Monday, December 8, 2008

Moderate Holism and Methodological Individualism: Towards a Reconciliation

As someone with some contact with the Austrian economics community, I've often been involved in discussions about methodological individualism (often taking a "Me vs. Everyone Else" format). This issue came up again for me in glancing over Walter Block's essay, "On Robert Nozick's 'On Austrian Methodology,'" and I figured it might be worth trying to write up a post to spell out my take on this issue.

Basically, my issue with methodological individualism has been that if it's presented in a way that makes it plausible, it ends up sounding a whole lot like moderate holism. Here's what I mean:

Moderate holism, as I understand it, is the view that there are group phenomena, but that those group phenomena are the consequences of the activities of their components. So for example, when hockey players work together as a team, one cannot readily interpret their actions without making reference to the group phenomenon of the hockey game. The left defenseman holds the puck behind the net, waiting for a line change, then makes a crisp first pass up the ice to the center streaking across the red line. Confronted by the opposing team's "back-checking forwards as he crosses the blue line, he makes a drop pass to a pinching right defenseman, who fires the puck towards the net. The opposing goalie makes a sloppy kick save, sending the rebound into the slot, where the left wing is waiting -- an easy tap in goal. The red light goes on, the crowd cheers, and the goal horn's all completely familiar (to us hockey fans, that is -- the rest of you can take a hike). But what we see in a hockey game is only comprehensible by understanding the social context in which the actions take place.

One might imagine someone who had never been exposed to sports before asking, "But why does everyone cheer when that black disk goes into that mesh enclosure?" or "Why did that man just skate into that other man and knock him over?" The answer would essentially be, "Because they're playing hockey." But when we explain hockey to someone, we don't talk about the individual players' biographies or the reasons why a bunch of people like to pay money to watch other people skate around wearing special clothes in a big building with a frozen lake inside. We make reference to a set of conventions that, in an important sense, are separate from the individuals who act out those conventions at any particular time. We say, "Hockey is a game where people form two teams and try to score points by putting a black disk in the other team's net. Many people who watch hockey a lot choose a team to root for from a group of teams called the National Hockey League, and care very much about the performance of their team relative to other teams in the league."

In order to attack this point of view, the methodological individualist might argue that actually, hockey can and should be understood as simply the sum of all individual events that embody the conventions of the game of hockey, as understood through reference to the points of view of each individual actor involved in the social situation. In other words, that when we make reference to the social convention of hockey, we're really just using lazy verbal shorthand for the collection of individual instances of events understood by participants to be "hockey games." Such a response, though, would need to answer to the fact that we understand what it means to be "playing hockey incorrectly." And we don't mean by this that someone else's way of playing hockey does not match our own. It embodies a belief in hockey as an "objective" set of conventions which is not open to the kind of pluralism that an individualistic theory would seem to have to accommodate. I'm not sure what could be said about this. Maybe there's a good response, though; if so, I'd love to hear it.

Another problem arises from the fact that it is comprehensible to talk about "the good of the team," as apart from the good of each individual player. For example, it could be that there's a badly performing hockey team that isn't going to make the playoffs. At the end of the season, the players all might very strongly desire to save their sense of dignity by playing as hard as they can, winning a few extra games before they start their summer break. But perhaps by doing so, they raise their team's position in the standings, meaning that the team doesn't get as good of a draft pick. Everyone on the team could be made better off by this, but the team might suffer anyway. Again, I don't know how one would respond to this problem.

The other way that the methodological individualist could respond would be to insist that actually, the existence of inherently social phenomena like hockey is perfectly compatible with methodological individualism. This seems to be the approach implicit in Block's discussion (though it's not clear to me that this is the case); he seems to found methodological individualism on the idea that only individuals act, and there is no "group mind" which controls group phenomena. Given that there's nothing that happens in hockey besides the things that are brought about by the individuals who are involved, someone like Block might point out that "See? There's no group-anything going on; there are just people in there!"

But as I understand the position, moderate holists don't need to suppose the existence of a "group mind" at all, and many of them (if not most or all) don't do anything of the sort. I mean, even Marx was content with the notion that "...circumstances are changed by men..." and presumably the methodological individualist would not want to claim Marx as part of her team (I don't say that because I have a problem with Marx; it's just that if Marx is a methodological individualist, then methodological individualism is a blatant misnomer). So as I see it, the plausible methodological individualist is actually holding a position which is pretty much identical to moderate holism. And because moderate holism explicitly accommodates social phenomena, and because methodological individualism is widely held to refer to a position which is incompatible with moderate holism, I don't see any reason for people to identify themselves that way.

So why do they do it? My theory is that it comes from being influenced by people like Mises, who were reacting to radical holists who did believe in the existence of a "group mind" (like Hegel). But since Mises wrote, philosophy has progressed, and I think it's become pretty clear that methodological individualism wasn't quite an appropriate way to look at the world (though not really because people like Mises were wrong; radical holism is still ridiculous, and for the reasons that the early methodological individualists understood). I think that if pressed, someone like Mises would have agreed that a completely reductionist way of understanding social phenomena is not appropriate. So I hope that the descendents of the methodological individualists can do the same.


