On Rawls

My colleague and friend Ralph Hancock has sparked an interesting exchange on his blog,  Postmodern Conservative (a  First Things blog).

The discussion is on Rawls.  The foundation of Ralph’s critique is

[Rawls] affirms the absolute priority of the Right to the Good: it must be possible to frame an ethical theory for the public/political realm in complete abstraction from any conception of a good human life.  This is Rawls’ central assertion, and one that must be fundamentally contested.

As I understand it, Ralph is arguing from a Straussian perspective.  I’m wondering what non-Straussians think of this critique.  On the question of what is more imporant, the right or the good, I’d have to say I have no clue.  But it makes sense that neither can have an absolute priority and that, as Ralph argues, the public and private spheres cannot be neatly divided.

His post comes in response to a new survey of political theorists just published in PS, identifying Rawls as the most important (by a significant margin) scholar of recent decades.

See also the comments and follow-up posts, including this partial defense of Rawls.

26 thoughts on “On Rawls

  1. My labels? His blog is called postmodern conservative! Wouldn’t you shake your head if someone started a blog called “Diverse Utah” or “Snowy Sahara” or “Libertarian Stalinist” or “Cute Cockroaches.”

    1. And by the way, I have a lot of respect for the people on that blog and think they add to the conversation. But I’d like to see a good defense of postmodern conservatism.

  2. as a hedonist, good makes right as far as i’m concerned. to get a little more technical:

    the good is exclusively a function of human welfare. things like beauty, justice, etc., are only good because they make human lives go better.

    human welfare is defined by pleasure. this does not mean exclusively things that would be called pleasures of the flesh. knowledge, meaningful relationships, and other high-minded things are still pleasurable. if they gave us no pleasure, we would not pursue them.

    so strauss was stridently against this hedonic viewpoint. i like to think this makes me enough of a non-straussian to combat rawls’s assertion.

  3. ‘Good’ and its opposite and their cognates are unknown to science. They are not identifiable characteristics of objective nature. Good and bad are always attributed to something by a subject – they are subjective.

    The meta-ethical theory of the subjectivity of value should not be confused with ethical egoism – the normative view that one should only care about oneself. What we actually care about is a question of individual psychology, and is rarely completely self-centred.

    The importance of what we care about is that it provides the basis for negotiation. If I care about X and you care about Y, and we each can influence the obtaining of X and Y for each other – most typically by mutually refraining from interfering with each other – then we have the basis of a mutually advantageous deal.

    The deal we strike, in a legal-political context, are rights we grant to each other. The good (as we each individually see it) conditions the right (as we mutually recognize it) without one being “prior to” or strictly derivative of the other.

    Natural selection has developed moral sentiments in primates, and proto-moral dispositions in a wide range of other species, precisely by a trial and error process of “negotiation.” This is known in evolutioary circles as reciprocal altruism.

    Morality is a set of emotional and cognitive adaptations whose function is to faciliate cooperation. The feedback loop by which moral practices within a human community end up repaying the pratictioner of morality can be as long and convoluted as you please – and many of them are very indirect. Richard Alexander discusses many forms of indirect reciprocity in human society in his book “The Biology of Moral Systems” (1979).

    The natural history of morality tells us as much about its nature than the intellectual history of morality does. Pity more philisophers don’t know their natural history – i.e. their own nature.

    1. If you assume away the existence of the meta-physical at the outset, as (most) science does, you end up with statements like this:

      “Morality is a set of emotional and cognitive adaptations whose function is to faciliate cooperation.”

      This, in the end, is just as subjective as anything else because of where it began. Allowing the possibility of the meta-physical leads to a more interesting (and ultimately more “real”) morality, in my view.

      And, let me add, that naturalistic arguments about morality (based usually on reciprocation and adaption) don’t really say much about morality. They reinforce the idea that morality helps the species survive, but nothing about why species survival or thriving should even matter.

      1. You could not be more wrong, on all counts.

        First, science doesn’t “assume away” anything “at the outset.” What you really object to is that science doesn’t assume the existence of anything for which there is no publicly demonstrable evidence. You are free to inhabit your own solipsistic metaphysical world; but most people won’t follow you there.

        It is not “subjective” to demand interpersonally verifiable evidence for a proposition – even a proposition about value. That is the very opposite of “subjective.” That is why progress is possible in science, but not in theology.

