The Caveman Roots of Liberal Democracy?

Stimulating thoughts from Razib (aka “David Hume”):

But a dispositional conservatism serves more than a periodoc brake upon the inevitable march of history toward its final Utopian state.  In fact the empirical record shows some cyclical dynamics in human morals and values. After all, Western liberal democracy is a throwback in many ways to the individualism of the hunter-gatherer phase of human history. I believe that the institutions and norms of communitarian “traditional” cultures were in fact ad hoc kluges which attempted to reconcile our “caveman psychology” with post-Neolithic mass society. Conservative and liberal dispositions seem to be partly hardwired; as humans we place ourselves along the spectrum. It is not simply a matter of conservatives always being a few generations behind liberals along the inevitable secular ascent up toward earthly paradise. Rather it seems possible these different political tribes are like two cylinders which serve as the motive force behind a winding and unpredictable journey.

Why is the journey unpredictable? One reason: Cultural evolution is unpredictable and the content of the beliefs and norms attractive to those with partly-hardwired liberal and conservative dispositions — the parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum — at any given time is a matter of the forces of cultural history as they interact with the forces of population change. Ideas and norms can’t stick if our evolved minds are inhospitable hosts for them. So the fixed part of human psychology is a constraint on cultural transmission. If we find liberal individualism at all compelling, it’s because we already have a taste for it. Likewise thick communitarian socialism. Culture wars are wars in part over which tastes to gratify and encourage and which to stymie and treat as a threats to decent civilization.

I agree that our conservative impulses aren’t going anywhere. So, what if people with conservative impulses reproduce at a greater rate? It’s interesting to think about what happens when the cultural parameters of the liberal-to-conservative continuum shifts in a liberal direction faster than dispositional conservatives can breed. And maybe something like this is Razib’s idea. If the stipulated demographic trend continues–conservatives keep reproducing faster–then conservative dispositions will become relatively common and liberal ones relatively rare. At some point, this stalls further liberalization, even if it had a lot of momentum behind it. And then you’d think maybe we slide back in a “traditional,” communitarian, family-centric direction. But I guess this depends on what a native “conservative disposition” comes down to. If it’s a kind of conformist hesitancy to alter the social order, then a preponderance of conservatives may do little more to lock in liberalization, just as today’s conservatives praise to the Heavens the timeless verity of a bunch of extremely radical 18th-century liberal ideals.

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Vice and The Motive of Wealth

This argument from Matt Yglesias seems very poor, especially since Matt is a pretty basic utilitarian (unless he has changed his mind since we last talked about ethical theory) who therefore has no business handwringing about motives. Rehearsing an argument he’d been having on an email list, Matt writes:

I was saying that whatever one thought should be done with large financial institutions as a policy matter, surely we could agree that the executives at these institutions are primarily bad people.

It turns out we couldn’t agree on that. But my argument is pretty simple. These are people primarily motivated in life by greed. Not just by a desire to make some scratch, mind you. These aren’t immigrants who walked through the desert from Mexico in order to earn more money by washing dishes in a San Diego hotel. They’re not 24 year-olds looking for a hefty salary in order to pay off student loans. They’re multi-millionaires who want to earn millions more. It’s possible, of course, that Vikram Pandit really does find being a bank executive to be intrinsically interesting. But a good person, who’s primary passion was the life of a bank executive, would be donating the bulk of his massive compensation package to charity. But that’s not what Pandit’s doing. Rather he, like virtually all executives at major firms, is living a life that’s primarily oriented around an ethic of greed.

Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior. In the spirit of decency, of course, we recognize that none of us are without sin.

I assume the motivations of the executives of financial firms are many and varied. Some executives are surely complete bastards and some of them are surely upstanding women and men of virtue. Matt’s willingness to commit himself the the idea that these are bad people simply because of their occupation seems unhinged. I understand finance is unpopular now, but finance is only one of many ways to make money. If people motivated primarily by greed are bad people, and Matt cannot imagine another primary motive for financial executives, can he imagine other motives for any executive? How about small entrepreneurs animated by the prospect of hitting it big? Are movie stars, who do not donate the bulk of their massive compensation to charity, off the hook because they are also motivated by fame and self-love? 

