Thursday, January 17, 2019

Evolutionary Psychology or Cultural Group Selection? Or Both?

At his Internet salon for the discussion of ideas--Edge--John Brockman asks one question at the beginning of each year and then over a 150 smart people answer the question in short essays.  In 2014, his question was "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"  The answer of Peter Richerson (a Professor of Environmental Studies and Policy at the University of California-Davis) was "Human Nature."  The answer of John Tooby (a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara) was "Leaning and Culture."

While Richerson and Tooby are both leaders in evolutionary science, they disagree in their view of the primary subject of human evolution.  As a leading proponent of Cultural Group Selection, Richerson thinks human evolution is fundamentally about the evolution of human culture.  As a leading proponent of Evolutionary Psychology, Tooby thinks human evolution is fundamentally about the evolution of human nature.

For Richerson, the concept of human nature clouds our understanding of human evolution by assuming a mistaken dichotomy of nature and nurture or nature and culture, in which nature is wrongly seen as prior to culture in both evolutionary and developmental time.  In fact, Richerson argues, the evolutionary evidence for stone tool technology going back millions of years and the developmental evidence for social learning beginning early in infancy indicate  that human culture is prior to human nature, and that cultural evolution has driven genetic evolution.

For Tooby, the concepts of human culture and human learning explain nothing, because the phenomena of culture and learning themselves require explanation.  The idea of culture in the social sciences is like the idea of protoplasm in cell biology.  Protoplasm was once identified as the substance that worked through unknown mechanisms to carry out the vital processes of the cell.  But this was only a confession of ignorance.  "Now we recognize that protoplasm was magician's misdirection--a black box placeholder for ignorance, eclipsing the bilipid layers, ribosomes, Golgi bodies, proteasome, mitochondria, centrosomes, cilia, vesicles, sliceosomes, vacuoles, microtubules, lamellipodia, cisternae, etc. that were actually carrying out cellular processes."  Similarly, Tooby argues, the idea of culture needs to be replaced with a map of the evolved cognitive and motivational programs in the brain (the "organelles") that actually carry out our mental functions.

Despite the apparent opposition between these two positions, a careful study of the debate here reveals the underlying compatibility of cultural group selection and evolutionary psychology.  We need a science of human evolution that explains the complex coevolutionary interaction of human nature and human culture, which was originally proposed by Charles Darwin himself.

The proponents of gene-culture coevolution--the idea that human genes and culture are equally important in the human coevolutionary system--see support for this in Darwin's writings.  They even see Darwin as using his understanding of cultural evolution as the model for organic evolution (Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland 2004; Richerson and Boyd 2010).  Friedrich Hayek made the same point--that Darwin's theory of biological evolution was the application to biology of the idea among the Scottish philosophers that social order arose by the cultural evolution of spontaneous order.

The logic of Darwin's argument for evolution depends on three principles--variation, competition, and inheritance.  Evolution requires variation of characters.  It also requires that those variable characters compete in such a way that some characters are more advantageous than others in the struggle for life.  Finally, if those characters are inherited, then the more advantageous characters will tend to spread in subsequent generations; and the accumulation of those favorable variations will produce adaptive designs for survival and reproduction.  This same logic applies to both biological and cultural evolution.

Darwin saw this evolutionary logic in the cultural evolution of language.  In The Descent of Man, he observed:
"The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same. . . . Dominant languages and dialects spread widely and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. . . . We see variability in every tongue, and new worlds are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit in the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct.  As Max Muller has well remarked: 'A struggle for life is constantly going on amongst the words and grammatical forms in each language.  The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.' . . . The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection" (1871, 1:60-61; 2004, 112-13).
The evolution of language shows the coevolution of biological instinct and social learning.  The human brain has evolved adaptations for learning language, so that once they reach the critical learning period for language, all normal human children learn whatever language they hear spoken around them.  As Darwin said, "every language has to be learnt," but "man has an instinctive tendency to speak" (1871, 1:55; 2004, 108).  Rather than separating instinct from learning, we need to see that language shows an instinct for learning.

Darwin saw a similar evolutionary logic in the cultural evolution of morality.  He thought that human morality could have evolved through four overlapping stages of instinctive and cultural evolution.  First, social instincts led early human ancestors to feel sympathy for others in their group, which promoted a tendency to mutual aid.  Then with the development of their intellectual faculties and their capacities for language and habit, they were able to formulate and obey social norms of good conduct that could be transmitted as social traditions and inherited habits.  Darwin also stressed the importance of tribal warfare in the development of morality: such contests spurred the development of the moral and intellectual capacities that allow individuals to cooperate within groups so as to compete successfully against other groups.  Thus, Darwin proposed what today would be called evolution by group selection.  "Ultimately," he concluded, "our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (2004, 121-22, 130, 155-58).

Darwin had no knowledge of genetics, and so he could not understand the genetic evolution of instincts.  Nor did he clearly formulate the modern concept of culture.  Nevertheless, evolutionary scientists today can see in Darwin's writings at least a rudimentary conception of what today is called gene-culture coevolutionary theory based on the complex interaction of genetic evolution and cultural evolution.

And yet, as indicated by the debate between Richerson and Tooby, evolutionary scientists seem to be split between those who stress the evolution of culture and those who stress the evolution of human nature.  One can see that split in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in the debate over an article by Richerson et al. (2016).  But if one studies that debate carefully, one can also see that despite the apparent split, cultural group selection and evolutionary psychology are fundamentally compatible and complementary.  I also see here the need for a third level of analysis--the level of human individuals added to the levels of human nature and human culture.  We need to understand the evolution of human social order through the complex interaction of human natural history, cultural history, and biographical history.

The initial question raised by Richerson and other proponents of cultural group selection is how can we explain the evolution of cooperation in modern mass societies with huge populations of millions of people and in global social networks of exchange that encompass the entire Earth.  Throughout 99% of human evolutionary history, for millions of years, our ancestors lived in small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers that might sometimes have met in tribes of no more than a few hundred people.  It was less than 10,000 years ago that some human beings moved into larger sedentary settlements and then with the development of agriculture there arose large cities with expanding populations.  We can explain cooperation in small foraging bands as based on the genetically evolved instincts for kin selection and reciprocal exchange among people in face-to-face relationships. But it's hard to see how these genetically evolved social instincts for cooperation in small groups of relatives and known individuals can sustain cooperation extended to millions or even billions of human beings who are not kin and not personally known to one another.  We still have the genetically evolved social psychology of our ancient foraging ancestors, because there hasn't been enough time for human beings to become genetically adapted to modern mass societies.

This has led Richerson and others (like Robert Boyd, Joseph Henrich, and Kevin Laland) to propose that we have become adapted for social cooperation in modern societies not by genetic evolution but by cultural group selection. So, for example, the cultural evolution of "Axial Age" universalistic religions beginning around 500 B.C.E. created ethical systems enforced by belief in eternal rewards and punishments by moralistic "Big Gods," which fostered cooperation among co-religionists living in expanded social orders (Richerson et al. 2016, 13).  Those living in religious groups that were successful in surviving,  in recruiting converts, and in promoting high birth rates among their members prevailed over other religious groups that were less successful.  The rapid expansion of Christianity in competition with pagan religions illustrates this cultural group selection of religions.

Proponents of cultural group selection argue that we can see the three principles of "Darwin's syllogism"--variation, inheritance, and competition--in cultural evolution through group selection.  1.  Human groups often vary culturally.  2. This cultural variation is transmitted vertically from generation to generation and horizontally within a group.  3. Success in intergroup competition is frequently determined by cultural differences, so that some cultural groups are more successful in survival and reproduction than competing groups.  The evidence for these three claims--as surveyed by Richerson et al. (2016)--is evidence for cultural group selection.

