Thursday, October 21, 2021

Would Chinese people accept that human flourishing is inherently individualistic?

 


The question I have posed for myself has been prompted by a reader of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human FlourishingHe asked how I would respond if someone offered to pay me to write an edition of the book for Chinese readers. Would I say that the exercise would be pointless because few Chinese readers are likely to be receptive to the ideas in the book? Or would I say that a Chinese edition would need to include a discussion of additional constraints holding back individual flourishing in the PRC?

My book was written primarily for readers living in the Western liberal democracies. It presents human flourishing as an individual aspiration and endeavor, involving the exercise of practical wisdom. I suggest that it is ultimately up to individuals to use their reasoning powers to form their own judgements about the basic goods of a flourishing human. I seek to persuade readers that a flourishing person manifests wise and well-informed self-direction, has good health and psychological well-being, enjoys positive relationships with others, and lives in harmony with nature. I argue that progress occurs when there are growing opportunities for individuals to flourish. Economic growth counts as progress to the extent that self-directed individuals aspire to have improvements in their living standards. (You can read a little more about the book here, and listen to me talk about it here.)

Is Chinese culture opposed to individualism?

Some research on individualism and collectivism may suggest that Chinese people would tend to adopt a collectivist, top-down view of human flourishing, rather than an individualistic, bottom up, view. However, the World Values Survey (WVS) does not support the view that Chinese people are too preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience to have individual aspirations. Data from the 2017-2020 wave of the WVS suggest that the percentage of people in China who say that one of their main goals in life is to make their parents proud (23%) is not particularly high; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (27%), Hong Kong (15%), Singapore (28%), Australia (26%) and U.S. (31%).  The percentage in China who identify independence as a desirable child quality is relatively high (78%); corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (68%), Hong Kong (55%), Singapore (56%), Australia (52%) and U.S. (55%). The percentages who identify unselfishness, good manners and obedience as desirable child qualities are not particularly high (29%, 84% and 6% respectively) by comparison to Taiwan (23%, 74% and 9%), Hong Kong (11%, 73% and 9%), Singapore (27%, 79% and 17%), Australia (42%, 84% and 19%) and U.S. (28%, 48%, and 20%).

It is not difficult to find aspects of Chinese cultural heritage that imply an important role for individual self-direction. The Daoist philosophy of skill is directly relevant to question of what nature tells us about how we can flourish as individuals. There is a relevant post about the Laozi, Zhuangzi and Liezi on this blog.

Cultural support for economic growth

The discussion of determinants of economic growth in Chapter 5 of my book suggests that aspects of culture that are favourable to entrepreneurial innovation include interpersonal trust, respect and tolerance, and individual self-determination. WVS data suggests that the percentage of people who consider that most people can be trusted is relatively high in China (63.5%) by comparison with Taiwan (31%), Hong Kong (36%), Singapore (34%), Australia (48%) and U.S. (37%). The percentage in China who identify tolerance and respect for other people as a desirable child quality (60%) is not particularly low; corresponding figures for other jurisdictions are Taiwan (73%), Hong Kong (70%), Singapore (64%), Australia (80%) and U.S. (71%). 

A relevant indicator of self-determination in the WVS is the data on ratings of the extent that survey respondents feel they have a great deal of freedom of choice and control over their lives, or alternatively that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. On the10 point scale, the average scores of Chinese respondents (7.0) were similar to those of Taiwan (7.3), Hong Kong (6.6), Singapore (6.8), Australia (7.5) and U.S. (7.7).

Economic freedom

My discussion of determinants of economic growth also emphasizes the importance of economic freedom and a prevailing ideology that supports economic freedom. Improvements in economic freedom contributed to the high rates of economic growth experienced in China in recent decades. However, the Fraser Institute’s ratings of economic freedom suggest that the process of economic liberalization has now stalled, leaving China’s economic freedom rating for 2019 (6.5 on the 10-point scale) far lower than that of Taiwan (8.0), Hong Kong (8.9), Singapore (8.8), Australia (8.2) and the U.S. (also 8.2).

Productivity growth in China has slowed considerably over the last decade, according to  World Bank and IMF research. IMF estimates suggest annual productivity growth of 0.6% from 2012 to 2017, much lower than the average of 3.5% in the preceding five years (reported by the WSJ). It seems unlikely that China will be able to maintain high GDP growth rates in the absence of substantial economic reforms to promote greater economic freedom.

Ideological constraints

The prevailing ideology of governance in China, Marxism–Leninism, was imported from the West. This one-party state ideology was developed by Joseph Stalin in Russia the 1920s.  The current system of government - with the communist party bureaucracy guiding the state bureaucracy at all levels - was copied from the Soviet Union.

Although the evidence discussed above suggests that people living in the PRC tend to have as individualistic a view of human flourishing as people in the U.S and Australia, it is clear that the leaders of the Chinese government do not recognize fundamental rights that support individual flourishing.

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, by Dexter Roberts, provides an insightful account of the ideological constraints currently limiting human flourishing in China. The government of the PRC does not even
recognize the rights of people to choose where to live, or to own land:

“Despite huge progress in wiping out poverty, the countryside still has large numbers of poor people and incomes continue to fall behind the rest of the country. This unfortunate fact is in part because of the hukou system, which restricts rural people’s ability to fully integrate into the cities. Equally responsible, however, are the continuing limits on farmers’ rights to the land. While they were given freedom to decide how to use the land they lived on, they were not given ownership.” (p 74)

It is common for local officials to acquire agricultural land for conversion to industrial and commercial use, with farmers being paid little compensation. The user rights are then sold at high prices to developers on the outskirts of cities.

