Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Morality "Natural," or was it "Invented?"

Here's another question for you: Why do most humans avoid killing, stealing, telling lies, and breaking promises? In other words: why are most of us moral agents? There are basically three competing hypotheses. All three assume that morality is ultimately a brain activity.

The "Good-Natured Hypothesis" (GNH) argues that beginning in the Pleistocene era, (3 million years ago) biological evolution (natural selection and sexual selection) endowed us with a "natural" set of mental mechanisms that facilitate living in small, cooperative groups. Some of these mechanisms are "rational" (located in the outer layers of the brain) some are "emotional" (located in the outer layers of the brain). Despite these mechanisms, it's also obviously true that, today, some of us modern humans still act like Chimpanzees, that is: kill, steal, lie, and break promises? (The question of whether Chimpanzees are good-natured or bad-natured is open to debate.) In fact, some human groups are literally "infected" with immoral behavior: organized crime syndicates, some inner-city neighborhoods, and the Afghan military and police forces. How do these infestations of immorality take root and how can we "cure" them? Based on the GNH, there is a "mismatch" between slow-paced biological evolution (genes) and fast-paced cultural evolution (ideas). If we want to "restore" natural communal cooperation, we need to cure those cultural viruses (bad ideas) so our good nature can shine through again.

On the other hand, the "Bad-Natured Hypothesis," argues that biological evolution has endowed us with a set of mental mechanisms that promote self-interest, predation, and "dog-eat-dog" competition. Cooperation, they argue requires a degree of altruism, which is naturally limited to within families and kin groups. These "selfish genes" tend to impede the formation of cooperative groups, so if we want to improve communal cooperation, we must overcome our bad nature via cultural evolution (good ideas). Our "bad nature" is most clearly evident in the universal persistence of human warfare, murder, theft, lying etc. Despite our best cultural efforts, major parts of the world remain locked in intractable warfare (think: Israelis v. Palestinians, drug lords v. drug lords, democrats v. republicans). Based on the BNH, morality is unnatural, in the sense that it is the product of cultural evolution, or ideas. In other words, at some point in human history, human beings "discovered" that we can overcome these selfish genes via teaching and learning. Imagine the revelation: "Hey you all, listen up...if we really work at it, we can resist our natural impulse to kill, steal, lie, and break promises. Then we can reap the benefits of living in large cooperative communities. Just think: We can free ourselves from incessant hunting and gathering and buy our food at Kroger. No more warfare either! In short, despite our bad nature, we really can 'get along!' "According to the BNH, when we revert back to our "bad nature" all we have to do is develop cultural institutions that can keep them in check, things like: educational institutions, criminal justice systems, political parties etc.

So the "Good-Natured Hypothesis" says that morality is primarily the product of biological evolution, and the "Bad-Natured Hypothesis says that morality is fundamentally the product of cultural evolution. The third hypothesis, which I call the "Good and Bad Natured Hypothesis," GBNH is a hybrid of both, with many variations. Here are two variations.

GBNH Variation #1 argues that human beings have two sets of genetically programmed brain mechanisms. One set constitutes our good nature (genes for: intelligence, reciprocity, feelings of sympathy, etc.); the other our bad nature (genes for: stupidity, predation, lying, cheating, stealing, etc.). Although the good nature mechanisms for cooperation within families tend to be more powerful than the mechanisms cooperation between strangers, both are at least possible. But there's really not much we can do about it, other than discover how those brain mechanisms work and perhaps re-program them via genetic therapy, drug therapy, or maybe brain surgery. Hence, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" can only be enhanced by increasing serotonin and reducing testosterone levels within specific populations either via eugenic programs, drug therapy, or by brain surgery (most likely targeting the limbic system).

GBNH Variation#2 argues that although we have both "good" and "bad" brain mechanisms, we can increase the manifestation of good mechanisms by deliberately altering the environment in which we live. For example, we could move out of those large cities into smaller kin groups of about 150, make sure there enough healthy food to go around (but not too much!), and keep cooperative human males engaged in good groups (such as: schools, churches, sports teams, police and fire departments) and away from bad groups (such as: gangs, organized crime, the military, and the banking industry).

