Category Archives: Philosophy

Ideology, Evolution, and In-Groups

Joel Mokyr points out a strange tendency among ideologies on p. 51 of his 2016 book A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy:

Cultural beliefs tend to occur in clusters. For instance, those Americans who adhere to evangelical religion commonly also think that widespread gun ownership is desirable, that marriage should be confined to heterosexual couples, that climate change is not a reality, and object to large scale federal redistribution policies, although logically these beliefs are not all obviously connected.

This tendency is not specific to religious conservatives. Other groups across political, national, and religious identities have their own similarly odd belief clusters. For many people, affirming their group identity is more important than evaluating the merits of a given policy.

We’re evolved to think that way, and it won’t change anytime soon. Even those of us without religious or partisan affiliation think that way; we’re human, too.

A big part of the greater Enlightenment project is raising awareness of this cognitive tendency among people. If people are more aware of what they’re doing, they are more likely to take a step back and evaluate policies with a cooler, more rational head. There are healthier ways to feel part of a group.


Herbert Spencer – Social Statics

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and The First of Them Developed

Spencer was only about 30 when he wrote this 1851 book. Frankly, it shows. His thoughts on land and property rights are a muddled mess, which was common in those days, though his system stands out even among that disappointing lot. Spencer’s overall thought is much better. In a nutshell, it is classical liberalism heavily influenced by the natural sciences and especially evolution. It is full of nuances and subtleties that are easy to miss or misinterpret—something many of his critics almost seem to have done intentionally.

At this early point in his career, Spencer didn’t quite have the full command of the implications of his own philosophy, nor had he developed the ability to phrase them tactfully. He also shared some sloppy intellectual tendencies common to Victorian Britain, for example thinking of many nationalities or races as groups rather than individuals. All Native Americans, for example, apparently have hot tempers, according to Spencer. Though he rightly complained about being misunderstood, there are places where Spencer dug his own grave.

Despite these cringe-worthy moments, Spencer was a very much a liberal, especially by the stuffy standards of his time. He favored equal rights for all individuals of all races (even ones with hot tempers), and for all women. This consistent liberalism was as rare as it is consistent, even in the age of John Stuart Mill.

He opposed colonization and empire, was an ardent abolitionist, and believed deeply in poverty relief, even as he thought government incapable of handling the task competently or fairly. While Spencer distinguished between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, he still advocated helping even the people he tactlessly calls undeserving. They are individuals, and all individuals have the same rights. Spencer is nothing if not consistent and, in a weird and off-putting way, compassionate.

Despite his heavy reliance evolutionary thought, Spencer also opposed eugenics programs to improve the species. This means Spencer opposed the very thing he is most criticized for supporting. Eugenics would instead become popular among progressives a generation or so later. The idea would persist long enough that Gunnar Myrdal’s advocacy, for example, led to 60,000 of his fellow Swedes being sterilized, and he pushed for similar policies for African-Americans. Myrdal would co-win the economics Nobel—in 1974. Spencer’s reputation as a social Darwinist turns out to be untrue, something I was unsure of when I picked up the book, and was relieved to discover. Some of his ideological opponents turned out to be less innocent.

The confusion likely results in part from Spencer’s stated belief in evolutionary progress towards perfection, an idea that seems to me influenced by Condorcet’s exaggerated Enlightenment-style belief in progress leading inevitably to perfection, and a prefiguring of economic equilibrium theory along the lines of what Walras would popularize during Spencer’s lifetime. The fact that Social Statics pre-dates Darwin means that few people had a sophisticated understanding of how natural selection works, let alone the ability to apply it to social processes, such as customs and norms. Spencer would have greatly profited from having access to the works not just of Darwin and Huxley, but later thinkers such as Sagan, Dennett, or Dawkins.

Spencer also used the term “fitness” not as a positive or negative value judgment, but as a descriptor. An herbivore with flat teeth is more fit to its plant-based diet than one with sharp teeth. Regardless of one’s personal opinion on the matter, this will show in their survival rates. One type of business or person is not inherently better than another, according to Spencer. But a business with lower prices will attract more customers in world where that’s what customers prefer. A person who works hard is more fit to a society that rewards hard work, and poorly fitted to one that punishes it. This will be true regardless of whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a little bit like how many people struggle to tell the difference between a fact an opinion.