The highest priority of the party-state is to stay in power. That involves a combination of responsiveness and repression to construct a “harmonious society”. Responsiveness takes the form of top-down efforts to reduce disparities in living standards. Repression occurs by suppressing dissident speech, extensive use of monitoring technology and a social credit system which rewards and punishes people based on aspects of their personal behavior that the government wishes to encourage or discourage.

 Daniels suggests:

“For years, China’s leaders have had an unspoken agreement with the people: they guarantee rising living standards and, in turn, the populace tolerates control by a nondemocratic and often unresponsive party.”

What happens if living standards do not continue to rise. Like many other analysts, Daniels is concerned that a “militarily powerful Communist Party facing widespread dissention at home might well seek to distract its citizens by lashing out in a hot spot in the region, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the South China Sea” (p 191).

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that gains in economic freedom that occurred in China over the last few decades were the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces for its own purposes, rather than reforms undertaken in recognition of links between liberty and individual flourishing.

At the beginning of this article I offered some gratuitous advice to the leaders of China by quoting from some ancient writings by Lao-Tzu (Verse 57 of the Tao Te Ching). It seems appropriate to end this brief discussion of ideology with another quote from the same source:

“The more prohibitions you have,

the less virtuous people will be.

The more weapons you have,

the less secure people will be.

The more subsidies you have,

the less self-reliant people will be.”

Conclusions

Chinese people are not unduly preoccupied with filial piety, altruism, and obedience. They tend to have an individualistic view of human flourishing that is not greatly different from that of people in the U.S. and Australia. The contemporary culture of Chinese people tends to be favourable to the entrepreneurship likely to be necessary for living standards to continue to rise over the longer term.

However, the ideology of the party-state is much less favourable to ongoing improvement of living standards. Past gains in economic freedom reflected the efforts of an authoritarian government to harness market forces to lift productivity in response to aspirations of the people to enjoy higher living standards. The gains in economic freedom occurred because that suited the purposes of a communist party primarily interested in its own survival, rather than because its leaders had undergone an ideological transformation to become supporters of liberty. The ideological opposition to liberty of general secretary Xi Jinping now seems to be impeding the ongoing expansion of economic freedom that is needed to enable productivity to continue to rise.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Why should economists practice humanomics?

 


Adam Smith practiced humanomics. It came naturally to him. The famous pioneer of economic science did not need to pretend that humans have been programmed to maximize utility in order to develop his argument that economic specialization stems from a propensity in human nature to “truck, barter, and exchange”.


The word, humanomics, was coined by Bart Wilson, an experimental economist, and is explained in the book, Humanomics, Moral Sentiments, and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century, which he co-authored with Nobel winner, Vernon Smith. In that book, humanomics refers to the very human problem of simultaneously living in the personal social world (which is the context which Adam Smith had in mind when writing Moral Sentiments) and the impersonal economic world (which is the focus of Wealth of Nations).

Some important aspects of human behavior cannot be adequately explained if we adopt the assumption, still common in much economic analysis, that individual human behavior is characterized by narrow self-interest. Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson found in their experimental work with people playing economic games that while self-interested utility maximization could explain individual behavior in simulated market contexts, it could not do so in social exchange contexts. In playing two-person trust games, people tend to be more other-regarding than most modern economists assume. I take that to mean that most people are sufficiently civilized and self-regarding to behave with integrity towards others – they see virtue in being trustworthy rather than opportunistic.


Deirdre McCloskey advances the argument for humanomics further in her recent book, Bettering Humanomics. She writes:

“A big part of our human behavior is thinking and talking about human action, not merely solipsistic and thoughtless reaction to, say, a budget constraint. Human action … is the exercise of free will, so typical of humans. It is in fact the free will about which theologians argue. Humanomics therefore goes beyond the artificially narrowed evidence of a silent, solitary, reactive, positivistic, predestined, observational behaviorism.” (p 5)

McCloskey argues that economists should engage in more philosophical reflection about what a speaking species does. The behavioral paradigm of stimulus and response does not adequately explain much of human behavior. Humans often think about the meaning of events before responding to them, and they often consciously explore the options that are available.

Innovation is an example of an economic activity that cannot be adequately understood within a behavioral paradigm that does not allow for thinking and talking. In this context, McCloskey mentions the important contribution of Israel Kirzner in pointing out that real discoveries cannot be pursued methodically – or they would be known before they are known. Innovation requires entrepreneurial alertness. McCloskey adds that a discovery “requires sweet talk to be brought to fruition”:

“An idea is merely and idea until it has been brought into the conversation of humankind”.

McCloskey presents a strong argument that humanomics is needed to explain the great enrichment – the massive improvements in standard of living that have occurred in many countries over the last 200 years. Those who have some familiarity with her trilogy of books on economic history – that should include everyone who is interested in the reasons why the people who live in some countries tend to be wealthier than those who live elsewhere - will not be surprised that she argues that ethics and rhetoric are the “killer app” explaining the great enrichment. She argues that a novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people, including the innovating bourgeoisie, explains the great enrichment.

For present purposes, the important point is that for economists to understand the economic growth process, with its massive implications for human flourishing, they need some knowledge of ethics and rhetoric – ideas in letters and literature that are studied in the humanities. McCloskey argues that if economists consider themselves to be serious scientists, they should use all relevant evidence that they can get their hands on. She makes the point thus:

“A future economics should … use the available scientific logic and evidence, all of it—experimental, simulative, introspective, questionnaire, graphical, categorical, statistical, literary, historical, psychological, sociological, political, aesthetic, ethical.” (p 66)

Many economists spend much of their time on “sweet talk” without being aware of it. I spent most of my working life trying to tell people that incentives matter and that they need to consider whether current institutions – the rules of the game of society – provide appropriate incentives. For example, I am fond of pointing out that if the rules of the game reward rent-seeking – individuals or groups seeking to have governments provide them with assistance at others’ expense - then potential beneficiaries will tend to spend more time rent-seeking and less time engaged in productive activities.

