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The Most Important Unanswered Question in Social Science
Let’s say you are in Germany. People engage in rule-following behavior, and they become quite emotionally stressed if you suggest you might break the rules in especially inappropriate ways.
Alternatively, in Naples there is more garbage in the streets, and flexibility and rigidity across a very different set of social variables. I call that a difference in “culture,” and I am ready to accept culture as an ill-defined, question-begging term.
Now, how do differences of culture — however defined — interact with traditional economic mechanisms involving prices, incomes, and simple comparative statics? Are those competing explanations, namely cultural vs. economic? Ought they to dovetail nicely in some kind of broader explanation? Or might the cultural factors in some manner be “reduced” to questions of more traditional economics? Some combination of the above? Something else altogether? And, from among these and other options, what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem?
How much does culture matter to how we experience life? In particular, how important are differences in culture compared to differences between people in the same culture?
Is it really true that you can never understand someone from another culture? If so, how close can we get, and how? Does literature help, or music, or living in their cities or villages? Does this apply only to "big" cultures, like say, contemporary American vs. Amazon Indian? Or does it also apply (or how much does it apply) to white vs. black Americans, or men vs. women?
What about people with a different personality type – can we understand them?
How well do we really understand any other person?
I take "understanding" other people to mean being able to predict what they feel in common or important situations and knowing in our bones what that feels like. But I think these questions apply with any definition.
It looks to me like you and Cowen are asking two very different questions. Cowen is asking the venerable question of which is right, the rational self interest model or the psychological-cultural model of human thinking and decision-making. This is, for obvious reasons of politics and policy and current public moral debate, perhaps not so much the most important, as arguably the hottest question in social science.
The question you're asking seems to me very different, deeper, and probably harder to answer. It goes to the heart of the very project of social science, and psychology. Can any human ever in any meaningful way understand another human? And to the extent that we can't, can we say anything meaningful about society or psychology at all?
In a way, your question undoes any answer to Cowen's. It makes me realize that, while I'm pretty sure I *prefer* the answer to Cowen's question to be a sort of moderate version of psychology and culture over rational self-interest, I can't argue that that *is* the answer--and couldn't even if I read a thousand articles and books. I'd still just know my preference. I wouldn't know the answer. Perhaps the real answer should be: can we ever *know* the answer? What would knowing, really knowing, about other humans be like?
I think one thing is abundantly clear - humans are not naturally rational actors, and thus any model based on "rational self interest" is deeply flawed at best.
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