Human Nature and Guassian Morality

I am anxiously awaiting the publication of David Buller's Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychlogy and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature(link to PDF table of contents). I took Buller's evolutionary psychology course in 1997, and I think it was the best course I've ever had. David's amazing crisp clarity enabled him to convey huge amounts of empirical information while simultaneously framing the philosophical debates surrounding philosophy of biology and evolutionary psychology in vivid and compelling terms. David's been working on this book since then, at least, and I expect it to be outstanding.
It's because of this course that I gave up on my facile Randian views about “human nature.” If I'm not misremembering, I think an earlier iteration of the book's tite was . . . the Persistent Myth of Human Nature. I'm not sure if this is David's own view, but I was eventually persuaded, despite very strong initial resistence, by the Hull/Ghiselen argument that species are not really natural kinds at all, but are rather a special kind of individual, like a very old club.
The members of a species are not members of a kind bound together by a shared essence. Members of a species are more like members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, bound together by a geneological fact. You and I are both part of the club of humanity because we have a shared ancestor: the first human. This, however, implies nothing about our having a metaphysically deep shared natured. Evolution works on selection over natural variation. That is, evolution works because members of a species are not homogenous. So at any time, there is simply a distribution of traits throughout a population. Maybe the distribution is a normal curve. Maybe it isn't. In any case, the distribution changes over time, and thus so do the traits of the “typical” member (if there is one). There simply is no non-contingent common core of traits that ties us together other than our shared lineage and consequent genetic similarity.
This is why I find the idea that there is a right way to live according to nature extremely dubious. (This is all me, from here on out, and not Buller, or anyone else.) We have no “deep” nature. Right now, in this neighborhood of our evolutionary history, there is a distribution of traits that one might call “typical” in a statistical sense. But this has no more deeply normative significance than would the fact that 90% of us prefer almonds over pistacchios. It makes no sense to argue that we thus ought to prefer pistacchios. People with statistically “deviant” behavioral dispositions are by definition not “normal,” but their behavior is not a scintilla less “natural” than that of the normals.
Gauss2.JPGThis is not to say that our contingent, temporary statistical “nature” is normatively irrelevant. Far from it. Our intuitions about morality, justice, and so forth, and our behavioral dispositions arise from within this “nature.” Our understanding of what we have reason to do isn't seperable from what we happen to be like. The ends we take ourselves to have reason to pursue depends on what we happen to be like, and what we happen to be like tells us a great deal about the necessary means to those ends. Given the ends that most of have, and take ourselves to have reason to realize, together with what most of us are like, it is possible to get fairly stable general principles about what we ought to do.
But we mustn't kid ourselves. These principles simply aren't universal, or universally binding, because there is no unviversal human nature. Some “deviants” will find a society hospitable to the lives of “normals” incompatible with their needs. And this is simply tragic, no more, no less. The deviant will either be unhappy or will act contrary to the principles of normals. If the latter is threatening to the order required by the normals, then they will lock up, institutionalize, or otherwise rid themselves of the deviant menace. But it is important to see that although the deviant is acting wrongly from the perspective of “morality,” construed as the system of rules that facilitates decent life among the normals, from a broader perspective they are just very unlucky. Foreign cells rejected from a host body have done nothing wrong; they are just incompatible with the principles governing the local order.
There's a lot more to say about this, but that's all for now.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

33 thoughts

  1. I’m grateful for your excellent comments on my article, but I do not think that I’m guilty of the inconsistency you discuss. When I said that Rawls starts off by assuming that people have the task of distributing all the property in society, I did not mean that Rawls thinks that in the original position, titles to property are assigned to individuals. Rather, as both you and I agree, only the general institutions of society are set up in the original position. But Rawls assumes that people in the original position are not limited in setting up these institutions, with their ensuing distributive consequences, by preexisting property rights. In is in this sense that, it seems to me, Rawls assigns the task of distributing property to those in the original position.
    Though this is hardly the place to argue the matter, I view with suspicion appeals to what we can reasonably reject. These seem to me to rest on unstated moral intuitions and do not succeed in laying the basis of political morality, as, e.g., Nagel and Scanlon hope.
    Herbert Spencer I regard as very much worth studying: in mentioning him, I meant only that it may turn out that Rawls will not be regarded by most philosophers as a major figure.
    I hope that you will write more extensively on your ideas.

