Putting the Humanity Back in Economics

So Professor Jacob Stoll defends the study of the humanities with the thought that all the great economic thinkers from Aristotle to Locke to Adam Smith to Karl Marx to Lord Keynes and so forth and so on have been primarily "humanists."  They thought of economic thinking as a part of thinking about the whole human being and the whole human good.  It was a part that couldn't really be separated from the whole.  So separating economics from politics and philosophy didn't occur to them to be either desirable or possible.  As Professor Stoll explains:

[T]he greatest revolution in economics in the past 50 years involves not only the transformation of the discipline into a more quantitative science but also the separation of the business curriculum from the humanities. Training in economics at the college level no longer forces students to think of people as moral agents shaped by religion, culture, and society, but rather as one-dimensional rational actors blindly pursuing material self-interest. Even behavioral economics, which challenges the rational-actor theory, makes universal claims about human psychology without the deep context of history and culture. (Can there truly be universal or biologically motivated shopping habits or attitudes toward consumerism?)

Now there's something to be said for thinking of human beings, for instructional or experimetnal purposes, as "one-dimensional rational actors blindly pursuing material self-interest," as long as you don't forget that your not thinking about whole, real people.  The philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke even said that human beings would be better off if they more consistently understood their relationships with others in terms of consent and contract in the service of self-interest.  For them, the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood was, in part, reformist or enlightenment propaganda.  It was propaganda that did some good in making the world more prosperous and free, even as had its downsides when it came to moral agency or purposefulness, religion, culture, and philosophy.

But those more "humanistic"—meaning philosophically educated and concerned—economic thinkers of the past were aware of the limits of that kind of explanation, just as they were aware that arguments for so-called "rational choice" are, in part, a kind of liberal (we now say libertarian) propaganda.

What's wrong with economists who only know their technical discipline and no more is they easily forget that limits of what they can explain.  And they easily become dogmatists in the thrall of a combination of scientism (or going beyond scientific knowledge in the direction of ideology) and advocacy.  They really think that they can explain everything through self-interest or demand or whatever, because they haven't learned enough—or studied widely and deeply enough—to know otherwise.

Professor Stoll is also right that when rational-choice is rejected as an unrealistic abstraction, it tends to be replaced by the new forms of scientism of behavioral economics—ones that go in the other direction of abstracting from the real capacity of reason to manage human affairs.

The problem with the purging of the humanities from the study of business generally is that students never attend to the fact that marketing and management—not to mention economics—are forms of sophistry.  The sophist, as Socrates tell us, sells his skills and competencies with the claim that knowledge is for money, power, and individual freedom. He also claims to know more than he really does by claiming that we can know less than we really do. 

Contrary to what the sophists say, it's not true at all that we should rest content with the conclusion that money and power are for nothing more than whatever our personal preferences happen to be, with thinking that leads so easily to the conclusion that there's no human standard we share in common higher than personal productivity.

There's nothing wrong with being a sophist, to a point.  But the point of higher education is acquiring the civilized and humane knowledge of what that point is.  The logic of the market or whatever cannot and should not define whole human lives or enter into every human relationship.  The logic of the market shouldn't be limited or guided by mere "values" (even in the sense of "family values") but by virtues, including (but not only) the ones praised by Adam Smith.

The real problem, as I've said before, is the separation of knowledge into the sciences and the humanities—including the social sciences and the humanities—is based on artificial abstractions that we tend to forget are merely artificial abstractions.  One point of higher education is to see the limits of so-called academic disciplines, and that means being a lot more than merely "interdisciplinary." 

So, for one thing, economists would respect "humanists" more if they truthfully respected the real competence of economists and business leaders.  Professors of the humanities have to acknowledge that they share in the task of preparing students to be members of the productive meritocracy that shapes the 21st century global competitive marketplace.  After doing so, they can remind our economists that our best thinkers and leaders have always been and will remain more than sophists.  And higher education, for us all, is about much more than becoming an efficient sophist, because the world is much more than a marketplace.

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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