There is some evidence that the first two claims are true for some other animals, but not the third claim.  Chimpanzee communities, for example, show cultural variation that is transmitted by social learning.  To that extent, chimpanzees are cultural animals.  But while chimpanzee communities compete, there is no clear evidence that success in group competition is influenced by cultural differences, and therefore there is no cultural group selection among chimpanzees.  There is some evidence, however, that whale and dolphin species could satisfy all three principles of the Darwinian syllogism; and if so, they could show cultural group selection (Richerson et al. 2016, 57).

Against Richerson and his colleagues, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have responded by arguing that human cooperation in modern mass societies can be explained through the instinctive adaptations to small-scale social life without any need for cultural group selection.  They write:
"The properties of individual carbon atoms allow them to chain into complex molecules of immense length.  They are not limited to structures involving only a few atoms.  The design features of our evolved neural adaptations appear similarly extensible.  Individuals with forager brains can link themselves together into unprecedentedly large cooperative structures without the need for large group-beneficial modifications to evolved human design.  Roles need only be intelligible to our social program logic and judged better than alternatives" (Tooby and Cosmides 2016, 42).
In particular, they argue that the ancient evolved instinct for exchange or trade in foraging bands can be extended to encompass modern networks of exchange in mass societies:
"The dazzlingly extended forms of modern cooperation we see today (Adam Smith's division of labor supporting globe-spanning trade) appear differentially built out of adaptations for small-scale sociality that modularly scale, such as exchange--rather than the marginal benevolence of Smith's butcher, brewer, and baker.  Evidence indicates that political attitudes toward welfare and redistribution reflect a specialized forager psychology of sharing for variance reduction (Peterson et al. 2012) and resource-conflict (Peterson et al. 2013).  Societies that attempted to harness general benevolence to organize institutions and production--the USSR, East Germany, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba--were spectacular cooperative failures.  That they functioned at all depended on other scalable small-scale specializations--aggressive threats (conditional punishment), hierarchy, dominance, coalitions, and so forth" (Tooby and Cosmides 2016, 42).
Notice that Tooby and Cosmides reject the claim of Marxist anthropologists that ancient human foraging bands were societies of primitive communism, and so modern communism could be a revival of this original natural state of humanity.  Notice also that in rejecting this Marxist claim, they also reject Friedrich Hayek's claim that socialism's popularity comes from its atavistic appeal to the socialist instincts shaped in ancient foraging bands, and therefore that a modern extended order of liberal capitalism requires a cultural suppression of evolved tribal instincts.  In contrast to Hayek, Tooby and Cosmides agree with Adam Smith that "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" is natural for human beings, who engaged in exchange or trade even in their ancient foraging bands.

Tooby and Cosmides agree with Alan Page Fiske that "market pricing" is one of the four psychological models of social organization found universally in human societies, including prehistoric foraging bands.  Consequently, socialist societies that attempt to abolish or suppress "market pricing" must fail because this runs contrary to evolved human nature (Tooby and Cosmides 1992, 211-218).  Contrary to Hayek's argument, modern liberal capitalism satisfies some instinctive desires of human beings.  (I have written about this in some previous posts hereherehere, here, and here.)

"Market pricing" and trade among foragers are well illustrated by the Aboriginal Australians.  The whole continent of Australia was crisscrossed with trading paths, usually along waterhole routes.  Goods such as pearl shells, spears, stone axes, shields, boomerangs, and bamboo necklaces travelled by trade across Australia (Berndt and Berndt 1988).  For example, the Yir Yoront group on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula (in the far north of Queensland) traded sting ray spears for stone axes.  The flat alluvial country of the Yir Yoront provided no suitable stone for axes.  The best stone for stone axes came from quarries 400 miles to the south, which came to them through long lines of trading partners.  The Yir Yoront had a surplus supply of sting ray spears, which are good fighting spears because the sting ray barbs break into fragments when they penetrate human flesh.  At the coast, where sting ray spears were plentiful, a man might have to trade a dozen spears for one stone axe head.  But a 150 miles south of Yir Yoront, closer to the stone quarries, one spear might be traded for one stone axe head.  People near the middle of this trading chain, who made neither spears nor axes, acted as middlemen who took a certain number of both as their middleman's profit.  The Yir Yoront men understood the laws of supply and demand and the gains from trade (Cosmides and Tooby 1992, 216-17; Sharp 1952).

It is true that foraging bands show communal sharing of resources--particularly, in the sharing of meat--which Marxist anthropologists have interpreted as a primitive form of communism.  But as Cosmides and Tooby indicate, this sharing is not general or indiscriminate.  Foragers share meat brought back to camp by hunters for "variance reduction."  Success in hunting wild game depends not just on skill and effort but also on luck.  Even good hunters often come back from a day of hunting without any meat.  To protect themselves against the risk of having no meat, successful hunters share their meat, with the understanding that when they are unsuccessful, they will be the beneficiaries of sharing.  But those who try to cheat--those who take the shared meat but never reciprocate by sharing the meat they have procured--are punished by expulsion from the meat sharing system.  As some anthropologists have noted, this is like a system of commercial insurance where losses are shared among many individuals to reduce the risk to each.  By contrast, the gathering of wild plants does not show such variance.  Those who make any effort to gather plants usually return to camp with some food.  Consequently, foragers share their plant food within their families but not with others outside the family (Cashdan 1989; Cosmides and Tooby 1992, 212-17).

Tooby and Cosmides think this evolved psychology for sharing to reduce variance in resources due to luck explains political attitudes about social welfare programs.  Modern social welfare institutions involving millions of people who are non-kin and personally unknown to one another are modern cultural inventions that did not exist in ancient foraging societies.  But the evolved human psychology for systems of exchange shaped in foraging societies is still manifest in the political opinions about welfare programs.  Around the world, people support welfare for needy individuals suffering from bad luck who are willing to find jobs; but people are less inclined to help individuals who are identified as cheaters or free-riders who do not deserve public aid (Peterson et al. 2012; Peterson 2015, 2016).

Sometimes Cosmides and Tooby imply that if they can explain the extended forms of modern cooperation (such as social welfare programs) through a specialized forager psychology (such as sharing for variance reduction), this shows there is no need for an explanation through cultural group selection.  But the proponents of cultural group selection have argued that evolutionary psychology and cultural group selection are not alternatives but rather complements.  The very possibility of cultural group selection depends on human beings having evolved instincts for learning culture.  And intergroup competition will favor those group-beneficial cultural traits--social norms, beliefs, and practices--that conform most closely to our evolved psychology (Henrich and Boyd 2016; Richerson et al. 2016, 49-50).  So, for instance, one could predict that social welfare programs that satisfy the evolved psychological propensity to punish cheaters will fare better than social welfare programs that frustrate this propensity.

Actually, even Cosmides and Tooby have admitted that evolutionary biology requires multi-level explanations that are complementary rather than contradictory.  They have observed: "In evolutionary biology, there are several different levels of explanation that are complementary and mutually compatible.  Explanation at one level (e.g., adaptive function) does not preclude or invalidate explanations at another (e.g., neural, cognitive, social, cultural, economic)" (Cosmides and Tooby 1997, 14).

Tooby's argument in 2014 that the concept of "culture" has no proper place in evolutionary science contradicts what he and Cosmides have written about cultural evolution.  They have said that "we are not abandoning the classic concept of culture" (Tooby and Cosmides 1992, 118).  They do propose, however, decomposing the traditional concept of culture into three kinds of culture (Tooby and Cosmides 1992, 121).  First, "metaculture" is their term for the cross-cultural regularities in human life that correspond to universal human nature, which make it possible for human beings to understand cultures beyond their own, without which cultural anthropology would be impossible.

Second, "evoked culture" arises when local circumstances trigger specific mechanisms of evolved human psychology in individual minds that create cultural representations without any transmission of cultural contents from other individuals.  They explain this through the metaphor of evolved humans as being like juke boxes identically designed with thousands of songs, and with devices designed to select songs on the basis of the juke box's location, time, and date.  (OK, I know that you young folks out there have no understanding of juke boxes, unless you've watched the cable TV reruns of Happy Days.)  This would create a global pattern of song cultures with cultural similarity within each group and cultural diversity between the groups.  This could generate the patterns of culture that we see without any social learning or transmission of culture from one generation to the next.  But they admit that "the juke box thought experiment is an unrealistically extreme case in which a complex, functionally organized, content-sensitive architecture internalizes no transmitted informational input other than an environmental trigger" (Tooby and Cosmides 1992, 117). Proponents of cultural group selection recognize evoked cultural responses to the environment as psychological switches that cultural group selection could harness (Henrich and Boyd 2016).