    1. “But Rawls assumes that people in the original position are not limited in setting up these institutions, with their ensuing distributive consequences, by preexisting property rights. In is in this sense that, it seems to me, Rawls assigns the task of distributing property to those in the original position.”
      David, I think your problem here has basically nothing interesting to do with Rawls in particular, but counts as a criticism of all contractarians and consequentialists. Whether property rights, as they have in fact been defined and enforced, are worth maintaining or require revising depends on whether those rights are part of a system of institutions that facilitate mutual advantage and well-being.
      To assume that the institutions of property as they stand are already-justified constraints on any subsequent reform seems question-begging. Anyone with a non-deontic conception of property rights is going to see those rights as open to evaluation and ask whether emendations in the system of property rights would tend to leave people better off. For example, Smith and Hume (who are to me what Kant is to Rawls) both are worried that the deployment of state coercion for the protection of property can seem to be little more than the maintenance of ill-gotten privilege and both go out of their way to justify property in terms of its effects for the poor.
      I’d argue that this mode of reasoning, which implies that property rights need to be justified to those who don’t seem to so directly benefit from them, is part of liberalism itself. If we find that certain property claims are not justifiable, and this finding results in a different regime of rights, and eventually a different distribution of property, then we may have “redistributed property” relative to the counterfactual world in which the status quo ante goes forward. But this is a pretty attenuated sense of “distribution”, isn’t it? Looks to me to be little more than the recognition that property rules (among many others) have distributive consequences. And who is against “distributing property” in this attenuated sense? Allowing women to own businesses, or taking away Disney’s perpetual copyright on Mickey Mouse, for example, will indeed change the pattern of property. But that’s not BAD. That’s GOOD. Seeing the rules of the game as open to evaluation and reform is not some kind of threat to liberty; it’s part of what it means to care about it.

  2. Will, based on the above statement I am shocked that you area libertarian at all. Without the deontological property and non-aggression rights as foundations libertarianism makes little sense.

  3. You raise some absolutely fundamental issues. I do hold what you call a deontic view of rights. In my view, while it is certainly a relevant question whether a scheme of rights facilitates mutual advantage and well being, the question of what rights people have isn’t reducible to the question of what best facilitates mutual advantage. This isn’t to say, of course, that consequentialist considerations aren’t important. Rather, they aren’t in my view all important.
    You are certainly right that there should be an answer to why those who don’t appear to benefit directly from a scheme of property rights should respect those rights. But I don’t think that this answer must be entirely couched in terms of what is to their long-run advantage.
    To assume without argument that this view is true would beg the question. But the same holds for assuming the truth of a consequentialist or contractarian view.

  4. Jimmy, Yours is a sadly common opinion. Are you shocked that Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, etc., etc. are libertarian at all? In my opinion, deontological property and the Rand/Rothbard characterization of non-coercion make little sense. But limited government, free markets, and peace makes a lot of sense anyway. I’m not much concerned whether people think I’m a libertarian or not. I think of myself as a liberal. But other liberals insist that I’m a libertarian.

  5. David, I think it’s very important that people come to feel rights to be hard constraints, so I favor a deontic moral psychology. But I don’t understand the philosophical argument for deontic rights. (I tend to suspect that people who think they do understand it have the moral psychology I prefer people to have, but that’s condescending!) Anyway, I’m sure we’ll be having the consequentialist/deontologist debate until the day I die. Why that is the case is itself an interesting question.

  6. “To assume that the institutions of property as they stand are already-justified constraints on any subsequent reform seems question-begging.”
    I agree with this completely, but it’s important to see that even Nozick agreed with this- property rights are just on his account only if they develop in just ways from just original acquisitions, and only a fool thinks that is true of current property rights. So, even on Nozick’s account we can’t just start from the institution of property as it stands. (What we’re supposed to do on Nozick’s account is even less clear than on other accounts, just one reason why, as even he came to see, the theory in A,S&U really is a non-starter.)

  7. But how do we know the rules are okay? Rawls says, correctly, that the basic rules of the game, including property law, have broad distributive consequences, and must be shown generally to benefit the least well-off class. Why?
    Probably a dumb question, but least well-off compared to what? The current state of affairs? If we’re starting from scratch or behind the veil, how do we know who the least well-off will be?

