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Toward Reasonable Stubbornness

Reason supports a free and prosperous future, while, contra Tyler Cowen, faith undermines it

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
June 10, 2022; ported here on January 14, 2024

In his wonderful book Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen sensibly calls for renewed devotion to prosperity and freedom. But, he notes, it's hard to know how to achieve those ends. "What should be the roles of reason and faith as we move forward?" he asks.

Out of the gate, then, Cowen presumes that we need some combination of reason and faith. What does that mean? If faith means believing in something without (or in contradiction to) evidence or logic, how can that do anything other than throw us off track? If faith means something like being stubbornly attached to something beyond reason, then why should we embrace such faith? Cowen immediately undermines his case. That's a problem, because the project that Cowen lays out is of utmost importance.

What is Cowen after? He writes, "Production could be much greater than it is today, and our lives could be more splendid." Alternately, if things go badly, production could drop. Cowen observes, "It is the work of capital, labor, and natural resources" (I'd say the work of people using capital and resources) "which undergird the achievements of our civilization." Hence, we should be deeply concerned with the ability of people in our society to produce things. So far, so good. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson.)

Then Cowen urges us to care about "individuals who will live in the future" more than we typically do. Straight away we run into two problems: Why should we care about future people (and should we?), and how can we know how our actions will impact future people? Regarding the second question, Cowen notes "it is sometimes hard for us to imagine how our actions will affect future people, especially those from the more distant future." But "their moral import remains high." How should we handle that?

Here Cowen invokes faith again:

I will therefore be asking humans to have greater faith in the future. I am not asking for faith at the expense of reason, but it will nonetheless require an attitude very much akin to faith to consistently think so far ahead in our calculations. It is no accident that religious people often have higher rates of fertility, or that they engage in so many long-term business and charitable projects, as Max Weber observed long ago.

If faith does not ever come at the expense of reason, then it adds nothing to the discussion. Cowen should just say that people reasonably should care a lot about future people. Either it's reasonable to do this or it isn't. If it is, then reason subsumes this "faith." If it isn't, then by definition we have no reason to embrace the project.

I think Cowen is hedging. He doesn't want to come out and say that his position is unreasonable, but he is not fully confident that it is, so he tacks on faith as a failsafe.

Faith is a problem. Religious people do not only faithfully pursue fertility, business, and charity. Often they also pursue regressive politics (see Trumpism). They promote the view that God is in charge, which, for some, implies that personal planning is of no great importance or that environmentalism doesn't matter. Often they joyously proclaim that God will bring about the end of the world. Those views hardly are concerned with reality-oriented futurism.

Insofar as people have more children because they are religious (rather than, say, because they are fans of Bryan Caplan), usually it is to build God's supernatural kingdom, not to create a glorious future on Earth. If religious people are more likely to pursue future-oriented businesses (are they?), that probably is coincidental to (or even in conflict with) their religion. Religious people often donate to charities to exhibit loyalty to God and to proselytize; by contrast, people involved in the secular Effective Altruism movement try to maximally improve others' material conditions.

I am not sold, then, on the notion that people who care more about a prosperous future on Earth should be more like religious people who think the afterlife matters most. Indeed, I think the greatest threat to our future prosperity, second to Putin's nuclear warheads, is the rise of faith-based religious fascism in America.

If someone replies that many religious people are not at all like Trumpist fascists, I answer that we can evaluate the relative worth of different religious stances only by reason. Insofar as people go by faith, they are as justified in thinking they need to blow up the world to hasten the arrival of God's Kingdom as in thinking they should work hard and save more. Justifying one's stances simply is not the point of faith nor required by it. Justification is a concern of reason.

Perhaps Cowen means the term "akin" to do more work than I have so far considered. Maybe he means that people need to be as passionately devoted to a prosperous future as many religious people are to their faith-based aims. But then we have to ask whether it is reasonable to be passionately committed to some aim (or to any conceivable aim). I think Cowen is not confident that it is, and hence the tack-on of faith. If Cowen were confident about this, he would not be tempted to bring in religion; he would just say that we have good reason to care a lot about a prosperous future.

My position is that we do have good reason to care a lot about a prosperous future, so this whole business of faith is a (dangerous) distraction. I think Cowen sometimes goes down the wrong path in building up his case, which helps to explain why he is not fully confident in his conclusions. I think that, by refining the underlying case, we can become better Cowenists than Cowen is. We can become reasonably stubborn.

I buy Cowen's case about the importance of economic growth that accounts for less-measurable values such as leisure time and for environmental health. The problem, as I see it, comes in Cowen's fourth chapter, "Is time a moral illusion?"