As I have indicated in a previous post, Tooby and Cosmides explain both socialism and capitalism as "evoked culture": socialism appeals to us today by evoking the evolved rules of sharing for risk pooling, while capitalism evokes the evolved system of cooperation through social exchange or trade.  Socialism fails because the rules evolved for sharing among small bands of hunters for which the rules were adaptive, but these rules are maladaptive for large modern societies in which people are interacting anonymously with thousands or millions of people.  Capitalism succeeds because the rules of the evolved cognitive system for social exchange can reach far beyond individual perception through the globally extended order of markets, and thus the evolved rules for social exchange can be adaptive both for small foraging bands and for modern mass societies.

The third form of culture recognized by Tooby and Cosmides is the "epidemiological culture" that is transmitted by social learning both within each generation of individuals and across the generations, which is a fundamental part of cultural group selection.

So Tooby, Cosmides, and the other evolutionary psychologists don't reject the idea of culture as such.  But they do reject the idea of culture if it is grounded on a "blank slate" view of the human mind that denies human nature--the idea that the human mind has no (or very little) content of its own except for whatever content has been imposed on it by the external cultural environment.  Richerson seemed to confirm that this fear of the "blank slate" version of cultural theory is warranted when he argued in 2014 that the concept of human nature should be discarded.

But then Richerson contradicts himself when he says that cultural group selection does not defend a "blank slate hypothesis," because cultural evolution is enabled and constrained by the universal human nature of evolved social instincts for learning (Richerson et al. 2016, 6, 49-51).

My conclusion from all of this is that an evolutionary science of social order requires a multi-leveled analysis of the interaction of natural history (evolutionary psychology) and cultural history (cultural group selection).

Even that is not enough, however, because we need a third level--biographical history (the evolved personality and life history of self-interested individuals who are agents of cultural change acting through coercion or persuasion).  In many animal groups, we can see how dominant individuals shape the social norms for the group.  For example, dominant macaques police conflicts in ways that protect their dominance while reducing conflict within the group (Flack et al. 2005, 2006).  This is surely true for human beings as well.  Consider, for instance, how the cultural history of the United States was altered by the dominant individuals in the American Continental Congress that drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, or those in the Constitutional Convention who drafted and promoted the Constitution of 1787.  What we need here is an agent-based theory of how "self-interested agents create, maintain, and modify group functional culture" (Singh, Glowacki, and Wrangham 2016).

Part of this evolutionary biographical history would include the biological study of animal personalities and the individual psychology of cultural leaders--including moral, religious, political, and intellectual leaders.  Some of my posts on this can be found here and here.

In future posts, I will have more to say about applying cultural group selection and evolutionary psychology to Hayek's evolutionary science of capitalism and the liberal order.


Berndt, Ronald M., and Catherine H. Berndt. 1988. The World of the First Australians: Aboriginal Traditional Life, Past and Present. 5th ed. Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Cashdan, Elizabeth. 1989. "Hunters and Gatherers: Economic Behavior in Bands." In Stuart Plattner, ed., Economic Anthropology, 21-48. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. 1992. "Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange." In Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, 163-228.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. 1997. "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer." Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Darwin, Charles. 1859. The Descent of Man. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books.

Flack, J. C., et al. 2005. "Social Structure, Robustness, and Policing Cost in a Cognitively Sophisticated Species." The American Naturalist 165: E126-39.

Flack, J.C., et al. 2006. "Policing Stabilizes Construction of Social Niches in Primates." Nature 439: 426-29.

Henrich, Joseph, and Robert Boyd. 2016. "How Evolved Psychological Mechanisms Empower Cultural Group Selection." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2016): e40.

Mesoudi, Alex, Andrew Whiten, and Kevin Laland. 2004. Evolution 58: 1-11.

Peterson, Michael B. et al. 2012. "Who Deserves Help? Evolutionary Psychology, Social Emotions, and Public Opinion About Welfare."  Political Psychology 33: 395-318.

Peterson, Michael B. 2015. "Evolutionary Political Psychology: On the Origin and Structure of Heuristics and Biases in Politics." Political Psychology 36: 45-78.

Peterson, Michael B. "Evolutionary Political Psychology." In David M. Buss, ed., The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 1084-1101.  2 vols. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Richerson, Peter, et al. 2016. "Cultural Group Selection Plays an Essential Role in Explaining Human Cooperation: A Sketch of the Evidence." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2016): e30.

Richerson, Peter, and Robert Boyd. 2010. "The Darwinian Theory of Human Cultural Evolution and Gene-Culture Coevolution." In Michael Bell, Douglas Futuyma, Walter Eanes, and Jeffrey Levinton, eds., Evolution Since Darwin: The First 150 Years, 561-88.

Sharp, Lauriston. 1952. "Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians." Human Organization 11 (2): 17-22.

Singh, Manvir, Luke Glowacki, and Richard W. Wrangham. 2016. "Self-Interested Agents Create, Maintain, and Modify Group-Functional Culture." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2016): e52.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 2016. "Human Cooperation Shows the Distinctive Signatures of Adaptations to Small-Scale Social Life." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2016): e54.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. 1992. "The Psychological Foundations of Culture." In Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Creation of Culture, 19-136.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Todd May and "The Good Place": Can Aristotle Give Us Human Meaning in a Silent Universe?

NBC's philosophical comedy series The Good Place has a podcast for each episode hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (who plays Shawn in the show).  In the podcast for Chapter 19 ("The Trolley Problem"), Jackson interviews William Jackson Harper (who plays Chidi, the professor of moral philosophy) and Todd May (one of the moral philosophers who has been a consultant for the show).

May says that Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place, first contacted him by email, because Schur had read his book Death, The Art of Living.  They talked a lot through Skype sessions, and May then flew to Hollywood to talk with the writers.  Schur liked to quote May's remark from his book on death that "Mortality offers meaning to the events in our lives.  Morality helps to navigate that meaning."  Human life would not be better without death, May argues, because the inescapable fact of death gives moral weight to our decisions about how to live the mortal life that we have.

That theme of mortality might seem to contradict the setting of the show in the afterlife, where people live immortally either in the Good Place or the Bad Place.  But May notes Schur's remarks about how in thinking about the show he decided that it was not really about any religious conception of an afterlife, because it was actually about "the ethical conception of the afterlife," in which imagining an afterlife with rewards for the good people and punishments for the bad people is an artful--and entertainingly funny way--to think through moral philosophy.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that Schur sought out May, a devoted atheist who thinks moral philosophers today must find "human meaning in a silent universe"--the subtitle of his book A Significant Life (University of Chicago Press, 2015).  This might appear to contradict the role of those in The Good Place who are immortal beings in the afterlife who judge the goodness and badness of human actions.  But in much of the show--as in the episode on The Trolley Problem--the struggle with moral dilemmas is carried out within human experience without any appeal to any transcendent or divine standards of right and wrong.  Certainly, the interesting discussion of this episode in the podcast is all about how human beings make choices and try to justify those choices based on their human reason and emotions.

This has led me to wonder whether May's Significant Life could be read by viewers like me who are looking for a philosophic exploration of the questions raised by The Good Place.  Does he really show us how to find "human meaning in a silent universe"?

Or, perhaps, we should first ask how he knows that the universe is silent--that the natural order of the cosmos tells us nothing about how we should live, because the cosmos is indifferent to human beings, who have arisen as only accidental products of an evolutionary process that does not care for or about human beings.  Apparently, the answer is that May thinks he knows that to be true because that's what the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus said--that we need to confront the absurdity of the human condition in that we have been thrown into a universe that gives no meaning to our lives.  Camus is the first philosopher May cites--on the second page of his book--and he just assumes that Camus is right about our need to live within the indifference of the universe.  But isn't it very unphilosophical to accept such a claim without offering reasons or evidence supporting the claim?

