Standing Up for GDP

Joseph Stiglitz is right. GDP per capita is an inadequate measure of a country’s prevailing standard of living for many reasons. If you want one number, something like median real consumption would be better. But I’m willing to stand up for GDP per capita as a rough and ready indicator of well-being within the bounds of nation states. Why?

First, as an indicator of well-being, it doesn’t get much intuitively wrong. That is, GDP per capita tends to correlate positively with most of the things most of us think are constituents or side effects of well-being and negatively or not at all with most of the things most of us think are corrosive to well-being. (I go through some of this data around p. 29 of my happiness paper [pdf].)

Moreover, alternative rankings such as the UN’s Human Development Index, which accounts for things like health and education, correlate so closely with rankings of per capita GDP, it’s pretty clear that income levels are doing most of the work. As Justin Wolfers put it:

For all the work that goes into the Human Development Index, it just doesn’t tell you much that you wouldn’t learn from simple comparisons of G.D.P. per capita.

And don’t forget that the link between GDP per capita and self-reported happiness is positive and strong! Here’s a reminder of what the relationship looks like this:

As you can see, the doubling in GDP per capita from $1000 to $2000 has about the same effect on average self-reported life satisfaction as the doubling from $16,00 to $32,00. It was this finding that led Daniel Kahneman last year to say:

The implied conclusion, that citizens of different countries do not adapt to their level of prosperity, flies against everything we thought we knew ten years ago.  We have been wrong and now we know it.  I suppose this means that there is a science of well-being, even if we are not doing it very well.

But I think the most neglected argument in favor of GDP per capita as a measure of well-being is its neutrality. Here’s how I put it in my happiness paper:

Many people seem to think that a government’s emphasis on measurements like GDP indicate a kind of collective affirmation of materialist goals, encouraging a narrowly materialist attitude at war with more exalted values. But this is simply a mistake. The very function of money is to serve as a neutral medium of exchange. It is a shape-shifting embodiment of almost any value. The same $100 can be spent on a prostitute or donated to an HIV/AIDS clinic. The relative value neutrality of money is precisely why the measurement of per-capita wealth is well suited to pluralistic liberal societies; it doesn’t beg many questions about competing concep- tions of the good life. Money can’t be converted into  anything that someone might value, but it is of the nature of money to be convertible into a phenomenally broad range of values. Societies with high levels of average income and wealth are societies in which people have more resources at their disposal to achieve their aims, no matter what those aims might be, which is why it should be no surprise that, other things equal, people with more money are more satisfied. By measuring GDP, household wealth, and the like, government is not affirming one set of values over others. It is, in fact, embodying an ideal of liberal neutrality by measuring something that is valuable in varying degrees to all of us.

Because of their neutrality, economic measures are excellent inputs to public deliberation in pluralistic societies containing a great deal of disagreement about ultimate values. There are lots of candidates for alternative indicators or progress and well-being, but most are transparently motivated by ideological antagonism to the kinds of policies known successfully to promote income growth. These are obviously not very well-suited for use in public deliberation in pluralistic societies containing a great deal of disagreement about ultimate values.

The demand for alternatives to GDP resides predominantly in certain quarters of the environmental movement. It’s easy to see why. Many environmentalists demand policies that, if implemented, would show up as unmitigated damage in economic measures like GDP per capita. I think it’s difficult to overstate how huge an impediment this is to much of the environmental movement — especially since these measures do track the elements of well-being pretty well.

Some enviromentalists, like Thomas L. Friedman and Van Jones, go the congruence route and jump into the business of retailing fantasies about pro-growth green central planning. But this kind of “and a pony!” no tradeoffs stuff is a pretty hard sell. Anybody really serious about saving the world from the peril of a more livable Canada is going to have to argue for policies that will indeed gut-punch world income growth. That argument is a lot easier to make if you can first persuade governments and journalists to shelve standard economic measures and replace them with new figures that make a virtue of green-tinted impoverishment. It’s hard to fail when you’ve redefined success.

That’s why I’m ready to hold onto my wallet when luminaries of the left like Stiglitz say they’re eagerly awaiting the September 14th publication of a report by Nikolas Sarkozy’s Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. But it probably won’t be that bad.

