Getting the microfoundations right – some comments and a bleg

by Chris Bertram on September 8, 2010

I recently had the pleasure of attending the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology conference in Bochum, Germany . The highlight for me was attending a talk by Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig on pre-linguistic communication. Getting home, I ordered a copy of Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate in which he argues, on the basis of detailed empirical work with young children and other primates, that humans are hard-wired with certain pro-social dispositions to inform, help, share etc and to engage in norm-guided behaviour of various kinds. Many of the details of Tomasello’s work are controversial (the book is essentially his Tanner Lectures and contains replies by Silk, Dweck, Skyrms and Spelke) and I lack the competence to begin to adjudicate some of the disputes. But this much is, I think, clear: that work in empirical psychology and evolutionary anthropolgy (and related fields) doesn’t – quelle surprise! – support anything like the Hobbesian picture of human nature that lurks at the foundations of microeconomics, rational choice theory and, indeed, in much contemporary and historical political philosophy.

This matters, in all kinds of ways. To take a recent post here at CT , I think it renders problematic the kinds of rational choice plus egoism assumption that Henry defended. Or, to put things a bit more mildly, it suggests that the scope of such explanations is going to be limited to settings which accentuate our egoistic motivations and dampen our pro-social ones. To take contemporary political philosophy as another case, I think it means that, insofar as we thing that “the facts” matter, we should draw on the latest research rather than embarrassing ourselves by asserting – as a component in normative arguments – the empirical truth of claims made by seventeenth- and eighteenth- century writers concerning the bases of rationality, language, etc. This work also, I think, ought to render us optimistic about the possibility of a more unified social science on the lines argued for by Herbert Gintis, where evolutionary game theory, empirical psychology, behavioural economics and sociology fit together (rather than talking past one another in incommensurable languages). That’s not necessarily to endorse Gintis’s vision of how exactly that might work of course.

As for the implications of empirical work in these fields for the content of moral and political philosophy, I’m not sure. I alluded above to the tendency of philosophers to rely on outdated scientific theories. Clearly that’s a bad thing to do. However, moral realists would presumably argue that the structure and content of moral philosophy might be perfectly accessible and describable without any reliance on a theory of how we come to acquire moral dispositions, just as the structure and content of arithmetic is independent of how we got the capacity to do it. It is noteworthy that when he comes to discuss the content of the moral perspective, Tomasello starts referring to Kantian philosophers such as Nagel and Korsgaard, who would presumably deny that their ideas stand in need of naturalistic foundations. Still, if ought implies can (whatever that means) Tomasello’s (and other’s) work on human nature is surely relevant to our thinking about the feasibility and nature of just institutions (do we have the nature that would support a society organized like Jerry Cohen’s proverbial camping trip?).

Just to finish off … this post is really intended as a bleg rather than any kind of argument or statement of position. I’ve now got Tomasello’s Origins of Human Communication on order, but I’d welcome other recommendations.

{ 102 comments }

1

Hidari 09.08.10 at 9:27 am

The classic disproof of ‘egoism’ as being ‘natural’ is the ‘Ultimatum Game’. . Although the Wikipedia article linked to is very very kind to neo-classical assumptions, the empirical results from this game (in a cross-cultural context) are really pretty devastating for the Hobbesian view.

Two quick points: one: it does seem (assuming that one accepts the empirical data and the most obvious interpretations of this data) that we are born with an inbuilt feeling or module or whatever for ‘justice’ (or at least, we are born disliking extreme injustice, inequality, things that don’t seem ‘fair’) and this would be the sort of thing that one might think might interest Evolutionary Psychologists if they weren’t so keen on justifying centre-right political positions.

Second: I have banged on previously on CT about Just World Theory which I think is a devastatingly brilliant insight into human affairs. I don’t know if anyone else has made this link, but the Ultimatum Game does seem to offer empirical evidence for one of the presuppositions of the Belief in Just World (BJW): that we are born with an innate ‘sense’ of Justice, and are all (everwhere) outraged by events that strike us as being ‘unfair’ (you don’t need to look too much at political history to see that appeals to ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’* and so forth are localised and only partially successful, but almost every politician who has ever lived, in any culture, has at some point appealed to our sense of fairness and justice).

*No child has ever, spontaneously, screamed ‘That’s not democratic!’. But as every parent will know, almost all children, at some point, will scream ‘But that’s not FAIR!!!’ (or the equivalent). The feeling for justice, for fairness, is very deeply rooted in our psychological make-ups.

2

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 9:36 am

Thanks Hidari. I think (re your paras 1 and 2) that you’d find _Why We Cooperate_ quite congenial.

3

Phil 09.08.10 at 9:37 am

we should draw on the latest research rather than embarrassing ourselves by asserting – as a component in normative arguments – the empirical truth of claims made by seventeenth- and eighteenth- century writers concerning the bases of rationality, language, etc

Or we could just range a bit more widely in our choice of DWEMs. I’ll see your Hobbes and raise you Leibniz:

[Hobbes] did not take into account that the best of men, free from all wickedness, would join together the better to accomplish their goal, just as birds flock together the better to travel in company. Or as beavers congregate by the hundreds to construct great dams, which could not be achieved by a small number of them… That is the foundation of society amongst social animals, and not fear of their kind, which hardly occurs among the beasts.

(H/t to Chris, without whom I would have remained in ignorance – when I say ‘we’ could range more widely, etc, I really mean ‘we’.)

4

belle le triste 09.08.10 at 9:38 am

(Cherished moment from BLT’s family history: the mealtime when a sibling shouted “Be fair! Give me the most!”)

(This is not to dispute Hidari’s point…)

5

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 9:48 am

Well indeed Phil. As a Rousseauiste it is always gratifying to read the modern stuff and think that the _Discourse on Inequality_ and the _Essay of the Origin of Languages_ are just brilliant and amazingly insightful (making connections, opening lines of inquiry etc.). But I still wouldn’t want to go about citing a line from the 2D as if it were a true premise in an argument about global justice (as in one case I discussed here a while back).

6

alex 09.08.10 at 10:25 am

[Comment deleted – Know-all sarcastic trolls aren’t conducive to civilized debate – so go and play elsewhere Alex. CB]

7

Guido Nius 09.08.10 at 10:41 am

Spot on, Chris. I have issues with Tomasello but there is no doubt that what is uncritically seen as the foundations of economics runs counter to the facts. It is ironic that those who tend to go all quantitative on us start from an assumption that is so unfounded and so gratuitously against basic everyday life which is more than 99% about cooperation/less than 1% about competition.

Hume said some nice things about it, including about fairness.

8

Colin Farrelly 09.08.10 at 11:08 am

Interesting post Chris.

I think empirical work of this kind has very significant implications for us as political philosophers, and that we ought to incorporate the latest findings into our theorizing. Indeed, I think this is the most exciting time to be doing political philosophy because the veil of ignorance about “human nature” is beginning to be lifted. So we have new knowledge that Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau didn’t have access to (and we should use this knowledge).

These empirical findings suggest that humans do not have “one nature”, but rather many potential natures. We can be both social and asocial, peaceful and violent, curious and indifferent. In just the past few years human genes associated with impulsive aggression, political participation and even (male) success as a spouse have been identified. This plurality of natures reflects the complex tradeoffs and adaptations that our species has made. The often challenging, volatile and unpredictable external pressures that our species has faced has influenced the development of our species’ biology (especially our brain).

As for sources, the work of Sam Bowles might be of interest
(http://www.santafe.edu/about/people/profile/Sam%20Bowles).

