Cactus Club Decenber 1998

4 December 1998.............the psychic unity of humankind

Quoting from THE MORAL ANIMAL by Robert Wright-----------"Natural selection is an inanimate process,devoid of consciousness, yet is a tireless refiner, an ingenious craftsman. Every organ inside you is testament to its art---your heart, your lungs, your stomach. All these are "adaptations"---fine products of inadvertent design, mechanisms that are here because they have in the past contributed to your ancestors' fitness. And all are species typical. Though one person's lungs may differ from another's, sometimes for genetic reasons, almost all the genes involved in lung construction are the same in you as in your next-door neighbor, as in an Eskimo, as in a pygmy. The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have noted that every page of GRAY'S ANATOMY applies to all peoples in the world. Why, they have gone on to ask, should the anatomy of the mind be any different? The working thesis of evolutionary psychology is that the various "mental organs" constituting the human mind--such as an organ inclining people to love their offspring---are species-typical. Evolutionary psychologists are pursuing what is known in the trade as 'the psychic unity of humankind.' "

Comment: This is a good time to review "A Primer on Evolutionary Psychology" by Tooby and Cosmides (TCC Dialogue, 11-11-97) to increase our understanding of the basics of evolutionary psychology. Questions: Is there a "natural" capacity built into the minds of all humans to trust each other and tolerate each other and to cooperate with each other? Does this question have any implications regarding the determination of our optimal form of social organization? (PD)

14 December 1998...................interpersonal development and the moral sense

Quoting from THE MORAL SENSE by James Q. Wilson------------ " My interest in this psychological orientation grew out of my studies of crime. What most needed explanation, it seemed to me, was not why people are criminals but why most people are not. That they are not is all the more puzzling since the forces that may easily drive people to break the law--a desire for food, sex, wealth, and self-preservation--seem to be instinctive, not learned, while those that might restrain our appetites--self-control, sympathy, a sense of fairness--seem to be learned and not instinctive. It is easy to suppose that instinct will triumph over learning or even that, for many people, learning will never occur at all. This supposition is reinforced by the observation that every society has laws and government, whether or not they are called by those names, all apparently designed to curb our elemental, and thus our especially powerful, passions. The clear implication is that learning, culture, norms--all of the components of the social bond--are quite precarious, for they are contrivances, not instincts, created for collective but not individual advantage and maintained by creaky and uncertain institutions rather than by powerful and always-present emotions. In my view, the restraints we acquire on the exercise of our appetites are, indeed, precarious, but not because they are rules that we imperfectly learn. As acquired by the young child, these restraints are neither rules nor wholly learned. Moreover, they are not enirely the product of the higher regions of the brain (the neocortex); in all likelihood they are to some degree the products of the more primitive parts (the limbic area).

They are sensibilities whose acquisition is as much a product of our human nature as the appetites they are meant to control. The reason for their being so precarious is that sentiments are not the sole determinants of action; circumstances--the rewards, penalties, and rituals of daily life--constrain or subvert the operation of the moral sense. Were this book an effort to explain human behavior, it would start with incentives in order to discover what we are rewarded for doing. But this is an attempt to clarify how we evaluate human behavior, and so it starts with judgments in order to discover what we are praised for doing. Almost everyone has a moral sense that is evident when we speak disinterestedly about our behavior or that of others. We regularly praise and condemn other people's speech and conduct. If we cared only for our own interests, we would of course admire some behavior as efficient or clever and scorn other behavior as inefficient or obtuse, but we would hardly praise it as brave, dutiful, fair-minded, and generous or condemn it as craven, self-indulgent, one-sided, and self-seeking. Yet we use these words all the time. Of course, some words of praise or condemnation may be uttered only for self-serving public consumption, but that cannot be the whole story. For such words to reflect well on ourselves thay must be taken seriously by others. If the moral sense were mere sham for everyone, then no one would be fooled by our employing moral terms, and soon such terms would drop out of daily discourse. This book is a modest effort to supply the evidence that man has a moral sense, one that emerges as naturally as his sense of beauty or ritual (with which morality has much in common) and that will affect his behavior, though not always and in some cases not obviously. The moral "sense" exists in two meanings of the word: First, virtually everyone, beginning at a very young age, makes moral judgments that, though they may vary greatly in complexity, sophistication, and wisdom, distinguish between actions on the grounds that some are right and others wrong, and virtually everyone recognizes that for these distinctions to be persuasive to others they must be, or at least appear to be, disinterested. Second, virtually everyone, beginning at a very young age, acquires a set of social habits that we ordinarily find pleasing in others and satisfying when we practive them ourselves. There are, to be sure, some people who, again from a very young age, seem to have no regular habits that make their company pleasurable to decent people and lack any tendency to judge things as right or wrong in a disinterested way. Such people are rare, as evidenced by the special terms we have for them: the former are wild, the latter psychopathic."

