Thursday, January 31, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (3): Individual Agency and Judgment in the Evolution of Liberalism

The cultural evolution of liberalism does not preclude, but rather presupposes, genetic evolution and individual judgment.  As I have often argued on this blog, we need to move through three levels of analysis to explain the evolution of liberalism: the genetic history of human nature, the cultural history of human traditions, and the individual history of human judgments.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I suggested that one can see the complex interaction between these three levels in Hayek's writings.  So, for the study of morality, we need to move through moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.  And for the study of law, we need to move through natural law, customary law, and positive law.

And yet, sometimes Hayek elevates cultural evolution in a way that seems to deny the importance of innate instinct, on the one hand, and individual rational agency, on the other.  This makes Hayek appear incoherent in ways that are rightly criticized by Naomi Beck.  Ultimately, however, a careful reading of Hayek shows his reliance on the three levels of evolutionary analysis.

Hayek explains: "Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success," in that the practices of those groups that are most successful tend to prevail over the practices of those groups that are less successful.  Therefore, tradition "changes but can rarely be deliberately changed.  Cultural selection is not a rational process; it is not guided by but it creates reason" (LLL [3], 166).  But, as Beck notes, this contradicts Hayek's claim that ideas govern evolution:  "The belief that in the long run it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution, and the belief that the individual steps in that process should be governed by a set of coherent conceptions, have long formed a fundamental part of the liberal creed" (CL, 112).  After all, Hayek devoted his life to propagating liberal ideas with the hope that these ideas would influence cultural evolution, even if only slowly and indirectly.

Hayek sees the critical turning points in the evolution of different economic orders as coming from the actions of individual "pathbreakers":
"There can be little doubt that from the toleration of bartering with the outsider, the recognition of delimited private property, especially in land, the enforcement of contractual obligations, the competition with fellow craftsmen in the same trade, the variability of initially customary prices, the lending of money, particularly at interest, were all initially infringements of customary rules--so many falls from grace.  And the law-breakers, who were to be path-breakers, certainly did not introduce the new rules because they recognized that they were beneficial to the community, but they simply started some practices advantageous to; them which then did prove beneficial to the group in which they prevailed" (LLL [3], 161).
Here Hayek recognizes individual agency in cultural evolution, in that individuals acting for their self-interest discover the advantages of trade, which can then be favored by group selection when it is beneficial for the group.  He seems to think that "bartering with the outsider" arose first only in the last few thousand years of human history.  But if Richerson, Boyd, Tooby, and Cosmides are correct, it arose much earlier--perhaps hundreds of thousands of years earlier--and thus the propensity for trade could have become innate through gene-culture coevolution.

Hayek also sees that liberalism requires some individuals to exercise deliberate control of the general order of society, although it's limited to the formulation of abstract rules.  He writes:
"Reason is merely a discipline, an insight into the limitations of the possibilities of successful action, which often will tell us only what not to do.  This discipline is necessary precisely because our intellect is not capable of grasping reality in all of its complexity.  Although the use of abstraction extends the scope of phenomena which we can master intellectually, it does so by limiting the degree to which we can foresee the effects of our actions, and therefore also by limiting to certain general features the degree to which we can shape the world to our liking.  Liberalism for this reason restricts deliberate control of the overall order of society to the enforcement of such general rules as are necessary for the formation of a spontaneous order, the details of which we cannot foresee" (LLL [1], 32).
Beck quotes the first two sentences in this passage--on the limits of reason--as contradicting Hayek's effort to design a "constitution of liberty" to promote a free society (150).  But the last two sentences in this passage indicate how Hayek's account of the limits of reason allows for the deliberate design of a liberal order, albeit only at a very general level of rules without any specification of details.  And so, for example, the framers of the American Constitution could design a "higher law" in the Constitution, establishing "a hierarchy of rules or laws, where those possessing a higher degree of generality and proceeding from a superior authority control the contents of the more specific laws that are passed by a delegated authority" (CL, 178).