Now here's that initial question again! Are human beings "good natured" or "bad-natured?" Are those "natures" the product of biological evolution, cultural evolution, or both? What, if anything, can we do individually or collectively to maximize our "good nature" (if there is one) and minimize our "bad nature" (if there is one)? As soon as I figure it all out, I'll post in on this blog. It could take a while...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merit v. Need: The Libertarian Response

Well what do libertarians say about distributive justice and the conflict between the material principles of fairness, especially merit and need. First, let me reinterate my usual disclaimer. There are many different forms of libertarianism that range from the far-right to the middle-left on the political spectrum. I can't cover that whole spectrum in a blog. But I can sketch in one basic line of argument.

In general most libertarians view "Fairness" in the context of the rules that govern competition; call it procedural justice. Competition is fair if and only if everyone plays by the same rules. For example, the game of baseball is "fair" to the extent that the rules apply equally to everyone that plays the game: "Three strikes, you're out!." Now, suppose the number of strikes afforded each player varied based on need. "Ron White is coming up to bat for the Cincinnati Reds. He's 60 years old, near-sighted, cross-eyed, has a stigmatism, and poor hand-eye coordination. So out of fairness, the umpire decided that Ron "needs" 11 strikes." Now would that be fair? Well, Joey Votto might argue that it's unfair to him because he was only afforded 3 strikes. On the other hand, Ron might argue that Joey comes to bat armed with a set of "natural advantages" that he doesn't deserve; natural attributes like: youth, uncanny vision, extraordinary hand-eye coordination, and the ability to concentrate on hitting the ball with runners on base. He also comes to the plate with years of practice and experience. Call it merit. While Joey was practicing hitting, Ron was reading and teaching philosophy. So if Ron and Joey were afforded three strikes each, regardless of their natural and acquired abilities, Joey would win the batting title and Ron would win the strikeout title. However, if Ron were given 11 strikes and Joey 3, Ron would argue that it's only fair based on need.

Now here's the problem. Why would Ron choose to compete in a game where the existing rules are stacked against him? If he chose to give up his teaching job to tryout for the Cincinnati Reds, and didn't make the team whose fault is it? Ron might argue that the rules of baseball discriminate against the elderly and/or the visually impaired. Joey might argue that giving Ron 11 strikes discriminates against Joey. After all, it's not Joey's fault that he's younger than Ron, has better eyesight, and better hand-eye coordination. So how do we go about resolving this apparent conflict over fairness between merit (allowing Joey to benefit from unearned attributes) and need (allowing Ron to benefit from the lack of those attributes)?

There are many different ways to look at this. I would argue that the Cincinnati Reds are the property of the owners of the team. If they want to bench Joey and let Ron play first base and hit third, it's their team. But who would choose to watch a baseball game where incompetent hitters are given 11 strikes? (The game is already slow enough!) Even though Ron agreed to a salary of a mere $100,000 a year, the nature of the game would shift from exhibiting merit to exhibiting need. No one would come to the games and MLB would go bankrupt. So barring any court ordered affirmative action, Ron's dream of becoming a Cincinnati Red has been thwarted by the rules of the game, and Joey Votto is likely to earn millions of dollars. But now we have Ron, who gave up his teaching job to pursue a career in Major League Baseball, and is now unemployed. Should he be able to draw unemployment? He bought new glasses and still spends all day in the batting cages practicing his swing and contacting other teams for an opportunity to tryout. But they refuse to even let him tryout! Should Ron get himself a lawyer and sue MLB for discrimination based on merit? What do you think? Is baseball a micrcosm of life or is it something else? Are natural attributes distributed more or less equally, even though they are highly variable? Is it up to us to choose occuptions that match our natural attributes? If Ron gets his teaching job back, would it be fair to pay Ron less than Joey? After all, the only basis for his merit is his ability to hit a ball, but he can only do it 33% of the time?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Struggle for Fairness: Merit v. Need

The question of how to effectively employ the powers of the state to bring about a Fair Society is the "bread and butter" issue of all social and political philosophers. There are two underlying distinctions that cloud our understanding of the distribution of benefits and costs among humans: natural distribution and social distribution.