        Explaining the natural function of morality tells a great deal about morality. Who would say that morality is unconnected to human nature? It refutes, for example, theories that posit (or “assume”) equality or maximization of utility as the basis of morality. These are non-starters, human nature being what it is.

        It is an elementary self-contradiction to attribute to a naturalistic ethics that “survival of the species” is an ultimate good. The argument began with the premise that there are no objective values, and therefore no ultimate goods. The survival of the species is what explains the function of morality; for concrete form morality takes in any given context depends on the subjective values of those negotiating it – and at this stage in the argument, nobody assumes that anybody values the survival of the species.

        I understand that metaphysicians and theologians are happier simply pulling values out of thin air – values that are claimed to be objective but are suspiciously derivative of their own personal sentiments – and then arguing scholastically what would follow from those assumptions. You are welcome to it; just don’t “assume” you can impose your claptrap on me.

      2. As you said, “science doesn’t assume the existence of anything for which there is no publicly demonstrable evidence.” My point: this is a large assumption. But that is fine, we all make assumptions. Your’s just happens to be very limiting and relatively uninteresting, as far as ethics goes.

        (And I’m not sure many theoretical scientists would agree that they are not doing science unless they have publicly demonstrable evidence–sometimes that takes centuries to accomplish)

        You want to call the range of reciprocal human behavior that promotes the survival of the species “morality.” You can call it “fizzlewiggins” for all I care, that doesn’t make it morality (or at least morality in a rich sense of the word, for morality is fundamentally about the “ought”).

        I think it is clear that some types of reciprocal behavior are highly consistent with a natural selection story. I have no issue with that. But to be consistent with a theory is very different than actually having “publicly demonstrable evidence.” We don’t have that much empirical data, after all, concerning reciprocal behavior over the history of the species–other than that we have survived, though lots of subgroups with virtually identical DNA to us have have destroyed themselves throughout time. Given enough (assumed) random variation in DNA and enough time, we can tell a plausible story about all kinds of things. That is different than evidence, though. [I’m a strong believer in natural selection, by the way, so don’t spend time going down that road, and this whole paragraph is a little off point]

        I never attributed any “ultimate good” to naturalistic ethics, as you charge (though I will concede to misusing the term “sujective,” at least as you define it). Indeed, I quite agree with you on that point. Naturalistic ethics has absolutely nothing to say about the ultimate good. As you note it is about how human behavioral patterns function to promote the survival of the species, which as you said, “explains the function [of what you call] morality.”

        Put another way, naturalistic ethics isn’t ethics.

        Thanks for the comments.

  4. I have sketched a theory of morality; all you have done is made assertions – assertions for which there isn’t a scintilla of evidence.

    “Naturalistic ethics isn’t ethics” – according to whose infallible authority? You say this simply because a naturalistic ethics doesn’t produce the normative principles you are pre-critically committed to: better to reject the theory than to reject one’s prejudices!

    Once you reject the supernatural for failing to be based on any publicly demonstrable evidence, a naturalistic ethics is all that ethics can be. Reject it at your peril.

    If you want an institution (morality, science) to garner public support, then it must be based on publicly demonstrable evidence and publicly accepted methods. That’s not an “assumption.” It is just a fact. It is the very basis of argument – without which progress is impossible.

    But I guess I should not expect any better from someone who thinks that the publicly available evidence for “kin and reciprocal altruism” (as biologists call them) is somehow deficient. That’s a laughable howler – otherwise known as a “fizzlewiggins.”

    1. Any moral theory starts with assumptions. You start off with “science doesn’t assume the existence of anything for which there is no publicly demonstrable evidence.”

      This starting point has many problems. Not being a philosopher, I can say only so much. But as a positive scientist, I can say that gathering data and applying “publicly accepted methods” is fraught with many problems which seldom lead to wide consensus and the consensus is as much political as anything else. I’m usually in the position of defending positive science against its critics, so this is a weird argument for me to be having.

      In biology there is a lot of data–cross-sectional data on genetic variation within species, a lot of variation across species, a short history of laboratory science, some archeological data, some human historical accounts. Superimpose on this a grand theory of natural selection and you can make some fun inferences–a very cool story. Data points such as the fact that the degree of altruism is positively correlated with the degree of kinship people share fit into this theory quite well.