Economists engage in that kind of activity – labelled by some as preaching – because they think that ideas matter and that interests do not always prevail in determining government policies. In my view, people who are trying to obtain greater recognition of the role of institutions and incentives are walking in the footsteps of Adam Smith.

McCloskey might suggest that people like me should consider whether we give too much attention to the role of formal institutions – constitutions, laws, and regulations – and too little attention to ethics and ideology. In discussing the great enrichment she suggests:

“The important “institutions” were ideas, words, rhetoric, ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment”.

The only problem I have with McCloskey’s exposition of humanomics is her dismissal of happiness studies and behavioral economics. Her negative views on these areas of research sit oddly with her argument that economists should consider all available evidence. I agree that many people who are engaged in such research are paternalistic behavioralists, seeking to advise governments how to make people happier. However, I don’t think that provides sufficient reason to suggest that the findings of such research are no relevance to individuals who are looking for information to help themselves to flourish.

In my discussion of the findings of happiness research and behavioral economics in Chapter 7 of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I have tried to adopt a contractarian approach. That is the approach adopted by Robert Sugden, a self-confessed behavioral economist, and an admirer of the contractarianism of James Buchanan, in his book The Community of Advantage. Sugden notes that contractarian recommendations are “addressed to individuals as directors of their own lives, advising individuals how to pursue their own interests”.

I concur with the view of James Buchanan that the heartland of economics is considering human behavior in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes. However, I can see no reason why anyone should consider Philip Wicksteed, or any other economist, who offers practical advice on avoiding common mistakes in decision-making, to be stepping beyond the realm of humanomics.    

When economists step outside their comfort zone of voluntaristic exchange processes, they certainly need to remember to take their bullshit detectors with them. That certainly applies in considering the findings of happiness studies and behavioral economics. It also applies in considering literary contributions, such as a book I read (and commented on here) about the significance for our understanding of happiness of Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel, Pamela.

Conclusions

Economists should practice humanomics because they can’t expect to be able to understand human behavior unless they do. Humans do not always behave as self-interested maximizers. It makes no sense to assume that human action always occurs at a subconscious level as an automatic response to stimuli. Individuals often think about the meaning of events, consider their options, and talk to others, before responding. Self-direction is integral to human flourishing.

In seeking explanations for human behavior, economists should not confine themselves to a focus on institutions and incentives. They should be open to considering all relevant information that they can get their hands on, including information on ethics, ideology, and happiness ratings.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Are social movements drivers of progress?

 




In considering this question my focus is on Mikayla Novak’s recent book, Freedom in Contention, Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

Mikayla describes social movements as “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants … aiming to effect change within society”. Mikayla provides an enlightening account of the nature of social movements, the role of entrepreneurship within them, the tactics they use, and of factors that contribute to their success. I focus here on Mikayla’s view that social movements have played a critical role in the realization of liberties enjoyed today in the Western democracies. That line of argument is central to the book, and closely linked to the question posed above.

Before going further, I should note that Mikayla uses an “entangled political economy” framework to examine social networks. That framework, developed by Richard Wagner, views individuals and groups as being intertwined in overlapping relationships of different kinds - collaborative or competitive, or consensual or exploitive. In pursuing their goals, social movements have an irrepressible tendency to entangle with other movements, and with economic and political organizations.

In making the case that social movements have contributed to expanding economic, political, and social freedoms, Mikayla discusses the historical role of some important social movements. The American revolution is discussed as the culmination of a movement resisting imposition of unfair taxation. The Anti-Corn Law League is discussed as a movement rallying public support in opposition to agricultural tariffs that benefitted landowners at the expense of consumers. The movements involved in progressive extension of the voting franchise, including female suffrage activism, are discussed as part of a struggle to gain recognition that all individuals should have equal standing to participate in politics. The success of the American Civil Rights Movement in expanding economic, political, and social freedoms is argued to have inspired subsequent movements including anti-war, environmental and feminist movements.

The author’s coverage of contemporary social movements highlights responses to regulation limiting voluntary productive entanglements of an economic nature. Movements discussed include the Tea Party and the campaign to counter restrictive effects of regulation on availability of medication for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Mikayla also highlights the ongoing challenges posed by cultural-institutional environments that fail to prevent those with political influence using it to obtain benefits at the expense of others, and which repress social movement activities. She paints an alarming picture of rising illiberalism:

“Economic freedom has waned, minorities and many other groups around the world are victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics, and, increasingly, we are meeting the end of a police baton or are being haunted by the constant eye of the surveillance state. All in all, the disturbing trend is that illiberalism appears, again, on the rise.” (p 136)

However, that is followed immediately by a more optimistic message about the future of freedom:

“Nevertheless, it is our position that great encouragement should be taken from the demonstrated self-organizational abilities of ordinary people, worldwide, to formulate social movements to demand their liberties and human rights.” (p 136)

Progress

Although Mikayla does not discuss the concept of progress to any great extent, she makes the important point that social evolution tends to be discordant and discontinuous. As a liberal, she focuses on the role of social movements play in the evolution of free and open societies, and expresses strong opposition to “totalizing schemes (drawn up by social movement participants, and by others) aiming at wholesale change to society”.

I believe that social movements have been an important driver of progress, as the concept is defined in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  I define progress as growth of opportunities for human flourishing – that means growth of opportunities for all individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. I don’t discuss the role of social movements explicitly, but note that social changes accompanying economic progress have played an important role in improving the opportunities available to women and members of minority groups.