Anyway, if Matt thinks the Adam Smith argument — that people moved by impulses other than benevolence or charity may nevertheless serve the general good — is “true even,” then what’s the problem? Especially given Matt’s utilitarian sympathies? Whether a person is “bad,” in the utilitarian framework, has little to do with motivation, and everything to do with results. As Tyler Cowen kept urging on Peter Singer, the consistent utilitarian should simply admit that an entrepreneur who creates a great deal of utility on the way to making and keeping huge sums of money is a much better person (a better utility engine) than someone who creates a much smaller amount of utility by giving away all but 10 percent of a relatively small income earned in a job that produces a relatively small amount of utility. One can be a folk moralist or a utilitarian moralist, but not both. If the pursuit of wealth produces more utility than charity — which it often will given the right institutions — then we might wish to reconsider what we are going to count as virtues and vices. Again, maybe Matt has given up on his utilitarianism, in which case he stands some chance of making sense relative to his own ethical assumptions. But I suspect he’s catering to certain popular folk assumptions about the vice of greed to impugn the character of an entire class of people for reasons that are obscure to me. Maybe he can clarify what he’s doing here. 

Now, I am willing to say that, ceteris paribus, a certain kind of grasping, unprincipled pecuniary self-interest is a destructive quality. If that’s greed, then I’m against it. But I’m not willing to say the same thing about the pursuit of wealth generally.

I think we have recently punctured some dangerous misconception about the real value of certain kinds of “financial innovation,” and so we should reconsider how much those who have become wealthy in these fields have actually enhanced general welfare. I think a lot of execs basically failed to do their primary job: to manage their firms’ assets responsibly on behalf of the owners of those assets: the shareholders and creditors. This makes them justifiable targets of outrage. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think we’ve been given reason to think much harder about the principal-agent problem — the mismatch of incentives between owners and managers — at the heart of corporate organization. I think we’ve learned just how “socially responsible” maximizing long-term value really is, and how anything that distracts from focus on long-term value creation (whether it be myopic bonus systems or irrelevant-to-the-business “corporate social responsibility” initiatives) is a potentially hazardous nuisance. The Smithian congruence between self-interest and the general welfare is not a natural fact of the world, but is mediated by social norms and the structure of institutions. We need to make sure the desire for wealth takes the right shape, and that the institutions within which people pursue wealth tend to actually work to convert “low” aspirations into real social benefits. But we’ve been given no special reason to second-guess the general utility of the desire to become wealthy. It is a crucial and necessary resource. And it remains a much more likely engine of utility than the desire for political power — a truly dangerous motive Matt tends to ignore.

None of this is to say that I think Vikram Pandit is a prince. For all I know he’s a complete cad. And none of this is to say the man’s a great force for the enhancement of human well-being. As far as I know, he’s done more harm than good. But I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, and I suspect Matt’s in the same position. Anyway, I don’t think we’re likely to do much good if we reduce our view of the world to a children’s cast of villians and heroes, and I’m relieved to hear that Matt’s email list interlocutors won’t agree to his cartoon assumptions.

[Update: See Conor Clarke, who replied in a very similar spirit, but much more concisely.]

The Moral Psychology of David Brooks

David Brooks’ column on neo-sentimentalist moral psychology is as exasperating as most of his columns drawing on science. They usually go like this:

Scientists have discovered X. Mostly X vanquishes my intellectual bugbears and confirms me in my prejudices. To the extent it doesn’t, science isn’t really an authoritative source of wisdom, now is it?

Here’s this week’s variation:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

Let’s look more closely at a couple of these claims.

  • The rise of "the emotional approach to morality” … “challenges the new atheists.”

What? Pure silliness. There is nothing whatsoever about the new sentimentalism in moral psychology that begins to imply a vindication of faith relative to reason. This is scientific work that uses the rationalist methods of science to understand the centrality of sentiment in humans. It takes the power of reason for granted, and if it is successful work, then it validates the power of reason.

