Commitment and other fantasies

When I hear that anything is ‘committed’ to something I reach for my gun. It’s an almost certain signifier of insincerity. As a donor I receive bumph from the Brotherhood of St Laurence. The latest newsletter I got told me that “The Brotherhood is committed to ensuring that everyone in our community is given the opportunity to join the mainstream life of our society.”

What the hell does that mean?  A government, with all its resources might have a ‘commitment’ like that, although it is more likely to be a pretty much flat out lie – because it will only be ‘committed’ to it up to some very low threshold of pain and what kind of commitment is that? But the Brotherhood? Why would it take on such a fanciful commitment. Why not make the commitment to the whole world. The Brotherhood is committed to the ending of world poverty.

This isn’t so much a blog post as a tweet that won’t fit into 140 characters. I have nothing more to add, except to say ‘bollocks’.

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7 Responses to Commitment and other fantasies

  1. Dave says:

    “Commitment” is one of Don Watson’s “Weasel Words”. There are plenty more, but I think that it is probably the worst of them.

    It has the same effect on me as it has on you (except I don’t have a gun).

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    No, I don’t have a gun either – all talk and no action I’m afraid ;(

  3. Fred Argy says:

    Sorry, I don’t feel it’s all bullocks.

    If the Brotherhood mean substantive equality of opportunity, then it means everyone should be able to develop their full potential, irrespective of the original circumstances of their birth and childhood, and where a person’s economic prospects are determined overwhelmingly by their own ability and character. It is a useful policy goal to have – although we can never agree on what exactly it means. It does not say anything about equality of outcome.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    That’s not my point Fred. I have nothing against the goal. Just like I have nothing against ending world poverty – obviously enough. I dislike it’s grandiosity. It’s a charity for God’s sake.

    If I give money to the BSL – which I have done – I don’t do it because I’m “committed to ensuring that everyone in our community is given the opportunity to join the mainstream life of our society.” I give money because it might make a difference to someone’s life for the better, someone who’s not had as good a chances at life as me. Isn’t that enough?

  5. No, it’s in the weasel category by a goodly margin. Governments use it all the time and their sincerity is probably several degrees lower than BSL.

  6. Kien says:

    Perhaps the Brotherhood’s use of the term “commitment” has some connection with Amartya Sen’s concept of commitment. (See the post below by Kevin Quinn.) You could perhaps generously allow that a commitment like “Do no evil” signals a willingness to be judged by societal norms. Incidentally, do you think a commitment like “maximising shareholder value” is sincere? Or is it an excuse not to be judged by broader societal norms?

    Identity and Interests, by Kevin Quinn: I believe that the “economic way of thinking,” as the textbooks have it, destroys the world we have in common, because that world is a world constructed in a normative, not a natural, space and rationality, as economists understand it, is inconsistent with, indeed makes nonsense of, the notion of normative authority. In effect, this point was made 30 years ago by Amartya Sen in “Rational Fools,” where he argued that while the economic conception of rationality can make sense of “sympathy,” – preference structures that made the utility of others part of the agent’s objective function – it cannot make sense of what Sen called “commitment,” which he defined as “counter-preferential choice.” The idea that we sometimes sacrifice something – lower our utility – to do what is right is absolutely inconsistent with rational choice. I don’t doubt that there are people who are well described as rational choosers – and more of them, unfortunately, than there would be had rational choice theory never been invented – but they are damaged humans, sociopaths.

    The history of attempts to make sense of normative authority without giving up utility maximization is sad and pathetic and I will not rehearse it here. (The crudest is the attempt to make values a species of meta- or second-order preferences; the problem is that this approach cannot explain why their “second-orderness” gives them any more authority than the first-order preferences they are about.)

    At one time, influenced by Mark Sagoff and early Bowles and Gintis, I thought that a reasonable way of “assimilating” the normative, taming it, in effect, was to distinguish between our concern with pursuing our interests and our concern with our identities, with the latter concern giving rise to commitment and making sense of normativity. So I refrain from doing something that would serve my interests because I am (we are) not the sort of person (people) who would do such a thing. This sort of thing is perfectly compatible with utility maximization, as the Akerlof/Krainton papers have shown, and therefore perfectly inconsistent with Senian commitment.

    Here is the deeper problem with using “identity” to make sense of commitment: the criteria of identity are, if identity is to underpin the normative, themselves normative, not natural. My commitment to honest inquiry is tied to my identity as a “scientist,” say- but scientists understood as honest inquirers, not scientists per se -many of whom are not honest. So appeal to identity to make sense of normative authority is, or can be, question-begging.

    The normative, I submit, is irreducible. Hic rosa, hic salta!

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Hi Kien,

    Thanks for your comment, but I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to believe it.

    I don’t much like lots of theoretical discussion about what is ‘rational’ and not, and don’t even like Sen’s early stuff on this, though his latter stuff on capability is great.

    As for rationality being non-normative, it’s as normative as hell. It’s a social norm. And in some situations it’s well and good – in the financial markets for instance – and in others it’s much less so – in schools and families for instance.

    But by the end of the passage Mr Quinn seems to have figured out what was pretty self evident. That there’s something irreducible about ethics. Didn’t Hume tell us that? That you can’t get to ‘ought’ from ‘is’. Or was it someone else. Whatever, it was a long time ago.

    As for saying the BSL was referring to early Sen when using the word ‘committed’, well you admit yourself it’s pretty lame. Using slightly less fashionable language might be a sign of commitment (in early Sen’s sense).

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