First of all, Nature provides all of us with a set of natural advantages and natural disadvantages that affect how we we fare in a Darwinian world. As John Rawls noted, these advantages and disadvantages are distributed based on a "natural lottery," which is partly genetic (lucky draw of genes) and partly social (lucky draw of parents and society). Given that nature "distributes" these advantages and disadvantages randomly, it's hard to argue that any of us "deserve" our current economic status. In other words, Mother Nature is not fair, because she blindly stacks the cards either in our favor, against us, or both. Therefore, social and political philosophers on the left, like Karl Marx and John Rawls, argue that the purpose of government is to use the coercive power of government to redistribute benefits and costs. Since merit (adaptive attributes such as high IQ and good looks) and need (maladaptive attributes such as low IQ and ugliness) are distributed unfairly, leftists argue that the purpose of government is to redistribute the fruits of the natural lottery. Call it: economic security.

So how do we go about this social redistribution process? Well, Aristotle identified four material principles of fairness: merit (the best get the most), need (the neediest get the most), equality (everyone gets the same), and utility (the distribution that affords the "greatest happiness for the greatest number"). Aristotle, a natural law theorist defended meritocracy, where all social structures are designed to make sure that the advantaged get the most and the least advantaged get the least: "the best get the most and the worst get the least." Any society that varies from this standard is unfair. He argued that the needs of the least advantaged are to be met by the virtuous acts (beneficence) of the meritocrats. But if neither merit nor need is deserved, neither is virtue." Not only did my parents pass on bad genes, they also failed to teach me virtue!" Therefore, how can I be held morally responsible for robbing that Quicky Mart last week? After all, I needed the money and the owner of the that store that I robbed inherited that successful business, along with a high IQ and good looks. So he didn't "deserve" that money, either.

Rawlians and Marxists solve this merit v. need struggle by using the coercive power of government to take a certain percentage of the store owners income and giving it to me, so I won't have to steal it in order to meet my needs. Marx (and B.F. Skinner) dismissed private property all together and argued that all goods are social goods, and therefore ought to be redistributed equally by a panel of government experts. Rawls argued that the most advantaged ought to be forced to contribute to a "basic safety net" or provide a social minimum to protect the least advantaged. Rawls, therefore, allows the most advantaged to prosper, but only as long as the social distance between the rich and the poor either diminishes or does not increase. The rich cannot get richer, if the poor get poorer as a result of a natural distribution.

So the common strategy employed by left-wing Marxists and Rawlsians is to use the power of government to eliminate or lessen the consequences of natural inequality. Now what do right-wing libertarians say about all this? Well, they present a long list of counter-arguments. Next time, I'll sketch in a few of them. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Complexity and Central Planning

Another bone of contention between socialists, conservatives,  and libertarians centers of the political implications of natural complexity. Here's heart of the issue: If Nature is a vast network of complex adaptive systems conditioned by unpredictable emergent properties, then what are the implications for public policy? In general, there are two political options: the political LEFT and RIGHT embrace "central planning," based on their stated political agendas; while LIBERTARIANS defends "de-centralized planning."

Beginning in the twentieth century, a variety of philosophers and scientists began to develop a systems ontology, which identified "systems" as the basic units of ontic reality. Typically, systems theorists differentiate between macrosystems (the Amazon Rain Forrest) and microsystems (species and organisms that live in the Amazon Rain Forrest), non-living systems and living systems, relatively simple, closed systems, and more complex open systems. Complexity spawns emergent properties that are explicable (in terms of systems theory), but are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. To make a long discussion short, most biologists agree that even the simplest living organisms exhibit enormously complexity and that ecological systems like the Amazon Rain Forest are exhibit infinite complexity via interacting open living and non-living sub-systems. Enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers... To what degree should we "trust" the ACE to redesign our natural ecosystems, especially wetlands?

If human communities are comprised of a number of at least two infinately complex human brains networked together in an infinate number of interacting networks (communities); and, if the behavior of those macrosystems (neighborhoods, cities, states, nations etc.) is influenced by what happens in the microsystems (neurons, brains, human organisms, and families), and if what happens in the microsystems is shaped by what happens in the macrosystems, and what happens in BOTH are influenced by what happens in other systems in the environment, then what are the political ramifications?

Central planning implies a Newtonian interpretation of Nature that assumes that Nature is ultimately a complex"clocklike" mechanism that can be fixed and/or redesigned by "engineers." They argue that since the world is a mechanism (closed system) that can be fully described in terms of deterministic laws of nature, once we discover these laws we'll be able explain, predict, and control all aspects of human nature.

