Monthly book roundup – September

Books finished in September:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk. Recommended. 

The story of Jeffrey Sachs’ rise (and fall?). Sachs became a celebrity as an economic shock therapist in Bolivia in the late 1980’s and then in Poland and Russia. He then turned his considerable attention to poverty and in particular Africa, wanting to jump-start economic development there. He often argued on the basis of cost-effectiveness, as with the case for controlling malaria, but seems to have been consistently overoptimistic about how to obtain and keep up funding. In addition to disregarding advice on how to implement his changes, in particular on creating local ownership, controlling corruption and creating accountability. Add to this a lack of any strategy for measuring results, it is no surprise that the debate about the impact of Sachs’ highly advertised Millennium Villages have become heated. A piece (by Michael Clemence and Gabriel Demombynes, both involved in the debate) about what can be learned about the need for transparency from that controversy can be found here.

In the book, Sachs comes off as motivated and engaging, but also as righteous, preachy, and someone not tackling criticism or dealing with real-world constraints. Sachs drew much criticism for the effects of his shock therapies, but I believe his approach there was the right one: Acknowledging that there are trade-offs and costs that must be incurred, but that the alternative is worse. When trying to do too much, one may easily end up getting done nothing.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time) by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah traces the history of cosmopolitan ethics to try to stake a course between cultural relativism and value fundamentalism. He does not present clear-cut answers, but believes mutual understanding will ensue if both (or all) sides participate in conversation – both in its original meaning of living together and of the current meaning of discussing – and get used to each other. Then we may actually learn from our differences. And presumably also extend our moral circle. Perhaps this is naive, but perhaps not. I particularly liked the part where he reminds us that people with different beliefs often appeal to evidence the same way, e.g. by employing explanations that they cannot account for in detail, invoking authorities, and bringing up new facts that needs explaining. He is perfectly clear that modern science most often provides better explanations, thanks to its institutional structure that has been built and has persisted for a long time.

Experiments in Ethics (Mary Flexner Lecture Series of Bryn Mawr College) Kwame Anthony Appiah. Experimental philosophy is a rapidly growing new discipline, in which philosophical concepts and intuitions are investigated empirically. Appiah begins his book with an exposition of the well known fact that today’s narrow conception of philosophy is a very recent phenomenon, philosophers from antiquity to the 18th century worked in what is today known as science, and all this work fell under the label of philosophy. For example, the “natural philosophies” of Copernicus and Kepler were included a survey of “Philosophies.”

Appiah uses this to show that philosophers were no strangers of experiments, and draws the line to today’s experimental philosophers by stating that experimental thinking was also part of their repertoire. David Hume explicitly claimed to be engaged in “experiments” in his works. Although it is not altogether clear what exactly Hume intended with his use of the word, he was always committed to data.

I was not aware that Thomas Schelling was an early investigator of modern “behavioral economics” topics like the reference point and the win-loss distinction.

I like that Appiah discusses the uncertainty present in “trolley” scenarios, too few people consider that, in my opinion essential, element in these cases. Although he loses me after that.

Jonathan Haidt has become famous arguing that people reason from intuitions and emotions to moral judgment. Appiah cleverly suggests that Haidt himself may be doing the same in some of his cases of whether a particular act is a moral offense (such as having sex with a dead chicken, and then cooking and eating it). People’s reasons for why these things constitute a moral offense are not very informative, but are other reasons?


Ratings and additional books are in the library.

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