And here are a few recent studies I have found of interest:

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/318/5850/636
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/324/5932/1293
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/326/5953/682
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7208/abs/nature07155.html

Cheers,
Colin

9

Matt 09.08.10 at 11:17 am

In defense of Henry’s post, I don’t think that anything he said or is committed to is in conflict with this remark from Gintis’s review (which he seems to imply Tomasello accepts) :

This certainly does not mean that we should reject the rational actor model—it has been and continues to be extremely successful in explaining human choice. Rather, it means that we will have to add to the model complexities that reflect the additional epistemic power of human, which have evolved according the powerful dynamic of gene-culture coevolution.

And of course Gintis doesn’t think this sort of work, even with stronger assumptions about altruism that Gintis supports but that Tomasello doesn’t, justifies Cohen’s position. See Gintis’s review of Cohen on that.

10

Tom Hurka 09.08.10 at 11:25 am

Actually, the “classic disproof of egoism” was by Joseph Butler, another of those eighteenth-century writers.

Here’s C.D. Broad on Butler on egoism, from Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930):

“As a psychological theory it was killed by Butler; but it still flourishes, I believe, among bookmakers and smart young business men whose claim to know the world is based on an intimate acquaintance with the shadier side of it. In Butler’s day the theory moved in higher social and intellectual circles, and it had to be treated more seriously than any philosopher would trouble to treat it now. This change is very largely the result of Butler’s work; he killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses. Still, all good fallacies go to America when they die, and rise again as the latest discoveries of the local professors. So it will always be useful to have Butler’s refutation at hand.”

11

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 11:29 am

Hi Matt – I thought Henry’s post was fine, generally, but I wasn’t so happy with his (albeit highly qualified) endorsement of rational _egoism_ in reply to John Q at comment 37 of that thread.

Not sure about that the import of that quote from Gintis in this context, since it refers to the “rational actor” model which is, of course, perfectly compatible with rational actors having non-egostic ends.

And yes, I had Gintis’s comments on Cohen in mind when I wrote that.

12

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 11:33 am

Tom, yes but see Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson on Butler at pp. 276-9 of their _Unto Others_.

13

Harald Korneliussen 09.08.10 at 11:42 am

So we have new knowledge that Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau didn’t have access to (and we should use this knowledge).

Colin: Yes, we have access to new knowledge, but it’s not all that clear to me that it matters that much. Leibniz’ observation was really accurate enough. There may be some new hammers to beat the heads of those who refuse to see the obvious, but the support for radical egoism-based theories was poor to begin with.

14

John Quiggin 09.08.10 at 11:47 am

I’ve made the point before but it’s striking how many fans of rational (egoistic) actor theory are also attracted to Dawkins-style selfish gene arguments and to ‘realism’ in international relations.

All of these are similar in style, in the same way that rival nationalisms are similar, and also contradictory in substance just as with rival nationalisms. It’s no more sensible to believe that we are simply machines to reproduce our genes, and that we are selfish maximizers of our own desires and that we act in accordance with some notion of national self-interest than it is to believe in two conflicting nationalist claims at once.

15

Matt 09.08.10 at 11:47 am

which is, of course, perfectly compatible with rational actors having non-egostic ends.

And, of course, even Hobbes (despite what Rousseau attributes to him) thought that people have non-egoistic ends. The reading of him as a pure egoist is a mis-reading, though a common enough one. (I say this as one whose views are closer to Rousseau than Hobbes, but I do think it’s essential for understanding Hobbes to see that he doesn’t think we are purely egoistical. )

16

Matt 09.08.10 at 11:48 am

John Q- you should avoid reading Eric Posner and Richard Goldsmith’s book on international law- it might make your head explode.

17

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 12:15 pm

@14: John, John, John. Please don’t talk about biology without knowing what you’re talking about. “Selfish gene” is an unfortunate metaphor which would be well to discard, but the reality is that selection operates in overwhelming preponderance at the gene level, whether anyone likes it or not. Pay no attention to idiots like Matt Ridley: this has nothing whatsoever to do with either psychology or ethics. Sigh.

18

Guido Nius 09.08.10 at 12:19 pm

14- yes, but it is the gene that is selfish and the extrapolation of that to anything else than genes has always been shockingly simplistic. I guess it just is something that anti-social people use to excuse themselves in front of their remaining social instincts: “That’s just reality … blah”.

19

The Raven 09.08.10 at 12:28 pm

Told ya.

& maybe you’ve given me some reading for my copious spare time. I’ll be interested to see the commentary & suggestions.

20

John Quiggin 09.08.10 at 12:42 pm

Steve, I understand the point you’re making, and Dawkin’s metaphor. But to spell out Guido’s response, someone driven by their genes would, in Haldane’s (?) phrase, happily sacrifice themselves for two siblings or eight cousins. And the propensities required to get this kind of self-sacrifice lend themselves to altruism more generally. So, if you believe in gene-level selection, you can’t consistently believe in egoistic rationality.

21

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 12:59 pm

Yes you can, John. Psychology is not so simplistically determined by genes (and btw Haldane was joking. He was a Communist for chrissakes!) Not even Dawkins thinks so. Cultural evolution is much faster and in some ways more powerful than biological evolution, and our brains are more than plastic enough to accommodate it. When I hear the phrase “evolutionary psychology” I reach for my revolver.

Please do not make the creationist mistake of thinking you get to pick and choose bits of physical reality according to whether you like (what you imagine to) be their consequences. That selection happens preponderantly at the gene level is reality. Nobody has ever plausibly made multi-level selection do much work other than in a few interesting but dubiously significant special cases, despite many efforts. At best there might be some juice in clade-level selection for “evolvability” but there are serious objections to even this and anyway it has little to do with your worries.

22

dsquared 09.08.10 at 1:06 pm

“Selfish gene” is an unfortunate metaphor which would be well to discard

I don’t think it’s a particularly unfortunate metaphor and it does sum up Dawkins’ view exactly – organisms behave as if controlled by selfish entities concerned with their own propagation and multiplication. To then claim that those identities were identical with particular DNA/RNA sequences is a bad idea, but IIRC Dawkins’ current view is that he never made that additional claim (which makes it very difficult to understand what the flamewar with Gould & Eldredge was all about but there you go).

23

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 1:11 pm

I say unfortunate because, though Dawkins understood that it was only a metaphor (he is a after all, a man at least mildly of the left), it’s an image that makes it all too easy for the likes of Matt Ridley to claim, plausibly for too many shallow-thinking readers, that libertarianism is somehow the only political philosophy congruent with “human nature”. So by now the metaphor is doing more harm than good to understanding, as John’s worries illustrate.

24

engels 09.08.10 at 1:11 pm

Capitalism is entering a new phase, after having been brought back from the brink of collapse by government action. Britain has a new set of political rulers. Unregulated markets and conspicuous consumption are out. Bank bailouts, regulation and ‘austerity’ are in. I suspect that over the next few years we are going to be hearing a lot less from our superiors about how how ‘greed is good’ and a lot more about ‘fairness’, ‘responsibility’, ‘the common good’, and so on. If anyone thinks this means that life is about to get better for those who found themselves at the bottom of the heap during the glorious Thatcher-Blair years of individualistic competition then I have a very nice bridge I’d like to sell them — I’ll even donate the profits to charity.

25

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 1:14 pm

The “selfish gene” metaphor came up at lunch today …. Consensus seemed to be that the phrase was a public-relations triumph for Dawkins but an explanatory disaster.

26

Guido Nius 09.08.10 at 1:15 pm

23- it is an excellent metaphor but there’s no such thing as a metaphor that is idiot proof. That’s too bad for the idiots (and: 22).

27

Zoe 09.08.10 at 1:36 pm

I think it’s important to ask what it is about ‘hard-wired’ or ‘gene-driven’ behaviours that makes them relevant to our concept of human nature. Is it that the behaviour is typical of every organism of that kind? Or that the behaviour is insensitive to environmental factors? Or that the organism has limited control over the behaviour? All of these factors are arguably tied up in our idea of human nature, but they can and do pull apart in interesting ways. (See work by philosopher of science Paul Griffiths for related concerns over our concept of innateness.)