  8. Rawls says, correctly, that the basic rules of the game, including property law, have broad distributive consequences, and must be shown generally to benefit the least well-off class. Why? Because everyone needs to have reason to comply with the rules of interaction if those rules are going to define a social order that is stable in right way.
    Arguably however the least well-off class in society is not the poor, but the seriously mentally ill. One of my relatives spent most of her life believing that most of the people closest to her were trying to kill her, including her husband, (whom she eventually outlived by a good 20 years). To live in a world where you believe that the people who should be protecting you are in fact coldly plotting your murder – what a horrible place. Not a fate I would wish on anyone.
    Yet the seriously mentally ill are arguably incapable of making the social order unstable, after all if you are spending all your time trying to find evidence that your husband is poisoning you when that evidence doesn’t exist, it’s hard to find time to destroy society.
    This also raises to me a question about Rawls’ whole enterprise. Behind the veil of ignorance, if my only concern was the mini-max principle, I’d be arguing flat out for society to invest far more resources in looking for cures for mental illness. Poverty is far less of a relative concern.
    And what other goals might people have? According to some religius theology, the worse-off people in society are those who have not accepted Christ as their saviour, regardless of how wealthy they are, or how sane they are. A stoic would be arguing for a society where everyone is encouraged to find happiness solely by living a life of virtue and to achieve detachment from friends and family. I am not an expert on Buddhism, but I understand at least some strands also regard detachment as the vital thing in life. The possibilities for “worse-off in society” are endless.

  9. The fact that, under an order governed by such rules, women or blacks will tend either to be dependent or impoverished is grounds enough for those people to reject those rules, and grounds enough for any of us to reject those rules. If whole classes of people have reason to reject a basic rule of social interaction, that rule can’t be a principle of justice.
    “Grounds enough for any of us to reject those rules?” “Can’t be a principle of justice?”
    This seems to me to be question-begging as well. Surely one has to define the boundaries of a person. Some people wish to include great apes, other species in general, or nature in general in the set of “persons” with rights. Others seek to include the unborn. Too, in different societies and times people have disagreed over whether those with advanced dementia, babies below a certain age, the mentally disabled, insane, or even the physically deformed or feebleminded counted as whole persons with rights (or at least with well-being an interest of the community) or whether they depended entirely on the charity of others with rights.
    Certainly there are reasonable answers to this question that explains why certain groups are included and others not. It does seem to me that at least some of the plausible arguments have some difficulty distinguishing between all the possibilities that are in fact treated differently. An argument based solely the inevitability or likelihood of strife is unsatisfactory as well without a fair amount of explanation; clearly there have been animal rights activists and pro life activists who have taken things to the John Brown level, whereas on the contrast societies that wrongly made women dependent were quite stable for many years.

  10. don’t you need to give an account of what kinds of reasons for rejection are legit? And/or what rejecting classes have standing? Otherwise you get e.g. racists rejecting property rights for blacks, for reasons that may seem as good to them as blacks’ reasons for rejecting the denial of those rights.