      A lack of actual scientific observation on the reciprocal behavior of actual populations over the millions of years of evolution (interviewed any cavemen today?), however, makes the whole story very thin, from a scientific perspective. But it is still a story to be taken very seriously, and one that has stood fairly well the test of time. The hubris of evolutionists makes it less convincing, though, just as the hubris of climate scientists makes global warming less convincing. Incidentally, evolutionary accounts can be described as a backwards simulation in much the same way that climate models are used to make forwards simulation.

      There are huge holes in evolutionary theory, of course. A host of fundamental, challenging questions are unanswered, including key ones such as how could life emerge from a universe with no life? [I know there are some experiments along these lines, but if you think they show anything, you have more hubris than I thought.]

      So what you have is positive theory of the evolutionary development of reciprocal behavior. You want to call this ethics. But what makes ethics ethics is the normative assumptions, not the positive ones. If you want to call naturalistic ethics a branch of psychology, I don’t have a problem with it. That doesn’t make it ethics, which is concerned with questions like what ought we to do?

      Finally, I have no problem admitting to making assertions. Naturalists assert that “there is no ghost in the machine!” I assert that there is. You are very unlikely to accept my evidence that there is. It is logically impossible for you to show evidence that there isn’t (all you can do is come up with a story that fits some of the data). Each assumption leads to different conclusions. The problem with positive theories is when people take them up and say silly things like “science has shown that there is no ghost in the machine” No, science assumes that there is no ghost in the machine.

      This, of course, is not to say that non-naturalistic theories of ethics have really gotten us anywhere either!

  5. “assumptions” – one is as good as the next!

    “fun inferences” – science is a laugh a minute!

    “cool stories” – not _The Greatest Show on Earth_ at all!

    “huge holes” – and missing links, too!

    “Of course I make bald assertions without a scintilla of evidence in support – everyone does!! Faith is inescapable!!”

    This is all sophmoric nonsense. Your knowledge of evolution is as scant as your knowledge of ethical philosophy – yet you presume to “fizzlewiggins” others about these subjects.

    You clearly aren’t interested in actually learning anything. Your faith is so impervious to revision, you can’t even suspend disbelief long enough to muster sympathetic comprehension for the theory you misguidely attack. You haven’t even begun to understand the *normative* ethical theory I sketched, which is why you still think it is only a “positive theory.”

    Rawls has advanced a method of political reasoning. I have sketched a different method, one that is naturalistic and in harmony with the best scientific theory we have of human nature. You have nothing of value to contribute to this discussion.

    1. I, as well, certainly don’t want to have a debate on evolution, the main reason being that I am already a believer in evolution, though not always the inferences and unfounded claims of evolutionists. The fact that you scoff at holes in evolutionary theory (especially the problematic field of evolutionary psychology) reveals either your incredible ignorance or your incredible arrogance. Probably both.

      According to your “normative” theory, altruism is an “adaption” and rights are a “deal.” The closest thing you make to an ethical claim is your suggestion that philosophers need to understand their nature (the idea that science has done more than scratch the surface of human nature thus far is the real howler here–were you a scientist, you wouldn’t be so easily convinced by weak evidence).

      Oh well, you’ve shown that the hubris of philosophers masquerading as scientists can be even greater than the hubris of scientists masquerading as philosophers.

  6. Sven, you are being incredibly obtuse.

    There is no “hole” in the theory of reciprocal altruism or kin altruism. Your quip about not being able to interview cavemen to collect data in support of this piece of evolutionary psychology is idiotic in the extreme. We can’t go back and witness the “Big Bang,” either – but that doesn’t mean we can’t find evidence for it in the existing universe.

    We know from artifacts that cavemen lived in small tribes, that they hunted and did many other tasks collectively, that they traded with neighbouring tribes, etc., etc., etc. If that kind of thing isn’t evidence you find compelling, I’m sorry for you. More likely, it is evidence you know nothing about. Start by reading Matt Ridley, “The Origin of Virtue.” Then move on to Richard Alexander, “The Biology of Moral Systems.” This stuff has been so well established in the field for so many decades, it is embarassing to have to point it out to you. Ever heard of Hamilton, Trivers, Dawkins…?