Another is a confusion between thinking in terms of groups versus thinking in terms of individuals. Spencer does seem to have believed in inherent racial differences. Such groups share common characteristics. I do not share this belief, nor do most people today. Despite this group-thinking, Spencer’s entire system is based on individual rights. Regardless of what group a person comes from, an individual has the same rights as all other individuals, and deserves to have those rights respected. But even where Spencer is flat-out wrong in his group-thinking, he remains an individualist. Spencer could have avoided this trap by simply taking the modern view that every individual is different regardless of what socially constructed group they belong to. But at least he believed in everyone’s individual rights.

I’ve only read selections of Spencer’s later works. Time permitting, I look forward to finding out if his thought, ahem, evolved out of its immature aspects and Victorian conventions in Social Statics, or if I will continue to roll my eyes at some parts while being moved in others by his compassion and drive to make things better for as many people as possible, regardless of race or gender.

Roger Koppl – Expert Failure

Roger Koppl – Expert Failure

Koppl uses the role of experts to explain the difference between approaching social problems from the top down, versus from the bottom up. Koppl defines an expert as anyone who is paid for their opinion. This is not tied to any credential, degree, affiliation, or any objective measure of knowledge. If someone sees fit to pay you for your opinion on something, you’re an expert on that something. For Koppl, experts play a crucial role in the economy and in the political process. But they should not be given too much power.

One way to do this is through competition. Experts should not be given a monopoly or any guild-like structure that limits competition. Certifications and credentials are useful, and they rightfully impact an expert’s perceived credibility. But they should not be mandatory; schooling and education are often very different things. Allowing an open competitive process in markets for experts will help the fields evolve the best way to signal credibility, and as knowledge and professional consensus evolve, send out the old in favor of the new. This brings to mind the stuffy old adage about science advancing one funeral at a time.

Koppl also offers a quality intellectual history not just of expertise from a bottom-up perspective, but the entire spontaneous order tradition from Bernard “Fable of the Bees” Mandeville’s cynicism to Adam Smith’s idealism, to Hayek’s wide-ranging advancements in emergent order theory. Not the easiest read, but sticking with it pays large dividends.

Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Daniel C. Dennett – From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds

Dennett’s ostensible goal is to explain how consciousness emerged. But he mostly offers a lively tour of modern evolutionary thinking, with extended discussions of language, memes and other topics. This book isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but evolutionary thinking offers valuable insights to a number of disciplines, from traditional biology to artificial intelligence and self-improving algorithms, to the spontaneous order that animates quality social science work. Dennett has written earlier well-regarded books about consciousness; perhaps I’ll turn to those.

Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan – In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty

Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan – In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty

Argued from a philosopher’s point of view, though both authors are economically literate. They argue that the most effective poverty-relief policies involve positive-sum interactions. A more open approach to trade, immigration, and entrepreneurship are the most important positive-sum policies, and they back them with strong moral and consequentialist arguments.

People have the right to make deals with each other, or to move somewhere else if they like. For a third party to get in the way and forcibly stop them requires a very strong reason. The burden of proof is on that third party.

Conservatives and nationalists offer few strong justifications for their force-happy trade and immigration policies. Progressives also come off poorly for preferring zero-sum redistribution policies even when positive-sum policies are readily available. Both authors argue instead for a more permissive, open, and liberal approach–liberal in its original, correct sense.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America

Tocqueville, a Frenchman, visited America for a period of nine months around 1830 and published this two-volume work after returning home. Tocqueville is incredibly insightful, which is why his book is often cited and occasionally read today, nearly two centuries later. He has a mostly sunny disposition and a generally liberal outlook (in the correct, classical sense of the word), but this book is not quite the love letter to America many make it out to be.

Dennis C. Rasmussen – The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

Dennis C. Rasmussen – The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

A highly enjoyable dual biography of David Hume and Adam Smith that mixes the personal and the intellectual. Rasmussen spends too much time on their religious beliefs for my taste, but still gives plenty of attention to more interesting topics. Hume was famously gregarious while Smith was intensely private, though their friendship was a close one. Despite some differences, they were also close intellectual allies who repeatedly defended each other from their many critics.

Hume gets the lion’s share of the book’s attention, mainly because Smith asked that most of his papers be burned after his death. His wishes were mostly respected, leaving less material for the historian to work from.