28

dsquared 09.08.10 at 1:51 pm

I’m currently rereading TSG and it’s actually a very good book; it really does get me interested in why Dawkins v Gould was so vitriolic because there’s very little space between the two. I’m tentatively guessing that the influence of Daniel Dennett was not wholly pacificatory.

29

John Protevi 09.08.10 at 1:53 pm

Chris, thanks for bringing attention to this important field. I teach a course on “Evolution and Biology of Morality” to the Honors undergrads here at LSU (*not* LSE!): http://www.protevi.com/john/Morality/index.html, which includes Tomasello among its readings. You might be interested in the notes on it and other readings. To add a bleg to your bleg (is double-blegging allowed?), I’d be happy for any feedback from you or from CT readers. Email is at bottom of course page.

30

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 1:55 pm

Gould had a very irritating PR shtick of claiming that relatively mundane insights- lineages don’t evolve at constant speeds! (as if Darwin didn’t already know that)- were world-historical advances in knowledge. Dawkins’s was by no means the only skin he got under.

31

dsquared 09.08.10 at 1:59 pm

Gould had a very irritating PR shtick of claiming that relatively mundane insights- lineages don’t evolve at constant speeds! (as if Darwin didn’t already know that)- were world-historical advances in knowledge

yes, although somewhat curious that Dawkins would be the one to pick him up on it.

32

DFC 09.08.10 at 2:05 pm

I have reading some others articles about the “ultimatum game” where the answer is quite different if the players belongs to cultures not very linked to the “occidental” way of life (or weltanschauung), see this link:

http://www.nationalpost.com/Westerners+World+weird+ones/3427126/story.html

IMO there are 2 ways to explain the way we (westeners) play this game compare with other cultures:
a) The right-wing explanation: both players trend to obtain as much as possible, and the first player needs the cooperation of the second, and the second player knows that this money is not a gift or a alms, it has some price, and if the offer is very low that means the player Nº 1 is “too much clever” for the Nº 2, in fact the earnings of both players are not independent in the mind of both players. There is a hidden “market” in the game

b) The left-wing explanation: there are some “rights” acquired , and offer only few dollars is really an “insult” to the dignity of the secon player, it sounds as an “exploitation” from an advantageous position of player Nº 1, and both players know that

In fact both explanations are the both sides of the same coin and it is related to what Hegel call “recognition”, that, for Hegle was the foundation of the laws that supports the “Modern State”, as it appears in the Phenomenology of the Spirit (1806)

The “recognition” as a perception of a different (new) level of “expectations” from the “Other”, in the sense of the “benefits” or the “rights”

The Hegelian “right” and “left” in fact are both together, and both are the bases of the thinking of the bourgeoisie as were written in the “Declaration of Human Rights” in 1789 or in the “Declaration of Independence” both a work of the bourgeoisie

As you know in the “Declaration of Independence” it appears that “every man has the right to pursue the happiness..” (?), and that is what I call rise expectations…

I am pretty sure that if you had made the same game in the Middle Age or in cultures that do not know nothing about “Enlightment” the results would be very different

33

Tom Hurka 09.08.10 at 2:12 pm

Chris: I know the Sober and Sloan Wilson, and it’s a terrific book. But the critique of Butler focuses mostly on his (false) claim that pleasure always results from the satisfaction of a desire for an external object, and egoism is refuted so long as that sometimes happens. And surely it does sometimes happen. My favourite example is sports fandom.

Consider fans of a perpetually losing team, e.g. the Toronto Maple Leafs in ice hockey (or England in international football). Do they want pleasure, believe the Leafs’ winning will give them pleasure, and therefore want the Leafs to win? Or do they just want the Leafs to win? Surely it’s the latter. If it were the former, they’d quickly realize that wanting the Leafs to win is a hopeless strategy for getting pleasure and try to switch their allegiance to another team. But they don’t try to switch. They stick with the Leafs (or England) and suffer decades of misery.

34

bunbury 09.08.10 at 2:14 pm

As far as hard wiring is concerned I think that the existence of foxes bred for tameness suggests that a certain amount of hard wiring is in effect but that hard wiring is not itself hard wired.

35

chris 09.08.10 at 2:24 pm

So, if you believe in gene-level selection, you can’t consistently believe in egoistic rationality.

Or, at least, you have to be careful how you define “egoistic”, so that it includes Haldane’s happiness. If you believe in parenting, you can’t have a completely simplistic view of “egoistic rationality”, because you have to account for the parent’s interest in his/her child’s life, health, social standing, etc. But once you’ve included the fact that that *is* an interest of the parent, then you could still theorize that they pursue it as rationally as they are able (subject to their information limitations and the known cognitive biases of humans).

And the propensities required to get this kind of self-sacrifice lend themselves to altruism more generally.

Except that they don’t, in practice. Most people are rather specific in their altruism. Good Samaritans are the exception, not the rule; most Samaritans would only help other Samaritans.

Nationalism itself is another manifestation of the same drive to divide up people into Us and Them and help only the former while regarding the latter with fear and distrust, turning to outright hate at the slightest provocation. (They want to put a community center *where*? — to take just one recent example.)

Also, a lot of people seem to prefer trade to genuine altruism, and even become resentful if their favors aren’t returned in some appropriate-to-them fashion. Social status may be an acceptable form of repayment if you don’t have any tangible way to return the favor, but what kind of ungrateful jerks wouldn’t even give you *that*?! Once word gets around, a reputation as an ingrate isn’t going to do them any favors in future interactions with people who are aware of it.

Staying on top of that kind of complex web of social interactions and obligations requires a grossly hypertrophied brain (relative to similar species).

36

chris 09.08.10 at 2:27 pm

it really does get me interested in why Dawkins v Gould was so vitriolic because there’s very little space between the two.

It wasn’t. The conflict was played up by the media for sensationalism value.

37

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 2:28 pm

Also, a lot of people seem to prefer trade to genuine altruism, and even become resentful if their favors aren’t returned in some appropriate-to-them fashion.

A lot of that kind of thing turns out to be more culture-bound than popular accounts usually suggest, a fact already alluded to by DFC. There is a serious problem with the very narrow range of subjects used in a lot of the psychology experiments from which the evo-psych types like to generalize.

38

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 2:29 pm

Zoe @27 (and Bunbury also). Yes I wish I hadn’t written “hard wired” because I’m aware of, but only dimly understand, some of the problems about innateness that arise from the EvoDevo literature. There was a good talk on this in Bochum by Keith Stenning (Edinburgh). You can give me a tutorial in the pub Zoe!

39

Kien 09.08.10 at 3:33 pm

I’m reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it seems clear that Adam Smith doesn’t think of individuals as rational egoists at all. He has a much richer view of what a “rational” person is.

Critiques of rational choice theory sometimes argue that humans are not always rational. A better critique, which Amartya Sen makes, is that “rationality” is a broad church, and a person may good reason to do many things that a rational choice theorist would regard as irrational. There is no need to conceive of rationality in such narrow terms as based only on acting in self-interest.

40

chris 09.08.10 at 3:44 pm

A lot of that kind of thing turns out to be more culture-bound than popular accounts usually suggest, a fact already alluded to by DFC.

If you’re referring to things like potlatch cultures, I think you’re failing to account for the social return “received” in exchange for such public giving. IMO, that means that it’s not genuinely altruism in the sense that requires Haldane-style explanation, because the giver’s interests are actually being advanced by the gift, even without a tangible quid pro quo.

The visibility of these intangible social returns, of course, is dependent on the culturally shaped perceptions of the observer.

41

JP Stormcrow 09.08.10 at 3:54 pm

Chris@38: Minor clarification, EvoDevo≠EvPsyc. The former deals with thing like Hox genes and how a developing embryo knows its ass from its head holes.