    Nothing in the normative theory of ethics sketched previously requires science to have settled every nuance of human nature. That is an uncharitable attribution of your own fevered imagination. The theory requires only knowledge of human nature at a certain degree of resolution, and all I claim is that science has already achieved the necessary degree of resolution to sketch the correct normative theory of ethics – to get a basic understanding of the correct method of ethical reasoning. That is NOT an ambitious claim.

    I fear that you won’t be able to stop attacking straw men until you acquire the background knowledge and desire to understand the argument. Hence there is no point in me continuing to offer up targets for your staw-man attacks.

    After some initial promise, the quality of debate on this website appears to be too low to keep me interested.

    1. My “quip” about cavemen was not meant to imply anything one way or the other about cavemen societies, just that when I read these accounts what I see is a huge amount of inference and actually precious little data (as compared to, say, the Big Bang).

      But I’m OK with inference. I applaud inference. I use inference all the time. It is an essential part of science. I do not doubt that there was altruism in these early societies, nor do I contest that natural selection is a highly plausible explanation for the development of altruism, at least in terms of moving from less altruism to more altruism, so stop strawmanning me about strawmanning.

      I do contest that evolution is all that was going on or that there are not other plausible explanations for the development of human psychology besides natural selection. I doubt we will find much common ground there, but not because of my knowledge about science, despite your hubris.

      But that is all sooooo beside the point. You claim that science has led us to a point where we can draw from science “the correct method of ethical reasoning.” So educate me. Don’t give me inferences about how human psychology evolved. Show me some ethical reasoning. That should be easy for you. I’m a mere novice; you’re a pro. Help me answer an ethical question of import based on naturalistic ethics. Maybe something political. Tell me what I should do, and why. Please.

      [I’m thinking this is going to devolve into some discussion about theory v. meta-theory, at which point I will be unsatisfied.]

  7. The thread began with a note on Rawls’s claim that the Right has absolute priority over the Good. That’s a meta-ethical claim. I addressed that meta-ethical claim in my initial argument, by sketching an alternative meta-ethical theory. If you mistook my point for something more concrete – for “some real ethical reasoning” – that’s your problem, not mine. Changing the subject is the same as straw-manning.

    Still, tt is gratifying to see that you have beat a hasty retreat from your absurd quip about cavemen. Let us recall your words: “A lack of actual scientific observation on the reciprocal behavior of actual populations over the millions of years of evolution (interviewed any cavemen today?), however, makes the whole story very thin, from a scientific perspective.” Very thin, indeed! Tell THAT to the specialists in the field, hahahahaha!

    1. I’m not trying for any slapdown here. That would be dumb. I’m genuinely curious, so I want to push you more, if you’ll indulge me.

      Your meta-ethical claim began with the statement that science has nothing to say about good and bad. And later you say “science has already achieved the necessary degree of resolution to sketch the correct normative theory of ethics – to get a basic understanding of the correct method of ethical reasoning.”

      You also claim that “morality is a set of emotional and cognitive adaptations whose function is to faciliate cooperation.” By “adaptions” I take you to mean evolutionary adaptions.

      So, I don’t doubt that you can provide a detailed explanation of how moral sentiments came about through natural selection, though I can’t say I would accept your account in full, especially the beginning of it. So what is one to do with your account, since according to you science has achieved the “resolution” necessary to come up with a “correct method of ethical reasoning?”

      In all your discussion I don’t see anything you have said pointing us anywhere near the “ought,” which is what ethical reasoning is about in my obtuse mind, and why I would say something outlandish like “naturalistic ethics isn’t ethics.” If science truly does point us to the “correct method of ethical reasoning,” I’d like to see an example of “correct” ethical reasoning from a scientific perspective.

      Quickly, the cavemen. My point was an aside, not well made. By “actual scientific observation” I meant something like a systematic observation of people behaving altruistically and trying to understand it (the kind of stuff lots of people are studying today). I didn’t mean that there weren’t archeological relics left behind in the earth through which smart people could make (huge) inferences about altruism. There is a gap between the two, but that is not a point I’m that interested in pursuing.

      [Also, in my experience the “true experts” in a field are usually not those who go around saying that are no holes in their work or problems with their arguments, though there are definite exceptions to this, especially among those who are looking for political applications of their research. The true experts are usually those who realize the problems with their assumptions and the resulting tentativeness of their conclusions.]