Hayek's insistence on the superior wisdom of cultural traditions that are not the products of rational design provokes Beck's criticism that he is promoting a cultural relativism and fatalism that contradicts Hayek's promotion of liberal ideas to guide cultural evolution.  But this ignores Hayek's claim that in cultural evolution, there is "certainly room for improvement," and "we must constantly re-examine our rules and be prepared to question every single one of them," although our critical questioning must always be constrained by our cultural history (LLL [3], 167).

The need for the critical scrutiny of the rules that emerge from cultural evolution should be evident, Hayek observes, if for no other reason than that "there has so often been coercive interference in the process of cultural evolution" (FC, 20).  So Hayek seems to agree with those evolutionary theorists who argue that "self-interested agents create, maintain, and modify group-functional culture," and they do this either coercively or collaboratively (Singh et al. 2016).

So, again, Hayek's evolutionary liberalism is best understood as a complex interaction of natural history, cultural history, and individual judgment.


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

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (2): The Liberalism of Living in Two Worlds of Evolved Social Instincts

In The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek explains that in a liberal social order people must learn to live in two different social worlds:
". . . the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order.  Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules.  If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.  So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once" (18).
The macro-cosmos is the world of extended--even global--social and economic exchange among huge numbers of people who are generally unknown to one another, which is the world of market relationships.  The micro-cosmos is the world of small groups--families, social networks of friends, firms, schools, churches, clubs, and other voluntary associations--where people interact face to face with other people whom they know and love.  To live in both worlds at once requires that we live under the impersonal rules of the macro-cosmos and the personal rules of the micro-cosmos without imposing the rules of one world on the other.

But then Hayek often contradicts this teaching when he says that living in the extended order of the macro-cosmos requires that we repress the social instincts for solidarity and altruism in the micro-cosmos.  This is what Beck means when she speaks of Hayek as recommending that our "new market morality" must "override," "replace," "subjugate," or "substitute" for the old social instincts of families and intimate groups (52, 70, 92).  Here then is one of those "incoherencies" that Beck sees in Hayek's writing.  On the one hand, he recommends living in two worlds at once.  On the other hand, he insists that one world must replace the other.

The reason for Hayek's confusion here is his Freudian theory of human social evolution.  He believes that our evolved human nature was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years of living as hunter-gatherers in families and small bands who never engaged in long-distance trade or exchange, and so we have evolved social instincts for living in families and small groups where everything is shared in common, but since trading with strangers arose first only a few thousand years ago, we have no instinctive propensities for the extended order of trade.  So, in effect, Hayek agrees with the Marxist anthropologists who have argued that the first human beings lived as primitive communists, and therefore modern communism could satisfy our evolved instinctive adaptation for communism.  To defend capitalism, Hayek must argue for the repression of those communist instincts, because "an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition" (1988, 19).  Oddly, in Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1:198), Hayek says that anthropological studies of primitive societies has shown the Marxist idea of "primitive communism" to be a "myth," because even the most primitive societies must recognize property.

Beck rightly points to this problem in Hayek's thinking.  But she is silent about how some of the evolutionary anthropologists that she cites--such as Peter Richerson, Rob Boyd, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides--have corrected the mistake that created Hayek's problem.  Contrary to what Hayek assumed, we can now see that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not pure communists, and that in fact they engaged in trade and exchange, so that the modern extended order of trade can be understood as an extension of the ancient social instincts for exchange.  We can live in two worlds at once because both worlds are rooted in the evolved instincts of our universal human nature.

Beck refers to Richerson and Boyd and their "tribal social instincts hypothesis" as explaining how "there was no opposition between the morality of primitive tribal societies and that of large civilized ones" (115).  But she is completely silent about their argument that this explains why "the free enterprise system that dominates the world economy today has deep evolutionary roots," because "the free enterprise societies' combination of individual autonomy, wealth, and welfare bear a strong resemblance to the preferences that are rooted in our ancient and tribal social instincts" ("Evolution of Free Enterprise Values," in Paul Zak, ed., Moral Markets [Princeton University Press, 2008], 107, 134).  The anthropologist Alan Fiske has shown that "market pricing" is one of the four models of social cooperation that are universal to all human societies.  As Jonathan Haidt has observed, our evolved human nature makes us both tribal and trading animals.  Adam Smith was right about human beings as showing a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchanged that is expressed in the modern market economy.