I think Dawkins/Gould is partly the narcissism of small differences/professional jealousy and partly per Steve LaBonne the tendency of Gould to claim more than was there for things like Punctuated Equilibrium. The media may have played it up, but there was some serious disagreement between them. (I had not realized that a whole book had been written, however–Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest .)

42

chrismealy 09.08.10 at 4:01 pm

The Gould/Dawkins debate was about the role natural selection plays in evolution. Gould (on the pluralist side) thought the adaptationist/ultra-Darwinist side reduced evolution to only natural selection and ignored the other mechanisms. Having read a bunch of Dawkins and Dennett (before ever hearing about pluralism) I certainly got the impression that adaptation was same thing as evolution.

43

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 4:18 pm

@41

“Chris@38: Minor clarification, EvoDevo≠EvPsyc.”

I’m not sure how you read me as thinking “=”. My (limited) understanding is that EvoDevo (the body of work you’re referring to) renders innateness a problematic concept in biology generally. If generally, then also, by implication for humans.

44

Henry 09.08.10 at 4:29 pm

Chris – this (together with the Lenin’s Tomb post) deserves a longer response that I’ll try to put together. But on the subject of biology and explanation (which I probably will not be getting into), I spent a couple of days at a conference with Sloan Wilson last year, and while I found him fascinating and very good value in conversation, his proposed program for the introduction of evolutionary thinking into the social sciences was not one that I could easily buy into (lots and _lots_ of functionalist thinking about e.g. the role of religion). I’m glad to see though that he is keeping up the “tradition”:http://scienceblogs.com/evolution/2010/09/open_letter_to_richard_dawkins.php of … spirited … debate about mechanisms of selection &c. The use of the adjective “priestly” in particular is quite nicely venomous …

45

dsquared 09.08.10 at 4:36 pm

41: yes, I’ve got that book. My personal guess (and it is no more than that) is that Dawkins (and Dennett, who really fed the flames at points) thought that Gould in particular was leaving a space open for theism. I would say that Gould is basically guilty of this, or at least of giving the very strong impression that he was, but actually quite innocent of the charge of playing up the importance of punctuated equilibrium etc – as Chris points out in 42, the context was one in which Dawkins, Maynard Smith etc had very much played down the importance of any sort of path-dependency, historicism etc in favour of the sort of things that were susceptible to a modelling approach (iirc, Paul Krugman in his Slate incarnation was a very peripheral protagonist in the wars and explicitly made this point about the division of the two sides, as a supporter of Dawkins).

46

JP Stormcrow 09.08.10 at 4:36 pm

@43: Oops, my bad. I had seen that mistake before and just assumed you misspoke. However, not sure that “innateness” issues at the level discussed in EvoDevo speak (other than indirectly) to the issues under discussion here.

47

Steve LaBonne 09.08.10 at 4:38 pm

Sloan Wilson is a smart guy but very much not representative of mainstream thinking in evolutionary biology (which of course doesn’t mean he’s wrong; personally, though, the stuff of his I’ve read strikes me as “not even wrong”, as he’s not the clearest of thinkers or writers.) People in other fields should keep that in mind.

He also has a personal beef with Dawkins about religion, a subject about which Sloan Wilson frankly has said very stupid things.

48

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 4:40 pm

Oh marvellous. Brad DeLong, who never misses an opportunity to have a personal dig at me on his blog whenever he has the least excuse has accused me of making “an elementary mistake” in the above post. Well pop over and see if you think his comments are fair

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/moral-philosophy-chris-bertram-makes-an-elementary-mistake.html

49

geo 09.08.10 at 4:47 pm

Chris Farrelly @8: I think empirical work of this kind has very significant implications for us as political philosophers

I disagree. I’d like to put in a word for know-nothingism. I agree with Harald @13 that everyday, garden-variety observation of the Leibniz or Adam Smith/Francis (?) Hutchinson “sympathy” sort is ample for political purposes. People often behave generously. They often behave selfishly. The reasons in each case are not, for the most part, unintelligible. People generally return good for good, while “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return,” as Auden pointed out. Material scarcity and economic insecurity tend to stunt social solidarity and individual moral development. Etc.

These and other truisms are quite enough to be getting on with, and in particular to motivate the transfer of enough resources to provide all humans with 2000 daily calories, clean water, literacy, basic medical care, shelter, and the other things without which no citizen of the developed world would think life worth living. No subtle philosophizing or advanced research into evolutionary psychology is either necessary or sufficient.

One of the leading political moralists of the 20th century, Ignazio Silone, wrote that his idea of socialism was “to extend the generosity and self-sacrifice commonly found in private life, and particularly in the family, outward as far as possible.” Seems like enough political philosophy to me.

50

geo 09.08.10 at 4:54 pm

PS – Sorry, Colin, for getting your name wrong.

51

zosima 09.08.10 at 6:07 pm

The boilerplate defense of rational choice plus egoism when faced with this sort of evidence is: “Nothing about the theory says that people can’t have preferences for helping others.” It’s true that most theories don’t actually include altruistic preferences in their models of self-interest, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t.

I think a good question, at this point, would be whether a theory of self-interest with altruism “tacked-on” is the simplest or most compact representation of behavior.(Why not have a theory that takes altruism as an underlying principle rather than a means to self-interest?) But considering all the results built on a foundation of rational self-interest, there might still be a lot to gain from such a theory, even if it is somewhat ugly and over-complex.

52

Henri Vieuxtemps 09.08.10 at 6:45 pm

Selfish genes have produced a bunch of cognizant creatures whose consciousness is shaped by their social interactions.

53

glyn morgan 09.08.10 at 6:55 pm

” this much is, I think, clear: that work in empirical psychology and evolutionary anthropolgy (and related fields) doesn’t – quelle surprise! – support anything like the Hobbesian picture of human nature that lurks at the foundations of microeconomics, rational choice theory and, indeed, in much contemporary and historical political philosophy.”

This raises the interesting question whether “the Hobbesian picture of human nature”–itself something of an eighteenth century construct–is necessary to support Hobbes’s argument for unitary and absolute sovereignty. Or whether Hobbes’s conclusion can be derived merely from a set of claims about basic human equality, disagreement about the good life, and the desire for a commodious life.

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Paul Sagar 09.08.10 at 7:34 pm

“and historical political philosophy”

Hmm, not sure about this.

Apart from Hobbes and Rousseau, prior to the 19th Century most political theory assumed as foundational the natural sociability of man. When this debate is effectively transcended in the mid-late 18th Century (because it ceases to have traction in an increasingly secular world in which liberalism is emerging) perhaps more room emerges for the selfish egotist view – but then again, it’s nowhere to be found in Mill, whilst even Rawls takes as foundational the ability (and willingness) of citizens to view society as a fair system of co-operation, enshrining reciprocity, across classes and generations.

So whilst economics may well be guilty of the fallacy you cite, I’m not sure it’s really fair to implicate political theory, especially that for centuries past.

55

Chris Bertram 09.08.10 at 7:38 pm

Thanks Paul @54 – I actually had in mind Kant’s Rechtslehre and the Hobbesian aspect of his treatment of the assurance problem re property in a state of nature when I wrote that.

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Paul Sagar 09.08.10 at 7:57 pm

I mean here’s Hume, who can generally be read as very influenced by the work of Hobbes and Mandeville, and who has a big impact on the 19th century Utilitarian tradition (even if they do misread him quite badly) denouncing precisely the systems of “self-love” that were forerunners to the modern rational self-interest utility-maximiser views:
“Now where is the difficulty in conceiving, that this may likewise be the case with benevolence and friendship, and that, from the original frame of our temper, we may feel a desire of another’s happiness or good, which, by means of that affection, becomes our own good, and is afterwards pursued, from the combined motives of benevolence and self-enjoyments? Who sees not that vengeance, from the force alone of passion, may be so eagerly pursued, as to make us knowingly neglect every consideration of ease, interest, or safety; and, like some vindictive animals, infuse our very souls into the wounds we give an enemy; and what a malignant philosophy must it be, that will not allow to humanity and friendship the same privileges which are undisputably granted to the darker passions of enmity and resentment; such a philosophy is more like a satyr than a true delineation or description of human nature; and may be a good foundation for paradoxical wit and raillery, but is a very bad one for any serious argument or reasoning.”