Most behaviorists are Newtonians, but argue that we really don't have to know exactly what goes on within the human brain to predict and control human behavior. All they need to know are systemic inputs and outputs. But the underlying premiss is the same for all Newtonians: human behavior is ultimately explicable, predictable, and controllable, once we discover the deterministic laws that govern human behavior.

De-Centralized planning is based on a Darwinian interpretation of Nature, where unpredicatable emergent properties at the micro-cosmic levels (genes, organisms, species) condition organization at the macrocosmic levels (ecosystems). Beginning in the late 19th century, philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce, began to seriously question whether complexity is merely a reflection of our ignorance of the true laws of nature, or whether there's an irreducible element of chance in the universe. Today we know that the human brain is an enormously complex system comprised of many identifiable, interacting subsystems. We also know that when these brains get together and form complex networks we create communities and cultures that exhibit mind-bogglingly complexity. If brains and networks of brains generate mind-boggling complexity, what can we say about economics?

Classical, Neo-Classical, and Keynsian economists are Newtonians. Darwinians (that accept the metaphysical assumption that Nature is conditioned by a degree of chance) reject the Newtonian assumption that Nature is ultimately a deterministic closed machine describable in precise mathematical calculus, and by implication they also question the human capacity to re-engineer or re-design Nature from the "Top Down." This is the underlying theme of Austrian macro-economic theory as described by Mises and Hayek.

So here are the basic ontological issues. Are the laws of nature that describe human genetics and economics ultimately like the laws that govern the movement of the planets in our solar system, or are those laws qualitatively different? If we knew the precise laws of Nature that underlie human brain activity, would we be able explain, predict, and control individual human behavior, community behavior, and cultural behavior with the same same degree of accuracy as we can explain, predict, and control the boiling of water? And, if we "could" someday redesign Nature, does that mean that we can do it now, and does that imply that we "ought" to do it? If so, what "ends" ought those re-design efforts pursue? Now there's a homework assignment for you! Have fun.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Living Wage

Another bone of contention between libertarians and welfare liberals is the idea that all workers "ought to" be paid a "living wage." What might that entail?

Beginning with Plato but mostly with Aristotle, philosophers have acknowledged two different kinds of principles: formal principles and material principles. Untangling confusion between these two different kinds of principles accounts for about 2500 years of the history of philosophy. Aristotle distinguished between the formal principle of justice ("Treat equals equally and unequals unequally") and the various material principles of justice (merit, need, equality, social utility). Everyone agrees that the formal principle captures the essence of what we mean when we say "X is fair" or "X is unfair." The formal principle captures the "idea" of justice. The material principles of justice are basically the principles that human beings living in the "material world" employ to decide how the formal principle applies to the distribution of social goods. Thus, when we say "X is fair" we "really" mean that it's fair based on one (or more) of the material principles. So, if you own a corporation and want to pay your workers "fairly," you will have to specify a material principle.

Suppose you decide that you decide that you want to pay your workers a "fair wage," how would you proceed? Well, the formal principle says that morality requires adhering to the formal principle and at least one specific material principle. Aristotle thought social goods "ought to be" distributed based on "merit." In a fair society, "the best get the most," regardless of need, equality, or utility. Egalitarians would pay everyone the same salary, regardless of merit, need, or utility. Welfare liberals would base salaries on need, and would ignore merit, equality, and utility. So suppose we decided that every corporation in the United States must pay their employees based on "need," or what welfare liberals might call a "living wage," what might that entail?

Well generally, a living wage entails paying your workers enough to meet their basic needs, which requires a material distinction between needs and wants. Needs are often associated with "a positive right to life," which implies a duty to provide a wages sufficient to cover things like: food, clothing, and shelter. In the United States today we'd probably include a right to health care, retirement, disability insurance, and unemployment insurance. But let's forget all that for now, and just focus on food, clothing, shelter, and maybe transportation. Let's tackle a hypothetical case study.