My view of cultural evolution as largely benign and emancipative is consistent with the view of social movements that Mikayla presents. There is, however, a slight difference in emphasis. I view cultural evolution as the net result of progressive struggle and conservative resistance, and argue that conservative resistance serves a useful purpose in averting social changes that might later be widely regretted. Mikayla recognizes that counter-movements may be informed by ideological commitments rather than being reactionary, but she leaves the impression that they are more likely to oppose liberal freedoms than to advance them. (See pages 90-91.)

There is also an interesting difference between the items that Mikayla and I discuss as illiberal tendencies. As noted above, Mikayla emphasizes the tendency for minorities and many other groups around the world to be victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics. The things I write about under this heading include cancel culture, attempts to suppress views of opponents, and terrorism. I think we are both right!

Summing up

Mikayla’s book makes an important contribution in reminding readers in the Western democracies of the emancipative role of social movements in realization of economic, political, and social freedoms that they now tend to take for granted.  In that context, social movements have been important drivers of progress, including the spreading of opportunities for more people to meet their aspirations more fully. Although I am somewhat concerned about the illiberal tendencies in some contemporary social movements, I share Mikayla’s optimism about the abilities of ordinary people to formulate social movements to advance and protect liberty.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Do people have a right to choose where they will live?

 

                                        Vietnamese boat people arriving in Australia in 1976


In the Western liberal democracies there are few people who claim that individuals do not have the right to choose where they live. However, many people set limits on the extent to which they recognize that right. They only recognize that foreigners have the right to live in their neighborhood if they meet stringent immigration requirements.

Is that a reasonable view? If people readily accept that individuals should be free to choose where they will live within national borders, why are they reluctant to accept that individuals have a right to choose which country to live in?

If you view national borders as arbitrary lines on maps, it will seem absurd to you that immigration requirements should make it more difficult to re-locate across national borders than within a nation. International migration could normally be expected to be as beneficial as migration within national borders. For example, the potential benefits to both the employees and employers concerned when workers relocate to take up employment opportunities are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed. Similarly, the potential benefits to both the grandparents and grandchildren of living in the same locality are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed to enable that to happen.


I have been pondering such questions while reading Ilya Somin’s recent book, Free to Move: Foot voting, migration, and political freedom. Somin presents a powerful argument in favour of foot voting – choosing to move to a different country, city, condo etc. because you prefer its rules to the ones you currently live under. Foot voting enables individuals to make a choice that actually matters to them, whereas voting in an election offers individuals only a miniscule chance of affecting the outcome.

I didn’t need to read Somin’s book to be persuaded of the potential value of foot voting. It would be difficult for an economist engaged in public policy not to be aware of those benefits. I also had the benefit of considering the issues involved many years ago when I read Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

However, it is one thing to accept the potential benefits of foot voting as an ideal, and quite another to advocate removal of current obstacles to foot voting posed by migration regulations.

Somin suggest that the sovereignty argument – the view that the right to bar migrants is intrinsic to the existence of an independent nation state – has little support among political theorists, although it often arises in public discourse. Somin mentions Donald Trump and his southern border wall proposal in this context, but John Howard, a former Australian prime minister, advanced the argument just as strongly in 2001:

 “National Security … is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open-hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

While national governments continue to exist, it would not be realistic to expect them to refrain from accepting responsibility for migration policy. However, that does not mean that it is beyond the realms of possibility for governments to adopt something more closely approaching an open borders policy. As Somin points out, sovereign nations existed for centuries without exercising a general power to bar peaceful migrants. Most governments made significant efforts to restrict entry only in the late 19th century.

The reason why the sovereignty argument seems persuasive to many people must be related to their perception that illegal or unauthorized migration has adverse consequences. They want immigration regulation enforced because they believe it serves a useful purpose.

Somin discusses in some detail various reasons that have been advanced for immigration restrictions. These include fear of terrorism and crime, possible reduction of wage levels, burdening of the welfare state, destruction of the environment, and the spread of harmful cultural values. He recognizes the validity of some objections to freedom of international migration, but suggests that “keyhole solutions” are available to meet negative side-effects of expanded migration. These keyhole solutions aim to target real problems, minimizing risks of adverse outcomes without imposing unnecessary restrictions on foot voting.

As in many other policy areas, carefully targeted regulation which minimizes adverse side-effects is clearly preferable to blanket bans and restrictions that are directed toward meeting political demands of anti-migrant nationalist groups. Somin recognizes that such groups are the main obstacle to international foot voting.

This brings me back to the sovereignty argument. It seems to me that anti-migrant nationalist groups had greater sway in Australian politics 20 years ago when significant numbers of people seeking refugee status were arriving by boat without prior approval. Under those circumstances it was relatively easy for the opponents of immigration to claim that “people smuggling” and “queue jumping” by refugees was likely to lead to huge social problems.

The government’s action to enforce regulation and discourage unauthorized arrivals seems to have enabled the public debate about immigration levels in Australia to become somewhat more civilized in recent years. It may also have reduced public disquiet about the relatively high migrant intake in recent years (prior to the Covid 19 pandemic).

The sovereignty argument is clearly opposed to recognition that people have a right to choose which country they will live in. Nevertheless, Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since the government stridently asserted sovereignty by taking effective action to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Postscript

The last couple of paragraphs have attracted some comment in response to a Facebook post by Boris Karpa: https://www.facebook.com/548209107/posts/10159829476419108/

The issue is whether there is any evidence to back up my assertion that Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since more effective action was taken to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Survey evidence certainly suggests that immigration has gone off the radar as a major political issue in Australia over the last decade (Scanlan Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, 2020, p24). 