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Paul Sagar 09.08.10 at 8:05 pm

@Chris Bertram

(sorry for posting that Hume thing after you’d replied).

Yes, I did wonder if your research interests in Rousseau were particularly at the forefront of your thoughts when you wrote this!

I do agree overall, by the way, that in some respects it would be wise indeed to pay attention to new empirical work rather than relying on 17th/18th century claims about human nature etc. Having said that, there are times when simple observation and clear-headed argument is sufficient. For example, the second appendix of Hume’s second Enquiry provides a battery of arguments demolishing the philosophy of “self love” – and most of the arguments are still completely applicable today to the RTC bunch and their EvPsych cousins (as Simon Blackburn knows, because he faithfully recycles them). In general, I’m inclined to believe that a lot of philosophical questions can be solved by looking carefully at ordinary life experience, taking it seriously and not thinking dogmatically. But then, I’m of the belief that a lot of the really big issues were either laid down, or sorted out, by the end of the 18th Century, and that we’re just picking up the leftover pieces. And I’m dubious that empirical psychology or advances in biology are likely to sort out what we might call the “deep” philosophical problems, whilst they’ll just confirm what the best philosophers already worked out 300 years ago regarding the more surface-level issues.

But then, I have to justify 3 years of state funding for an 18th Century political thought doctorate, so probably best not to listen to me.

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Paul Sagar 09.08.10 at 8:11 pm

Here’s some more ad hom from Hume, incidentally, because it’s not only funny but he has a serious point here: that there is something disturbing about people who advocate systems of self-love and that correspondingly they are probably not reliable guides to how the world is:

£This principle is, that all benevolence is mere hypocrisy, friendship a cheat, public spirit a farce, fidelity a snare to procure trust and confidence; and that while all of us, at bottom, pursue only our private interest, we wear these fair disguises, in order to put others off their guard, and expose them the more to our wiles and machinations. What heart one must be possessed of who possesses such principles, and who feels no internal sentiment that belies so pernicious a theory, it is easy to imagine: and also what degree of affection and benevolence he can bear to a species whom he represents under such odious colours, and supposes so little susceptible of gratitude or any return of affection. Or if we should not ascribe these principles wholly to a corrupted heart, we must at least account for them from the most careless and precipitate examination.”

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John Quiggin 09.08.10 at 8:35 pm

@Chris (not Chris B) @35 “Or, at least, you have to be careful how you define “egoistic”, so that it includes Haldane’s happiness. “

Once you do that, you’ve reduced the term to meaninglessness. Extending the term egoistic to cover altruism is a fallacy that was I think first refuted by Butler.

“Most people are rather specific in their altruism. “

I didn’t mean to deny this. As you say, Samaritans tend to care more about other Samaritans. But, the whole point of the parable is to use our existing limited altruism as the basis for an appeal for generalized altruism. Jesus was maybe the first in the European tradition to make this universalist claim (people who know what they are talking about are welcome to correct me here).

But to spell out the point in more detail, the kind of gene-rational kin altruism that leads to self-sacrifice for close kin, when expressed in human psychology, leads fairly naturally and rapidly to altruism with respect to “people like me”. It’s a much bigger move, involving a series of intellectual and emotional steps to “everyone is like me”, but the process wouldn’t start at all if people were hardwired for pure egoism. JS Mill has some good stuff on the development of generalized altruism, which I am too lazy to look up.

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DFC 09.08.10 at 8:43 pm

IMO the conclusions of Hobbes about human nature comes from the tradition of the Luteranian concept of corrupt human nature, as was described by Lutero in his famous letters exchange with the humanist Erasmus; asking the last for the “Liberum Arbitrium” and the answer of Lutero was the letter “de Servo Arbitrium” where he described the human nature as fundamentally corrupt and prone to all kind of sins, and only the faith can save the soul, never the “good deeds”
This tradition remains in Hegel and his idea of the violent origin of the State as is described in the “Master-Slave Dialectic”, where he thinks the main purpose of the humans beings is to rule over others using any means at any cost, even at the price of the own life (the case of the Master)

The Roussonian approach is related to the humanist tradition (Erasmus) that consider the human beings were born with the potential for goodness, based on the capacity to have emotions and sympathy for others, foundation of goodness and benevolence, and there is an strong stream of thinking that follow this premise

I supose the choice of the hobbesian approach by the economist is because they are very focus in the business environment and in this cases the first look suggests a fully hobbesian human behavior

61

enzo rossi 09.09.10 at 12:32 am

Chris,

One these issues I rather liked Paul Seabright’s <a href="http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9169.html&quot; title="The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life” (Princeton UP 2004. I see there’s a revised edition now, with an inevitable chapter on the current economic meltdown. Oh well.). Not quite as narrowly focused and detailed as your typical academic monograph, but maybe that’s why I liked it.

On a different note, I’m inclined to think that the Hobbesian account of authority doesn’t need the Hobbesian account of human nature (the Gauthier-Ridge exchange on Hobbesian public reason comes to mind).

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enzo rossi 09.09.10 at 12:33 am

Obviously I misplaced an html tag above. Apols.

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novakant 09.09.10 at 2:52 am

All statements about “human nature” are by definition shallow and useless, yet many otherwise intelligent people seem to have a really hard time resisting the urge to make them in one form or another – it’s sad.

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bad Jim 09.09.10 at 4:42 am

I’m inclined to agree that not much of our behavior is hard-wired. Some sort of empathy seems to develop in a normal brain (but apparently not in the autistic) but as far as I know it’s unnecessary to assume much beyond that and the usual biological imperatives.

Children need to be taught to share (I’m observing the process in a 3yo nephew) and notions of fairness can likewise be attributed to culture. The content of any culture is going to be constrained by the environment and by economic or game theoretical considerations. Under most circumstances cooperation works better than the alternatives, so successful cultures inculcate it.

That’s not to say that we choose our actions strictly from enlightened self interest, but that most of us are socialized in such a way as to approximate it.

(Too simple, I know; parent-child bonding appears to be mediated by hormones, we’re wired in such a way as to respond to faces, and so forth. However, I encounter too many social dominance-oriented types, and babies, to think the practice of fairness is anything but a learned trait.)

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Chris Bertram 09.09.10 at 6:31 am

enzo @61 . (and possibly glyn @53) Well yes, the Hobbesian regress argument is also popular with people who don’t accept Hobbes’s microfoundations (Rousseau) or who sometimes do and sometimes don’t (Kant). But I thought the lesson of the Gauthier-Ridge exchange was that the regress argument is no good, in which case it hardly supports the Hobbesian conclusion about sovereignty even if it is meant to.

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 8:44 am

“Once you do that, you’ve reduced the term to meaninglessness. Extending the term egoistic to cover altruism is a fallacy that was I think first refuted by Butler.”

But is it possible to find a plausible example of rational altruism that cannot be said to be built on selfish foundations? If there is no plausinbly selfish motive (even if it is very tenuous, such as contributing to the sort of social conditions that you find personally congenial or which you think are most congenial for your loved ones or off-spring) the altruism becomes irrational almost by definition, doesn’t it?

Sen is funny on this. He gives as an example of non-egoistic behaviour the willingness of a passenger in a plane window seat to close the blind (even though he had been enjoying the sunny view) so that an idiot next to him can play a moronic computer game a little more easily. But surely the only reason anyone would accede to that request in those circs would be to avoid conflict, in other words because the expected costs of refusal outweigh the expected gains, which is pure RCT, isn’t it?