  8. I began by making a very simple point about what science has shown – namely the subjectivity of value. Temperature is an objective property, because we can connect it to molecular motion. Color is an objective property, because we can connect it to wavelength. Gravity is an objective property because we can connect it to the curvature of space. Etc. But scientists have not been able to connect the pseudo-properties ‘good’ or ‘right’ to anything objective in the world. ‘Good’ is a property that subjects project onto the world; and ‘right’ is something people impose or adopt. It is no more mysterious than that.

    This is an important meta-ethical starting point (though certainly NOT an “assumption,” which suggests something arbitrary or lacking in support). It automatically eliminates moral reasoning that begins by identifying things that are alleged to be absolutely good, that command the allegience of everyone to promote. Likewise, it automatically eliminates theories that posit natural rights that are somehow “out there” to be recongized by a moral faculty or “pure practical reason” or faith or some such.

    In short, neither the Good nor the Right has absolute priority in ethical reasoning. Instead, if values are subjective, then the only plausible method of reasoning about ethics (I submit) must be broadly contractarian: “Morals By Agreement” to cite a famous book by a famous author. My thesis is that natural selction has operated as a kind of trial and error version of contractarian reasoning, and thus has produced species with emotive and cognitive capacities that are recognizably moral.

    Now once people recognize that morals do not descend from the Gods, or from some secular authority’s “pure reason,” they will ask for a reason why they should agree to (e.g.) equality of outcome or maximization of utility as absolute goals. In short, why would rational people engage in non-strategic self-sacrifice? (I.e. sacrifice that does not promise any immediate or long-term return.) And the obvious answer is that there is no such reason. Thus a naturalistic ethics will be broadly liberatarian – everyone has a reason to agree to mutual restraint – negative rights – since that is a precondition of being able to pursue your subjective values no matter what those values happen to be. The same can rarely or never be said about positive rights.

    Incidentally, thinking about morals as an adaptation by natural selection also helps us to interpret the insights of moral philosophers more precisely. E.g. Kant suggested that morality can be derived from the “categorical imperative,” that you should only act on a principle that could be made a universal law of nature. The naturalistic truth behind this insight is that morality must be an “evolutionarily stable strategy” – i.e. a strategy which nobody can unilaterally defect from and expect to benefit. (That’s why punishment is a necessary part of morality – repaying evil with harm is necessary to sustain the system as a whole.)

    Science also plays a role in guiding concrete negotiation, since the rights and customs we rationally agree to should be free of delusional thinking about people and society. Customs and common expectations facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit; but customs and expectations may vary from context to context. And contexts change over time, with developments in technology. This is the kind of complexity that makes concrete ethical reasoning difficult and often “situational.” There is bound to be some measure of disagreement over exactly what rights, customs, and expectations facilitate cooperation in any given situation – that’s what makes life interesting. I have no more insight into these concrete nuances of morality that most other people have, and I’m sorry if that disappoints you.

    But the important thing is to ask the right question at the start. “An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question.”

    1. I think this is a very nice statement of your views. I think it can be contested at several points, and I find it very unsatisfying (ethically, that is), but I still admire it greatly.

      At some point I might go through the points which I think are contestable, though I’m not going to defend these with arguments, but for now I’ll just ponder it. I also think I’m going to put your statement, verbatim, on the main page without any comment from me (other than what I just said in the short paragraph above). I think many people who haven’t been following our thread will find it very interesting. Do you mind? You can decide whether or not to reveal your identity; I won’t do that for you.

  9. The above contains comments that are hard to make sense of except as a response to some objection. It isn’t really very systematic. Here’s another statement of my position that you might find more helpful. It has a somewhat different orientation and objective, but sketches the same meta-ethical theory.

    A Free Man’s Worship
    (with apologies to Bertrand Russell)

    Nothing illustrates the power of faith over reason better than when religion-bashing evolutionary biologists support collectivist political ideologies. Indeed, it is remarkable how many biologically-informed theorists believe that morality is just a form of generalized beneficence. From Peter Singer in _The Expanding Circle_, to Robert Wright in _The Moral Animal_, to Sam Harris’s on-line response to the Jonathon Haidt talks, they all adopt some variant within the utilitarian family of moral theories. Richard Dawkins, too, professes to be a “liberal,” although given the confusion over that term it is difficult to know just how far into the “socialist” camp that puts him.