  11. Rather than advance arguments, I would like to recommend further readings for those interested in exploring the debate here:
    First of all, probably the strongest criticism of “A Theory of Justice” is almost certainly not Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia,” but Micahel Sandel’s critique found in his article “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self” and his book “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.”
    I think that the article in “The American Conservative” gives a very imprecise view of what is actually at stake for Rawls’ difference principle. I would refer reader’s to the chart on page 62 of “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement” which is a nice book because it is Rawls trying to present “A Theory of Justice” and “Political Liberalism” together in one book (which is, I believe, mercifully shorter than both of the prior books!) It also has the advantage of Rawls’ critical engagements with HLA Hart, Sandel, Jurgen Habermas, and Benjamin Barber as well as Robert Nozick. As a believer in public reason, Rawls believed that his theories were always improvable and even rejectable over time. We know this because as Rawls’ work evolved he improved some sections and rejected other sections of “A Theory of Justice” in particular, though in some sense, “The Law of People’s” is a response to a question that Sandel raises about “to whom do we owe justice?” If you’re interested in a book that ponders this question in the context of this debate and even tries applying it in a real world context, I recommend Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice.”
    Speaking of Nozick, one would be well-served to notice the widely similar positions between the arguments Rawls makes with regard to “The fact of reasonable pluralism” and the last section of Nozick’s book, entitled “Against Utopia.”
    As to the role of religious objections and reasonable pluralism, there are many well-advanced debates on the subject that make the argument as it is presented in “The American Conservative” article seem quite dated. While I do not endorse Christopher Eberle’s conclusion (his argument against Gauss is not compelling in my view) no one would deny that “Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics” is the most comprehensive survey of the major arguments on the theme today. While Eberle rejects that the domain of public reason should be as large as his interlocutors, he nevertheless exemplifies the best of public reason in his own book.
    Another amusing exchange, if you can get your hands on them, can be found between Stephen Macedo and Robert George on the burdens of public reason. George essentially rejects reasonable pluralism by arguing, “I’m a Thomist, and my moral point of view is correct, and I think I can make the fact that I am correct very demonsrable – why should I compromise?”
    To address the question in the comment directly above, there has been a lot of work recently by David Estlund of Brown Robert Talisse of Vanderbilt on epistemic justifications of public reason. Estlund’s “Democratic Authority” has made a big splash in the academy, and Rober Talisse’s “Democracy After Liberalism” is a fantastic survey of the state of much of this debate in the academic community as it exists now, and not in the days when Hayek, Nozick and Rawls roamed the academic earth.
    I know I’ve gone on too long already… there’s so much to say about the subject (which I submit is further proof that Rawls is in no danger of going the way of the snap bracelet) but I cannot but help to weigh in on the deontology/consequentialist debate. If I were to lean on the “crutch of public reason” (I’m not sure how else I am capable of reaching conclusions, but whatever) from a Rawlsian perspective, I would call this dispute a difference in comprehensive doctrine in which we could point out that for the basic structure of society, most of the time what is useful and what is right are going to overlap, as agreeing generally to society as a fair system of cooperation is going to be both “rule utile” and respecting moral autonomy of individuals as either “transcendental moral subjects” in the Kantian vernacular or as “people possessing two moral powers” in Rawls’ Anglicized version. As such, our fair system of cooperation is going to allow me to to live my own life as a utilitarian, Catholic, Kantian, Existentialist, etc. unmolested and when we have to make public decisions, we will agree to engage in public reason following the understandings of what the winners and losers of free exchange of ideas on any particular public question owe to one another as can be found in works like Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson’s “Why Deliberative Democracy?”
    Sorry for the long comment. Rawls and what he has meant to political philosophy is a complex story, yielding numerous advances in theoretical discussions on a great many topics, and I hope that my post created a greater sense of this, perhaps sparked in interest to read some of the books and articles I have mentioned, and did not go on so long as to be insufferable.

  12. Will, how about making a reasonable alternative proposal? I mean, you’d have to agree that whatever the current US system is, it’s certainly not free market, what with the government subsidies to shape it into its current form. I personally don’t have much choice of health care at all: I get to pick between Kaiser and a Cigna plan, or else quit my job, and buying insurance on my own would be prohibitively expensive. Clearly not a good situation. And I’d be interested in hearing your opinion of systems like the Netherlands, where insurance is mandatory, price is fairly tightly regulated, but insurers are otherwise free to do whatever. Is that the direction we should be moving in?

    1. Zealot?
      Why do you feel the need to be insulting?
      I simply have facts at hand that you should but don’t. Most are so basic, you can Google them.
      Did you chronicle in your book, for instance, that DOs, using manipulative techniques, had dramatically lower patient death rates during the Spanish influenza outbreak than did MDs? You can’t Google that one; it’s in peer-reviewed journals of the time.

  13. Medical innovation in the United States is driven by our enormous public funding of medical research by the NIH, the professors at non-profit universities who utilize the funds, and the army of technicians, post-docs, and graduate students who provide highly skilled, low cost, labor. The breakthroughs are printed and available in academic libraries across the world. Will’s piece buys the great fiction that profit oriented companies are responsible for innovation. Innovation comes from your tax dollars and this will not change. Products implementing the intellectual work product of research scientists come from corporations, but it’s not like a corporation is going to develop a surgical technique. Basic investigation of medicine is not going to change with publicly funded health care. In my experience the publicly funded research scientists of our university system are incredibly dedicated to curing disease and helping patients without working for a corporation.