The total number of migrants has increased, but there has been substantial opposition associated with the "somewhat more civilized debate" that I referred to. It now seems possible for people to argue for a lower migrant intake on grounds of pressure on infrastructure, impacts on unskilled wage, and house prices etc. without being accused of racism, or lack of sympathy for refugees.

The refugee intake has not risen much over the last decade. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be survey data on perceptions of whether the current refugee intake is too high or too low for long enough to assess whether attitudes have changed over the last decade. The Scanlan Foundation's report for 2019 suggests that in recent years opinion has been evenly balanced between those who say the intake is too small and those who say it is too large.

I think the Australian public would now be receptive to a larger refugee intake, provided people don’t arrive uninvited. However, that is just my personal view. I guess we will see whether or not I am right over the next year or so. 

Further comments are welcome.

 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?

 


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?

 


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be na├»ve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Does Kahlil Gibran's prophet present an inspiring view of human flourishing?

 


The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, seems designed to appeal to people who are looking for inspiration. That is why I have dipped into it at various times in the past – and it may explain why I have previously put it aside after reading one or two of the 26 poems it contains. My mind does not seem to be capable of being inspired more than a few mystical messages at a time.

The Prophet, published in 1923, made Kahlil Gibran the best-selling American poet of the 20th century. I have previously thought of Gibran as a Lebanese poet and artist, but he apparently lived most of his life in America. Although The Prophet was hugely popular, its “earnest, didactic romanticism” found little favour with America’s literary critics.

While dipping into the book recently, it struck me that Gibran had been successful in reaching a large audience because he used mystical poetry to put words into the mouth of Almustafa, an imaginary prophet. That technique did not appeal to literary critics, but it helped make the messages seem profound to many other readers.

However, I have struggled to get a clear overall picture of the views Gibran was presenting. In an attempt to come to grips with the main themes, I have identified what seems to me to be the main idea in each of the 26 poems and then allocated each idea among the following six categories: physiological needs, personal relationships, psychological well-being, self-direction, living in harmony with nature, and transcendence. The first five of those categories correspond broadly to the basic goods of a flourishing human, as identified in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

What follows is a summary of what I see as the main ideas in the book. As far as possible, I have tried to use Gibran’s words.

The main ideas

Physiological needs

The activities involved in meeting basic needs should be seen to have a higher purpose. Eating and drinking has potential to be a process in which “the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man”. Work has potential to be joyful, “love made visible”. Market exchange has potential to serve a higher purpose because “it is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied”.

The “lust for comfort” can be harmful. A desire for comfortable housing “murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral”. Those who seek the “the freedom of privacy” through excessive clothing “may find in them a harness and a chain”. It would be preferable to “meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment”.

If we must measure time into seasons, “let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing”.

Personal relationships

You should “let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit”. “When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market-place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.” If love is accompanied by desire, let that desire be:

“To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness.”

Marriage partners should give their hearts, “but not into each other’s keeping”:

“For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Psychological well-being

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

If you “wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy”.

If you want to know the secret of death, “open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

When you make gifts, “it is life that gives unto life - while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.” People have different motives for making gifts. Some “give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

Self-direction

No teacher “can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge”. You seek self-knowledge because “your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge”. … “And it is well you should.”

“Pleasure is a freedom-song.” … “Even your body knows its heritage and its rightful need and will not be deceived. And your body is the harp of your soul, and it is yours to bring forth sweet music from it or confused sounds.”

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”

People view the law in different ways. Some “delight in laying down laws”, yet “delight more in breaking them”. Some “see only their own shadows, and their shadows are their laws” because they stand “with their backs to the sun”. … But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?”

In order to be just it is necessary to look upon all deeds in the light of knowledge “that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self.”

You can only be free “when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment”.  … “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?”

You do not own your children: “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Living in harmony with nature

[Respect for nature pervades the book, but the prophet is not asked a specific question about living in harmony with nature.]

Transcendence

When asked to speak of religion, Almustafa asks: “Have I spoken this day of aught else?” … “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.”

When you pray, “God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.”

When you have spoken of beauty, “you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied”. “Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy” … “a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted”  … “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil.”

“You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good. You are only loitering and sluggard” …  “In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.”

“To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy. … And though in your winter you deny your spring, Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended.”

Comment

There are at least two major themes in The Prophet.

One theme encourages readers to ponder how all aspects of their lives can be directed toward purposes beyond survival and personal comfort. Religious traditions have long promoted similar ideals.

Another theme is the importance of individual self-expression and self-development. Individuals are urged to recognize their own potential for good and to express that potential in their relationships with others.

I cannot defend all of the messages of Gibran’s prophet. However, I support the broad themes of his teachings, while recognizing that those themes are not original.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

What does "A Dream of Red Mansion" tell us about place-seeking culture in China?

 


A Dream of Red Mansion, which was written by Cao Xuequin in the 18th century, is often claimed to be China’s greatest classical novel. The book is sometimes also referred to as Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone.

After reading the novel it is easy for me to see why it is considered to be a great novel. It is impossible for translations to capture everything conveyed by Chinese characters but even in translation (I read Gladys Yang’s version) this is one of the best novels I have read.

What is the book about?

The book is about many aspects of life of a wealthy aristocratic family living in the Chinese capital. It follows the life of the central character, Jia Baoyu, through childhood to early adulthood. Baoyu spends most of his time playing with girls – his cousins and servants. He is spoiled by his mother and grandmother, but is frequently reprimanded by his father.

In terms of broad structure, the novel is about destiny – the story of a piece of jade, with prophetic inscriptions, that miraculously appears in Baoyu’s mouth at the time of his birth. The novel is also a story about love and arranged marriage. While suffering from some kind of mental illness, Baoyu is fooled into thinking he is being married to the person he loves during the ceremony in which he is being married to a different person.

