Sunday, January 22, 2012

Books I'm Reading Now

I just finished reading, on my daughter's advice, Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (Vintage 1984). Rilke is among my favorite poets and novelists (his prose output was slight but wonderful). I thought I had read everything (significant) he had written; I even read Wolfgang Leppman's very good biography of him. But, somehow, this magical, slender collection of letters had escaped my attention. It confirms just what a thoughtful, kind, and wise person was Rilke, as well as a great, great writer.

I am about halfway through Stuart Banner's latest contribution to the legal history literature, American Property (Harvard 2011). Property scholars, in various disciplines, will learn (sometimes to their own surprise) how much they previously did not know about areas in which they are supposed experts. Others will find it a rich and eminently readable historical introduction to a topic that is fundamental to American law and society. My favorite chapter (so far) concerns the rise of the condominium in the 1960s, which raises the question of why such a useful and valuable form of ownership took so long to emerge in the US. Banner's characteristically interesting answer focuses on institutional prerequisites that needed to be put in place in order to support the market - a thoroughly "new institutional' explanation. This is must reading for all legal scholars, economists, and other social scientists working on property issues.

I'm just a few chapters into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Grioux 2011), which develops a coherent story around many of the findings of cognitive psychology experiments over the past few decades, describing two radically different approaches to individual decision making: (1) System 1, which is fast, intuitive, and signficantly error-prone; and (2) System 2, which is slower, more costly, time-consuming, and less prone to error. The experiments and other evidence suggest that System 1 dominates and works very well for many, many more or less automatic kinds of decisions, and System 2 intervenes only when necessary to prevent significant errors when the stakes are high. Fascinating ideas presented in clear and convincing fashion by one of (if not the) most important cognitive psychologists of our time (Kahnemann won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his contributions to behavior economics). As someone who wants to hold on tightly to some minimal conception of rational behavior, I find some of the experimental findings Kahneman reports to be cognitively dissonant, but one of the hallmarks of rationality is the ability to absorb, digest, and make sense of information that does not necessarily agree with one's prior assumptions and conclusions.

After a long delay, based in part on sheer intimidation about the sheer weight of the volumes and the intellectual challenge of understanding the contents, I have finally cracked open Volume I of Derek Parfit's On What Matters (Oxford 2011). This will not be a book I read quickly and easily. I am, however, highly sympathetic to Parfit's grand scheme to combine into a single theoretical framework Kant's moral theory (e.g., the categorical imperative) with welfare-consequentialism. While I retain substantial doubts about the likelihood (or even the value) of discovering a unified, all-encompassing theory of ethics (for reasons identified by Amartya Sen in his recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard 2009)), I'm open to being convinced otherwise by Parfit's arguments. 

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