Here’s my predication. Good ol’ GDP per capita will be found (perhaps rather annoyingly to this congress of authors) to do better as a measure of social progress than one might have thought, for reasons similar to those detailed above. Chief among the problems with GDP-like measures will be that they fail to capture the value of environmental sustainability. Also, the value of economic equality. But not the value of economic liberty. That GDP fails to capture the value of, say, policies that reduce the probability of a future in which tens of millions die due to a massive flu pandemic, or due the availability of portable nuclear weapons, will go unmentioned. Less severe but equally indeterminate environmental threats will get many pages.

Surprise me Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress!

Hansonian Cultural Politics

Robin Hanson replies to my post below on cultural externalities and harm:

When I ask students to justify various subsidies and taxes, they are quick to say “externality,” but slow to identify specific plausibly-related side-effects, and even slower to seek opposing side-effects.  They usually just seek support for pre-existing intuitions.

Like Robert Frank and Geoffrey Miller, Will Wilkinson seems to me a bit too quick here to assume the activities he likes are less deserving of taxes.  I’ve been arguing mostly for consistent application of principles.  If we are to tax positional or unhappy activities, then let’s do that consistently, following our best data on positionality or happiness.   Let’s not just selectively apply a rationale to things we already intuitively disliked.

We have long had a clear theoretical basis for allowing businesses to harm each other via competition, but we have less clear a basis for allowing harm via changing expectations about car standards, female workers, neighborhood race, and marriage legitimacy.  So I won’t rule taxing such things out of hand.  But I will insist we first articulate a clear principle we are willing to apply consistently across a wide range of cases.

First, I think Robin may have missed one of my key points, which is that “negative externality” is not a synonym for “harm” in the relevant sense of the word. It begs the question to just go ahead and talk about various harms as if I had not just argued that they don’t all count as harms just because someone is bothered by each of them.

Another of my key points was that the fight over what is and is not included in the category of harm is to a great extent what “culture war” is about. If Robin wants a clear theoretical basis for who ought to win these fights, then he needs a moral theory. But a clear theoretical basis is different than a decisive theoretical basis–a basis that all are bound to accept on pain of irrationality. I don’t think there is any such basis. To put it another way, there is no clear theoretical basis for selecting a single, clear theoretical basis for determining what does and does not count as a harm. Indeed, no one is rationally bound to accept the normative assumptions underlying the case for economic competition–the clear theoretical basis for “harm” Robin is willing to accept. Many people understand perfectly well that anti-competitive measures such as subsidies or tarrifs buy temporary stability at the price of utility, and they think it’s totally worth it.

Moral diversity and disagreement are ineradicable. Disagreement over what does and does not count as a harm is ineradicable. Something like agreement over various cases and principles emerges through the fight of what I call, following Richard Rorty, cultural politics. Part of the fight is to get intellectual types to agree that your theory of harm is compelling. One way we do that is to push on consistency. So we say to people who lose a job to offshore outsourcing that this is really no different than losing a job to a robot, but we don’t think we should protect workers against robots. But this kind of thing only takes us so far. Most of the fight is to get sufficient buy-in from whatever forces shape public opinion and public attitudes. Natural human conformism takes care of the rest.

Robin might want to consider that moral categorization is by its nature contingently nominalistic. The fact that enough people just do consider one thing and not another thing a harm, due to the local history of cultural change and socialization, might seem to lack theoretical normative teeth, and leave little space for criticizing the actual system of norms. But the actual system of norms has actual normative teeth pretty much by definition. Which is why we work so hard fighting over the norms, whether or not we can come up with a unified, clear, coherent theory that accounts for their authority.

My sense is that Robin wants some kind of theory that allows us to avoid cultural politics. I don’t think there is one. I think Robin complains that I share Miller’s and Frank’s reliance on intuitions about things we happen to dislike because I’m arguing with them from within what I see to be their prior liberal moral commitments, which I share. We’re all liberals, which means we dislike many of the same things. We’re not starting from nowhere. So I’m trying to show that their arguments leave them at a place at odds with something we all like very much: a pluralistic, liberal, open society tolerant of dissent, peaceful cultural conflict, and social change.