Questions: How important is "the moral sense" in determining the level of interpersonal development? Is the quality of this moral sense a product of nature, nurture, notsure, or some combination of the three? (PD)

20 December 1998....................a fascinating taboo

Quoting from THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE by Matt Ridley---------------" Yet all human beings share a fascinating taboo with the Hutterites, the taboo against selfishness. Selfishness is almost the definition of vice.

Murder, theft, rape and fraud are considered crimes of great importance because they are selfish or spiteful acts that are committed for the benefit of the actor and the detriment of the victim. In contrast, virtue is, almost by definition, the greater good of the group. Those virtues(such as thrift and abstinence) that are not directly altruistic in their motivation are few and obscure. The conspicuously virtuous things we all praise - cooperation, altruism, generosity, sympathy, kindness, selflessness - are all unambiguously concerned with the welfare of others. This is not some parochial Western tradition. It is a bias shared by the whole species. Only something like glory, which is usually earned by selfish and sometimes violent acts, is an exception to this rule and it is an exception that proves the rule because glory is such an ambiguous virtue, shading so easily into vainglory. My point is that we are all Hutterites at heart. Consicously or implicitly, we all share a belief in pursuing the greater good. We praise selflessness and decry selfishness. Kropotkin got it the wrong way round. The essential virtuousness of human beings is proved not by parallels in the animal kingdom, but by the very lack of convincing animal parallels. The thing that needs explaining about human beings is not their frequent vice, but their occasional virtue. George Williams put the question thus: 'How could maximizing selfishness produce an organism capable of often advocating, and occcasionally practicing, charity towards strangers and even towards animals?' The human obsession with virtue is unique to us and the truly social animals. Are we a coagulated species, too? Have we begun to lose our individuality to become parts of an overarching evolving thing called a society? Is that one of the things that are special about us? If so, we are odd in one crucial respect. We breed. Although we have not surrendered reproduction to a queen, we human beings are surely as utterly dependent on each other as any ants or honey bees. As I write this, I am using software I did not invent on a computer I could never have made that depends on electricity I could not have discovered, and I am not worrying about where my next meal will come from because I know I can go and buy food from a shop. In a phrase, therefore, the advantage of society to me is the division of labour. It is specialization that makes human society greater than the sum of its parts."

Comment: This is a good time to review the essay "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read which was part of our 6 December, 1997 Dialogue. Questions: Is the pursuit of self interest compatable with becoming part of "an overarching evolving thing called a society"? Does this instinctual pursuit conflict with interpersonal development in terms of "cooperation, altruism, generosity, sympathy, kindness, generosity" as Wright describes it? In other words, does the profit motive in all its forms (such as seeking a higher wage or salary, lowering prices or increasing quality to be more competitive) have to be controlled by a central authority in order to build a good society? (PD)

23 December 1998.................democracy versus capitalism

Quoting from TRUST by Francis Fukuyama-------------"If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist with certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning. Law, contract, and economic rationality provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for both the stability and prosperity of postindustrial societies; they must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust, which are based in habit rather than rational calculation."

Question: Capitalism promotes the development of law, contract, and economic rationality but doesn't democracy inhibit the development of reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust? (PD)

