Thursday, April 16, 2009

El Dorado, the Cusp, and Cost-Benefit Analysis

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Several times over the years I've quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:  "to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."  I decided to find the source of the quote, and it is in the essay "El Dorado," the sixth in a book called Virginibus Puerique, published by Scribner in 1904, and now in the public domain.  As is often the case, it turns out the entire quote and, indeed, the entire essay, is rewarding.

The essay is a meditation on the irony or paradox of our pursuits: "we all shoot at the moon with ineffectual arrows," knowing that the goals we attain are not really the end, even though we work toward them as if they were. 

A strange picture we make on our way to our chimaeras, ceaselessly marching, grudging ourselves the time for rest; indefatigable, adventurous pioneers. It is true that we shall never reach the goal; it is even more than probable that there is no such place; and if we lived for centuries and were endowed with the powers of a god, we should find ourselves not much nearer what we wanted at the end. O toiling hands of mortals! O unwearied feet, travelling ye know not whither! Soon, soon, it seems to you, you must come forth on some conspicuous hilltop, and but a little way further, against the setting sun, descry the spires of El Dorado. Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.

Yesterday we had the pleasure here at Suffolk of listening to Doug Kysar (Yale, right) speak elegantly about the book he has under contract with Yale University Press, Regulating from Nowhere: Environmental Law and the Search for Objectivity.  It's a critique of the predominant cost-benefit approach to environmental regulation, not so muchKysar_New to propose an alternative solution, but instead to suggest that there is a seed of brute explanation in the quest for social scientific objectivity.  While there's much food for thought for the environmentalists, there's also something here for jurisprudes.  It struck me that Doug is another "philosopher of the cusp," struggling to say that for all that social science (including welfare economics) aspires to objectivity, there's something missing.  As I said a few days ago, we who are sufficiently empiricists (in the philosophical, not the methodological, sense) acknowledge that all we are ever going to "know" is what we can observe and measure and record, and recoil at human claims to knowledge of the supernatural.   Yet we feel, as Charles Taylor says, "a sense of unease at the world of unbelief: some sense that something big, something important has been left out, some level of profound desire has been ignored, some greater reality outside us has been closed off."  

I've been studying Michael Moore's new book, Causation and Responsibility, and thinking about the strange picture we do indeed make to our chimaeras.  Whether it's the universal moral grammar of John Mikhail, the evolutionary determinism of Joshua Greene, the naturalized jurisprudence of Brian Leiter, the strange anti-metaphysical metaphysics of Dworkin's claim to have divined objective moral truths, I'm skeptical of any claim (or apparent claim) to arrival.  The problem with "naturalist" or "empiricist" or "consequentialist" responses to deontology is that, to my mind, they aim at a straw person.  I'm not prepared to speak for God, don't know if there is a God, am skeptical if there is a God that it's anthropomorphic.  So I'm not suggesting that some ethereal or spiritual brute explanation substitute for scientific or otherwise rigorous inquiry.  Neither, however, do I accept what I read as Leiter's "burden of proof" argument; that naturalism is the only acceptable approach to what's real and the onus on demonstrating otherwise is on whomever is a non-naturalist.  In the face of the continuing evidence that we have paradox in the world - the inexplicability of consciousness (is it reducible or not?), problems of recursiveness and infinite regress, the limits to self-contained mathematical systems, and others - it seems to me just as much a matter of faith that science will solve the problems as that those appearing most intractable will ever be solved. As Doug pointed out, consequentialism in the extreme (say, wholly utilitarian approaches to the value of life) leads to absurdity (lots of wealth but no living people to spend it).  Yet on the other end of the philosophical spectrum, so do extreme exercises in reason (called dogmatism or fanaticism).

We on the cusp sense intuitively that microeconomics gets a lot right; yet we read a passage from Derrida or Robert Cover, and while recoiling from complete indeterminacy or skepticism or post-modernism, nevertheless understand there's something big that science or economics leaves out.  (This leaves us unlikely ever to appear on Hardball or The Situation Room, and quaking at the mere prospect of being interviewed by Stephen Colbert.)  We just shy away from soundbites like Moore's "In truth, I find libertarian metaphysics to border on the unintelligible. . . .  The will as uncaused causer is a very strange idea.  How can there be an event that cause other events yet is itself not subject to causal influences by earlier events?"  (p. 272)   (So much for Kant!)  Well, that's the mystery!  We don't know if our sense of free will is shaped environmentally or as a matter of evolutionary adaptiveness.  Without rejecting that there can be objectivity, we're just skeptical that claims to objectivity about ourselves (whether micro- or macro-) aren't one more conspicuous hilltop on the way to an unattainable El Dorado. 

It's hard to write in the legal academy and not have some prescription at the end (see Schlag), but Doug Kysar's was, it seemed to me, appropriately humble.  It simply asks that we focus more on traveling hopefully than operating on the illusion we've arrived.

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Re Robert Louis Stevenson, "it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." As C.S. Lewis pointed out, if that were true, and known to be true, it would be impossible to travel hopefully. Interesting post, though.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Apr 17, 2009 5:24:09 AM

Hi there!

I actually had an assignment from school to paraphrase the passage "El Dorado". I have completed the assignment and hope so someone can take a look at it to see if I managed to get the gist of Robert Louis Stevenson's writing. I'll e-mail it to you just give me a buzz at my e-mail @

Many thanks

Posted by: Yvonne | May 23, 2009 8:10:11 AM

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