    1. Wish I had bookmarked the finding posted on the internet in the last 2-4 days that found rather the opposite–that the results of the huge US investment into medical research has been enormously underwhelming. They speculated that researchers were rather adept at grantsmanship and didn’t want to ruin a good gig by actual discovery.
      That’s been my experience too. I interviewed the head of a much-heralded “bench to bedside” program with the useful mission of getting research findings swiftly installed in medical practice. When I finally inquired how many projects were in the pipeline after three years… zero. But he was proud of the fact that many PhDs had been filled in on the intricacies of patent and trade-secret protection.
      I helped an ENT publicize his NIH grant. He’d come up with a simple, clever device that promised to turn a $2000 procedure performed by a specialist into an $80 procedure performed by a nurse–precisely the kind of innovation medicine needs. He was insistent it be portrayed as pure research; the product aspect was not to be mentioned lest he suffer the scorn of his colleagues.
      These are some of the experiences that lead me to be pessimistic for the prospects for medical innovation today as things stand. Forget it if the new health care plan goes through.

      1. I also wish you could cite a source. Feel free to link your interview.
        PhDs in the sciences are granted for an original intellectual contribution to science (as slight as this contribution admittedly may be). They are, by definition, innovative – why a lab that produces successful PhDs instead of products is proof that innovation is in peril eludes me. Given that a typical PhD takes 4-6 years, that nothing was in the pipeline after thre years is hardly surprising.
        My argument is pretty straight forward. The heavy lifting of scientific discovery is done by publicly funded university researchers. Corporations take these insights and monetize them. COX-2 inhibitors are a good example of corporations gravy training on actual research. Researcher discovers an important receptor site, corporation cyclesrapidly through hundreds of chemical analog candidates to fit in the site. Combinatorial chemistry and drug screening is hardly innovative in a corporate setting.
        As for the ENT, his innovation was funded by an NIH grant, thus proving my point. Scientists are currently in an extremely competitive market seeking funds for medical research. If anything, the constant spinning of their research as medically important encourages scientists to overpromise, deceive, and play it safe. Will is absolutely right that self interest drives innovation – but it’s publicly funded.
        Charlie, can you provide a single counter factual where a corporation created a medically important (i.e. – reduces mortality) drug or device without using the intellectual work product of a university scientist? I’m talking a soup to nuts innovation from the private sector. Other commentors are welcome to chime in.

      2. I appreciate your consternation, bookscout. The interview was personal. The news article on the shortcomings of medical research was online just in the last few days and was from a decent source (nytimes?) I certainly would’ve bookmarked it if I’d expected this discussion to ensue.
        I’m late to the medical side of things. Earlier I worked with PhDs in a wide variety of fields, from metallurgy to electrical engineering to polymer chemistry to applied physics and so on. They all had a mentality of productizing discoveries. I found that spirit some in the medical world at places like Stanford Hospital, but for the most part I instead find antagonism to commercialization.
        The “bench to bedside” program was not to mint PhDs. Instead, it was senior researchers in Alzheimer’s, in genetics, in cancer, in eye research, a variety of medical fields. Nothing in the pipeline there after 3 years is telling.

      3. Let me spell this out. Productizing is the *least* innovative part of a medical discovery. The last lab I worked in does Alheimer’s research and their first paper is on it is about to come out – three and a half years after beginning the work. This has nothing to do with products, but goes to the structure of Alzheimer’s amyloid plaques. Getting a medically utilizable product from this is not likely at all, but down the line someone will benefit from knowing the structure of these plaques. The innovation is in using an old structural determination technique in a novel way and developing all the lab methods from scratch.

      4. I’m talking 12 research groups of senior people each with multi-million dollar budgets with a “bench to beside” commercialization program added, not at inception, but to mature programs and three years later, nothing anywhere in the pipeline.

  14. Medicine is cheaper from Canada and Europe. Some people travel to Mexico and other countries to save on medical treatments. Companies such as Walmart and Publix are offering some basic medications at low prices. TV and radio news features commentary and debate on health care systems daily. Something is wrong with our health care system. It may be the best for innovation and delivering cutting edge treatment. But, if that system is denied to you because of your ability to pay, then it needs to reworked to be universally available. Politicians who stand in the way need to be exposed for what they are and voted out of office.

  15. I hope that the “Obamacare” will not have a negative effect on the health care innovations. On the contrary, maybe he is going to invest even more in research. I suffer from a sinus infection for which there is no cure yet but I sure do hope medicine will come up with a permanent cure for it.

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