One of the features of the novel is the author’s obvious admiration of girls and young women. Baoyu’s cousins have greater skill in composing poetry than he does, and provide the competition he needs to improve his performance. The novel suggests that females in the Jia household had somewhat idyllic childhoods, but were at great risk of suffering from heartbreak, disease (particularly TB) and early death, or from spousal abuse if they survived long enough to have a marriage arranged for them.

The novel is also a story about the role of place-seeking in a family of government officials whose fortunes were declining. In that context, Baoyu is under pressure from his father to study hard and to learn to write essays in a manner that will enable him to perform well in the imperial examination. Baoyu, however, is more interested in engaging in poetical activities with his female cousins. Those tensions were of particular interest because of the role of civil service examinations in China’s place-seeking society.

The civil service examinations

By comparison with Western Europe, in China the accumulation of wealth over several generations seems to have depended to a greater extent on securing an official position and maintaining favor with government authorities. Emperors of China seem to have been more readily able to confiscate the property of wealthy people who fell out favour than were the kings of Western Europe, who often had to share power with barons and popes.

I turned to Linda Jaivin’s book, The Shortest History of China, for background information about place-seeking in China. In writing about the Tang dynasty (618-907), Jaivin emphasizes the links between inherited wealth, education, and official position:    

“Unlike the hereditary aristocracy of Europe, China’s landed gentry owed their influence to a fluid mix of lineage, wealth (including land ownership), education and official position. It was a stable identity insofar as inherited wealth made it easier to get an education, making it easier to secure an official position, making it easier to accumulate wealth.”

Civil service examinations had ancient origins, but were reformed under Empress Wu Zetian. The principle of meritocracy was advanced by making the examinations accessible to candidates of humble background and by using blind marking to eliminate favouritism. She mandated that the examinations were to be held regularly and to focus on subjects she deemed useful for governance, such as history and rhetoric, rather than the ancient classics. However, the ancient classics once again became the basis of the civil service examinations during the Song dynasty.

Civil service examinations did not remain a constant feature of government in China during subsequent centuries. They were effectively abolished during the Yuan dynasty, following the Mongol invasion. During that period, top appointments went to Mongols and were made hereditary.

During the Manchu Qing dynasty, the civil service examinations were upheld by Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) who had studied the Confucian classics as a child. The tradition was continued through the reign of his grandson Qianlong (r. 1735-1796). It was during that period that Cao Xuequin wrote A Dream of Red Mansion.

Baoyu’s predicament

Baoyu’s father, Jia Zhen, did not expect Baoyu to perform spectacularly at the imperial examinations. When he saw that Baoyu was not fond of study, but had some understanding of poetry, he decided that this “did not really disgrace their ancestors; for they themselves, he recalled, had been the same, and although working hard for the examinations had never distinguished themselves”.

However, that didn’t stop Jia Zhen from threatening his son with dire consequences if he did not study hard:

“I’ve also heard that you spend all your time in the Garden playing about with your girl cousins and even fooling about with the maids, forgetting your studies completely. You may write a few lines of poetry but it’s not up to much, nothing to boast about. After all, when you come to take the examinations, it’s essay-writing that counts; but you’ve neglected that. Here’s what you’re to do from now on. Stop versifying and writing couplets, and concentrate on studying eight-section essays. I give you one year. If you’ve made no progress by the end of that time you can stop studying, and I shall disown you!”

Baoyu loathed the eight-section essays, “taking the view that as these were not written by sages or worthies they could not expound the wisdom of sages or worthies and were simply ladders by which later examination candidates climbed up to bureaucratic advancement”. He had a low opinion of place-seekers. In commenting on his meeting with a person who had a strong physical resemblance to himself, Baoyu says:

“He talked and talked but said not a word about seeking for truth, just holding forth on scholarship and the management of affairs, as well as loyalty and filial piety. Isn’t such a person a toady.”

Baoyu was fond of the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Taoism, which tends to promote carefree attitudes. In Chapter 21 of the book he is delighted by a passage suggesting the existence of some weird paradoxes, for example that “all men under heaven will learn skill for themselves” if the fingers of deft artisans were to be cut off.

By the time we reach Chapter 118 of the book, as the examinations are approaching, Baoyu disturbs his family by hinting that he intends to renounce the world. At that point, he is absorbed in reading the chapter “Autumn Water” in the Zhuangzi. The author does not tell us what passage he is reading. Perhaps it is the passage about what the “truly great man” does:   

“He struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. … The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. …”

When his wife, Baochai, sees what Baoyu is reading she takes this to mean that he is seriously considering “leaving the world of men” and giving up all human relationships. This leads them into a heated exchange in which Baochai emphasizes Baoyu’s responsibility to his family. The exchange ends with Baochai giving some final advice:

“Since you’ve run out of arguments, my advice to you is to take a grip on yourself and study hard; because if you can pass the triennial examination, even if you stop at that, you’ll be paying back your debt of gratitude for your sovereign’s favour and your ancestor’s virtue.” Baoyu nodded and sighed, then said, “Actually it isn’t difficult to pass. And what you said about stopping there and repaying my debt is not far wide of the mark.”

Baoyu does study hard. He performs exceptionally well at the imperial examination and then disappears to become a Buddhist monk. The emperor decrees that the brilliance of Baoyu’s writing must be due to his being an immortal, and the whole household is overjoyed.

My view

The struggle that Baoyu experiences in coping with parental expectations is no doubt heightened by the Confucian culture in which he lives. However, individuals can feel conflict between their personal values and a desire to meet the expectations of parents even when they grow up in a culture with little reverence for sovereigns or ancestors. The novel can be read as an account of how a young man was eventually able to reconcile his Taoist values with the Confucian culture in which he lived. As I see it, the novel has wider relevance as a story about personal development and the need for individuals to take responsibility for directing their own lives as they approach adulthood.