Robin wants to argue from a more abstract, culturally disembodied position. What must be true if positional or pro-happiness taxation makes sense, and what do these truths imply if applied consistently? I don’t see this as much different from what I’m after. Geoffrey Miller and Robert Frank clearly endorse certain epistemic norms which make arguments from consistency, like Robin’s, extremely effective. By their own lights, they owe Robin an answer. We’re right to demand that serious intellectuals stick as close to possible to the best norms of rational argumentation, just as we’re right to expect liberals to stick to their liberal commitments.

Anyway, one can’t fault others for failing to cut nature at the normative joints, since there is no such thing. At some point, we lean pretty hard on things we already intuitively dislike, and if enough people agree with us, we win. Robin has a classic rationalist’s skepticism about the authority of our intuitions, other than his intuitions about epistemic integrity, which puts him in the position of a revolutionary, prophethic outsider. This can be an extremely powerful position–if we don’t decide Robin’s just crazy. And we’ll decide he’s not just crazy insofar as we share his intuitions about the the authority of his conception of rationality. That Robin’s so successful at selling his frankly unusual vision of unbiased rationality shows that he’s much better at cultural politics than he gives himself credit for.

Easter Thoughts of Culture War

I was recently reading somewhere about Christopher Hitchens’ debate with William Lane Craig at Biola and someone in the comments of whatever blog I was reading made the observation that there are tons of Christian schools like Biola and Wheaton and so forth full of smart kids who undergo training in arguing for the existence of God. It’s not like it’s treated as an open question at these places. The Christian schools and their Christian students know the result they need, and they practice in the most persuasive arguments that deliver that result. None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and so on. But my sense is that there are about a gazillion works of theistic/Christian apologetics for every God Is Not Great. But write a God Is Not Great or a The End of Faith and you’re colored as some kind of obnoxious disrespectful lout out to set the lions on all those downtrodden Christian. Why is that? Even other atheists are encouraged to deplore the brazen “New Atheists'” alleged in-your-face lack of humility. I find this completely ridiculous. They’re right, after all. I also think it’s ridiculous that Christopher Hitchens represents the atheist side in approximately 75 percent of all debates about the existence of God. (Why should he hoard all the speaking fees!?) Why aren’t more philosophy professors–few of whom believe in God–standing up to fight for truth? Well, lots of them don’t like the dog and pony show of public debates, I’m sure. Lots of them don’t want to be impolite. But I’d also guess that they find the arguments so boring that it’s a drag to prepare. Nevertheless, this stuff matters and it’s important to wean the culture off superstition. Hitchens is more than pulling his weight, but I’m afraid most intellectuals who also happen to be atheists aren’t taking this culture war stuff seriously enough. So get in there faithless people! Mix it up! It’s true that pretty much only other Christians care about Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig, but there are hoards of bright young Christians who really do think this stuff is more than polish on their parochial cultural inheritance, and that’s really too bad.

This Argument Needs Cognitive Enhancement

Andrew Sullivan says this essay by Justin D. Barnard, director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is “the most convincing case I’ve seen against cognitive enhancing drugs.” I guess that means Sullivan has yet to see a very convincing case against cognitive enhancing drugs.

Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing. 

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers? 

This is a blatantly poor argument. First, why is “responsible use” in scare quotes? If scare quotes can beg the question, then Barnard’s quotes are fallacious. Second, why does Barnard assert that proponents of the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing druges “presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole.” Who presupposes this? No one, I hazard. So what’s the point of this exercise?

This morning, like every morning, I had some coffee. I wasn’t thinking of it in quite these terms, but “cogntive enhancement” was part of my aim. I daresay I use coffee responsibly, but in doing so I presuppose nothing in particular about “mental life considered as a whole.” I recently bought new running shoes, which I certainly hope will (responsibly!) enhance my ability to run, but I do not therefore presuppose that the single good of physical life as a whole is to run as fast as possible. You can do lots of things with your body. You can do lots of things with your mind. Why not do them a little better? 