If, say, Haidt is right that most moral judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses, then he has not shown that all judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses. For example, scientific judgments aren’t like that, or else he wouldn’t have discovered this about moral judgment, he’d just be asserting it. It’s not like Haidt, in showing just how deeply feeling-laden our moral judgments are, has also shown that everything, including the techniques of scientific rationality, is an expression of prejudice. By providing yet another well-grounded scientific explanation, he has demonstrated once again that techniques of scientific rationality are successfully explanatory. In this case, a successful explanation of human moral judgment shows just how prone we are to argue reflexively on behalf of our enculturated moral intuitions. This should decrease our confidences in our intuitions relative to scientific rationality. There is no reason whatsoever to think this will make faith look rosier.

Now, if we think that the lesson here is that most people, who aren’t scientists, don’t change their minds due to good arguments, but because of some kind of socialization or cultural pressure, then it seems to me that the efforts of the “new atheists” have been shown to be all the more necessary. The norms of reason are not native. They are fragile cultural achievements, which makes them all the more precious, and all the more important to vigorously promote. It seems we ought to create social pressure to adopt and respect them, as the “new atheists” do, if we wish to continue to reap the enormous blessings of applied rationality. Brooks is right to see the “new atheists” as apostles of  reason, but their “faith” in it isn’t “unwarranted.” As Brooks seems to recognize when it is convenient for him, science — the institutions of applied reason — works.

  • The rise of “the emotional approach to morality” … “should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

First, everything I just said. Second, they just got good at explaining judgments about harm and fairness, so why not expect them to get good at this other stuff? Everything Brooks has said up to this point assumes that the science is good, so one would expect that. But this is where Brooks kicks up a cloud of mystery to leave space for his own prejudices after he has finished using a bit of science to serve his ideological purposes. It’s a good trick: Grant science just enough authority to make it say what you need it to, and then throw that authority into doubt, lest someone else come along and try to make it say something else. Third, I don’t think Brooks has been paying attention even to the people he cites, such as Haidt, who has gone a good way in explaining the religious emotions, the emotions of in-group solidarity (i.e., patriotism) and more.

Making a Virtue of Altruism

Sketchpad post…

The creature moved solely by instrumental, self-regarding rationality has a name: sociopath. A sociopath with supernatural epistemic and computational capacities is called homo economicus oreconomic man.”  A handful of sociopaths exist, but gods live only in myths and textbooks. Flesh and blood human animals are, like the naked mole rat, “hypersocial.” The idea of a species of hypersocial sociopaths is as close as one comes to biological contradiction, which may be why homo economicus has not been observed in the wild. Normal humans are born cooperators — “strong reciprocators” in the language of Gintis and Bowles. “Homo reciprocans” is a conformist beast freighted with culture. A norm sponge. But we humans are not socially programmed robots. We are clever conformists. We can glimpse the advantages in “defection,” in pretending to pull our weight and writing our own rules when it suits us. But why can we do this? Why can we defect? Why aren’t we socially programmed robots? Maybe this: the point of such high-fidelity conformism is the ability to adapt to our environments (or to adapt our environments to us) at the speed of cheetahs compared to natural selection’s dumb glacial grope. The point of high-fidelity conformism is to take advantage of adaptive innovation. So we are equipped with the ability to imagine a better way, which happens to include the ability to imagine shirking or bucking the norm. Sociopathy is not our problem. Imagination—the engine of adaptive conformism—is. Nature’s solution is our taste for “altruistic punishment,” the disposition to hammer norm shirkers despite the personal cost. How not self-interested are we? This not self-interested: We are so obsessed with conformity that we will hurt ourselves to hurt those who refuse to conform. And we don’t even need to know the point of conforming, or whether or not it helps. The stone heaved through the window of the suspicious gentlemen bachelors: this too is altruism. To learn that humans are not sociopaths, are capable of other-regarding acts, are willing to sacrifice ourselves to keep hearts and minds in harmony, is not to discover there is no problem. A main lesson of the Scottish Enlightenment is the possibility and necessity of recruiting potentially destructive self love into the service of public happiness. But if self love is not in fact the mainspring, or the only spring, of human action, then maybe their lesson for us now is that we must also learn to civilize the capacity for norm-enforcing self-sacrifice. What matters is not how we are motivated. What matters is how our higher-order norms (our institutions?) channel and coordinate our various motives to produce the elements of flourishing. What matters is which norms we’re willing to pay dearly to enforce.

