifferent to its survival, or even wish it to disappear. (No difference at all in determining what is in France's interest: of course, if a lot of people inside France want France to disappear, it will have a harder time surviving!)

40 comments:

  1. The foot is an interesting analogy.

    Unfortunately, "nations" aren't body parts, they're death cults.

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    1. That you *don't want* nations to survive has nothing to do with the issue of whether national self-interest makes sense. In fact, it kinda confirms it does: you stand in *opposition* to the national self-interest of all nations. Maybe you are right to do so, but that is orthogonal to the point I am making.

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    2. Describing the effects of incentive on "nations" as "self-interest" strikes me as very much like describing the operations of computers as "thinking."

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  2. Indeed, MI is a moral stance parading as a methodological one. It is the position that the only interests that matter are the (unaggregatable) individual ones masquerading as the claim they are the only ones that *exist*.

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  3. I was born on June 26th and live in California.

    That which promotes the survival of people who were born on June 26th and live in California is in that groups interests , that which retards that survival runs against its interest.

    This is logically and statistically true even if there are no members of this group who actually care about the group's interest.

    I think your point may boil down to the fact that as more people (probably) care about the group "people who benefit from 'France's national interest'" than the group of "of people who were born on June 26th and live in California " this makes first group more significant.

    I'm not sure that is enough to settle the matter.

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    1. There is no such social entity as "people who were born on June 26th and live in California " rob. France is an actually existent social entity. See Ken's comment above. Also, note that France actually acts on the stage of world history, while "people who were born on June 26th and live in California" do not.

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    2. In short, your response simply assumes MI is true, which is exactly what is false here!

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    3. rob, you are ignoring the argument. Let's get back to cells. The liver is an organ, not just a set of cells meeting a predicate. The set of cells with weight n nanograms for a given n comprise a set of cells satisfying a predicate but are not an organ.

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    4. Right Ken: it is as though rob thinks "the set of basketball players with a last name ending in 'z'" is a social group in the same sense that "the Golden State Warriors" are a social group.

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    5. I think Gene and Ken are probably right. I certainly don't disagree with the view that nations and other group have "interests" that are different from the interests of individuals who are members of the group.

      I'm just struggling a bit seeing the distinction between social group/not social group. If I start a facebook page "people born on June 26th and live in California" and 10,000 people sign up and we start having monthly get togethers, does it get the same status as "france" and "the liver" as a social entity?.

      Also: I think when people talk about the entity "France" they jump between meaning "people who live in the geographical entity France" and "people who are associated with the French state". This leads to all sort of confusing discussions.

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    6. "If I start a facebook page "people born on June 26th and live in California" and 10,000 people sign up and we start having monthly get togethers, does it get the same status as "france" and "the liver" as a social entity?."

      1) "The liver" is a biological entity, not a social one.

      2) You're act of creating the Facebook group and their acts of signing up would be the start of *creating* such a social group. It would still be far shy of France: France invades countries, holds national elections, sits at the UN, etc... but *after* these acts, you would indeed have the beginnings of a social entity.

      It is the *actions* not the classification that matter.

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  4. Hegel would agree wholeheartedly. The problem then is at what level do you focus on /and whose interest/ and who gets to decide? Using the individual as that point is more pragmatic because as soon as you start saying no, it is the interest of the State, well, Pandoras box hello.

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    1. "Using the individual as that point is more pragmatic ..."

      Sometimes yes, sometimes no!

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    2. "Using the individual as that point is more pragmatic because as soon as you start saying no, it is the interest of the State..."

      What reason is there for thinking this is true?

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    3. what are the alternatives to a state like body enforcing what individuals wouldn't choose to do if we think another level of group interest should prevail?

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    4. what are the alternatives to a state like body enforcing what individuals wouldn't choose to do if we think another level of group interest should prevail?

      Private property is often presented to be a solution to the tragedy of the commons by libertarians. The idea is that under a commons scenario, people wouldn't have the incentive to not overconsume the commons. This is presented as an alternative to the "force" of regulation. Now, what "enforces" those private property claims other than "force"?

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  5. Wikipedia says 'Methodological individualism is the requirement that causal accounts of social phenomena explain how they result from the motivations and actions of individual agents, at least in principle'.

    I do not see any contradiction whatsoever between that view and the view that larger social entities (such as the GSW) can have definable interests.

    It would be hard to have a meaningful conversation about a basketball game without assuming group interest for the teams involved. But (at a different level) everything about a basketball game could be explained by the the motivations and actions of individual players.

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    1. rob when you know more about MI then a Wikipedia entry, please check back in!

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    2. OK, Gene: What are the qualifications to be able to productively discuss methodological individualism versus collective interests with you?

      I'm going to assume that having read chapter 2 of Human Action and some Ayn Rand essays isn't going to cut the mustard either. Is there a specific reading, or list of readings? Or is one going to need an advanced degree in philosophy or economics?

