Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Unusual Views With Which I Agree

I continually find myself agreeing with Sumner.... 
As a schoolboy I always resented the unspoken assumption that we were right and that every other time and place was wrong.  Even if we romanticized some aspect of the past, or some exotic culture in a faraway country, we were always implicitly flattering some aspect of  ourselves. ...

As an adult I have mostly come to terms with our culture, but still am very annoyed by the way we think about other times and places.  History is increasingly seen as nothing more than victims and villains, especially by liberals.  Conservatives see the future as a sort of dystopian nightmare, at least if the residents of future worlds have the temerity to discard our value system.  We have obviously achieved perfection, even though every previous generation before us was morally flawed.  I don’t know whether future citizens will embrace designer babies, or cryonics, but that’s [their] decision, isn’t it?  Our ancestors would be shocked by gay marriage, or the fact that we routinely wager on the death of our spouse, where a “win” occurs if the spouse dies.
For those who don't know, our ancesters understood that life insurance was morally revolting.
If I ever became well-known then future people would look back at me and be disgusted by some aspect of my life.  “Sumner was a decent economist; pity about the meat-eating.”
For me, the distressing part is that the virtues of other ages or countries are thrown aside in our denigration of their faults. Each generation sees the hypocrisy of the one before it and then swings the pendulum too far the other way, forgetting the lessons from the generation before. Thankfully, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren usually rediscover some of the older values and enjoy feeling retro, but whether it's literature and art or ethics, the pendulum just swings too far. It's one of the reasons I cultivate a mild sense of contrarianism: I studied experimental economics and looked forward to getting engaged in them (someday), but now that they are becoming a cult I'd rather point out their limitations and see what we can't learn from the denigrated large-N studies (not every day, not every paper, mind you, but there are valuable things in them you just can't get anywhere else once you take the criticism of the method seriously).

I don't agree with Sumner on some other points in the post. I believe in a good deal of moral absolutes and objective truth; even if we only come at it subjectively, it still exists. But that's a different debate.

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