Does the fact that I would like to run faster imply that I ought to be replaced by my dog, who runs faster than me, or by my car, which moves faster than either of us? Does my interest in personal speed enhancement imply I should replace my dog with a cheetah, or my Honda with a Maserati? I’d think not. I want to run, so the point is to enhance my physical performance. I want to write an essay, so I use caffeine and methylphenidate to help me maintain my otherwise fragile focus. What do robots have to do with anything. Does Bernard really suppose that there is someone somewhere sitting around longing to maximize something or other’s information processing. That I am sleepy and I would like to stay alert implies the desire to be made obsolete by sleepless machines? 

Is there something special about drugs? A calorically sufficient, well-balanced diet is cognitively enhancing. A slide-rule is an effective mental prosthetic, not to mention a computer. Reading is utterly unnatural and learning to do it is a big cognitive upgrade. So is, for that matter, taking an elementary principles of reasoning course. Perhaps the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship should offer one. I’m sure they could manage to do it responsibly.

Libertarian Ideal Theory as Silent Complicity

Steven W. Thrasher in the NY Times a couple days ago:

In 1958, when my mother, who was white, and father, who was black, wanted to get married in Nebraska, it was illegal for them to wed. So they decided to go next door to Iowa, a state that was progressive enough to allow interracial marriage. My mom’s brother tried to have the Nebraska state police bar her from leaving the state so she couldn’t marry my dad, which was only the latest legal indignity she had endured. She had been arrested on my parents’ first date, accused of prostitution. (The conventional thought of the time being: Why else would a white woman be seen with a black man?)

On their wedding day, somehow, my parents made it out of Nebraska without getting arrested again, and were wed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on March 1, 1958. This was five years before Nebraska would strike down its laws against interracial marriage, and almost a decade before the Supreme Court would outlaw miscegenation laws throughout the country in Loving v. Virginia.

When the good state of Iowa conferred the dignity of civic recognition on my parents’ relationship — a relationship some members of their own families thought was deviant and immoral, that the civil authorities of Nebraska had tried to destroy, and that even some of my mom’s college-educated friends believed would produce children striped like zebras — our family began. And by the time my father died, their interracial marriage was seen just as a marriage, and an admirable 45-year one at that.

I suppose some of you will say that the “libertarian” position in 1958 was that the state has no place in marriage, and so the libertarian, as such, would have had nothing to say about the refusal of many states to recognize marriages between mixed-race couples. But in the world as it was, this stance would have amounted to an active refusal to resist the law’s codification of racial discrimination and segregation. It would have made one a silent partner in injustice. Those making similar arguments today will have to excuse me if I find this stance disgraceful. Many libertarians think there ought to be no government regulation of the economy, for example, but do not hesitate to take the practice for granted when they loudly opine about the extent and structure of regulation. Few say, “There should be no regulation, and so I, as a libertarian, have no opinion about how it should be carried out.” Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.


John Holbo knows what’s up:

What do the [National Review] editors, and Gallagher, really think? The ick argument, I’ll wager. They want to stop same-sex marriage as a way of sending a message of ‘ick’ to gays, and about gays. But they also don’t want to be labeled homophobes. That is, although saying ‘gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because I believe gay sex is icky’ is actually a less terrible argument than anything they’ve got – hey, it’s not flagrantly internally incoherent, it’s basically honest (I’ll wager), and who doesn’t believe that on some level people steer, morally, by emotional attraction-repulsion drive? – it’s considered embarrassing. (Homophobia: the yuck that dare not speak its name.) And, even if it weren’t embarrassing, it’s obviously not strong enough in the current environment. So what do you do? You end up thoughtlessly backing into something that’s frankly orders of magnitude worse than just saying gay sex is icky. Namely, gays are un-persons, so far as the state is concerned.

What makes these arguments so weird is the mildness of the underlying opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality – the implicit inclination to be basically tolerant. ‘C’mon, gays, you know you’re ok, and we know you’re ok, and you even know that we know you’re ok, but we don’t like it, so can’t there be some way that we can insist on us being a little better than you? It can be a small thing. Symbolic, but slightly inconvenient for you, so people know it’s also serious?’


Falsity: Not a Hill Worth Dying On

If I read him right, Robert Stacy McCain’s argument for state-enforced marriage inequality (“a hill to die on”!) is that there is a DEEP TRUTH about inequalities between men and women that must continue to be observed:

Feminist ideologues insist that men and women are not merely equal in the Lockean sense — having the right to life, liberty and property — but are radically equal in the sense of being inherently identical.