Cowen makes the controversial but reasonable claim that discounting the future, at the individual level, makes no sense (or at least should not much matter), other things equal. Indeed, the economists who covered my undergrad classes taught me that the only reason to discount the future is that it is uncertain. (At least, that is the lesson I learned from them, whether that is the lesson they intended.)

In other words, a sure dollar now is worth more than a chance of getting a dollar tomorrow. A bird in the hand and all that. The same benefit in the future is worth no more or less than it is worth today, except for the fact that I may not be alive to receive it or healthy enough to enjoy it. And, for a value that I enjoy over time—say, a house—I have to consider how long I'll be able to enjoy it. A house now is worth more than the same house in the future, because I can live in it longer. Also, if a value helps me get other values, getting it now probably is better. And I have to account for the fact that I change over time and so enjoy a benefit more or less at different times. So, although Cowen is right that time discounting per se is irrational, as a practical matter often we have good reason to want a value sooner rather than later, precisely because operationally it is not quite the same value.

Some will say that there is no reason to favor the future over the present moment, or vice versa, or to see them as equivalent (other things equal). My argument, as I make in What's Wrong with Ayn Rand's Objectivist Ethics and in my forthcoming book on atheism, is that, as rational beings, we integrate our values over the course of our lives, and that doing this well (integrating our values fully) should be what we're morally concerned with. I concede that someone incapable of valuing the future—say, a psychopath—won't have reason to think about time discounting the way that Cowen does. But no one like that will be reading Cowen's books or my essays anyway, so we can set that problem aside.

Generally I agree with Cowen, then. The problem is that Cowen jumps from the individual context to the social context and falls through the gap. Just because I should be indifferent between whether I get the same benefit now or in the future, doesn't mean I should be indifferent between whether I get the benefit during my life or after I am dead. Put in more accurate language, I cannot receive any benefits when I am dead.

Hidden in Cowen's argument about time discounting is an assumption that, just because I should not care whether my present or future self receives some benefit (so long as I get it sometime), therefore I should not care whether I get some benefit or someone else does. Built into Cowen's case is an extreme altruism that he offers no reason to accept. Hence his need for faith, which he brings up again near the end of his fourth chapter. (Note: Elsewhere Cowen overrides his implicit extreme altruism with "common sense" concerns for one's own life.)

What is the solution? I say that, as each individual rationally integrates their values, the person takes into account the welfare of others in particular ways. Friendship, love, family all are extremely important values for a human being. Many of us have children; all of us at least know younger people. So I can now care about the future after my death because I care about the people who will inhabit that future. And built into my concern for my six-year-old son is a recognition that he too will care about the future of the younger people in his life, when he is an older person. Hence, through my personal relationships, I have an extremely strong concern about the long-term future, most of which I will not personally see.

There is more. As people with the capacity for reason, we can envision an optimally good society and experience esthetic meaning and enjoyment in contemplating it and in helping to bring it about. And, as I can think about people alive today in general terms and wish them well (for example, I sympathize with the Ukrainians and with the Uighurs, even though I don't know any of them personally), so can I hope for the well-being of future people. Hence, I can and do have concern for future people I will never meet, people who will never even know of my existence, even apart from my concern with the many people I personally know whose lives will extend further into that future than will mine.

As a practical matter, everything I can think of that will improve the future for me and for my child also will improve the long-term future. In the positive-sum world that makes growth possible, deep intertemporal conflicts are rare, if they occur at all.

Later, in his sixth chapter, "Must uncertainty paralyze us?," in response to the problem of epistemic uncertainty about the consequences of our actions, Cowen again invokes faith, claiming that "all fruitful societies are based on some notion of faith." But he has just given us reasons (in the text) to think that we can handle uncertainty, partly by acting on sensible rules. It is reasonable to extrapolate likely futures based on past experience and general knowledge; it is unreasonable to worry that every flap of a butterfly's wings might cause the apocalypse. We don't need faith to have hope and love. All that faith throws into the mix is arbitrariness, which undermines reality-oriented long-range planning.

Perhaps Cowen aims to convince religious people to join his cause and to direct their "faith" in a fruitful direction. Regardless, I see Cowen as pandering to irrationality, something I see as very dangerous.

In sum, we have good reason to be concerned with the distant future, even the future after we as individuals die—which, for humanity, could last for many thousands of years—for reasons that have nothing to do with Cowen's argument about time discounting.

The disciples of Cowen do not need faith. We can have, if not the absolute assurance or blind conviction, the reasonable expectation of a future hoped for though, as of yet, unseen—if we work for it. We can, and should, reasonably attach ourselves stubbornly to a free and prosperous future.

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