Although he does not elaborate the point, May does suggest that if we accept the truth of Darwinian evolution, we must accept that we are "cosmic accidents" or "evolutionary contingencies" in an indifferent universe (15, 175).  But he offers no argument to prove that this is a necessary conclusion from Darwinian science, and he is silent about those scientists who defend theistic evolution, which is the subject of some posts (herehere, and here).

Schur seems to agree with May in taking the existentialist teaching about the absurdity of human life as obviously true.  In fact, Schur has said that when he was 11 years old, he stayed up all night reading Woody Allen's Without Feathers, a collection of some comic essays, and he knew then that he wanted to become a comedy writer like Allen, whose comedy is full of existentialist angst about the absurdity of the human condition in a world where God is dead.  Schur became a writer for NBC's Saturday Night Live.  He then went on to become the creator and writer for the comedy series The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  Having been so successful with these series, Schur was given a free hand by NBC to devise The Good Place in any way he wanted, which allowed him to try something daring.

In the first Good Place podcast, Schur explained the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism on his plan for The Good Place.  His first idea for the show was to have Eleanor die and be sent to The Good Place by mistake, so that she has to hide the fact that she should really be in The Bad Place. When she reveals the truth to Michael in the middle of the season, he then must help her to avoid being sent to the Bad Place. But Schur foresaw that that storyline would lose its interest by the end of the first season.  So he devised a shocking twist that he took from Sartre's play No Exit--where three people are condemned to the Hell of living forever together in a room where they torture one another through their personal conflicts: "Hell is other people."  And so in the final episode of the first season of The Good Place, we discover that Michael has deceived them (and the viewers), because Eleanor and the others have not been living in The Good Place but in The Bad Place, so that in their conflicts with one another, they have been torturing themselves.

And yet despite the agreement of Schur and May with the existentialist's dark view of the absurdity of human life in a silent universe, they both look for some philosophic way to find human meaning and morality in a universe where there is no cosmic or divine support for human purposefulness.  In his podcast interview (near the end), Schur indicates agreement with Peter Singer's utilitarianism, although he admits that he cannot agree with some of Singer's extreme views.  Schur embraces Singer's utilitarian claim that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of sentient creatures is the good, and therefore we are obligated to be charitable in helping to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human creatures.  This utilitarian morality is displayed in The Good Place, but it is also cast into doubt by the Trolley Problem.  Chidi admits that while he accepts the rational principle that killing one person is justified to save five people, he is emotionally resistant to killing one person for the sake of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need organs.  Here his moral emotions teach him the principle of double effect, which I have taken up (here  here, and here).  I have also criticized Singer and utilitarianism (here, and here,).

The Trolley Problem

Unlike Schur, May does not turn to utilitarianism as a way to render human life meaningful.  Rather, May begins A Significant Life by summarizing Aristotle's account in the Nicomachean Ethics of how the moral and intellectual virtues can bring happiness (eudaimonia) as the fulfillment of human longing.  When I first saw this, I wondered whether May would agree with my defense of a Darwinian science of Aristotelian liberalism, which I have laid out in various posts (herehere, and here).  Alas, I soon saw that May had missed the mark.

May argues that Aristotle's ethics cannot make human life meaningful for us for three reasons, which arise from three mistaken interpretations of Aristotle.  First, May says that we cannot accept Aristotle's assumption that meaningfulness comes from a cosmic teleology--that meaning "is always there, inscribed in the nature of things, part of the furniture of the universe," part of "a rational cosmic structure."  Aristotle begins the Ethics by saying that everything acts for its end--its telos--which is its good, and so to live according to our human telos is to fulfill our human good (11-12, 21-22, 26).  May asserts that none of us today can believe this.  "The problem for us is that we are not Aristotle, or one of his contemporaries.  We do not share the framework of his time.  The universe is not ordered in such a way that everything has its telos.  The cosmos is not for us as rational a place as he thought" (12).

There are two dubious claims here.  The first is the assumption of historicist relativism: that every philosopher's thinking is determined by the cultural beliefs of his time, and so there is no trans-historical truth.  "We do not share the framework of his time."  We must share the framework of our time, which is different from Aristotle's time.  The most obvious problem with this is that it is self-refuting:  if there is no trans-historical truth, then historicist relativism cannot be true.  We are Cretans declaring that all Cretans are liars.

May's second dubious claim here is that Aristotle's natural teleology is a cosmic teleology--that if living beings have natural ends, this must have been determined by a cosmic order of purposefulness.  May is completely silent about Aristotle's explicit rejection, early in the Ethics, of Plato's Idea of the Good--the Platonic belief that whatever is good for any being must conform to the transcendent Good of the Cosmos.  Oddly, then, May's claim that Aristotle's ethics depends on the cosmic morality of "a rational cosmic structure" assumes that Aristotle is not an Aristotelian but a Platonist!

Aristotle was a biologist, and his biological science shaped his empirical science of ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics as rooted in an immanent teleology rather than a cosmic teleology.  In contrast to Plato's attempt to ground ethics in a moral cosmology, Aristotle grounded ethics in a moral biology.  (Actually, as I have indicated in some posts, it is not always clear that Plato's Socrates accepted the moral cosmology of Plato's Timaeus or Plato's Athenian Stranger.)

A Darwinian evolutionary understanding of ethics supports the empiricist tradition of ethics that runs from Aristotle to David Hume and Adam Smith to E. O. Wilson.  This empiricist tradition of thought sees ethics as rooted in human experience--in human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.  By contrast, the transcendentalist tradition of ethics, from Plato to Immanuel Kant looks to a transcendent conception of the Good as somehow woven into the order of the cosmos--a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason.  A Darwinian science of ethics can show how the moral order of human life arises as a joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

If I am right about this, this would show--contrary to May's historicist relativism--that modern Darwinian science can confirm the truth of Aristotle's ethics.

I have elaborated these points in posts herehereherehere, here., and here.

May's second reason for saying that Aristotle's ethics cannot render human life meaningful is that his concept of eudaimonia or happiness is too objective or impersonal to allow for individual diversity: Aristotle's eudaimonia "is a way of being that is the goal of any human life" (26).  May suggests that Aristotle does not recognize how the meaningfulness of my life might rightly differ from the lives of others.

But this ignores that fact that in his Generation of Animals, Aristotle distinguished between three levels of inherited traits among animals.  An animal species, including the human species, shows generic traits shared with some other animals, specific traits shared with members of the same species, and temperamental traits that differ among individuals of the species.  Thomas Aquinas adopted this biological idea from Aristotle as showing three levels of natural law corresponding to generic nature, specific nature, and temperamental nature.  So while we can recognize the generic goods of human life that generally characterize human nature, we can also recognize that the proper ranking and organization of those goods for each individual human being will vary, and that will require prudential judgment.  The study of such individual variability belongs to the biological science of animal personalities.  (I have written about this here and here.)

May's third reason for why he thinks Aristotle's ethics cannot render human life meaningful is that morality and meaningfulness are so different that a good life in Aristotle's terms could be a meaningless life.  Meaningfulness, May contends, comes not from moral values but from narrative values: we can understand our lives as stories with narrative structures and themes that give them meaning.  In trying to explain this separation of meaning from morality, however, May has to contradict what he says about Aristotle's ethics.

The narrative values that make our lives meaningful, May says, arise from the fact that our lives have trajectories that arc from birth to maturity to death, and so the meaning of our lives arises from the narrative themes of our life stories.  But May says that he first saw this idea of life as a trajectory with a storyline in Aristotle's ethics (3, 61, 63).  And in fact Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics has many illustrations from poetic storytellers like Homer.  So May seems to contradict himself in claiming that Aristotelian morality cannot comprehend the meaningfulness that comes from the narrative values of storytelling.

