Moral Relativism

by Gene Callahan

I’ve long been chagrined about the fact that, whenever someone points out that it was wrong, say, for the United States to annihilate a quarter of a million civilians in Japan in 1945, that person is accused, by some “patriot,” of “moral relativism,” as if condemning an act equally whoever does it is “relativism”! So I was very happy to see Glenn Greenwald making the same point today:

“Perhaps the ultimate confusion is that ‘the Left’ has long been accused of ‘moral relativism’ for pointing out the use of these terms when the essence of ‘moral relativism’ is judging an act not based on what it is, but on who is doing it. It’s the adolescent self-love of believing that ‘X, by definition, is good when I do it and bad when you do it.'”

Real History Versus Pop History

by Gene Callahan

My current research involves a lot of digging into Roman and American history. For the most part, along the way, I’ve been reading books by historians aimed at an academic audience. But I recently picked up Cicero by Anthony Everitt, the sort of “pop” history book that is made into a History Channel special. Let me tell you, after some time without reading a book like this, I was shocked by how lax the standards for this sort of work are. Continue reading

Obama Has the Right Idea

by Gene Callahan

There has been a lot of commentary about Obama’s “beer summit” with Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Sgt. James Crowley at the White House to discuss Crowley’s arrest of Gates. I must say that I admire Obama’s approach here, as I find it refreshingly Aristotelian: the right way to sort out conflicts like that between Gates and Crowley is to have a symposium and engage in reasonable discussion about the problem.

Tacit Knowledge

by Gene Callahan

Although I haven’t been programming professionally for several years now, I began re-reading Jon Bentley’s Programming Pearls for fun the other day, and ran across this:

“Good programmers are a little bit lazy: they sit back and wait for an insight rather than rushing forward with their first idea. That must, of course, be balanced with the initiative to code at the proper time. The real skill, though, is knowing the proper time. That judgment comes only with the experience of solving problems and reflecting on their solutions.”

Even in this most algorithmic of disciplines, there is no algorithm for acting like a skilled practitioner.

Propaganda Part II: Opaque Symbols

by Gene Callahan

The political theorist and philosopher Eric Voegelin, who was an attendee at the Mises Kreis in Vienna and a lifelong friend of Hayek and Schutz, coined (as far as I know) the term “opaque symbols.” What this means is that the symbol user’s connection to the experiential source of the opaque symbol is missing, so the symbol is no longer “seen through” to what it symbolizes, but instead has become a substitute for the experience itself.

Opaque symbols are a major component of ideological propaganda. For instance, “freedom” and “liberty” are now tossed around in American political discourse with little more meaning than “Good stuff you should like!” I saw another interesting example recently on TV. Continue reading

Can Biology Dispense with Purpose?

by Gene Callahan

Mario called into doubt the usefulness of purposive explanations in biology in this thread. I started to write up the following as a comment, but it grew long enough, and, I hope, of enough general interest, that I found it appropriate to elevate it to “post level.”

I think the evidence is very strong that biologists just have not been able to do without thinking of the “purposes” of biological features, despite the scientistic prejudice against regarding any such consideration as scientific. Continue reading

Why the Catholic Position on Homosexual Marriage Is Not Mere Bigotry (But Still Is Mistaken)

by Gene Callahan

“Summum autem bonum si ignoratur, vivendi rationem ignorari necesse est.”* — Cicero

My friend Roger Koppl, in a recent discussion on this blog, contended that the only reason anyone might object to legalizing gay marriage is “bigotry.” Now, it is always a good bit o’ fun to insult one’s political opponents like this, but it may not always be helpful. So, I wish to take a moment here to demonstrate that at least the Catholic position contra gay marriage is not based on mere bigotry. Continue reading

Why Mathematical Reasoning Cannot Be a Simple Matter of Definitions and Formal Rules

by Gene Callahan

The point I wish to make here has been made before, notably, by Lewis Carroll in his essay “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles“, as well as by Wittgenstein, in his work on what it means to “follow a rule,” and by Gödel in his famous paper on undecideability. But, as I recently encountered a very, very bright young philosopher who seemed unaware of the import of such arguments, it is, perhaps, a point worth making once again.