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 8:56 am

“All statements about “human nature” are by definition shallow and useless”

I don’t know, I think King Lear is OK.

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dsquared 09.09.10 at 9:33 am

If there is no plausinbly selfish motive (even if it is very tenuous, such as contributing to the sort of social conditions that you find personally congenial or which you think are most congenial for your loved ones or off-spring)

An unmarried orphan accepting a suicide mission in World War 2.

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Zamfir 09.09.10 at 9:39 am

even if it is very tenuous, such as contributing to the sort of social conditions that you find personally congenial

But by the time you get to this, what difference does it make? If you are going to posit a selfish desire to contribute to making society a pleasant place, you might just as well call that selfish desire “altruism”.

With enough epicycles, planetary orbits are indeed purely circular motions.

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 10:23 am

“An unmarried orphan accepting a suicide mission in World War 2.”

But unless there was SOME selfish component to the motive, it would be irrational, wouldn’t it? It may be that she has a certain virtue ethic, for example, which means that there would be a large cost to her in refusing, or there may be social pressures or religious commitments of some kind or a belief that she was furthering a better world that she had an important emotional stake in. Can we imagine someone volunteering for such a mission in the belief that she would be despised for it? That would seem mad.

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John Quiggin 09.09.10 at 10:44 am

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Beldon Floss 09.09.10 at 10:57 am

J Meredith: You seem to think you are saying something profound when you posit that all people are selfish. So what? What is the big conclusion you draw from all this waffle? That socialism is impossible no doubt. In fact we do live in an entirely selfish society but it is self-interest that drives the workers to combine and it is self interest that will drive them to smash capitalism and establish a society where it is no longer rational to be entirely selfish but in which society becomes an end in itself as opposed to an alienated means to an end. There is no call to change human nature, which is just fine in all its multifaceted glory, only human relations.

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dsquared 09.09.10 at 11:57 am

But unless there was SOME selfish component to the motive, it would be irrational, wouldn’t it?

To be honest I think this road has been travelled quite a few times in the literature hasn’t it. If you’re going to define terms such that anyone who does something because they want to do it has a “selfish motive”, then that’s a defensible position. But most people end up concluding that the distinction between actions carried out in anticipation of a benefit and actions carried out for other kinds of reasons is coherent and useful.

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DFC 09.09.10 at 12:08 pm

There is a clear example of altruism, and it is the relationship between a mother and her child. The base of this altruism is because (usually) mothers do not judge the children, the example is the mother’s of gangs of even criminals, because mothers can see the continuity of our lives, for them we are always the same innocent children who crying in their laps
All the utopic ethics of Jesus (or Saint Francis of Asis) was based in the same consideration, but IMO it is the first ethic not based in the “Talion Law” is the first time the “others” appears in the ethics and the world will not be the same
There was an anecdote when St Francis was called by the pope to explain his religious teaching, and was interviewed by a cardinal that said “we, the high hierarchy of the Church are rich, we like to eat a lot, we are very different to Jesus, how can you love us as you say?” and Francis said: “without judgement”

IMO it is the early experience of the relationships between the child and his parents mark clearly the future ethics of the child and the way he see the others, for example in the monologue at the beginning of Richard III he says “because be loved is not possible, I decided to be infamous” (or something like that, sorry)

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engels 09.09.10 at 12:08 pm

But unless there was SOME selfish component to the motive, it would be irrational, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t. Pace you and Humpty Dumpty the word ‘rational’ does not logically entail ‘selfish’.

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Harry 09.09.10 at 12:10 pm

Why not accept the suicide mission believing you would be despised for it if you know that by doing it you will be saving many lives. Setting a bomb that kills you and 10 other people who are, unbeknown to anyone else, about to execute a plan to kill thousands of innocents. You know you’ll be despised once dead. But you know that you’ll have saved thousands of innocents. Doesn’t seem irrational to me.

But JQ and DD identify the more fundamental problems.

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 12:11 pm

“The fact that JM totally misses the point is, regrettably, unsurprising.”

Regrettably, that is true.

“To be honest I think this road has been travelled quite a few times in the literature hasn’t it. “

I don’t really know, although I’m not surprised. I agree the distinction is useful and intuitive in daily life but it just seems that it doesn’t do as much damage to Beckerish approaches to RCT as people like Sen seem to think it does. We can still assume that people act out of rational self interest in the overwhelming number of cases and so long as we have a sensitive enough understanding of how they see or experience their self interest we will be able to explain lots of behaviour.

Beldon, I don’t have a dog in the race, but I agree that most socialisms seem to be based on a version of rational choice theory although one class may be mystified into misunderstanding their own interests.

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 12:15 pm

And Harry, yes, I agree that that would be a rational act of altruism, but it kind of makes the point that non-self-interested rational altruism is in fact vanishingly rare, doesn’t it?

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engels 09.09.10 at 12:18 pm

most socialisms seem to be based on a version of rational choice theory

How bizarre.

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John Meredith 09.09.10 at 12:22 pm

“But most people end up concluding that the distinction between actions carried out in anticipation of a benefit and actions carried out for other kinds of reasons is coherent and useful.”

One last thing: if you enlarge that to ‘in anticipation of a benefit or in order to avoid a disbenefit’ (since selfishness encompasses both motives) it looks different, doesn’t it?

I wonder if it makes a difference too, to consider ‘evil altruism’. After all, risking imprisonment and social disgrace to throw stones through your neighbours window without obvious benefit to yourself can be altruistic too, if you are an ideological racist committed to freeing the neighbourhood from the racial stain. But most people would want to say that that wasn’t altruistic but disguised self-interest, I think.

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Chris Bertram 09.09.10 at 12:36 pm

[Moderator’s intervention: I think this side-discussion with JM has run its course]

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chris 09.09.10 at 1:37 pm

It’s a much bigger move, involving a series of intellectual and emotional steps to “everyone is like me”, but the process wouldn’t start at all if people were hardwired for pure egoism.

Sure, if you define “pure egoism” as selling your brother for a nickel because a nickel is better than nothing. (This is, as Hume points out without using the word, sociopathic — and not the way most people behave, so founding your theory on that is dumb.)

But doesn’t that depend on an unreasonably limited view of people’s interests? It doesn’t even take into account reciprocity or reputation, which are quite enough to explain most “altruistic” behavior — certainly the garden-variety Samaritan, if perhaps not the Good one.

In particular, note how some religions are based on the idea that *someone* is watching even when no human being is watching. The tendency of people to behave differently when they believe they are being observed is obviously related to reputation concerns, which are on some level selfish, but can be hijacked with an imaginary observer or by convincing people to internalize the ruleset and judge themselves, in order to produce apparently selfless behavior like the WWII suicide mission. (And it seems to me that analysis of the WWII volunteer’s motives doesn’t really depend on which side he is fighting on, so “evil altruism” is indistinguishable from the real thing except for being misguided about what the greater good is.)

But if the religious believer really believes that God is watching them and will judge them later, then aren’t they being good out of the *selfish* motive of avoiding divine judgment?

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Paul Sagar 09.09.10 at 1:50 pm

Right, in case anyone cares, I’ve summarised Hume’s arguments against systems of “self love” over at my place.

The person above apparently invoking Hume in favour of reducing everything to self-interest by claiming we need to look at reciprocity and reputation is not going to like this:

http://badconscience.com/2010/09/09/plundering-the-classics-how-to-think-about-the-self-interest-brigade/

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praisegod barebones 09.09.10 at 1:51 pm

Sounds like the Bochum conference was interesting: as a political philosopher who started out doing work in philosophy of psychology that is at least adjacent to, or in the same ball-park as the sorts of things Tomasello is interested in, I’d certainly like to see more people looking at/thinking about his kind of thing.