Storytelling as a way of exploring the moral meaning of human life is manifest in television comedies like The Good Place.  Aristotle wrote about the art of storytelling in his Poetics, concerned primarily with tragedy, and in a book on comedy that has been lost.  If you read Aristotle's Poetics and then listen to the podcasts for The Good Place, you will see that television writers and actors are practicing Aristotle's art of storytelling in a way that both entertains and instructs their audience as they explore possible scenarios for human beings striving for moral meaning in their lives.

But in trying to separate the meaning of our stories from the morality of our lives, May adopts Susan Wolf's understanding of meaning as different from morality, which she sums up in one sentence: "Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness."  She elaborates this idea this way: "A person's life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some thing or things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged. . . . One must be able to be in some sort of relationship with the valuable object of one's attention--to create it, protect it, promote it, honor it, generally to actively affirm it in some way or other" (51).

If one accepts this idea of meaning, May observes, then a good life according to Aristotle's ethics is not necessarily a meaningful life.  A good person could do good deeds "without feeling absorbed by what he or she does," without "a sense of engagement" in one's good life.  One could be good in being an selfless altruist in sacrificing one's own well-being for the good of others.  And thus one would be living a good life but utterly alienated from and bored with one's life, a passive life without any active intensity, and therefore one would be living "an alienated but moral life," which would b e a meaningless life (52-53, 91, 111-12).

What May says here, however, contradicts what he says about Aristotle's ethics.  As May says (correctly), for Aristotle the good or flourishing life is "an ongoing activity" (energeia in Aristotle's Greek).  The good life is "active and engaged with the world."  "It is an ongoing expression of who  one is."  "It is one's very way of being in the world" (5).  A good life is dedicated to "self-cultivation" (8).  A good life in Aristotle's understanding, therefore, cannot be "alienated" or lack "a sense of engagement."  If this is so, then May cannot say that a good life can be a meaningless life.

Moreover, May admits that the narrative values of a meaningful life largely coincide with what Aristotle identifies as the moral and intellectual virtues.  So, for example, courage is a moral virtue for Aristotle, and "a courageous life is one we might admire not only as a morally worthy life but also a meaningful life" (76).  We can say that "where a person is engaged with her life and is living morally, the meaningful and the moral will likely coincide" (112).

Still, May wants to insist that morality and meaningfulness can diverge in some cases.  One of his examples of this is Lance Armstrong.  Armstrong is famous for his success as a professional road racing cyclist, who showed the narrative values of "courage, commitment, and intensity" in surviving testicular cancer and then winning the Tour de France multiple times (106).  But Armstrong is also infamous for lying about his practice of illegal doping.  So we are ambivalent about someone like Armstrong: we admire him in some ways, while condemning him in other ways.  Armstrong's life, May contends, is both meaningful and immoral.

But wouldn't Aristotle rightly say that Armstrong is partly moral--in displaying the virtues of "courage, commitment, and intensity"--but partly immoral--in displaying the vices of dishonesty and cheating?  His life is not fully admirable because it is not fully moral.

As far as I can tell, May gives us no good reason to doubt that Aristotle's virtue ethics is the best philosophic framework for understanding the human pursuit of the good life.  He also gives us no good reason to doubt the possibility that Aristotle's ethics can be supported by modern evolutionary science.

So as The Good Place continues its run, we will have to wonder whether a Darwinian and Aristotelian science of the virtues can best explain the human struggle with the meaning and morality of life that this show depicts.

We should also consider how a liberal social order secures the freedom of thought and speech that allows us to openly think through these deep questions of life through popular culture.

Finally, we should question the common claim of the critics of liberalism that the degrading effects of bourgeois liberalism are evident in popular culture--particularly, in TV programming.  Shows like The Good Place should force us to consider the possibility that there has been a steady increase in the cognitive complexity of popular culture in modern liberal societies.  Does watching television make us smarter?  I have written about that here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Mother Forkin' Morals: "The Good Place" as the TV Comedy of Moral Philosophy

On this blog, I have often explored the Darwinian science of moral philosophy, in which the big question is how we find meaning for our lives as evolved animals in an evolutionary cosmos that does not care about or for us.  Can we find standards for judging good and bad in human life that are rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of a divinely designed universe?

In recent months, I have been amazed to discover that these same questions are being asked in an entertaining way by the NBC television comedy "The Good Place."  Michael Schur is the creator and one of the producers of this series.  He is also one of the writers and directors.  The series is now in its third season, and NBC has just announced that it will have a fourth season beginning in the fall of 2019.

Schur's ingenious idea for the show is to have some people die and then wake up in The Good Place because some immortal accountants have judged that their good deeds on earth have earned them enough points to warrant eternal life in The Good Place rather than The Bad Place. They live in a neighborhood of The Good Place designed by an immortal architect Michael. The problem, however, is that apparently some mistake has been made, because these people have not really earned enough points to enter The Good Place.  They should have gone to The Bad Place.  So now they must somehow prove that they are good enough to avoid being sent for the eternal torture that they deserve.  One of them is a professor of moral philosophy, and so they try to learn from his lectures about the various schools of moral philosophy to decide how to become morally good people.  Unfortunately, what those philosophers teach is often contradictory or confusing.

To write the shows, Schur and the other writers have learned about moral philosophy from their reading and from consulting with moral philosophers such as Todd May, who teaches at Clemson University.  Professor May has surveyed how the show illustrates the moral philosophy of Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and others in these videos:

Here May speaks about existentialism, psychological egoism, utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology.  In his published writing, May has also recognized Aristotelian virtue ethics; and in at least one of the "Good Place" episodes, Chidi Anagonye (the professor of moral philosophy) includes virtue ethics in his lectures.

Now it might seem that this show suggests that moral philosophy depends on a cosmic religious teleology, because the goodness of human conduct is being judged by afterlife points assigned by supernatural judges.  Actually, however, the exploration of moral philosophy in the show does not really depend on any kind of religious teaching.

When the show began in the fall of 2016, Schur gave an interview to Esquire in which he explained:
"I did a lot of research early on about conceptions of the afterlife in different religions.  I did a ton of reading about it, and it was really fun and fascinating.  Then I realized after I'd done all of that, it was pointless, because this show wasn't about religion; it was really about ethics and morality.  I never studied moral philosophy in college.  I have a very cocktail party understanding of it, but I read a lot of stuff and talked to a lot of people to understand what are the basic ideas that have emerged in ethics and moral philosophy for the last 400 years, and even ancient times.  And that's where I drew inspiration from.  Because the show isn't really about the afterlife.  It's set in the afterlife, but it's really about being good or bad."
Schur's "The Good Place" is a lot like Dante's Divine Comedy.  As many of Dante's readers have noticed, Dante's assignment of people to Paradise, to the Inferno, or to Limbo often depends more on the moral philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas than on any strictly theological doctrines about Heaven and Hell.  The story is set in the afterlife, but it's really about the human effort to understand good and bad through human reason and experience as expressed in moral philosophy.

At the very least, one can say that this is an anti-Christian show, in the sense that it never considers the fundamental Christian doctrine that human beings are so depraved that they can never earn salvation, and that salvation requires redemption by the grace of God.  And more specifically, the show never considers the Calvinist doctrine of predestination--that one's reward or punishment in the afterlife is predetermined by God's arbitrary choice without regard for one's desert.

There might seem to an appeal to religious faith in Episode 9 of Season 2, which is entitled "Leap to Faith."  But even here the reference to Kierkegaard is only a cue from Michael to have a leap of faith in him.

Moreover, there is some suggestion in the show that Todd May might be right when he argues in some of his writing that the meaning of life depends upon accepting death, and that life without death in some afterlife would not be worth living.  (A few of my posts on this thought can be found herehere, here, here, and here.)

Most of the philosophical moral dilemmas explored in "The Good Place" have been the subject of various posts.  For example, I have written on the Trolley Problem (here and here), and that comes up in the Episode 6 of Season 2.