The differences between men and women, according to the egalitarian view, are so trivial that the law must forbid any recognition of such differences, so that the sexes are treated as interchangeable. As I argued in January, it is from a careless acquiescence to this egalitarian falsehood that Americans have been steadily — one might well say “progressively” — marched to the point where the Iowa Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and anyone who questions that ruling is dismissed as an ignorant, hateful bigot suffering from the mental disorder of “homophobia.”

What did McCain argue in January?

Are men and women equal in the fullest sense of the word? If so, then equality implies fungibility — the two things are interchangeable and one may be substituted for the other in any circumstance whatsoever. (La mort à la différence!) Therefore, it is of no consequence whether I marry a woman or a man.


This is why so many of those who would defend traditional marriage find themselves unable to form a coherent argument, because traditional marriage is based on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different, and hence, unequal. Traditional marriage assumes a complementarity of the sexes that becomes absurd if you deny that “man” and “woman” define intrinsic traits, functions, roles.

To declare men and women unequal, however, puts one outside the law — you are guilty of illegal discrimination if you say that there is any meaningful difference between men and women. Yet if you refuse to argue against sexual equality, you cannot argue effectively against gay marriage, and find yourself subjected to lectures about “accessing the positive social norms” with nothing important to say in reply.

I suppose one could say this is refreshingly frank. But let’s think about the argument (setting aside McCain’s risible claims to membership in some legally and socially persecuted class of put-upon sexist homophobes).

Like many conservatives, McCain makes libertarian noises when it suits him, but when it comes right down to it, he believes the role of the state is to reinforce “traditional” social forms though the law. The “libertarian” conservative rarely wants the state to leave people alone. He wants social change to leave state-enforced legal inequality alone, which is, after all, a proud tradition, sanctified by history. As McCain says, “traditional marriage”—and the state that ensures the exclusivity of its privileges—assumes certain “intrinsic traits, functions, roles” for men and women. He wants the state to police these imagined distinctions. And he very clearly recognizes that there is an alternative “egalitarian” view according to which the there is no relevant difference between men and women—as far as a just scheme of laws is concerned. So he recognizes that there is a stark moral disagreement between egalitarians and anti-egalitarians. McCain clearly has no problem with the state taking sides in this disagreement. He demands that the state take sides with anti-egalitarians. Indeed, he thinks the conservative movement ought to be willing to die fighting to ensure the state keeps taking the side of inequality.

Now, the conservative tends to make two arguments in this kind of dispute. First, that the inequality they wish to preserve in law is an inequality that has been there a long time. Second, that the inequality reflects a DEEP TRUTH about humanity. Generally, these are linked. The inequality in question is embedded in law and tradition because it reflects a DEEP TRUTH. So the fundamental issue is the DEEP TRUTH’s truth. McCain seems to accept that everything turns on this. He seems to know that if he’s wrong about this, he has no case against marriage equality.

The problem for McCain is that you don’t need to be a feminist ideologue to see that the alleged DEEP TRUTH is in fact an especially vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. From the point of view of a decent morality, men and women are equal in all morally relevant respects. Marriage is important to men and women. Family is important to men and women. So a morally decent set of laws ought to maintain the conditions under which men and women are able to express their love and commitment through marriage and realize their desires to raise families. The problem is precisely that the law fails to do this. The reason it fails is that the law (in most states; not here in Iowa!) reflects the still-popular but intellectually bankrupt view that biological regularities establish binding moral guidelines.

Now, no two individuals are identical, and differences in capacities and preferences are relevant to differences in individual reasons and plans. The capacities and preferences of average men and average women mostly overlap, but sometimes they starkly diverge. But the divergence in capacity and preference between an average man and an average women is no more interesting morally than the differences between two individuals of the same sex. If I like brunettes and McCain like blondes, so be it. And if I like women and McCain likes men, so be it. The fact that an individual’s capacities and preferences diverge from the statistical norm for their sex has no interesting moral implications, either. 