The contention at hand is that, contrary to those who hold that mathematical knowledge offers us an example of objective truths that are of a non-physical nature, mathematical truth is “simply” a matter of positing some arbitrary set of definitions and rules for drawing conclusions from them. Continue reading


by Gene Callahan

I’ve been reading the anthropologist Clifford Geertz‘s book, The Interpretation of Cultures, this week. I had read a little Geertz when doing my master’s at LSE, and liked him then, and I like him even more now. For instance, Hayek, Oakeshott, Polanyi, Wittgenstein, MacIntyre and others have all noted how the Enlightenment goal of freeing reason from all allegiance to traditions, customs, habits and so on is not an ideal we should approach as closely as possible but an impossibility, and an impossibility that, if held as a goal, only creates mischief. Here is Geertz making much the same point:

‘Undirected by culture patterns — organized systems of significant symbols — man’s behavior would be virtually ungovernable, a mere chaos of pointless acts and exploding emotions, his experience virtually shapeless’ (46).

Geertz also drew on the work of some of my favorite philosophers, including Whitehead, Cassirer, and Langer.

The Illusion of Coherence

by Gene Callahan

I just ran across the work of Professor Saul Smilansk, who is making a splash in ‘free will’ discussion circles. Professor Similansk apparently argues that:
1) Free will is an illusion; but
2) It is a necessary illusion in order to preserve social order, because
3) If people came to believe that they don’t have free will they would choose to act immorally; so
4) We should choose to maintain this illusion.

How does someone even manage to hold these various thoughts in their head at the same time?

Another Flaw in the Diamond

by Gene Callahan

The famed “geographical historian,” Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is being sued, by two New Guinea tribesmen, for $10 million. It seems a feud he described didn’t occur, and a man he describes as paralyzed in that feud has been found walking about just fine.

Diamond’s failure, I suspect, is not one of honesty, but one of gullibility: he heard this story from someone and failed to check it out. This is something of which he frequently has been guilty in the past. In a paper of mine, which is forthcoming in a volume entitled The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism, I write: Continue reading

Musings on prose and poetry, music and economic modeling

by Sandy Ikeda

I seem to remember a good example of the difference between real time and merely dimensional (“Newtonian”) time, probably in O’Driscoll and Rizzo’s The Economics of Time and Ignorance.
Perhaps someone can find the correct reference.  In any case, they observed that you can’t listen to music that is condensed in time.  You can’t speed listen to Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” at x10 without losing the music.

Their point was that just as time as duration is indispensible in the appreciation of music, one cannot abstract from real time, and all of its complications, when theorizing about economics without losing something essential.  It’s been a long time since I came across that example, wherever it was, but it has always stuck in my mind.

Now, when I studied music I could glance at a sheet of music and get a sense of what it “sounds” like.  As I read it closer to real time, however, the time in which it was meant to be played, the more the music was able to emerge from the page.  Something essential was lost then the more I abstracted from real time. Continue reading

In Defense of Reasonable Ideology



by Mario Rizzo


There have been many statements recently to the effect that we should not let “ideology” or “philosophy” stand in the way of solving our economic problems.  Indeed, the Obama Administration (and the previous Bush Administration) are keen to persuade us to drop all of this prejudice and to go after each problem – banking, stimulus, and so forth – on its own terms. We should examine each solution on its own merits.


President Obama’s inaugural address includes an apparent attack on ideology:


“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works …”



What appears to be a sensible idea to turn our problems into purely technical ones is, on the contrary, profoundly unscientific and, more generally, anti-intellectual.


This is a big subject and deserves comprehensive treatment. Let it suffice here to make a few crucial observations. Continue reading

Speaking of Models

by Gene Callahan

In a physical science, such as, say, astronomy, if the physical world disagrees with our model, we correct the model. For instance, imagine that our model predicts that Venus will be at a certain place in the sky tomorrow night. Tomorrow night we turn our telescope to that place in the sky and find that Venus is nowhere near there. What we do is we go back to the drawing board and devise a new model.