This TV show is also noteworthy in another way: it shows how popular culture in a liberal social order can promote some moral and intellectual depth in an entertaining way.

I will say more about May and about this show in some future posts.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Locke's Open Borders Immigration Policy as Cultural Group Selection

The Human Freedom Index explains the global patterns of migration:  people in countries with a low freedom ranking want to leave and migrate to countries with a high freedom ranking.  Syria is at the absolute bottom of the Human Freedom Index for 2018--the least free of the 162 countries ranked--and much of the migration out of the Middle East in recent years has been from Syria, as these migrants have tried to reach the countries in Europe and North America that rank high for freedom.  People in the countries in Central America ranking low in freedom--Honduras (92th), Guatemala (66th), and Mexico (75th)--want to enter the United States (17th) or Canada (5th).  As far as I know, there aren't a lot of Honduran migrants trying to cross the border into Venezuela, which ranks at 161 of the HFI, just above Syria.

As a consequence of this migration towards freedom, there is a stunning correlation between a country ranking high on the HFI and the country having a high proportion of its population being either immigrants or native-born offspring of immigrants.  For New Zealand--the number one country on the HFI--the proportion is almost half!  For Switzerland--the number two country--the proportion is 45%.  For Canada, it's 38%.  For the U.S., it's 25%.

While travelling around New Zealand last summer, I was amazed by how many of the New Zealanders I met were immigrants or children of immigrants.  Some of them told me that they had wanted to immigrate to the United States, but when they found the barriers to immigration too high, they chose New Zealand instead.  They were puzzled as to why America was closing its borders to immigration.  But many of them had decided that New Zealand was a better choice for them after all, because it offered more freedom to live their lives as they wished.

What we see here is what evolutionary scientists call cultural group selection through migration and assimilation, in which countries with cultural traditions of freedom have higher fitness than countries that are less free.  John Locke understood this, which is why he argued that free societies benefited from having open borders, so that they could attract migrants from less free societies.  The freer societies with a growing population of productive and inventive people become the more prosperous societies.  While countries like New Zealand have adopted the Lockean liberal immigration policy, the United States under the rule of Trump the Nationalist is raising barriers to immigration, which means that if the United States continues to move away from Lockean liberalism, it will become a loser in this evolutionary process of cultural group selection, in which people vote with their feet in favor of freedom.


In his chapter on property in the Second Treatise, Locke claims that the great source of useful commodities for human life is human labor and industry.  "Unassisted nature" gives us acorns, water, and skins, while human labor gives us bread, wine, and cloth for our food, drink, and clothing.  Land left wholly to nature has little value for us until it has been improved by the human labor of pasturage, tilling, or planting.  Locke then writes:
"This shews, how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largenesse of dominions, and that the increase of lands [hands?] and the right imploying of them is the great art of government.  And that Prince who shall be so wise and godlike as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and incouragement to the honest industry of Mankind against the oppression of power and narrownesse of Party will quickly be too hard for his neighbours" (sec. 42).
Christ's College Cambridge has a copy of the 1698 edition of Locke's Two Treatises with Locke's handwritten annotations, although some scholars doubt that this is Locke's own handwriting.  This book is now available online.  If you look at sec. 42, page 197, you will see that the passage quoted above was written into the margin.  So it's likely that Locke made this addition to his text sometime after 1698, while Locke was working at the Board of Trade.  At this time King William III's government was in conflict with France, and Locke was recommending (in his economic writings of the time) that increased population was a better source of power than expanded territory.

The reference to a "godlike" Prince seems oddly contrary to Locke's rejection of divine right of kings, but his meaning is clarified by passages in the First Treatise (secs. 33, 41), where God's command to Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:1 to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth" is identified by Locke as "the great design of God."  This supports Locke's policy for increasing population and his argument that one of the bad effects of absolute monarchy, as in France, is declining population.

As Brian Smith (2018) has indicated in an insightful article, the reference in this passage to "increase of lands" seems to be better understood as "increase of hands."  He shows that this is supported by what Locke says about the benefits of increasing population in some of his other essays.   In his "Essay on Toleration" (1667), Locke argued that toleration increased immigration, which increased population and commerce.  "As to promoting the welfare of the kingdom which consists in riches and power, to this most immediately conduces the number and industry of your subjects" (Locke 2010, 122).  This became evident in 1685, when King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted some toleration of Calvinist Protestants in Catholic France in 1598.  This created an exodus of French Protestants, also called Huguenots, who were forced to migrate to England and elsewhere.

In his essay on "Trade" (1674), Locke asserted: "Power consists in numbers of men, and the ability to maintain them.  Trade conduces to both of these by increasing your stock and your people, and they each other" (Locke 1997, 222).

Locke's most important writing on his liberal policy for what he called the "easy naturalization" of immigrants is his essay "For a General Naturalization," which is dated around 1693, although it was not published until about 30 years ago, in an article by David Resnick (1987).  In response to the large influx of immigrants to England at the end of the 17th century, including the French Huguenots, there were several "general naturalization" bills introduced into Parliament.  The bill introduced in 1693 was most famous because of the speech by Sir John Knight attacking it.  Knight's published speech was so vehement that it was condemned by Parliament as libelous, and Parliament ordered that it be burned in public by the common hangman.

Knight complained that immigrants would compete with native English laborers for jobs, which would lower their wages and drive them into starvation, and this would provoke outrage from the English people.  He also warned that foreigners could not be loyal English citizens.  Other critics argued that any general naturalization law would be a threat to the ethnic identity of the English race, because they would intermarry with native English people, which would lead to the extinction of the English race.

"For a General Naturalization" was probably written in support of the general naturalization bill of 1693.  "Naturalization is the shortest and easiest way of increasing your people," Locke declared at the beginning of the essay. Increasing population is important, he explained, because "people are the strength of any country or government," and it's "the number of people that make the riches of any country" (Locke 1997, 322).

He thought that this was illustrated by the difference between Holland and Spain:
"The latter having all the advantages of situation and the yearly afflux of wealth out of its own dominions [the silver imports from Spanish America], yet is for want of hands the poorest country in Europe.  The other [is] ill situate[d] but being crammed with people [is] abounding in riches . . . And I ask whether England if half its people should be taken away would not portionably decay in its strength and riches notwithstanding the advantages it has in its situation, ports, and the temper of its people" (Locke 1997, 322-23).
So, despite Spain's extensive colonial land holdings in the New World, Spanish tyranny creates a "want of hands" that make Spain poor.  Holland is "crammed with people," because it is a free and tolerant country that attracts immigrants from Spain and other countries that are less free and tolerant.  Even Locke had to escape to Holland to avoid arrest for treason in England. And Holland's vigorous trade and commerce make it prosperous.  In "For a General Naturalization," Locke writes: "The riches of the world do not lie in formerly having large tracts of land, which supplied abundantly the native convenience of eating and drinking [such] as plenty of corn and large flocks and herds.  But in trade, which brings money and with that all things" (Locke 1997, 323).

In this short essay of no more than four pages, the word "hands" appears 8 times, which sustains Brian Smith's claim that in the "art of government" passage of the Second Treatise, the "increase of lands" phrase must really mean "increase of hands."  Moreover, in this essay, Locke indicated that "hands" are needed not just for agricultural work but even more for the manufacture of commodities and for the carriage and navigation necessary for trade.

In this essay, Locke answers four objections to his recommended policy for general naturalization and open borders.  The first objection is that "we shall not have artisans come over to be naturalized but idle people" (1997, 324).  Locke answers by pointing out that no one can migrate to another country with the expectation that they will live upon other people's labor.  If there are laws for maintaining the poor, they do not have to be open to foreigners.  And if these laws for maintaining the poor do encourage immigrants to be idle, that is a mistake in the laws: "If by poor are meant such as want relief and being idle themselves live upon the labour of others; if there be any such poor amongst us already who are able to work and do not, 'tis a shame to the government and a fault in our constitution and ought to be remedied" (1997, 326).