Place. Limits. Liberty.

I think I am going to really enjoy Front Porch Republic (motto: “Place. Limits. Liberty.”), which as far as I can tell is an enterprise devoted to the idea that a world filled with little islands of intense moral chavinism is a better world. Anyway, I was drawn in by this amusing passage in this Daniel Larison post:

[L]et us reflect on the fallen state of man. How did it happen, and what was the cause of the Fall? Our ancestors chose to try to be as gods and willed the one thing that God had forbidden them. Individual autonomy is at the heart of the Fall, and so it is part of our fallen nature, the part that St. Maximos described as the gnomic (deliberative) will. This is how we are now, but this is not how we were created. As fallen creatures we can embrace this autonomy, celebrate it and make it one of our highest goods, as most modern traditions would have us do, or we can turn back to God and change our mind.

I read this to Kerry who submits that “it sounds like he’s talking about Dungeons and Dragons or something,” which I think is about right. I know it’s rude for unbelievers to step into conversations between people who take wizards seriously, but I imagine Larison has a point we can all appreciate, and I’d like to know what it is. My secular reconstruction, which I’m sure leaves out the ineffeble essence of the thought, is that the ideal of individual autonomy is alien to human nature and we would be better off surrendering ourselves to our little platoons to be made as they see fit. Is that it?

Larison goes on to offer a caveat, which he then half withdraws:

In our case, it is also true that none of us would be where and who we are without many of the things we are critiquing and rejecting, and indeed ultimately none of us would be here at all had our first ancestors not disobeyed God, but while we should not be entirely ungrateful for our inheritance neither should we acquiesce in repeating the same errors and persisting in false beliefs about human nature and nature.

I’d like to know what these false beliefs are, plainly stated — if they can survive de-theologizing. I always find myself agreeing with communitarian types that individuals do not spring fully formed from the clay. Human development is indeed a richly social process of enculturation. But it’s a silly non-sequitur, which I find myself running into again and again, that since human development is social, it is a mistake to socialize humans into an ethos of individualistic autonomy. As far as I can see, humans flourish best where autonomy is most celebrated and encouraged, though I’m pefectly open to evidence to the contrary.

Animal Spirits and Positional Ambition

Rob Horning understands me! Please read his post on the economics and politics of “animal spirits.”

There are perplexingly many glosses “on animal spirits.” One of them is “confidence,” which is what investors faced with uncertainty about the economic climate are now lacking. Another might be “ambition.” As Chris Dillow writes in his mini review of Shiller and Akerlof’s new book:

What’s more, given that the private benefits of innovation are low, and the probabilities of success in many arts and industry small, it might be only animal spirits that give us artists and entrepreneurs. As Richard Nisbett and Less Ross wrote years ago:

We probably would have few novelists, actors or scientists if all potential aspirants to these careers took action based on a normatively justifiable probability of success. We might also have few new products, new medical procedures, new political movements or new scientific theories. 

Perhaps, then, it’s not just that animal spirits are ubiquitous – but they are necessary too.

It’s worth pointing out that it is exactly this sense of animal spirits, animated by the spirit of ambition or “emulation,” which Robert Frank and Phillip Cook declare inefficient in The Winner-Take-All Society, and argue we should tax into submission. But as Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy point out in Social Economics, echoing Nisbett and Ross, the expected payoff to entrepreneurial risk is so low that in the absence of positional competition, we would get very little of it. Entrepreneurial risk-taking is the source of innovation, which is the source of increasing productivity and wealth. So a society lacking this kind of status-seeking animal spirit might not grow at all, unless it was capable of successfully importing and deploying the innovations of more ambitiously inventive societies.