Beck is silent about this because this shows how evolutionary science can support capitalism as rooted in our evolved human nature.

Hayek does seem to contradict himself in saying that we should not use the rules of the macro-cosmos to "crush" the micro-cosmos, but then saying that the macro-cosmos must "repress" the micro-cosmos.  Hayek might have said that there is no contradiction if "repress" means "restraining" without "crushing."  Hayek objected to the original Greek meaning of oikonomia as "household management," which mistakenly suggests transforming the market order into a "household state" (The Constitution of Liberty, 260-61; Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1), 37; Law, Legislation, and Liberty (2), 107-108).  "Home economics" is a top-down organization that can be centrally planned by the adults in the household for the common good of all in the family.  But a large market economy must emerge from the bottom-up as a spontaneous order without central planning.  The mistake of socialism is the belief that a large modern economy can be organized as a single household.  To avoid this mistake, we must repress but not crush the social instincts of household economics to protect the freedom of market economics based on the social instincts of exchange and trade.

Although Hayek said very little about family life, what he did say made it clear that protecting the household economics of the family as an organization was crucial for the liberal social order.  This denies the common claim that the liberalism of free markets subverts the solidarity of family life.  Some Hayekian economists--such as Steve Horwitz in Hayek's Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions (2015)--have elaborated a Hayekian account of the family as an organization in which parents have both the knowledge and the incentives for properly rearing children.  The failure of socialist central planning is manifest not only in its failure to plan a modern economy without markets but also in its failure to provide a centrally planned substitute for private families.  Beck is totally silent about this.

It is common for the right-wing critics of Hayekian liberalism--like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, for example--to argue that liberalism teaches a false individualistic conception of human beings as naturally solitary and autonomous beings.  Since human beings really are naturally social animals, who yearn for social bonding in families, friendships, and social groups, these critics argue, people in liberal societies who live as solitary individuals suffer an unhappy loneliness.  The Hayekian idea of living in two worlds at once denies this criticism by recognizing the crucial importance of the social life lived in families, friendships, and voluntary associations.

These points are elaborated in other posts herehere, here., here., here, and here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek

Naomi Beck's Hayek and the Evolution of Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is the first book-length study of Hayek's evolutionary argument for liberalism.  It is a vigorous critique of Hayek's reasoning.  As indicated by a previous post (here), I first met Beck and heard her critique of Hayek about five years ago in Freiburg, Germany.  Reading her book confirms my first assessment of her reasoning:  some of her criticisms of Hayek are persuasive, but some are not.  Her book is valuable because it forces me to clarify my points of agreement and disagreement with Hayek in developing my own evolutionary argument for liberalism.  This will be the first of a series of posts on Beck's book.

Beck's general conclusion is that "the theory of cultural evolution he advanced provides perhaps the clearest example of his resistance to question his basic convictions," which shows an "ideological commitment" to free market capitalism that is "more a matter of faith than a well-founded position" (156).

In response to this claim, one might ask: Does she ever question her basic convictions about the moral, economic, and political failures of liberal capitalism? The answer is no.  The best way to question one's convictions is to acknowledge the good objections to those convictions and then to try to reply to those objections.  Thomas Aquinas's mode of "disputation" shows this: for each question he takes up, begins by stating the best objections to his answer and ends by replying to each objection.  I have found that sometimes Aquinas is so good at stating the objections that the objections can seem more persuasive than his replies!

As Beck indicates, Darwin was like Aquinas in recognizing and replying to objections: Darwin "was particularly careful not to dodge difficult questions that presented a challenge to his theory" (113).  In On the Origin of Species, Darwin began the sixth chapter by observing: "Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader.  Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory" (1859, 171).  He then devotes five chapters to answering the objections to his theory.