A second objection is that we have too many people already.  But no one can say that who sees that Holland has twice the population of England, and Holland is rich.  Moreover, if a country is already so full of people that artisans and laborers cannot live better there than in their home countries, one need not fear their migration, because people will not move to another country to be worse off.  Immigration, therefore, is self-regulating, because people have no personal incentive to migrate to countries that already have too many people.

A third objection is "that they eat the bread out of our own people's mouths."  But this is "no further true than it is a confession that they work cheaper or better, for nobody will leave his neighbor to use a foreigner but for one of those reasons, and can that be counted an inconvenience which will bring down the unreasonable rates of your own people or force them to work better?  Want of people raises their price and makes them both dear and careless." (1997, 325).  So, again, immigration is self-regulating in that immigrants will be attracted to countries with a high demand for labor manifest in high wages, and if immigration drives wages down, then immigration will stop.  Even Donald Trump employs illegal immigrants at his golf court resorts because he cannot find native Americans to fill the jobs.

A fourth objection implicitly acknowledged in Locke's essay is that immigrants will not be assimilated into English society.  Once immigrants are naturalized, Locke answers,
"they are then in interest as much our own people as any.  The only odds is their language, which will be cured too in their children, and they be as perfect Englishmen as those that have been here ever since William the Conqueror's days and came over with him.  For 'tis hardly to be doubted but that most of even our ancestors were foreigners" (1997, 325).
So if immigrants do not speak English, that will impede their assimilation into English culture, but their children will speak English, and thus become "perfect Englishmen."  After all, most Englishmen are descended from foreign ancestors.


Within the past 25 years, evolutionary theorists--such as Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson--have seen that Locke was right about immigration, and that cultural group selection (CGS) working through selective migration and assimilation has favored the spread of Lockean liberal culture around the world (Boyd & Richerson 2009; Richerson & Boyd 2008).  This confirms what I have argued in various posts about the evolutionary history of Lockean liberalism as symbolic niche construction (herehere, and here).

This is the evolutionary explanation for what Francis Fukuyama famously called "the end of history."  Lockean liberalism so fully satisfies the natural desires of evolved human nature that all illiberal social orders must fail in the long run to attract adherents.  One good indication of this is that even those recent critics of liberalism like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher actually turn out to implicitly endorse the liberalism of open societies.  I have written about this herehere, and here.

Boyd and Richerson conclude: "Human migration is nonrandom.  In small-scale societies of the past, and in the modern world, people tend to move to wealthier, safer, and more must societies from poorer, more violent, less just societies.  If immigrants are assimilated, such nonrandom migration can increase the occurrence of culturally transmitted beliefs, values, and institutions that cause societies to be attractive to immigrants" (2009, 331).  Contrary to what Friedrich Hayek said about modern open societies having to repress the tribal instincts shaped in our prehistoric past, Richerson and Boyd see that "the free enterprise societies' combination of individual autonomy, wealth, and welfare bear a strong resemblance to the prefcrences that are rooted in our ancient and tribal social instincts" (2008, 134).

If so, then Spinoza was right about a liberal capitalist democracy being the best form of social order, because it best approximates the freedom that human beings enjoyed in the evolutionary state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  (I have written about this here and here.)

As suggested by both Locke and Boyd and Richerson, the success of cultural group selection through immigration depends on immigrants becoming assimilated into their new national cultures.  Recently, some commentators have worried that immigrants today no longer assimilate as well as earlier generations of immigrants.  But a lot of research has shown that while assimilation is never perfect, it does happen over time.  Through ethnic attrition, immigrants intermarry, and the children of these intermarriages become ever more assimilated into the new culture.  Moreover, as Locke indicated, even if the first immigrants speak a foreign language, the children of immigrants easily learn the language of their new country.  Much of this research on the assimilation of immigrants has been surveyed by Alex Nowrasteh.

In a liberal open society, the assimilation of immigrants does not require the obliteration of the communal identity of immigrants.  After all, one of the primary reasons why people immigrate to free and tolerant societies is so that they can live in their distinctive moral and religious communities without persecution.  The immigration of groups like the Anabaptists and the Chaldeans to the United States illustrate this.  I have written about the Chaldeans here.


Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Peterson. 2009. "Voting With Your Feet: Payoff Biased Migration and the Evolution of Group Beneficial Behavior." Journal of Theoretical Biology 257: 331-39.

Locke, John. 1997. Political Essays. Ed. Mark Goldie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 2010. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Ed. Mark Goldie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Resnick, David. 1987. "John Locke and the Problem of Naturalization." Review of Politics 49: 368-88.

Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2008. "The Evolution of Free Enterprise Values." In Paul J. Zak, ed., Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, 107-41.

Smith, Brian. 2018. "Hands, Not Lands: John Locke, Immigration, and the 'Great Art of Government,'"  History of Political Thought 39: 465-90.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Moral Science of the Winter Solstice

                                                The Winter Solstice Sunset at Stonehenge

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  The winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year.  This occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt from the Sun.

Around the world there are religious rituals associated with the winter solstice.  The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter holiday called Yule.  Many Christmas traditions--such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, and the Yule log--arose from the Yule customs.  These religious rites sacralize the importance of the Sun as the source of life.

The modern cosmological and biological sciences recognize and explain the truth of this.  All of life on Earth including human life depends on the energy of the Sun as captured through photosynthesis on Earth.  If the Earth were not revolving around the Sun at just the right distance, and if the physical and chemical conditions on Earth did not permit photosynthesis, life as we know it would be impossible.

This also teaches us that for billions of years in the past, there was no life.  And for billions of years in the future, once photosynthesis has shut down, and the Sun has faded, there will be no life in the cosmos.

There is a moral teaching here--that the human good has no eternal cosmic support, because the human good arises from the momentary conditions of human life, which cannot exist forever.  The cosmos does not care for or about us.

This is what Leo Strauss identified as "the most terrible truth" of evolutionary science in Lucretius.

Some of these ideas have been developed in posts herehere, and here.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Human Freedom Index 2018: Progress or Decline in Lockean/Hayekian Liberalism?

The fourth edition of the Human Freedom Index (HFI) has just been published.  It is written by Ian Vasquez and Tanja Porcnik, who are both associated with the Cato Institute, which is one of the three copublishers of the report. 

The report covers 162 countries for 2016, the most recent year for which sufficient data are available.  The index is derived from 79 distinct indicators--37 for personal freedom and 42 for economic freedom.  In my previous posts on the HFI (herehere, and here), I have explained how the index is compiled, and I have raised questions about its standards.  I have also used the index to show how it provides empirical evidence confirming the claim of classical liberalism for liberal orders as securing the freedom that favors human flourishing.  And thus it refutes those critics of liberalism (like Patrick Deneen, for example) who claim that liberalism has failed.

Following the conception of liberty adopted by John Locke and Friedrich Hayek, the HFI is a measurement of negative liberty--liberty as not being constrained or coerced by others, so long as one does not infringe on the same liberty of others.

The HFI ranks freedom on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 represents the highest level of freedom.  There is a ranking for each of the 79 indicators, and then an overall ranking is compiled from these distinct rankings.  The 162 countries are then ranked from highest to lowest.

Here are the top 10 countries for human freedom, with two countries tied at 6th place, two tied at 8th place, and three tied at 10th place.  In parentheses, I give the rankings for personal freedom (PF) and economic freedom (EF).  The human freedom score is the average of the scores for personal freedom and economic freedom.

1.  New Zealand  (PF: 6, EF: 3)
2.  Switzerland (PF: 10, EF: 4)
3.  Hong Kong (PF: 32, EF: 1)
4.  Australia (PF: 11, EF: 10)
5.  Canada (PF: 12, EF: 10)
6.  Netherlands (PF: 1, EF: 18)
6.  Denmark (PF: 4, EF: 16)
8.  Ireland (PF: 21, EF: 5)
8.  United Kingdom (PF: 18, EF: 9)
10. Finland (PF: 5, EF: 22)
10. Norway (PF: 2, EF: 25)
10. Taiwan (PF: 15, EF: 12)

Other countries rank as follows: Germany (13), United States (17), Sweden (17), Singapore (25), France (32), Greece (61), Mexico (75), Argentina (107), Turkey (107), Russia (119).  The bottom 10 countries are: Iran (153), Burundi (154), Algeria (155), Egypt (156), Sudan (157), Libya (158), Iraq (159), Yemen (160),  Venezuela (161), and Syria (162).