As a result, I’m now going to be LONG on the internet, so apologies in advance/scroll through if you don’t like multi-paragraph blog comments.

As a general methodological point – it strikes me as very unlikely that one could settle the question of whether empirical work of this sort was or was not relevant to political philosophy on a priori grounds. So I don’t have much sympathy with the people who are saying: well, all this was settled in the eighteenth century – so we don’t even need to bother looking at this kind of thing. (It might turn out to be irrelevant – that’s another matter.) I also doubt that many eighteenth – or indeed seventeenth century thinkers would have seen things this way. Both Hobbes and Hume, in their way, were all for trying to integrate their science of man with what they took to be the best science 0f the day. Are you sure you know better than them what is and what isn’t significant for understanding either them or the thigns hey were interested in. (Rousseau’s maybe an exception here – doesn’t he basically say – let’s not worry about the historical facts – they’re irrelevant. But surely that’s an outlier position. )

A couple of things about the Tomasello book (which I had out of the library last week but don’t have right here now, so can’t check everything I say.) One is that it strikes me as a bit of a simplification to say that Tomaselllo thinks that altruistic motivation is innate. There’s quite an interesting discussion with – I think – Carol Dweck at the end on this. But basically the issue seems to be about whether we’re just motivated to get involved in other people’s enterprises when they might be advantageous to us (which seems to be Tomasello’s view) or whether we’re naturally altruistic in a stronger sense. (Tomasello seeems to think that our capacity for the former can be culturally bootstrapped into the latter – my impression is his interlocutor thinks that altruism is natural in a stronger sense than that d.) (Without wanting to jump into a long-running blog war, this strikes me as relevant to but not dispositive in your disagreement woth Brad de Long)

Secondly, Tomasello sets up his question as being ‘Is Hobbes right about human nature, or is Rousseau’. But I think a better question – and one he comes closer to asking and answering – would be about whether Hobbes or Aristotle is right about human nature.

To expand on this: I’m not really a Rousseau expert, but the way I read the Discourse on Inequality, you have Rousseau saying, effectively, – look, one way in which Hobbes goes wrong is that he radically under-estimates quite how solitary human beings would be outside of the cultural institutions with which we are familiar. (You can quibble as to whether that gets Hobbes right – it’s tangential to the point I’m trying to make). And Rousseau gives us a picture of pre-social man who, while not naturally prone to conflict, has no particular need for other people .

Tomasello’s picture strikes me as radically at odds with this. More striking than the claim about motivation, it seems to me, is the claim that what’s distinctive about human beings is the way they are hard-wired to engage in multi-person activities.
Maybe we need a certain kind of motivational structure to do this. (I’ll come back to this). But we also need certain kinds of cognitive structures as well – the sorts of things that enable us to be sufficiently well-attuned to what someone else is doing to be able to help them – which involves for example being able to follow the direction of their gaze and so on.

You might put Tomasello’s point as being that its part of human nature to be able to do things collectively. And this strikes me as rather Aristotelian, both as a kind of claim – it seems like a claim about the ‘ergon’ or characteristic activity of human beings – and in its specific content: one fairly unfreighted way of understanding the claim that we are political animals (as are bees and, if I remember rightly, blind mole-rats) is that we engage in complex, co-ordinated activities.

(Parenthesis: Since Zoe’s pointed out that we need to be very careful how we’re using the term ‘human nature’, I’ll just say that by this I mean – ‘something which is distinctive about human beings, and which has a partly genetic basis ‘ – I make no claims about it being strongly canalised; and one view about autism which strikes me as plausible is that it involves a disruption of some of the cognitive abilities that support this kind of co-operative activity, in which case, its not species-universal.)

(Parenthesis to the parenthesis) It doesn’t strike me as particularly plausible that people who are autistic simply ‘don’t have empathy’: bad Jim – do you have any particular expertise here, or are you just passing on something which you take to be the gist of something you’ve read? If it’s just the latter, would you mind being a bit more careful about throwing around random stereotypes like that? If it’s the former, I’m willing to engage with what you say, so long as I know what I’m trying to engage with.)

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Steve LaBonne 09.09.10 at 1:52 pm

Some of this discussion reminds me irresistibly of this:

The Scruple of Conscience
“Gladly I serve my friends, but alas I do it with pleasure.
Hence I am plagued with doubt that I am not virtuous.
The Verdict
For that there is no other advice: you must try to despise them,
And then do with aversion what your duty commands.”

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Tim Wilkinson 09.09.10 at 1:58 pm

I will accept ‘selfish gene’ as a correct description, so long as we are clear that ‘selfish’ means something fairly close to ‘not, in circumstances so far encountered, self-destructive’.

I would reject it, possibly with some sniggering, if it were to be taken to mean ‘behaving so as reliably to maximise (in some sense) some independently specifiable quantity’.

(Compare JQ’s characterisation of ‘selfish gene theory’: “we are simply machines to reproduce our genes” with “cars are simply machines to stay in production”. Not precise, but close enough.

The real issue is what we can infer about a car from its having stayed in production thus far (hmm this analogy is faulty, but too costly to recall at this point; I’ll just quietly concede any challenges as they arise). That kind of inference involves making precise estimates about what the competition was like, the price of oil, etc., not some Adam-Smith-like conjuring of the best out of the arguably adequate (or for that matter the desirable out of the merely tolerated or the infinitely grasping out of the fed and watered).

As for rational self-interest, it’s not gone unnoticed by anyone except the ruling ideologues of semi-vulgarised NC economic theory that ‘self interest’ is defended from the back foot as meaning no more than ‘the interest one makes one’s own’, while from the more prevalent front-foot stance it’s treated as meaning ‘the implacable determination to get hold of lots of stuff and make sure no-one else can get their hands on it’, with a few cursory extensions of the paradigm to cover not being poisoned, etc. (Just glanced at Henry’s post and I see he says at the end: “leftists so frequently make blanket condemnations of ‘rational choice,’ ‘market reason’ and the like”. What like would that be then?)

The science stuff may be relevant for some purposes (notably assessment of wild claims that certain things like S-ism can definitely never work without brain modification) but its impact is subject to how dependable it is, which is, I would suggest, not particularly, in other words not at all. In the meantime, I’m with geo.

PS Had a look at DeLong’s slab and note that he seems to think that the foundations of microeconomics include “the propensity… to make a fair and deliberate exchange…”, which is lucky, because otherwise his argument (‘x is not in Hobbes because it is in Smith’) would look a bit like a non-sequitur.

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enzo rossi 09.09.10 at 2:36 pm

Chris @65

Yes, I suppose what I meant was that the Gauthier-Ridge exchange shows that there is a plausible broadly Hobbesian account (i.e. not really Hobbes’ account, but a better version of it) of authorisation that doesn’t rest on fear, glory, and whatnot.

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Chris Bertram 09.09.10 at 2:56 pm

Praisegod: thanks for that, and a much better precis of Tomasello than I managed. His word is “mutualism” rather than altruism.

On the Rousseau/sociality point …. I had a brief exchange with Chris Brooke on twitter the other day about Tomasello’s framing of this in terms of Hobbes-Rousseau, basically saying that whilst I wished Rousseau had been more prosocial than he was, the pernicketty scholar in me was bound to point out that he didn’t go this way in the 2D. But Chris seems to think that appearances (and texts) are deceptive here and that we should read R as more prosocial than he officially is. On Rousseau’s use of the science of man of his day … well I know he says let’s set the facts aside, but, actually he draws copiously on contemporary material. See especially Robbie Wokler on Rousseau and primatology.

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chris 09.09.10 at 3:45 pm

And Rousseau gives us a picture of pre-social man who, while not naturally prone to conflict, has no particular need for other people .

Well, we now know *that’s* empirically wrong. The fact that the overwhelming majority of humans live in social groups and rely on them for survival reaches deep into our prehistory and extends to several other related species (making it very likely that it goes back to our common ancestors with them, ~10 million years ago or even further).