Friday, May 28, 2021

How does it feel to be holding a copy of my new book?

 


It feels good!

I am one of those people who extols the virtues of eBooks. They don’t take up space on bookshelves. They don’t collect dust. They make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for by searching for particular words, rather than relying on an index. Their production probably does less damage to the environment. And they are often available at a lower price - that is certainly true for readers who are eligible to purchase the Kindle version of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing from Amazon.com.au.

However, there does seem to be something special about being able to hold the book I have written in my own hands. I think there is more involved than just being able to have one’s photo taken holding the book as a physical object. I could have had my photo taken displaying an electronic version on my iPad. It is a mystery to me why I feel that there is something special about holding a physical copy of my own book in my hands. Perhaps I should consider acknowledging that I have a deep-seated attachment to the idea that books are physical objects.

Enough of that!

In the preceding post on this blog, Who should read “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”? I briefly outlined the contents of the book and some responses by reviewers.

The main purpose of this post is to acknowledge the fine work of the publisher, Hamilton Books, an imprint of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. Readers wishing to purchase my book from Hamilton will find it here.

When I was writing the acknowledgements in the book itself, it seemed premature to acknowledge the excellent work of the staff at Hamilton books. Now I have seen the results of their efforts, I have no hesitation in praising them.

I can’t claim great expertise in assessing the quality of the work of publishers, but it seems to me that the standard of publication of my book compares favorably with that of many of the books on my bookshelves. I was pleasantly surprised that publication of the book has occurred on time, in May, as the publisher foreshadowed.

The people I have dealt with at Rowman and Littlefield who have been particularly helpful include Julie Kirsch (Senior Vice President), Nicolette Amstutz (Director of Editorial), Brooke Bures (an editor I have been dealing with throughout the process), Mikayla Mislak (who helped me meet formatting guidelines), Catherine Herman (production editor), and Ashley Moses (Customer Service Department). These people were all friendly and helpful, and responded promptly to queries. I am also grateful for the efforts of other staff, with whom I have not had direct contact.   


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Who should read "Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing"?

 


I have dedicated the book to those who reflect on what it means to be a flourishing human.

When individuals think about their own personal development, they are reflecting on what it means to be a flourishing human.  I believe that reflection on what it means to be a flourishing human also holds the key to understanding the importance of liberty, and its role in economic development.

What is the book about?

The book explains how freedom (liberty) enables individuals to flourish in different ways without colliding, how it fosters progress and enables growth of opportunities, and how it supports personal development by enabling individuals to exercise self-direction.

The importance of self-direction is a theme of the book. The introductory chapter explains that wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to flourishing because it helps individuals to attain health and longevity, positive human relationships, psychological well-being, and an ability to live in harmony with nature.

Part I discusses natural rights and the evolution of freedom since ancient times. It explains how most people living in the liberal democracies today came to enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors.

Part II discusses progress. It explains how cultural change made economic progress possible by supporting the rule of law, liberty, and interpersonal trust, as well as the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators and tolerance of diversity. It notes that progress has led to increasingly widespread opportunities for people to meet their aspirations. It also discusses reasons for apprehension about the continuation of progress.

Part III considers how it is possible for individuals to meet the challenges of self-direction and to enhance their potential to flourish by investing in personal development. It explains that while the exercise of practical wisdom has always been integral to the flourishing of individuals, it has become commonplace for people to aspire to exercise meaningful self-direction over their lives to a greater extent than has ever been possible in the past.

The main message of the book is that people who live in Western liberal democracies should count their blessings. They have many blessings to count!

What are reviewers saying about the book?

Doug Rasmussen, a philosopher, and joint author with Douglas Den Uyl of a trilogy of books about liberty and human flourishing writes:

“Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing is a highly informed, but not an unduly technical, account of human flourishing and the need for a political/legal order that has the primary goal of protecting individual rights. This work is informed by not only philosophical but also by psychological and economic studies. This work provides an excellent entry point for deeper discussions of these fundamental claims.”

Readers who are seeking deeper discussions will find much to think about in the books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism.

Ron Duncan, a distinguished Australian economist with particular expertise in the economics and governance of developing countries, writes:

“With so much attention on identifying issues we should be unhappy about, Winton Bates' book is a welcome relief, given its emphasis on how much the lot of most people—particularly those in western liberal societies—has improved, why the improvements have taken place, and why they should continue. Its historical coverage of the philosophical issues underpinning the role of liberty in western progress should delight all serious thinkers.”

Ed Younkins, author of Flourishing and Happiness in A Free Society and Capitalism and Commerce writes:

“This masterful feat of integration of a wide range of literature from philosophy, economics, political science, and the social sciences will inspire scholars to bring their disciplines together to advance the argument for a free society.”

What are my qualifications to write such a book?

I am an economist. I first became professionally involved in broad issues concerning human flourishing in the early 1990s. Before then, my career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. Whilst retaining my professional interest in such matters, I have become increasingly interested in economic history, happiness economics, behavioral economics, self-help psychology, politics, and Aristotelian philosophy. I have written extensively about freedom and flourishing and have been blogging on this site for about 12 years.

How do I perform when interviewed about my book?

Potential interviewers who need to make such an assessment should take a look at me being interviewed by Leah Goldrick. The interview entitled “Freedom Helps us Flourish” has been published on Leah’s Common Sense Ethics channel on YouTube. The interview is also a useful source of background information about the book and its author.

Where can the book be purchased?

The book has been published by Hamilton Books and can be purchased at the Rowman and Littlefield web site: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780761872665/Freedom-Progress-and-Human-Flourishing

It is also available from Amazon and some other book sellers. Australian readers interested in obtaining an electronic copy will find an attractive option at Amazon.com.au.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Does evolutionary psychology shed light on the source of human intuitions?