The actual scores that determine these rankings are often very close.  Here are the scores for the top 3 countries: New Zealand (8.89), Switzerland (8.79), Hong Kong (8.78).

In the previous two reports, New Zealand was 3rd.  Hong Kong was 1st in the 2016 report and then fell to 2nd in the 2017 report.  Switzerland was 2nd in the 2016 report and then 1st in the 2017 report.

In the 2017 report, Vasquez and Porcnik indicated for the first time that the scores for freedom had fallen since 2008.  This might be seen as suggesting that the global progress towards freedom has slowed or even reversed, perhaps as a result of a new movement towards illiberal authoritarianism and populism.  

But as I have indicated in my previous posts on this, the decline in the scores that they report are so slight as to be hardly noticeable.  In fact, in the 2016 report, Vasquez and Porcnik said that the average human freedom rating had remained "about the same" since 2008.  What they now call a "slight decrease" looks like "about the same" to me.  In the new 2018 report, they say that the average human freedom rating for 162 countries in 2016 was 6.89, which is 0.01 less than it was in 2015.  Since 2008, the average score has decreased by 0.06.  That doesn't look like much of a decrease to me.

Even if this is a decrease in global freedom, it only shows what Marian Tupy has called "the jagged arc of human progress."  Looking over human history, and particularly the last 250 years, the empirical evidence for human progress towards ever greater freedom and the expansion of liberal social orders is clear.  Prior to 1800, there few examples of liberal regimes.  But since 1800, the increase in liberal values around the world has been stunning.  Still, however, this progress in Liberal Enlightenment is not linear, but jagged.  The progress can be slowed or even reversed for a period.  The rise of communism, fascism, and Nazism between the two world wars is a dramatic illustration of this.  The recent rise of populist authoritarianism might be another illustration, although, as I have argued in some other posts, there is lots of evidence that the enthusiasm for such illiberal movements is already in decline.  We are seeing that now in the United States with the growing unpopularity of Trump's message, as indicated in the recent midterm elections, which show the signs of a political realignment that could destroy Trump's Republican Party.  (In November and December of 2016, I wrote a series of posts on the evidence for human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment.)

When Vasquez and Porcnik say that the average human freedom score--on a scale from 0 to 10--has declined by 0.01 in one year, what does that mean?  In my previous posts on the HFI, one of the questions I have raised concerns the problem of personal judgment in assigning a number for each indicator of freedom and in weighing the various indicators to create an overall score.

For example, if you look at the "Structure of the Human Freedom Index" in the 2018 report (p. 17), you will see that one category for personal freedom is "Identity and Relationships," which includes four variables--legal gender, parental rights, same-sex relationships, and divorce.  Using what they consider authoritative sources of data, Vasquez and Porcnik have assigned scores for each of these four variables.  They then average these four scores to get a score for "Identity and Relationships."  This score is then averaged with the scores for four other categories of variables--movement, religion, association/assembly/civil society, and expression/information.  This is the average for "specific personal freedoms," which is then averaged with the score for "legal protection and security" to reach the overall average score for "personal freedom."

If you compare the 2018 report with the previous reports, you will notice that "legal gender" was added as a new variable for the first time in the 2017 report.  So you might wonder how the addition of this new variable has influenced the scores for "personal freedom."  You might also wonder why "legal gender" is given the same weight as "parental rights," "same-sex relationships," and "divorce."  Is the freedom of transgender people to choose their gender identity exactly equal in value to the freedom of parents to be the legal guardians of their children?  Apparently, this has been determined by the personal judgment of Vasquez and Porcnik, although they give no justification for this.  They offer two sentences of explanation: "One of the most personal decisions individuals can make regards their sexual and gender identity.  Legal gender measures the degree to which people are free to legally change their sex and gender" (21).

I can agree with this, because I include "sexual identity" in my list of 20 natural desires (in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism).  But I don't try to weigh the value of that desire against the other desires--such as "parental care," for example.  I argue that the ranking of those 20 natural desires is a matter for the judgment of each individual, and individuals will necessarily differ in their rankings.  Vasquez and Porcnik don't explain why the freedom to satisfy one desire should have exactly equal value to the freedom to satisfy every other desire.

They also don't explain why they assign the exact numbers that they do for the "legal gender" variable.  In explaining this variable, they write: "The component is based on the measures for sex/gender marker change, upon which rating intervals were constructed.  Countries with more restrictions and requirements for sex/gender marker change received lower ratings.  A ration of 10 was assigned to countries with no requirements for sex/gender marker change.  A rating of 7 was assigned to countries with prohibitive medical requirements, including hormonal treatment, sterilization, and genital surgery.  A rating of 0 is assigned to countries without a possibility for sex/gender marker change."  

As their source for data, they identify "Z. Chiam et al., Trans Legal Mapping Report 2016: Recognition before the Law (Geneva: International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 2016); Human Rights Watch, Country Profiles: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity." 

Why do they give a rating of 7 to "countries with prohibitive medical requirements" for gender identity changes?  Why not 6 or 8?  Is this just an arbitrary choice?  If so, then their overall numbers for "personal freedom" are based to some degree on such arbitrary choices.

In their 2016 report, many countries--including the United States, New Zealand, and Turkey--received a score of 10 (the highest level of freedom) for the "Relationships" category.  In their 2018 report, the score for this category for these three countries dropped to 9.3.  Why?  The scores for "parental rights," "same-sex relationships," and "divorce" were still set at 10.  But the scores for the new variable "legal gender" were 7.  So the scores for personal freedom for these and similar countries dropped only because Vasquez and Porcnik had added a new variable in the 2017 and 2018 reports that was not there in the previous two reports.  Is it possible that the overall decrease in the freedom ratings that they report arose from such arbitrary changes in their list of variables?

Moreover, Vasquez and Porcnik don't alert their readers to the obscurity in their data.  In the United States, for example, the data for "legal gender" is unclear, because the legality of changing one's gender identity is variable across the 50 states.  Some states are very restrictive, and some are not.  The Trans Legal Mapping Report states that for changing one's gender on a birth certificate, "Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, and South Carolina have unclear or unwritten policies."  For changing one's gender on a driver's license, "four states (Arkansas, Mississippi, North and South Carolina) have unclear, unwritten, or unknown policies."  Apparently, Vasquez and Porcnik have assigned a score of 7 to the United States because most but not all states have placed some restrictions on legally changing gender identity. 

The data for "legal gender" is also unclear for New Zealand.  The Trans Legal Mapping Report says that for changing gender identity on birth certificates in New Zealand, "trans people are still required to prove they have medically transitioned."  But to change a passport, "trans New Zealanders can self-declare their gender, and choose from three gender options."   

Vasquez and Porcnik don't mention these problems in interpreting the data.  And it's likely that there are similar problems with the data for other variables.

As I have already suggested, I do agree that sex or gender identity is a natural desire that should be a matter of individual freedom.  I have written about freedom for transgender and intersex people in some posts here,  here, and here

Darwinian liberalism offers the best way to handle the moral and legal issues of sexual identity.  We can recognize that by nature most human beings will be born as clearly male or female, and that sexual identity will be nurtured through parental care and cultural traditions.  But we can also recognize that a few human beings will be born sexually ambiguous, and in this case, we will have to rely on parental judgment and civil society to decide the best assignment of sexual identity.  The final standard will be what is most satisfying for children as they grow up and reach the age when they can decide for themselves whether their parents have made the right decision, or whether they want to change their sexual identity.  The continuing debate over the treatment of intersex people illustrates how the spontaneous order of civil society generates moral standards of the human good shaped by human nature, human culture, and human judgment.