    The penchant among evolutionary biologists for “left-wing” politics is remarkable because nothing in nature resembles a collectivity built upon generalized beneficence, for reasons that they themselves have well-established: genes and memes that incline organisms to engage in non-strategic self-sacrifice (“NSSS”), i.e. sacrifice for the sake of others from which neither indirect nor nepotistic benefits accrue, are systematically weeded out of the gene or meme pool. Those who most vociferously declaim the neo-Darwinian synthesis make a huge leap of faith to pronounce that we should care about each other equally, and may the good Government Almighty bring us into line when we stray. Somehow, they are able to convince themselves that one peculiar product of nature, namely human societies, can and should rest upon quite strong forms of NSSS. Such a counter-intuitive expression of faith warrants close examination.

    Since ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, the first question is whether human beings can organize themselves into collectives that conform with the principle of generalized beneficence. At the conclusion of Chapter 11 of _The Selfish Gene_, Dawkins offers up this prayer: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” That is, we don’t have to be selfish, even if we are made by genes and cultured by memes that are “selfish.” But here’s the catch: we can only rebel against inclinations given by some selfish genes or memes by marshalling inclinations given by other selfish genes or memes. That is, we can pit one aspect of human nature against another; we can opt for this genetic predisposition or cultural expression rather than that one; but we cannot magically create a predisposition or motivation out of thin air. If generalized beneficence is not part of human nature to begin with, wishful thinking will not assist in the rebellion against our natural inclinations.

    By nature we are susceptible to indoctrination, and indoctrination can have far-ranging effects. For example, some very religious people who have been indoctrinated to believe that we are all God’s children and our reward for Earthly good works lies in Heaven can perhaps marshal the motivation for generalized beneficence. Alternatively, through a kind of Brave New World social conditioning, or a program of selective breeding of the sort that produced Golden Retrievers, it might be possible to cultivate in people a tendency toward generalized beneficence and thereby create a collectivity that is capable of living up to utilitarian ideals. The question, though, is whether it is possible to have a large, technologically advanced society of rational and autonomous human beings who are capable of organizing themselves into a utilitarian collectivity.

    The problem is that neo-Darwinist rationality precludes any indoctrination that would lead people to believe that they were designed or shaped for generalized beneficence. Further, we would not be able to trust the (unconditioned) social engineers to cultivate this motivation in the rest of the population, as opposed to cultivating inclinations that favour the social engineers themselves. That is, we could not trust the rulers of Brave New World not to create slave castes that serve their ends rather than generalized beneficence. Any indoctrination or socialization process that is capable of producing widespread NSSS in humans has the very real potential to go extremely badly.

    Science in fact militates against utilitarian-type moral theories. This class of moral theories posits the existence of some objective good quality, “happiness” or “well-being” or “flourishing,” and admonishes us to maximize or equalize or otherwise promote this quality indiscriminately, i.e. without regard to whether the good resides in this individual or that. But objective goodness is no more real than the goodness of God: science detects no property that is unconditionally, universally, or inherently good.

    Goodness is in fact an attributive property, something we project onto a state of affairs rather than something that is inherent in the state of affairs to be discovered scientifically. It is therefore always relative to an experiencing subject. My happiness is good for me; yours for you; but only in exceptional cases is my happiness equally good for you, and vice versa. (Someone who literally cared as much about every child in the world as for his own child would be considered deranged.) This is why many scientists and philosophers believe that there can be no objective basis for morality.

    But what if morality isn’t a quest to promote some mystical property of objective goodness? What if morality is instrumental, a means to some other end? In that case, it might be possible to determine a rational morality, given the end it is meant to serve. The primary difficulty, in this case, is to identify the end that morality is meant to serve.

    That is not a big problem for evolutionary biologists, however. To ask what end morality serves is equivalent to asking what it evolved for, what its function is. And that in turn seems fairly straightforward: the evolved function of morality is to facilitate mutually advantageous cooperation. That is why reciprocity (at least between members of the in-group) is at the very heart of all enduring moral systems throughout history. Some biologists have grasped this point, without clearly articulating it. I am thinking in particular of Richard Alexander, whose _The Biology of Moral Systems_ remains unsurpassed in the field.