Now let us look at this economics paper that our friend Bob Murphy over at Free Advice alerted us to. Two economists examine the issue of whether Irving Fisher was correct to claim, before the crash of 1929, that stocks were undervalued at the time. If undervalued is going to have any objective meaning at all, it is going to have to mean something like “Gee, I really regret not having invested in stocks at that point because they did very well from then on out.” On the other hand, stocks being overvalued, to be an objective statement, must mean something like “My God, investing in stocks at that point sure would have been stupid.”

But look at what these two economists conclude — “The evidence strongly suggests that Fisher was right. Even at the 1929 peak, stocks were undervalued relative to the prediction of theory.” So, in other words, faced with a disagreement between their model and reality, these chaps conclude “our model is right; reality will have to be corrected.” And look at what they term “the evidence” — not reality, but “the prediction of theory”! Their model is evidence that reality was off the mark.

Methinks there is something seriously amiss here.

What Is a Model?

by Gene Callahan

I’ve been pondering this point a bit lately, and this seems like a good place to share my musings and get some feedback. The main questions I’ve been pondering are things like, ‘How is a model “accurate”?’ ‘What makes something a model of one thing and not another?’ ‘How do we know how to “use” the model in some activity?’

Let’s consider a blueprint for a house. It consists of some blue lines on white paper. You give it to me, ignorant of building practice, and tell me ‘Build this right here’, and indicate a piece of ground. I see there is a scale conversion on the blueprint, say, 1 inch = 3 feet. I figure out the requisite enlargement of the figure — then I go and paint a white rectangle on the ground of that size, and proceed to paint blue lines on it. Continue reading

On confidence and/or trust

by Sandy Ikeda

In English we often use the words “trust” and “confidence” interchangeably and it usually doesn’t matter. I can say either “I’m confident that this ladder won’t collapse” or more simply “I trust this ladder.” However, I think the second way of stating it, apart from being a little less specific than the first, is actually metaphorical. It treats the ladder as if it were a person whom we can trust or distrust.

Robert J. Shiller’s article in the Wall Street Journal of a couple of weeks ago, “Animal spirits depend on trust,” in addition to being highly problematic in other ways, offers good examples of this ambiguous usage, to wit:

A critical aspect of animal spirits is trust, an emotional state that dismisses doubts about others. In talking about animal spirits, Keynes sought to convey the message that swings in confidence are not always logical. (Emphasis added)

Of course it’s not the words but the concepts behind them that are important, and when we’re talking about a particular politico-economic system, such as the political capitalism of the United States, or a subset of that system, such as the financial sector, the distinction can matter, as I think it does now. Continue reading

Time for Reflection: Cicero, Liberality and Katrina

by Mario Rizzo


Some time ago I came across this quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), the Roman orator, senator, philosopher and opponent of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. I have a picture of stone bust of him both in my office and my home. (Yes, I like him.)  

There are, though, many especially those greedy for renown and glory, who steal from one group the very money they lavish upon another. Continue reading

Has Anyone Ever Tried to Formalize Austrian Economics?

by Gene Callahan

I’ve been asked that question several times (often via e-mail from some reader of an online article of mine.) Well, Monday, at our colloquium, we discussed a paper presented by the Italian economist Giandomenica Becchio on the economic (and ethical) work of Karl Menger, the son of the founding Austrian economist Carl Menger. She had several remarks in her paper that caught my fancy. She noted that Karl, in his advocacy of mathematical economics, saw himself as forwarding his father’s program of seeking “exact economic laws.” She quoted Oskar Morgenstern saying that “the axiomatic method must be applied to economics with no regard to the realism of hypotheses” — which struck me as a modified version of Mises’s “a priorism.’ Continue reading

The Blackened Swan

by Gene Callahan

I am now on my second review of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, the first of which will appear in The Review of Austrian Economics soon, and the second of which, an essay length review, is due out in a forthcoming issue of Critical Review. I have very mixed feelings about this book — Taleb is very good in his areas of expertise, but apparently feels that his skill in those domains makes him emminently qualified to propound on any damned thing that comes into his head. I wanted to share with ThinkMarkets readers a little excerpt from my upcoming CR review: Continue reading