“What is a cause and what are the ontological presuppositions for there being such a thing? These are fundamental questions in philosophy. These questions are not empirical per se, but how you answer them can have a tremendous impact on how you go about hunting for causal relationships in the real world…”

Matias Petersen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.

Matias, tell us about your dissertation. Why are you passionate about this topic? What is so significant about it?

My dissertation is about Alasdair MacIntyre’s political thought. In particular, I’m trying to understand what kind of political and economic institutions are compatible with MacIntyre’s moral philosophy. Many discussions in normative political economy assume either a deontological or consequentialist moral philosophy. MacIntyre has tried to develop a robust alternative to these approaches, drawing mainly, though not exclusively, on the Aristotelian tradition. What is missing from MacIntyre’s philosophical project is an account of the kind of political and economic institutions that are consistent with his moral philosophy. That’s the focus of my project.

I’m passionate about this topic because my philosophical training was very much influenced by the Aristotelian and Thomist traditions, on which MacIntyre draws. On the other hand, my first degree was in economics, and I always had an interest in questions of institutional analysis. So I see this project as a way of combining what I have learnt from economics and philosophy in a single project. And what a better place to do this than the Department of Political Economy at King’s! Why is this project relevant? Well, I offer an Aristotelian account of political and economic institutions, so those who don’t have sympathy for the Aristotelian tradition might find the project utterly irrelevant. But, as I mentioned before, normative debates in political economy have been dominated by the deontology/consequentialism divide, so an Aristotelian take on political and economic institutions brings some fresh air to the discussion. This is certainly not the first study taking such an approach. Notable scholars such as Martha Nussbaum and others have done exciting work in this regard.

In the past you’ve worked on different ways of conceptualizing poverty alleviation. What’s wrong with how we approach poverty alleviation today?

In the paper we start from the observation that poverty alleviation is usually conceived as a technological problem, one in which variable means confront a given end. We distinguish technological problems from economic problems, where given means are allocated across competing ends. We argue that thinking about poverty alleviation as a technological problem can be highly misleading. Why so? One may think that it’s very plausible to think of poverty alleviation as a technological problem. Lots of problems are like that. But when you think about it, and when you read empirical work on poverty, you realise that the problem is much more complex. Obviously, we don’t just say: “it’s more complex than that”. We also try to identify the sources of that complexity. We argue that issues of coordination, incentives and governance are crucial for any poverty alleviation effort. More importantly though, we argue that these dimensions are intertwined, and this makes poverty alleviation a multidimensional phenomenon. Poverty alleviation is not just a matter of will, or of transferring resources to those in need. Different factors affect the way in which transfers operate: social norms, institutions, culture, etc. This complexity implies that you cannot treat the different dimensions of poverty in isolation. If this is the case, we need to rethink the potential policy solutions to the challenges presented by the tragedy of poverty.

Given the complex nature of the problem, we argue that you either have a comprehensive plan that deals with all the relevant margins in tandem, or you rather rely on bottom up, more polycentric approaches. Policies that target specific aspects of poverty – such as housing, food security, women’s health, etc. – without a comprehensive plan to unify them all in a consistent fashion are likely to have significant unintended consequences precisely because they cannot deal with all the relevant dimensions comprehensively. Advocates of comprehensive plans for poverty alleviation as well as those who promote bottom-up and polycentric approaches have, in our view, a more robust account of what poverty alleviation would entail. Which of these proposals is more likely to succeed is something we have not explored yet. Our argument does, however, cast doubt on halfway approaches. These policies may well be complements to a broader social process of poverty alleviation, but we argue it is a mistake to think of them as being sufficient to alleviate poverty on any large scale.

Your work is naturally interdisciplinary, drawing on insights from empirical social science and normative philosophy. What can philosophers and social scientists learn from each other?

I start from the assumption that it is very difficult to do moral or political philosophy without being relativity familiar with what’s going on in the social sciences. If you ask a philosopher working on the philosophy of mind, she or he will tell you that you need to be familiar with recent research in neuroscience. I don’t see why this should be different for a political philosopher. Similarly, I take for granted that no social scientist can avoid making normative judgements. They do so all the time, either implicitly or explicitly. Perhaps this answers your question: it is not that there is something social scientists could learn from philosophers and vice versa. Moral and political philosophy on the one hand, and the social sciences on the other, are two dimensions of the same kind of enquiry: the world we are trying to understand, the social world, is the same world that we are constantly trying to evaluate, justify or criticize, on normative grounds. Obviously, this goes against the idea that a clear demarcation between facts and values, explanation and evaluation, is possible. Hilary Putnam’s deathblow to any substantive version of the fact-value dichotomy – that is, the sharp distinction between value judgements and factual judgements – casts doubt on any sharp separation between empirical social science and normative philosophy. You can distinguish between the two, but it’s very hard to treat them in isolation.

Do you think economics belongs in the humanities or sciences?

I think that economics is a philosophical subject. By this I mean that the basic structure of economic reasoning is philosophical, and it is a way of thinking that emerged within moral philosophy. Thinkers as different as Smith, Marx, Hayek or Amartya Sen, had to dip their toes into philosophical waters at some point to deal with problems they first encountered in the field of economics. This doesn’t, however, make economics unscientific or non-empirical. What I said before about the contrast between the conceptual and the empirical applies here as well. If one thinks that all philosophers can do is ‘conceptual analysis,’ then perhaps economics belongs to the sciences and has no relation to the humanities whatsoever. But I don’t see philosophy in that way. As Aristotle argued, philosophy is a science insofar as it deals with the causes of things. Both philosophy and economics deal with causes and with justifications. If these enquires are to be carried out in the same academic department or in different ones is another issue.

Your latest project concerns the nature and history of causal claims in the social sciences. Chasing after causal claims is part of the job description for most social scientists– so what do we gain from thinking philosophically about causality?

Any scholar engaged in causal inference has to think philosophically. And most social scientists do so. When you make a causal claim, you have a particular theory of what causality is about, and you also have an idea of what are the best ways of “hunting causes”, to use Nancy Cartwright’s phrase. In addition, social scientists often rely, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, on philosophical theories about causality. Think of the potential outcomes framework, so popular nowadays. Simplifying a bit, this framework can be seen as an operationalisation of Donald Davidson’s analysis of causality as a set of counterfactuals. Or look at the renewed interest in causal mechanisms and causal powers in the social sciences. Those working on this topic usually draw on a broadly Aristotelian account of causality.

What is a cause and what are the ontological presuppositions for there being such a thing? These are fundamental questions in philosophy. These questions are not empirical per se, but how you answer them can have a tremendous impact on how you go about hunting for causal relationships in the real world, which in turn affects the way in which we think about public policy.

One interesting example of what we gain by thinking philosophically about causality is the collaborative work of Nancy Cartwright and Angus Deaton on the pros and cons of randomized controlled experiments. They argue not only that RCTs cannot be easily extrapolated outside the context in which they were conducted, but also, and more importantly, they argue that without understanding the mechanisms at work behind successful and unsuccessful policies it is not wise to simply replicate those policies that have been effective. This is related to the project on poverty alleviation we discussed before. If formal institutional rules and informal social norms are a fundamental aspect of the mechanisms at work in each poverty alleviation effort, policy proposals inattentive to the complex ways in which these mechanisms interact can have significant unintended consequences.

I think that in the future we will see more and more collaboration between philosophers and social scientists on fundamental problems of causality. This is all very exciting.

Learn more about Matias’ work on poverty alleviation here. Sign up for our newsletter to hear from more of our faculty at CSGS.

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