White Widget Inc. employs 10 workers. Ron want's to provide all of them at least a "living wage." He just now hired George, who has sole custody of five children. How would Ron set that initial pay scale. Well, he'd be morally required to provide enough wages to feed his family. How would Ron calculate how much George needs to feed his family? Should he go to Kroger and figure out how much it would cost to provide meals a week? Let's assume, that Ron wants George's family to be healthy so he decides to pay him enough for him to buy a daily portion of chicken or fish, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Let's say it costs $3 per meal x 3, or $9 per day per family member, or $54 a week per family member, x 6 family members or $324 a week.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that George's family already has enough clothes. What about shelter? If Ron want's to pay enough for shelter, how much would that entail? Should Ron pay enough to rent a house or buy a house? Should every member have their own room? Let's say Ron is generous and pays enough for George to rent a six bedroom house for $250 a week. Now, unfortunately that house is 10 miles from the widget factory, so George will need transportation. Let's say that the house is on the bus route and the ride costs $2 a day x 5 or $10 a week. So right now that living wage stands at $584 a week or about $14 an hour. But wait...three of George's kids are under 5 years old and need day-care. But George lucked out and found a neighbor that would watch his this kids for $40 a week, a real bargain. So Ron decides to pay George $13 an hour to sweep the floors at White Widget Inc.

Now George goes to Kroger and spends $500 on frozen pizza, ice cream, Coca Cola, chips, Hostess Twinkies. Then he goes out and buys a new Toyota Camry for $25,000 so he doesn't have to ride the bus, and decides to send his two older children to a private school for $10, 000 a year each. And of course, George also starts buying $100 worth of lottery tickets a week. Now George can't pay his rent.

So if Ron wants to pay George a "living wage," how much a week should Ron pay George? Mary, a much more productive worker, also gets paid a "living wage" but lives within her means. Should Ron pay George more, less, or the same wages as Mary?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


One of the fundamental points of contention between libertarian and socialist philosophers is their views on "The Market." As a philosopher, let me try to clear away some of the noise that impedes rational discussion.

First of all, the term "market" is ubiquitous. Everyone likes to talk about it but they are rarely talking about the same thing. I'm one of the few philosophers that "hangs out" with economists, so I've obviously been influenced by them. However, even economists often fall prey to ubiquity. So here's my philosophical analysis based on what I've stolen from philosophers and economists.

More than anything else "markets" are the natural consequence of scarcity. Our lives are finite. Although there are 24 hours in a day, I usually sleep 8 hours out of that which means I have 16 hours a day to "do things." The average lifespan of the average American is about 78 years old. My genes suggest a shorter lifespan for me. Thus, every day I have to deal with this "time market," which means I have to decide how to spend the rest of my life. Right now I'm writing a blog entry. There are costs associated with that decision. I could spend this time preparing for a meeting one hour from now, grading exams, or playing guitar. In other words there are "opportunity costs" associated with me writing this blog. You are reading this blog. There are other things you could be doing with your time. That's why I appreciate the fact that you're reading it! After all, there are thousands of other bloggers on the Internet. You could have spent this time reading their blogs, watching television, or taking a walk. Taken together, there is a "blog market" where us bloggers compete for readers with finite time, energy, and resources. I sell Freedom's Philosopher on that market, you bought it. No money was exchanged, but you bought it with "time and effort." No one forced you to read it, and no one forced me to write it so here we are participating on that free market. I also read several blogs on a regular basis and spend time and energy commenting on those blogs. Writing and reading blogs is a form of cooperation.

My blog also participates in another market. The market of "ideas." Since the nineteenth century, philosophers have been participating in an "extended" market across several generations comprised of competing "ideas." My blog ideas usually relate to the nature of government and it's role in human affairs, however, I also expend time and energy thinking about and writing about health care policy. In fact, my mind is a marketplace of competing ideas. Right now I'm thinking about markets. My blog competes with, not only with other libertarian blogs, but also with Marxist and anarchist blogs. The beauty of the Internet (as it currently exists in the United States) is that the "idea market" can thrive. No one forces us bloggers to blog and no one forces you to read them. Consequently, there is a lot of variety on the Internet, which is a huge marketplace of ideas. (It's also a great place to buy books and guitars!) Unfortunately, you can't read every blog on the Internet market because of the natural scarcity of time, energy, and resources. If I spend too much time writing and reading blogs, my wife will get mad at me and my students will complain that I'm unprepared for class. In fact I have to end this blog right now and go to that meeting. I wonder if anyone will notice that I didn't prepare for it?