In contrast to Darwin, Beck never questions her convictions, because she is silent about all of the obvious objections to her position.  The only possible exception to this comes in an endnote in her book. She criticizes Hayek for refusing to take seriously the problem of how the growth in population and wealth promoted by capitalism must inevitably lead to the exhaustion and misuse of natural resources.  She thinks that Garrett Hardin explained the fundamental problem well in his essay on "The Tragedy of the Commons":  when people have free access to  a common limited resource, their self-interest will move them to exploit the resource until it is depleted (122).  But then in a e one-sentence endnote to this passage, Beck writes: "Hardin's interpretation of the commons as a kind of no-man's land instead of a common pool resource collectively governed by its users was strongly criticized, most notably by the Nobel Laureate Eleanor Ostrom (1990) and subsequent scholarship" (164, n. 1).  The reference is to Ostrom's Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which makes a Hayekian argument for how people can manage common resources for the good of all through the spontaneous evolution of cooperative institutions without any need for governmental coercion.  Beck never explains or replies to Ostrom's argument.  At the end of her book, Beck repeats Hardin's assertion of "the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world" (159), while remaining silent about Ostrom's objection.

All of Beck's argumentation against Hayek is weakened by this refusal to answer any of the good objections to her reasoning.  And yet, as I have said, she does expose some problems in Hayek's position, which she rightly identifies as making two primary claims:
"First, because the rules of the free market are not the product of rational design, they surpass our capacity for social planning.  And second, these rules conflict with natural impulses, such as solidarity and altruism, which have evolved during the long period of small group existence, but which are not compatible with the profit-driven rules underlying the anonymous market interactions that have made the 'Great Society' possible.  Together, these claims were supposed to form a decisive refutation of all 'socialist' aspirations to improve society through planned reforms.  But Hayek's theory suffers from incoherencies, lack of supporting evidence, and also disregard for the theories that inspired it.  He hoped to demonstrate with evolutionary arguments that 'socialists are wrong about the facts' (1988 6; italics in the original), namely they misunderstand the origins of modern civilization and what is required to preserve it.  Yet his own evolutionary analysis took such extensive liberties with respect to the principles that have guided this mode of reasoning since Darwin, that to inscribe it within this scientific tradition, as Hayek intended, seems ill suited. Consequently, his alleged scientific, facts-based defense of capitalism loses its bite" (4-5).
So I see here four general kinds of criticisms:  Hayek's reasoning is said to show (1) incoherencies, (2) lack of supporting evidence, (3) a disregard for the evolutionary theories that he invokes, and (4) consequently, his alleged scientific facts-based defense of capitalism fails to show how it solves all the problems it creates.

I will be writing a series of posts on all of these criticisms.  But here at the beginning, I will point to one oddity about Beck's overall position in this book.  Hayek's general argument is that socialist central planning through the public ownership of the means of production must fail in any modern large society, because no extended order of society can be organized without a system of market prices.  Since Beck is such a thorough critic of Hayek, the reader expects her to end her book by declaring that Hayek is wrong, because socialist central planning works.

Oddly, however, she doesn't say that.  She does say that "Hayek most definitely did not defeat socialism with the help of evolutionary arguments" (159).  But then she says that "while total social planning might have the consequences he described, limited socialist interventions of the minimal kind might actually improve people's lives" (153).  So Hayek is right about the failure of "total social planning"?  And what exactly does she mean by "limited socialist inventions of the minimal kind"?  She doesn't say.

I do think she's right about the incoherence of Hayek's "socialism-as-atavism" thesis, as I will explain in my next post.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Evolutionary Psychology or Cultural Group Selection? Or Both? And Biographical History?

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 "Learning 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 human 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 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 genetically 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; Singh, Wrangham, and Glowacki 2017).

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. "Is Human Cultural Evolution Darwinian? Evidence Reviewed from the Perspective of The Origin of Species." 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.  Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

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.

Singh, Manvir, Richard Wrangham, and Luke Glowacki. 2017. "Self-Interest and the Design of Rules." Human Nature 28:457-480.

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.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.