Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Kantian background to discussing John Roemer paper

In my previous post, I set at 80 percent the probability that, at yesterday's NYU Tax Policy Colloquium discussion of John Roemer's A Theory of Cooperation in Games With an Application to Market Socialism, I would "end up recounting the tale of the unfair bad grade (worst of my career) that I got as a freshman on a Kant paper." These subjective odds reflected that the story, which reading the paper had helped to return from long hibernation to the forefront of my mind, actually relates to issues of prime interest that the paper raises.

As it happens, I didn't end up recounting the story either in the AM class or at the PM public session, as it would have taken too much airtime. But I'll indulge myself by leading with it here, before turning more particularly to the paper in a follow-up post.

It's September or perhaps very early in October 1974, and I've recently arrived at Princeton University as a 17-year old freshman. (I later ascertained that 94% of the class was older than me - this in an era when 18 was the legal drinking age and there was a on-campus student pub at which you'd be carded.)

Having both a competitive nature and a family background that placed intense value on "intelligence" and academic achievement, I was eager to rate myself against the field, as well as judge myself against demanding self-expectations.  I also made a point from the start of taking classes in which there were frequent student papers, because I liked writing, along with the greater control over content that they offered relative to answering exam questions.

The first short paper I got back, presumably in history or political science, came out in accordance with my self-demands. But then came the second one, in Intro to Moral Philosophy. This was a lecture course taught by Thomas Scanlon, but my "preceptor" (as they called the leaders of the weekly small-group seminar meetings) was a graduate student in the philosophy department whose name I still recall.

This paper's subject was Kant, and more particularly the categorical imperative, which might be stated (per Wikipedia) as follows: "Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law."

Intellectually unformed though I then was, I realized that, in interpreting it, one faces what I might today call a "level of generality" problem. The example I thought of was as follows: While it DOES mean, say, that I shouldn't lie because if everyone lied we would lose the ability to have the truth believed, it surely DOESN'T mean that I can't go to the Wawa Market on Alexander Street at 8 pm, on the ground that no one could go there if everyone tried to at the same time. So, in attempting to apply the categorical imperative, there is a broader issue, which may have no simple or obvious answer, regarding the level of generality at which one should state the maxims that one is testing for rational consistency.

To this day, I don't think that's bad for what was presumably a 2-page (or at the most 5-page) paper in an undergraduate Intro to Philosophy class. But I got it back with a grade of C+ and some sort of peremptory, even angry or at least disgusted / impatient, scrawl - which might as well have been in crayon - to the effect of: No, that's wrong, that's not what the categorical imperative says. No effort beyond that to engage or explain where or how the grad student thought I had gone wrong.

These days, when a student gets a poor grade and comes in to see me, I'll try to reconstruct the reasons for it (if it's an exam that doesn't have comments like a graded paper), but I'll also say very strongly if this appears to be among the student's concerns: This DOESN"T mean you're a bad student, or not good at law or at tax, etc. - it's just a thing that happened one time in terms of answering one question that might have been either well or poorly chosen (and then graded) by me.

But I didn't have the older me to tell me this at the time, nor did I go talk to the graduate student, towards whom I now felt hostile. (Plus, I knew it was generally bad form to complain about grades.) What I should have done, of course, is go see Scanlon - not to complain about the grade as such, but to get broader dialogue and feedback, but the thought of doing this never occurred to me. I think I viewed him, through no fault of his own, as too far removed and remote from me.

Taking the whole thing far too seriously, I was shaken by the grade, which hurt my self-confidence (hence, I told no one about it at the time), even though I felt that it was misguided, unfair, perhaps biased for some specific reason that I couldn't fathom, and stupid. I also concluded that maybe I wasn't fated to do as well in philosophy classes as in other liberal arts subjects. I responded by working more diligently for the rest of that semester then I ever would again. (Once I had restored my self-confidence via my final fall 1974 results, I continued to take my schoolwork, for the most part, reasonably seriously, but I developed a tendency to prefer pursuing my own intellectual interests to those of a particular course or instructor.)

Anyway, the very interesting Roemer paper raises, among other questions, that of how good Kantians should frame the maxims that they are hypothetically universalizing in their minds. Depending on the context, the answer to this question is sometimes clear, but other times much less so.

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