Dmitry Chernikov said...

Rules of hockey are not objective but inter-subjective. They are between subjects, depending for their existence of agreement, conformity of the subjects to one another, mutual understanding.

To play hockey incorrectly means to defy the expectations of the majority (or some amount whose reaction to incorrect playing will have significant consequences) of the spectators or of those who have been authorized to draft the rules.

Players derive utility from being on the team with high position in the standings.

Danny Shahar said...

That's why I put scare quotes around the word "objective." I'm not sure exactly what word to use; I don't think intersubjective is correct. I almost think "institutional" might work? The point is that it's not merely what a bunch of people agree to call hockey.

It's true that if everyone agreed to call baseball "hockey," then baseball would be "hockey." Obviously, "hockey" is only a concept that exists within minds; if a different concept existed in its stead, then that would be that. But the concept of hockey is not simply a statistical notion making reference to what a majority believes. Again, it may be true that if the statistics were different, we would have a weaker case for our definition of "hockey." But I take it that the correct account of the nature of hockey does not make reference to such a statistical phenomenon.

When you make reference to "those who have been authorized to draft the rules," I'm more intrigued. It seems like this might be a more fair account of the true nature of hockey, but the question presents itself: What do you mean by "those who have been authorized to draft the rules"? Authorized by who? The rules for what? Could they fail at the task with which they were charged? Doesn't this explanation fit much more cleanly into the idea of a social institution than into a reductionist framework making reference only to individuals?

As for your last point about player utility, that's basically what I said; were you objecting to something?

Dmitry Chernikov said...

Danny, if something is neither subjective nor objective, then it must be inter-subjective. These pretty much cover all possibilities.

Danny Shahar said...

I've never been exposed to the term before; would something like the common law be inter-subjective? What distinguishes "inter-subjective" things from "subjective" things?

JEK said...

I've reread Rand lately when I noticed somthing intresting. In his finak major speach in front of Keating, Toohey presenting his socialist vision... still uses Methodological Individualism!
"The world of the future. The world I want. A world of obedience and of unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought of the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought--and so on, Peter,around the globe."

Trying to describe society after accepting the methodological individualism is a tricky project.
I went to Toohey, because I held that as long as people consider a "Society" to exist (as they consider "the state" and "the market"), it exists as a factor it their own conduct. But Rand chops it back down to individuals.
In your case, should the team members have a notion what
"hockey team" is, then the "team" would exist independent of any given team memeber.
On other hand it may be just an example of Micro- Macro perspective (Beg oyu to find a name for it). Any time you change perspective from Micro to Macro, andy given single quantum looses value. speed and direction of single air molecule in given volume of air can be random, but the whole volume has specific temperature. A single market participant holds no power over the market, but the market created by all the paticipants. In that case, perhaps, we can present society as a whole witjout refting the Metodological Individualism

Dmitry Chernikov said...

Here is an example. Your will is a subjective faculty, because it is affected by objects outside of itself. You see a thing, and that thing, an object, causes the will to desire it if the object is not possessed or to rejoice in it if the object is possessed. The will does not act but is acted upon.

Your body is an objective faculty, in that it pushes particles of matter around. With your body's help you impose on things. You are the master; you are in control. You act.

Your intellect, finally, is an inter-subjective faculty, in that it is used, fundamentally, in conversations with other minds. It is not the objective pushy body, nor the subjective soft will, but occupies a place in between: it is persuasive, it uses words to change people's beliefs (and your own) and so has a kind of power, but it's not the "coercive" power that bodies have. Further, the intellect conceives plans of action, and therefore mediates the desires of the will and human actions.

Here is another example. The world of matter-and-energy is fundamentally different from the world of human experience and inner life. That's why the methodologies of physics and economics are so different: they apply to different realities. Things are objects; humans are subjects; though there is a mechanical aspect to us, we are ultimately spirits: contra, say, Ray Kurzweil, we are not "spiritual machines" but "machine-like spirits." Inter-subjectivity manifests itself in (1) the life of the intellect and (2) social life.

And yet another. There are three kinds of good and evil: metaphysical, moral, and physical. Physical good is purely subjective, i.e., something is a good, because I value it, because it brings happiness to me, and that's that. I first value something, and then and because of it, it becomes good. Metaphysical good is objective, so first something is good, and then I had better value it (or else). Moral good is in between, inter-subjective, deriving its character from agreement by rational agents. All human law is inter-subjective. All natural law is inter-subjective, as well. Even in the case of a person on a deserted island, there is a law governing what he can do to himself. Perhaps we can say that there is a trace of the Trinity within all of us, and so even relations with oneself are inter-subjective. I'll always remember Eric Hoffer's mention of "communion with oneself."