It is a fact that most men and women find something deeply meaningful in the complementarity of masculinity and femininity. It is a fact that most couples who marry will form families in the usual mammalian way. But recognizing  equality under the law with respect to marriage does nothing to change this. It does nothing whatsoever to keep statistically average men and women from doing what they will do anyway. It is also a fact that the law, as it now stands in most states, prevents certain men and women from enjoying the legal privileges of marriage and protection for their less conventional families. To see the move to rectify this injustice as itself some kind of injustice simply because men are convex and women are concave is an embarrassing absurdity, not a hill worth dying on.

Secularizing America

The U.S. is surely and steadily becoming a less religious place. USA Today has a groovy interactive graph illustrating the following:

The 2008 results [of the American Religious Identification Survey], to be released today, are based on 54,000 interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5%. It finds that, despite population growth and immigration adding nearly 50 million more adults, almost all denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS data was released in 1990.

Here’s the picture of state-by-state growth in the number of people identifying as atheists, agnostics, or without a religion:

But go to the real graph for the groovy interactivity.

Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalization. That the Iowa Supreme Court would unanimously rule prohibition of gay marriage illegal when a decade ago this would have seemed impossible is just one example of this very welcome trend.

Why Climate Alarmism Alarms Me

He’s not talking about climate alarmism in particular, but Matt Ridley (in an interview with Ron Bailey I finally got around to reading) states my own view nicely:

What the precautionary principle [the idea that when science has not yet determined whether a new product or process is safe, the government should prohibit or restrict its use] misses is the danger that in not progressing you might miss out on future improvements in living standards for poor people in Africa. I’m desperately hoping to persuade the world, not that everything’s going to be fine, but that there’s a chance everything’s going to be better for everybody and that we should be very careful not to cut ourselves off from that chance.

Cheap energy is a main source of prosperity. The effort to make the cheapest sources of energy more expensive is, in effect, an effort to ensure that more people are made to suffer longer in poverty. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu’s openness to using tarrifs against countries like China as a “weapon” in the effort to achieve global climate policy coordination illustrates the clear and present danger climate alarmism poses to the welfare of the world’s poor. I’m simply unwilling to trade certain immediate harm to vulnerable people in exchange for extremely uncertain future benefits.

The Dwarf Bends the Titan to His Will

T.H. Huxley. Hell yes :

The propounders of what are called the ” ethics of evolution,” when the ‘ evolution of ethics’ would usually better express the object of their speculations, adduce a number of more or less interesting facts and more or less sound arguments, in favour of the origin of the moral sentiments, in the same way as other natural phenomena, by a process of evolution. I have little doubt, for my own part, that they are on the right track; but as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, th’ere is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.


Men in society are undoubtedly subject to the cosmic process. As among other animals, multiplication goes on without cessation, and involves severe competition for the means of support. The struggle for existence tends to eliminate those less fitted to adapt themselves to the circumstances of their existence. The strongest, the most self-assertive, tend to tread down the weaker. But the influence of the cosmic process on the evolution of society is the greater the more rudimentary its civilization. Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.


Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it. It may seem an audacious proposal thus to pit the microcosm against the macrocosm and to set man to subdue nature to his higher ends; but I venture to think that the great intellectual difference between the ancient times with which we have been occupied and our day, lies in the solid foundation we have acquired for the hope that such an enterprise may meet with a certain measure of success.

The history of civilization details the steps by which men have succeeded in building up an artificial world within the cosmos. Fragile reed as he may be, man, as Pascal says, is a thinking reed: there lies within him a fund of energy, operating intelligently and so far akin to that which pervades the universe, that it is competent to influence and modify the cosmic process. In virtue of his intelligence, the dwarf bends the Titan to his will. In every family, in every polity that has been established, the cosmic process in man has been restrained and otherwise modified by law and custom; in surrounding nature, it has been similarly influenced by the art of the shepherd, the agriculturist, the artisan. As civilization has advanced, so has the extent of this interference increased; until the organized and highly developed sciences and arts of the present day have endowed man with a command over the course of non-human nature greater than that once attributed to the magicians. 

By the way, this view was shared by Huxley’s fellow X Club member, that villainous utilitarian liberal Herbert Spencer. Darwinian liberals, understanding the benefits and artificiality of civilization, are its best defenders. Those who would have us live “according to nature” invariably have a stupid view of nature.