 



I have difficulty thinking of Aristotle as a blank slate theorist. The view that evolved psychological adaptations play no role in determining human behavior seems impossible to reconcile with Aristotle’s teleological view that living entities contain in themselves the principle of their own development. It is worth remembering, however, that Aristotle saw personal development as linked to formation of good habits – he saw roles for both nature and nurture in human flourishing. In order to make sense of the passage quoted above I need to allow myself to imagine a blank writing tablet that has functional specialization allowing information relevant to the flourishing of our pre-historic ancestors to be most readily written upon it. (Incidentally, the quote is from On the Soul, Book III, Part 4.)

Evolutionary psychology has promoted the view that evolved psychological adaptations play a role in determining human behavior. To consider the light it sheds on the source of human intuitions I will begin with Steven Pinker’s list of the cognitive intuitions (also referred to as modules, systems, stances, faculties, mental organs, multiple intelligences, and reasoning engines), and then move on to Jonathan Haidt’s list of ethical intuitions. I will then consider whether attacks on evolutionary psychology should cause us to be wary of the evolutionary reasoning associated with such lists.

Pinker suggests that we are equipped with a range of different cognitive intuitions that evolved through psychological adaptations to keep our ancestors in touch with reality. These intuitions emerge early in life, and are present in every normal person. His list includes a basic intuitive grasp of physics, biology, engineering, psychology, and economic exchange. It includes a spatial sense, and senses of number and probability. It also includes language, and a mental data base and logic that are used to represent ideas and infer new ideas from old ones. These intuitions are suitable for the lifestyles of small groups of illiterate people living several thousands of years ago. They do not give people a spontaneous intuitive understanding of modern science, technology, or economics. (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, 2002, 219-21)

Haidt argues that moral intuitions evolved to meet various adaptive challenges faced by our ancestors. He suggests that moral intuitions relating to care and harm evolved to protect children; intuitions relating to fairness and cheating evolved to reap benefits of cooperation; intuitions relating to loyalty and betrayal evolved to protect groups from challenges; intuitions relating to authority and subversion evolved to obtain benefits from hierarchies; and intuitions about sanctity and degradation evolved to avoid contamination and disease. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, 123-127)

The views of Pinker and Haidt seem to me to be plausible, but can this kind of reasoning withstand the criticism that evolutionary psychology consists of “just so” stories?  


In his book, Rethinking Evolutionary Psychology, Andrew Goldfinch, a philosopher, tells readers that critics view evolutionary psychology explanations “as shockingly naked in historic and scientific detail”. Massive modularity has been a particular focus of criticism. The strongest form of massive modularity claims that there are no systems or mechanisms that are not dedicated to particular problems.

I came to Goldfinch’s book with the idea that the concept of brain plasticity was opposed to modularity. I had thought that evidence that brains “rewire” themselves in response to experience as people transition from infancy to adulthood would tend to count against modularity. However, many cognitive psychologists stress that when they talk about modules what they have in mind is functional specialization which is consistent with overlap between processing areas of the brain. Plasticity enables brains to develop so that individuals normally have intuitions that are common among adult humans.

However, Goldfinch also makes it clear that the existence of innate knowledge does not require massive modularity. It is possible for domain-specific knowledge to be generated by domain-general processing. Both domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms are compatible with evolutionary theory. I think it follows that the issue of whether the lists of intuitions compiled by Pinker and Haidt are evolutionary adaptations does not depend on the validity of the theory of massive modularity.

The main point that Goldfinch makes is that leading evolutionary psychologists have brought their research program into disrepute by packaging it as a paradigm shift. The research program became identified with claims of a strong form of massive modularity as leading proponents argued that evolutionary adaptation implies the existence of strong massive modularity. Leading proponents used the concept of strong massive modularity to challenge conventional social science based on the foundation of domain-general knowledge and processes that are exclusively social. This prompted excessively critical responses that sought to discredit the entire research program as “just so” stories.

Goldfinch argues that strong massive modularity is not integral to evolutionary psychology. He suggests that evolutionary psychology should be viewed as an exploratory research program aimed at generating and testing hypotheses about psychological mechanisms. Viewed in that light, evolutionary psychology explores whether psychological traits that are observed across cultures could be adaptations, and has potential to guide researchers into identifying new behavioral patterns and mechanisms.

Goldfinch summarizes his view as follows:

“Initial evolutionary psychology hypotheses aim, or should aim, not for the last evolutionary word on a given phenomenon, but the first. They are in constant adjustment—both with the research programme’s own findings and findings from adjacent research programmes and disciplines. If this is done, this should generate sophisticated hypotheses, as well as generate progressive increments to our understanding of psychological and social phenomena.” (200)

I can see the wisdom in Goldfinch’s suggestion that evolutionary psychologists should not be aiming to have the last word. Should any scientist ever be aiming to have the last word? However, I think it is inevitable that a good number of the hypotheses advanced by evolutionary psychologists will challenge beliefs that human behavior is wholly attributable to simple mechanisms of learning and can be modified readily by changing social arrangements.  

Even if the views about human intuitions put forward by evolutionary psychologists only have the status of plausible speculations, they can still help us to comprehend aspects of the world we live in. For example, Pinker’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people tend to perceive the world they live in much the same way as their ancestors who knew nothing about the processes that modern physics describes. Haidt’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people hold ethical intuitions that cannot be readily explained in terms of current social circumstances. The paucity of historic detail supporting such speculations should not cause them to be dismissed unless more plausible explanations are offered. Those seeking truth should find plausible speculations more satisfying than implausible speculations and mysteries.