To clarify: Socrates is better than a pig metaphysically; adult and virtuous Socrates is better than infant or vicious Socrates morally; and Socrates satisfied is better than Socrates dissatisfied physically. Thus, metaphysical good does not need a soul in order to be good, physical good requires a soul in order to be good, and moral good is the result of a soul judging itself.

A final example. Suppose A meets B for the first time "in the state of nature." He may decide to treat B as a thing. But, if he is smart, he will recognize B's nature and consider him a subject, like himself. But at this point A still has no idea how to behave towards B. What must happen first is a conversation between them, to understand each other's desires and desirable traits. Only once they have become familiar with each other can they establish rules on how to act.

See also:

Morality Is Intersubjective

JEK said...

Dmitry, can you rephrase it without useage of Christian metaphores? "Trace of Trinity" associated in my world with overdose.

JEK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danny Shahar said...

Just to nitpick on your first point, doesn't your will control your body? That is, doesn't it affect change by use of bodily faculties? Or are you characterizing the "will" as the passive, emotive "part" of the self, whereas the "intellect" is the deliberative, active "part" of the self? If so, are you willing to acknowledge that you're drawing a hard distinction where in actuality there's a fuzzy continuum?

More substantively, I don't think your account of the different sorts of good is exactly right. First, I don't believe that there is such a thing as an "objective" good in exactly the way that you characterized it. I do, however, believe that the attribution of value to things involves an objective component. That is, we recognize objective features in objects and either "undeliberatively" value them (instinctively? automatically?), or we actively choose to value them as a sort of means to some end. It seems to me that the "objective" valuation you describe would be comprehensible within my paradigm as the sort of valuation that's reactive and undeliberative.

But if that sort of reaction is "objective," then it seems to me that moral rules might have a very strong claim to being at least somewhat objective in that sense. For example, I think we attach negative value to pain in others without choosing to do so; we know that pain is bad, and we acknowledge its badness automatically when we see it. Because we recognize that others experience life in much the same way that we do, and because we know that we (I think automatically) ascribe some moral weight to pain when inflicted upon us, I think we more or less undeliberatively ascribe moral weight to pain in others. That's why "You shouldn't hurt other people for no reason" is not a position most of us choose to accept; it's something we view to be common sense.

This view of moral prescriptions as at least partly reactive is supported by the fact that most cultures agree on a great many norms, and the fact that where there are disagreements, we can often find differences in the way people view the metaphysical nature of the objects of their disagreements. To use the classic example of Hindus and cows, we see that the disagreement over whether eating cows is okay stems from the belief that ancestors' souls reside in cows bodies; if people from other cultures actually believed that this were true, it seems likely that they would believe the same thing as the Hindus about eating cows.

This view is also bolstered by the fact that when we disagree with others about moral issues, we don't speak autobiographically, but rather point to objective features in objects of moral concern as grounding our views, and contradicting our opponent's. That is, I don't say, "You shouldn't step on the cat because I decided that I like cats, and that I wouldn't like to step on them anymore!" Rather, you point to the fact that it hurts the cat when you step on it, and hurting the cat for no reason is morally bad. The implication here is that you think that there's something about hurting the cat for no reason that would make any normal human being realize that it was wrong.

If that's true, then morality would not simply be dependent on agreement between individuals (implying that if individuals did not agree, that would be the end of the discussion). It would also reflect the objective component in moral sensibility which tends to produce agreement on moral issues.

While I don't think that social moral norms are the same kind of thing as hockey (hockey is not the product of normative reactions), I do think that the nature of hockey is similarly not entirely dependent on what people think. If you believed that hockey is played in the water, and I believed it is played on ice, it wouldn't simply be an irreconcilable disagreement, or something that I would need to settle by appealing to what other people happen to think. You would simply be wrong; hockey just isn't played in the water. To put it another way, hockey in the water is not hockey (it's water polo, more or less :-P). If I turned on an Islanders game and said, "See? Hockey." You could not legitimately say, "Oh, well that's not what I think of as hockey."

Danny Shahar said...

JEK (from earlier), I think it's actually one of the noteworthy features of Rand's writing that she breaks down holistic concepts into claims about individuals in order to make them seem mistaken and even evil. That's not by accident; Rand believed very strongly that if people understood these things "as they really are," then they would see why they were so wrong. In another post, I highlight Jan Narveson more explicitly doing the same thing.

But the fact that some holistic concepts can be explained in terms of individuals does not mean that all holistic claims can be explained that way. Good candidates for individualistic decomposition are those concepts which refer to a leader's decisions as "the group's decisions," and spontaneous orders not characterized by conscious grouping. But some things (I believe hockey is an example) are not as amenable to this sort of decomposition. The hockey team is it's own thing (even if there is no hockey team that exists independently of its parts) just like a person is not exactly the same thing as a set of cells connected in a particular way.

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