      And yes, this is a serious question, not an attempt to poke at you. You return frequently enough to the subject of methodological individualism and the flaws you perceive in it often enough that it's obviously something you consider important.

      I'd rather give you the context for an edifying discussion than just be part of playing the dozens over it. It seems to me that such a discussion would serve the, um, greater interest of you and your readers as a group ;-)

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    3. "I'm going to assume that having read chapter 2 of Human Action and some Ayn Rand essays isn't going to cut the mustard either."

      That's a good start, but you've only read one side. This:
      https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/methodological-individualism/#6

      Contains criticism and a bibliography.

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    4. Thanks -- I'll get started on that ASAP.

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    5. I read that link but don't think the points raised undermine methodological individualism unless you think MI proponents think it rests on individuals acting on fully conscious and/ or rational thoughts alone. I don't think it matters what drives individuals actions to support MI. One problem with any other option is logical problems of the alternatives. Say you think the individual as some kind of rights and then at another level a group, say the nation.... the negative rights of one will clash with the positive of the other.

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    6. Say you think the individual as some kind of rights and then at another level a group, say the nation.... the negative rights of one will clash with the positive of the other.

      That is some sloppy analysis. The charge of rights is orthogonal to whether they are "individual" or "group" rights. If "society" has a right against being "polluted" by some sort of "unnatural" behavior, then that is a "right" that can be defined in negative terms ("thou shalt not…"). There'd also be no "clash" of rights because individuals would not have any "right" to engage in "unnatural" behavior.

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    7. This is where it always gets messy as your own example shows. Someone has to establish for whatever group level what exactly all those things you put in numerous scare quotes are. E.g. What is 'unnatural' exactly? If a group defines something as unnatural that another disagrees with and it interferes with the latter groups members individual rights (negative rights-property, contract etc) there are going to be contradictions. It isnt sloppy its just logical.

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    8. Sandymount, conflicts are NOT "contradictions". That is the ludicrous move Rothbard tries to make to prove that writes cannot conflict. If I say x = 7 AND x = 6, THAT is a contradiction. If I say that you're right to use your property as you see fit CONFLICTS with my right to not listen to your bad music at 1 AM...

      Well, nothing! There is no "contradiction" whatsoever. There is simply a conflict.

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  6. I'm glad you don't apply the same rule to economics,ethics, theism and progressive political thought, or I'm done.

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  7. While methodological individualism is false, it does feel that persons have a more "real" existence than corporations, nations, and so forth.

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    1. Yes. But the quesiton is, is it valid to offer explanations at those other levels, or are they somehow "lacking" if there are no microfoundations?

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  8. Gene, I would argue that some of the things that could be done to defend France's interests would even protect those individuals who wish to see France disappear.

    Survivors of terror attacks in France have been often cosmopolitan, open-borders advocates themselves, and they often talk about how they will not be shaken in their cosmopolitan views just because of the terror attack. Controlling entry of dangerous persons in France would protect THEIR interests too.

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  9. Is this not the problem Isaiah Berlin spoke of regarding positive and negative rights? If you think rights exist at all, you cannot logically have both positive and negative rights as unless miraculously they all dovetail there will be contradictions meaning either rights as such dont exist, or only negative rights exist.

    Your right to something is a positive right, if delivering it requires taking something from another against his consent, negative rights...you can say its a conflict but why is it not a logical problem with the system of both kinds of rights?

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    1. "Is this not the problem Isaiah Berlin spoke of regarding positive and negative rights? "

      Berlin did say these can conflict. He was not so silly as to say they are contradictory!

      "If you think rights exist at all, you cannot logically have both positive and negative rights..."

      Only if you confuse conflicts with contradictions!!

      You're claim is as ridiculous as:

      "IIf you think animals exist at all, you cannot logically have conflicts between animals..."

      "you can say its a conflict but why is it not a logical problem with the system of both kinds of rights?"

      Why in the world do you think that two things conflicting with each other is a logical problem?!

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    2. I want to go to Budapest this summer, but also to Italy. I can't do both. These desires conflict with each other. But there is no "contradiction" in my wanting to do both!

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  10. It's such a shame the internet disagreements end up this way. Notice none of my comments called you silly and I can't be bothered to carry on as if every reply is some version of you're so stupid if you can't see this or that point then good luck persuading anyone. Let the negative rights get trumped by whatever higher level mythical interest wins . Nietzsche would be laughing in his grave. Ciao.

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    1. "Notice none of my comments called you silly..."

      I wasn't saying silly things! You were.

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    2. By the way, no one really thinks you fled the conversation because I used the word "silly." You had no answer to my points, so you used being all hurt as an excuse.

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    3. And here I was going to explain how most positive rights are really negative.

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    4. Well, he didn't have the option of using your preferred method of flight (muting the person whose arguments you have no answer for, then proclaiming victory).

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    5. Right, Tom, you are so "muted" here that I have continued to post your comments for many, many years. It is like the USSR!

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