Any ancestor of ours that can reasonably be described as “pre-social” wasn’t a “man” in any recognizable sense that distinguishes the term from “(nonhuman) ape” or “beast”, or a toolmaker, or capable of abstract thought, or walking on two legs.

This is relevant because if we rely on social relations for survival, then keeping good social relations with other members of our tribe, band, etc. is just good sense and something that a “selfish” gene would naturally tend to promote. So if altruism is going to be defined by being contrary to self-interest, then any action taken in the expectation of improving social standing isn’t altruistic, because it’s self-interested. And that’s true even if you exclude kin interest from self-interest (which selfish genes don’t).

P.S. If people are driven (by the psychology determined by their genes) to seek to improve their own social standing as a direct emotional drive, rather than consciously reasoning that it will advance their other interests, then they won’t necessarily realize when social standing will do no good to a dead man. (Of course if they believe in an afterlife, this is even more true.)

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JP Stormcrow 09.09.10 at 6:23 pm

Agree with chris in 89 almost completely. To my understanding it is pretty uncontroversial that man’s ancestry includes evolutionarily-significant time spent as a social animal (glad to be corrected if I presume too much). You can have the technical discussion of how that sociality developed to begin with (and I think that phase is where more of the selfish gene “controversies” arise), and you can also quibble over describing some of the resulting behavioral patterns with normative labels, but once sociality is established it becomes a massive part of the adaptive environment for individuals in the species. I do not think much human behavior at the “economic” level is really hard-wired–the plasticity of our minds and the power of culture should not be minimized–but they ride on a emotional and cognitive substrate which most assuredly has been significantly shaped by a non-trivial degree of sociality in early man and prior ancestors.

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Beldon Floss 09.09.10 at 7:30 pm

#77 `Beldon, I don’t have a dog in the race, but I agree that most socialisms seem to be based on a version of rational choice theory although one class may be mystified into misunderstanding their own interests.’

So their interests in your opinion are to continue with this decadent, alienating system? Most people are attracted to socialism because it offers a way out of this self-serving, war of each against all excuse for a society which seeks to turn them into utility maximizing benighted slaves.

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mregan 09.09.10 at 9:35 pm

Why are we all picking on Hobbes anyway? Just because econ was the subject? Couldn’t the same objections be lodged against Locke? Our own spirtual godfather as ‘Mericuns”? Ain’t they both sort of wrong in the same way vis-a-vis a more 21st C understanding of science, and if so what of our own underlying principles?

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Bill Benzon 09.09.10 at 11:49 pm

Colin @8:

These empirical findings suggest that humans do not have “one nature”, but rather many potential natures.

Yes.

Check out Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Harvard 1999). He argues that we have a hierarchical sensibility that is phylogenetically old and then an egalitarian sensibility that is uniquely human. He doesn’t say much of anything about how the interactions between these two are regulated. I suspect that’s a matter of cultural choice, which I explore a bit in a Valve post about two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter’s Tale, and a novella by Robert Greene, Pandosto. The whole thing hangs on an argument based on ideas from evolutionary psychology (David Boehm and Alan Fiske), that we have innate behavioral systems for both hierarchical and egalitarian social relations. I demonstrate how Shakespeare deals with tension between these modes (which is different from Greene) and I suggest that that the tension between the two is a driving force in history.

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engels 09.09.10 at 11:57 pm

Or — as someone else put it — the human essence is no abstraction inherent in the single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.

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bad Jim 09.10.10 at 2:12 am

praisegod barebones, my mention of autism was meant simply to refer to the common observation of “mind-blindness”, that autistic individuals have trouble inferring the mental states of others. I could cite Temple Grandin, among others. I also had in mind the mirror-neuron hypothesis, which is perhaps controversial.

The infant brain is still being wired and rewired for the first year or so of life, during which the child undergoes considerable socialization, which makes it difficult to separate innate and conditioned behavior.

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Anarcho 09.10.10 at 7:40 am

“that humans are hard-wired with certain pro-social dispositions to inform, help, share etc and to engage in norm-guided behaviour of various kinds”

In other words, Kropotkin was right! Animals gain an evolutionary advantage in co-operating and so characteristics which benefit mutual aid will be selected.

Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation

As Kropotkin argued, followed decades later by Trivers, co-operation will produce a sense of justice and, from justice, feelings such like altruism.

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Chris Bertram 09.10.10 at 10:29 am

#96 @Anarcho – indeed. He gets a lot of credit from people like Brian Skyrms see e.g p. 45 of _Evolution of the Social Contract_.

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chris 09.10.10 at 1:10 pm

Most people are attracted to socialism because it offers a way out of this self-serving, war of each against all excuse for a society which seeks to turn them into utility maximizing benighted slaves.

…Right up until the revolution gets coopted by a rationally selfish dictator. Have socialists figured out how to avoid that yet? Heads of state in office have interests divergent from those of the common people (even if they came from working-class backgrounds), and unless there’s something stopping them from rationally pursuing their own interests at the people’s expense, the individual consciences of a succession of leaders are a weak reed to hang your nation on, particularly when it only takes one corrupt one to turn you into Stalinist Russia.

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Eric Titus 09.10.10 at 7:24 pm

It seems a lot easier to reform economics than to create “a more unified social science…where evolutionary game theory, empirical psychology, behavioural economics, and sociology fit together”. To start, the validity of any social science with ‘evolutionary’ as a modifier tends to be open to question. But speaking as an economic sociologist, there are sharp distinctions between sociology and psychology–particularly the field of psychology that ‘new’ approaches to economics try to use as their foundations. And speaking for myself, I’d be more than satisfied if economics re-evaluated its microfoundations without getting too swept up in the latest psychological developments.

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afu 09.14.10 at 3:42 am

I’m going to have to agree with Delong that Chris has things a bit backwards here. In order to have any theory in economics, one of the prerequisites is going to be that people are able to cooperate in order to establish markets. One could argue that this requires a certain level of altruism as well, norms against cheating and stealing for instance. The problem with things like rational choice theory, is not that it leaves out altruism, but that they take a too simplistic and dogmatic view of how markets work. Believing in the neutrality of money or that markets alway efficiently reach equilibrium positions would be two prominent examples. So I think that the correct path to “fix” economics is not to try to broaden its scope of study, but to focus on getting its own house in order.

I also think that biological and evolutionary theories have very little relevance to the debate. The arguments against evolutionary psychology are equally strong against positions that employ it from the left or the right.

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Wayne 09.14.10 at 4:57 am

Years ago during the Reagan era, while still paid to love wisdom and, in that case, to teach about it at what is now “a major business university,” I worked through Barry Schwartz’s The Battle for Human Nature with a class. Amazed that it’s almost 25 years ago. Anyway, it was interesting and I hereby offer a link to his website (www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bschwar1/books.html) where it’s book is described in part by what follows below. For me, back then, it was a wonderful treat, somebody doing what I still thought was “philosophy” yet paying attention to (then) contemporary science:

The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life

This book presents the view of human nature as entirely governed by self-interest that is shared by the disciplines of evolutionary biology, neoclassical economics, and behavioral psychology. It shows what these disciplines have in common in their approach to understanding human nature, and contrasts their view with most people’s everyday conceptions of what human nature is like. After presenting the theoretical perspectives of each of these disciples, the book turns a critical eye on them, and argues that their views are at best limited, and often simply wrong.

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Arion 09.15.10 at 4:08 pm

In a kind of pleasing irony, evolutionary psychology and related disciplines seem to be catching up with the classics. the assumption that there is inherent good as well as evil in human nature is precisely the view found in Cicero and Seneca. Of course it extends backwards to the earlier Masters in Greece, but you get the idea. One of my teachers once said that the purpose of empirical research in social science was to prove the obvious.

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