November 13, 2006

Experiments in Beneficial Information

Justin Katz

I don't think Julian Sanchez understood what I was saying:

... let me just address one qualm about the analogy between skeptical science and liberal societies. Katz doubts it will go through because while scientists have the shared goal of improving science (let this rather rosy view of actual scientists' motivations pass for the moment), the diverse members of a liberal society are trying improve their own lives. So let me make explicit what I was implicitly gesturing at in the original post: See Mill for the full argument there. With Mill and Nozick, I very much doubt there will be a One Best Way of Life if "Way" is understood to involve much detail, but also expect that people's self-interested "experiments in living" provide publicly benificial information without that being anyone's explicit intention.

First, I'd note in passing that my mention of scientists' shared goal of improving science was merely a rephrasing of Sanchez's statement that "there are scores of intelligent and skeptical researchers constantly testing and refining its [that is, science's] conclusions." On the level of social mechanisms, the individuals' motivation isn't what's important; rather, we can speak of their role in the social model without their having to be consciously motivated by it.

To get to the point, though, my previous post didn't argue that scientists act toward a shared goal while citizens act toward their own goals. What I was attempting to suggest was that Sanchez's appeal to science as a model in which systematic doubt enables confidence in the process does not apply to society in the way that he apparently desires. In order for the analogy to work, systematic doubts about particular social views would have to be seen as enabling the improvement of society toward some ideal. In the case of science, the ideal is a perfect understanding of the physical world; in the case of society, it would have to be a perfect vision of morality.

My claim, which perhaps was not sufficiently explicit, is that Sanchez's "fanatical... defense of liberal societies" is contingent upon his being able to believe that such societies will move toward the ideal that he prefers. In other words, his systematic "doubt" is rigged. If the "publicly beneficial information" that arises out of institutionalized doubt about citizens' "experiments in living" appeared to be leading toward (to maintain my previous example) a more pervasive Catholic sexual ethic, his confidence in the process would waver. (Alternately, he might insist that the process is not actually being followed.) I expect that Julian will disagree with that claim, but to do so, he'll have to dispense with the ambiguity whereby he advertises (so to speak) the generation of socially beneficial information about human lifestyles while linking to arguments against society's acting on that information.

That, however, is merely a problem with Sanchez's argument as it stands. Stepping back from the intellectual discussion, the notes of evolutionary inevitability that I could not help but hear underlying Sanchez's initial post continue to give some indication of what he would consider to be "refinement."

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Science is not directed to the ideal of perfect understanding. The goal is a better/deeper understanding and there is no reason that could not be the same goal for society. It is the conceit of the ideal that is the counterpoint to the pragmatic improvement in knowledge that the scientific process entails.

As a libertarian I'm sure Julian would support a society that maximizes liberty (without crossing into anarchy), but that isn't rigid commitment to an ideal state. It would be all but impossible to identify such a maximizing point. The true idealist would simply commit to anarchy.

Posted by: juris imprudent at November 13, 2006 11:29 PM
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