27 December 1998.......................learning to be "evil" and the extended order

Quoting from THE FATAL CONCEIT by F.A. Hayek--------------"To early thinkers the existence of an order of human activities transcending the vision of an ordering mind seemed impossible. Even Aristotle, who comes fairly late, still believed that order among men could extend only so far as the voice of a herald could reach (Ethics, IX, x), and that a state numbering a hundred thousand people was thus impossible. Yet what Aristotle thought impossible had already happened by the time he wrote these words. Despite his achievements as a scientist, Aristotle spoke from his instincts, and not from observation or reflection, when he confined human order to the reach of the herald's cry. Such beliefs are understandable, for man's instincts, which were fully developed long before Aristotle's time, were not made for the kinds of surroundings, and for the numbers, in which he now lives. They were adapted to life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race and its immediate ancestors evolved during the few million years while the biological constitution of homo sapiens was being formed. These genetically inherited instincts served to steer the cooperation of the members of the troop, a cooperation that was, necessarily, a narrowly circumscribed interaction of fellows known to and trusted by one another. These primitive people were guided by concrete, commonly perceived aims, and by a similar perception of the dangers and opportunities - chiefly sources of food and shelter - of their environment. They not only could hear their herald; they usually knew him personally. Although longer experience may have lent some older members of these bands some authority, it was mainly shared aims and perceptions that coordinated the activities of their members. These modes of coordination depended decisively on instincts of solidarity and altruism--instincts applying to the members of one's own group but not to others. The members of these small groups could thus exist only as such: an isolated man would soon have been a dead man. The primitive individualism described by Thomas Hobbes is hence a myth. The savage is not solitary, and his instinct is collectivist. There was never a 'war of all against all'. Indeed, if our present order did not already exist we too might hardly believe any such thing could ever be possible, and dismiss any reports about it as a tale of the miraculous, about what could never come into being. What are chiefly responsible for having generated this extraordinary order, and the existence of mankind in its present size and structure, are the rules of human conduct that gradually evolved (expecially those dealing with several property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy). These rules are handed on by tradition, teaching and imitation, rather than by instinct, and largely consist of prohibitions ('shalt not's') that designate adjustable domains for individual decisions. Mankind achieved civilisation by developing and learning to follow rules (first in territorial tribes and then over broader reaches) that often forbade him to do what his instincts demanded, and no longer depended on a common perception of events. These rules, in effect constituting a new and different morality, and to which I would indeed prefer to confine the term 'morality', suppress or restrain the 'natural morality', i.e., those instincts that welded together the small group and secured cooperatiion within it at the cost of hindering or blocking its expansion.

-----I prefer to confine the term 'morality' to those non-instinctive rules that enabled mankind to expand into an extended order since the concept of morals makes sense only by contrast to impulsive and unreflective conduct on one hand, and to rational concern with specific results on the other. Innate reflexes have no moral quality, and 'sociobiologists' who apply terms like altruism to them (and who should, to be consistent, regard copulation as the most altruistic) are plainly wrong. Only if we mean to say that we ought to follow 'altruistic' emotions does altruism become a moral concept. Admittedly, this is hardly the only way to use these terms. Bernard Mandeville scandalized his contemporaries by arguing that 'the grand principle that makes us social creatures, the solid basis, the life and support of all trade and employment without exception' is evil (1715/1924), by which he meant, precisely, that the rules of the extended order conflicted with innate instincts that had bound the small group together. Once we view morals not as innate instincts but as learnt traditions, their relation to what we ordinarily call feelings, emotions or sentiments raises various interesting questions. For instance, although learnt, morals do not necessarily always operate as explicit rules, but may manifest themselves, as do true instincts, as vague disinclinations to, or distastes for, certain kinds of action. Often they tell us how to choose among, or to avoid, inborn instinctual drives--- It may be asked how restrtaints on instinctual demands serve to coordinate the activities of larger numbers. As an example, continued obedience to the command to treat all men as neighbours would have prevented the growth of an extended order. For those now living within the extended order gain from not treating one another as neighbours, and by applying, in their interactions, rules of the extended order - such as those of several property and contract - instead of the rules of solidarity and altruism. An order in which everyone treated his neighbour as himself would be one where comparatively few could be fruitful and multiply. If we were, say, to respond to all charitable appeals that bombard us through the media, this would exact a heavy cost in distracting us from what we are most competent to do, and likely only make us the tools of particular interest groups or of peculiar views of the relative importance of particular needs. It would not provide a proper cure for misfortunes about which we are understandably concerned. Similarly, instinctual aggressiveness towards outsiders must be curbed if identical abstract rules are to apply to the relations of all men, and thus to reach across boundaries - even the boundaries of states."

Comment: Hayek connects the concepts of interpersonal development and spontaneous order by using the concept of morality. Questions: What is "morality"? Is it moral to use coercion to redistribute income and opportunities? Is there any way to scientifically test conflicting statements about what is and is not moral? What is the relationship between morality and spontaneous order? (PD)