This focus on positional competition recalls the psychological microfoundations of Adam Smith and David Hume’s theories of civilization and economic growth. Their theories of motivation seem to me to do much more to illuminate the recent financial collapse than does modern macroeconomics. The myopia of financial executives making huge bets on securities graded according to algorithms that could not begin to understand was certainly driven by positional competition. The key insight of eighteenth-century political economy is that institutional rules and social norms must align ambitious, emulative, and status-seeking animal spirits to the aims of innovation, refinement, and advancement of the public good. The soaring abstraction of techno-high-finance — which decoupled investment decisions from any human sense of real economic value — encouraged the sense that the great race for astronomical bonuses was consistent with the public interest. And the sums involved discouraged the players from double-checking. It does seems that a kind of carelessness became contagious, and I don’t think it’s wrong to see “greed” as a source of Wall Street’s rather astonishing indifference to verifying the real utility of the game it was playing, though “greed” is not a very helpful diagnosis in the end. Ours was a failure of “regulation” in the broadest sense: the joint failure of institutional rules and the cultural climate to regulate the expression of positional ambition. But the lesson is not to discourage it, but to redirect it; to make it again not only safe but serviceable.

The big question is whether a risk-seeking society — which must maintain a status-seeking, ambitious culture — is or is not fated to run some of its institutions into the ground from time to time and occasionally wreak havoc on the context of trust and stable expectations that makes ordinary economic activity possible.

For those of a scholarly bent, here’s a passage from Adam Potkay’s A Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume (I’ve removed the scholarly citation apparatus) on the central role of “emulation”–which is what they called positional ambition — in eighteenth-century accounts of progress.  

“An honest emulation,” rooted in a “self-love” that inspires us to think highly of ourselves in comparison with others,” is the source of all achievements, all greateness: “the philosopher’s curiousity may be inflamed by a catalogue of the works of Boyle and Bacon, as Themistocles was kept awake by the tropies of Miltiades.” Again we should recall Pope: “Envy, to which th’ ignoble mind’s a slave, / Is emulation in the learned or brave.”

The necessity of “emulation” to a beneficient progress is a, perhaps the, great theme of the Enlightenment in Britain, shared alike by Hobbes, Mandeville, and Shaftesbury, Hume and Johnson. It pervades Johnson’s Idler essays still more than his Rambler. The “renaissance of letters” that, according to standard eighteenth-century wisdom, began in fourteenth-century Italy is itself a product of emulation: “[T]he European world was rouzed from its lethargy; those arts which had been long obscurely studied in the gloom of monasteries became the general favourties of mankind; every nation vied with its neighbour for the prize of learning; the epidemical emulation spread from south to north and curiosity and translation found their way to Britain. Emulation is responsible for “elegance” of building, clothing, food; “commerce has kindle an universal emulation of wealth.”

Johnson and Hume agree that the fire that animates both the fine and practical arts “is not kindled from heaven. It only runs along the earth; is caught from one breast to another; and burns brightest, where the materials are best prepared.” The theme of emulation is omnipresent throughout Hume’s Essays and History of England–its responsibility for the enlightenment of both ancient Greece and modern Europe; the birth and refinement of all arts and sciences, mechanical arts and manufactures.

Morality: A Kludge of Kludges

If you’ve got a couple hourse to kill, listen to Stephen Stich explain why the human moral sense, such as it is, is a “hodge podge of multi-purpose kludges.” This is one of Stich’s fascinating 2007 Jean-Nicod Lectures. You can follow along with the slides below the video.

Here are the slides.

One upshot, among others, is that you’re not going to develop a useful normative moral theory by testing and refining your moral intuitions against cases. Another, closely related, upshot is that you can have the best scientific theory possible about the evolutionary basis of whatever sentiments and dispositions you think is central to morality, but it’s not going to leave you with anything like a useful or coherent theory of the right or the good. One thing I think some ev psych fans have a hard time getting their heads around is that morality–the system of norms that regulates individual behavior and enables social coordination–is variable by “design,” and that our evolved moral capacities are largely norm-acquisition devices which must wait to be calibrated by enculturation. We’re “fill-in-the-blanks slates” not blank slates. There are what you might consider “factory default” settings. (Which involves a lot of out-group slaughter, I’m afraid.) So, yes, certain configurations of moral sentiments, certain systems of norms, are more “natural” than others. But they lead to relatively terrible societies–nasty, brutish, short, etc. The norms that undergird the peaceful liberal order of impersonal, extended, massively positive-sum exchange are the result of generations of often self-conscious resistance to the “factory defaults.” Which is just to say, T.H. Huxley knew what he was talking about.