    On this view, morality becomes a social-engineering problem: what set of principles, rights and responsibilities provides the best means of facilitating mutually advantageous cooperation? What instrumental values, if generally promoted and adhered to, would leave everyone better off according to their own particular self-chosen goals in life? The answer, of course, will vary in detail depending upon the specific environmental and cultural circumstances within which the problem is posed. There will often be more than one competing answer, between which it is impossible to say with any degree of confidence which is better and which is worse. In some dire circumstances, the problem of morality might have no solution, since no mutually advantageous outcome is available.

    All of this is pretty abstract; but one thing is clear: a moral system that is consistent with science and evolutionary biology will not be one that requires NSSS. Nor will it oppose it. People who wish to perform charity will be encouraged, but not required, to do so. Indeed, most people who grow up in propitious circumstances can be expected to exhibit a generalized niceness. As Dawkins has observed, humans evolved for most of our ancestral history in smallish tribes where most people were genetically related to some degree and everyone had repeated opportunities for reciprocal altruism. We should therefore expect people to be generally nice (though far from egalitarian or utilitarian) toward members of their in-group, since a modest disposition of niceness would have facilitated mutually advantageous cooperation in our ancestral social environment.

    Political values are a subset of morality, the subset that is important enough to set up formal institutions to promote. Just because something is moral, just because a value facilitates mutually advantageous cooperation, does not mean that we should set up a coercive apparatus to enforce it. This is so because the coercive apparatus, the State, has a cost, too. We must always weigh the costs of State enforcement of morality against the benefits. In some cases, the cost-benefit analysis is quite obvious: we need a criminal justice system to discourage activities like murder and theft, for example.

    This leads to a second critical point at which biologically informed theorists typically make an unwarranted leap of faith. In the absence of God, they believe we need a comparably supreme earthly force, namely Government, to maintain the moral order. This is in large part because they hold an other-worldly theory of morality, and it is certainly true that it would require a massively intrusive benevolent force to actualize utilitarian or egalitarian or socialist political ideals, given the human condition as we know it. But just as the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster, so too is any Government large enough to actualize collectivist moral ideals. It has been estimated that governments killed 200 million of their own innocent citizens in the 20th century alone.

    The beauty of a morality whose objective is to facilitate mutually advantageous cooperation is that it is for the most part self-reinforcing: those who fail to adhere to such moral principles tend to lose out in the long run, by their own view of what constitutes losing out. It is an “evolutionarily stable strategy.” I would argue that in virtually every case where it might be suggested that Government is needed to solve some social problem, the cure is worse than the disease. Since it took decades to persuade me of this general proposition, and much of that argument involves detailed economic analysis, it is not something that can be defended in this brief overview.

    It is now time to take faith out of morals and politics. A scientific, i.e. a biologically and economically informed, political morality will be at least libertarian-leaning, if not anarcho-libertarian. Government is no substitute for God as a force for good; politicians are no substitute for priests; and anarchists are no more a danger to social order than atheists are.

    1. This is interesting, too. I get what you are saying about wanting to make a more complete statement, but I think the former, shorter one, actually spelled out some things nicely and was more “blog-appropriate,” at least lengthwise.

      At least I like where you end up–with a libertarian-leaning state and CBA–even if I don’t like how you get there.

  10. You have put your finder on the problem with roughly 98% of moral reasoning, both by laypeople and by philosophers. They start with the conclusion they are pre-critically sympathetic or committed to, and reason backwards to premises that support their conclusion. (The purpose of an education should be to correct the most powerful and prevalent learning disabilities: those associated with self-interest, prejudice / confirmation bias, and intellectual sloth.)

    By contrast, I had to be argued into libertarianism, kicking and screaming all the way. But I cannot deny the power of the arguments in favour of libertarianism; I have to follow the evidence where it leads…

    If you want to start a new thread, you may clip-and-paste from the above comments as you like, and maybe redirect traffic to this thread for more details.

    My moniker in the blogosphere is “Jesus86”.

    1. I don’t doubt that backwards reasoning from pre-commited conclusions happens a lot. But I think you underestimate the number of people who are willing to “follow the arguments” but simply contest that you have the correct starting point or the correct mode of argument. Just because they contest your starting point doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they are either “pre-commited” or “delusonal.” And though you are very eloquent, I’d be careful with the delusional label as a rhetorical device.

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