It is for the heart to suggest our problems; it is for the intellect to solve them…. The only position for which the intellect is primarily adapted is to be the servant of the social sympathies.-Auguste Comte, as quoted by Arthur Cecil Pigou
Arthur Cecil Pigou was an economist who, writing around the same time as the famous John Maynard Keynes, was an early contributor to welfare economics. A book-downloading spree last month led me to procure his book, “Welfare Economics”, which now sits in a “to read” folder on my laptop. So far, I’ve read the first chapter of the book and left it at that. While I do hope I pick up and finish it eventually, I’d like to, in lieu of straightforwardly introducing myself and this blog, attempt an introduction through the discussion of a couple of paragraphs from its first chapter.
So, in the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of his book, Pigou speaks knowledge as being able to bear either (or both, in some cases) of two things: light and fruit. These are the two things we may seek knowledge for, or that we might expect from knowledge. When we seek knowledge for “light”, we seek knowledge for it’s own sake, or for the sake of knowing, or to satisfy the need to know. When we seek knowledge for “fruit”, we seek it as the means to an end, or for its practical applicability, or as Pigou puts it, for the “healing” it brings.
I picked philosophy as a subject in college, because what it was, it seemed, was an attempt to answer the big, difficult, frightening questions I had about the universe and existence and such. I picked economics as a subject in college because the world was (is) unfair and unequal, and I wanted to do something to make it better, and it seemed like economics would help. Philosophy was for “light”, and economics was for “fruit”. Of course, a more nuanced analysis may claim that both disciplines had both aspects to them. Ethics, for example, is a branch of philosophy concerned with choice, and is meaningless if detached from the practical. It’s only fair to say that while a lot of what we classify as philosophy is studied for the sake of knowing, there is a part of it that serves simply as a means to an end. While this duality is characteristic of certain disciplines, Pigou says it cannot be true of the “economic sciences”.
Why would one study the mundane lives of ordinary men, trying to predict the decisions they might make, if there was no social impetus to do so? Why would anybody be interested in studying matters as dry as the matters economists are concerned with, just for the sake of knowing? It is not wonder, says Pigou, but rather the social enthusiasm which revolts from the sordidness of mean streets and the joylessness of withered lives, that is the beginning of economic science. Pigou never quite argues for this being true. He just seems to say it and leave it at that. I, personally, don’t want to impose this generalization upon you. I only brought up Pigou here because he seems to articulate, in these few paragraphs, exactly what I felt about my major in college. Sure, there may just be many people who enjoy studying the sordidness of mean streets, et cetera, and are not motivated by social enthusiasm, but I’m not one of them. I enjoy learning philosophy, reading political newsbits, fighting patriarchy and painting my nails. I also like dancing. I can’t say I enjoy studying economic theory immensely, but I do enjoy problem solving. And what motivated me to study economics was that it was a step towards being able to help with solving of some big problems in the world.
A sense of social responsibility almost always comes from empathy; and that’s something I think we’re all bound to feel. For a privileged person, empathizing with less privileged persons is a not-so-great feeling, so most tend to push the empathy under a rug, or try and provide some twisted reasoning for why they deserve the privilege. And then there are some others who’ve assumed that they can’t do much to make the big, bad world better. But it doesn’t hurt to try.
Besides, Noam Chomsky would say you’re obliged to.
It would be fair, at this point, to say that my goal in life is to try. I’ve just finished my undergraduate degree, and as I struggle to complete this blog post, I’m trying very hard to get over my sadness at college life having passed me by in the wink of an eye. In a little more than a month I’ll be in a faraway country studying Development Practice with a group of unfamiliar people. I’m sure I’ll read more, think more and encounter more things that I want to record. I’m sure there’ll be several thoughts that need organizing, and several experiences that need articulating. This blog will be my space for all that and more. I hope that, if you’ve made it this far, you’ll keep reading.