Human Nature and Political Philosophy

1. The constraints of human nature

If chimpanzees thought about political philosophy, the schemes they advanced would be very different from those advocated by Plato or Hobbes or Jefferson. Chimpanzees are our closest cousins—we are genetically quite similar—and yet chimpanzee nature is different from human nature. Thus, if chimpanzees were to think about promoting the welfare of their social groups, they would think differently than we do. Most of us understand this, at least intuitively, but some of the smartest people seem to forget about the importance of human nature when thinking about how best to organize our political institutions.

No specific political ideology follows ineluctably from an understanding of human nature, of course. But such an understanding can tell us what not to try, and it can give us a sense of how people will behave under alternative political institutions with different incentives.

To say that a reasonable political theory should be compatible with human nature doesn’t mean we should treat human nature as fixed. Our brains are flexible, shaped by evolution to absorb new kinds of knowledge. Learning a language and living in a culture in which we have access to math and science and movies and literature allows us to think in radically different ways than we would if we were raised in a jungle, or in Europe 5,000 years ago.

Our political environment can create the conditions for certain kinds of thoughts and actions to materialize. Rates of violence can be changed with effective law enforcement, the enforcement of private property rights, and a culture that emphasizes peaceful exchange rather than violent competition.

But our brains are also prepared to respond to stimuli in particular ways. We can’t teach people to care more about strangers than they do about friends and family. Our brains may be flexible but, like bungee cords, the demands made on them by political institutions can eventually lead them to recoil and snap back. The tragic results of an unconstrained view of human nature can range from vexing bureaucracies and inefficient agencies to tyranny and genocide.

Contrary to Rousseau, Marx, and many modern progressives, institutions cannot fundamentally change people’s underlying propensities—they cannot turn apes into angels. None of this is new, but, like other timeless truths, it’s worth highlighting.

2. Incentives and outcomes

Economists are fond of saying that incentives matter. As obvious as it is, this simple insight is often ignored by utopian visionaries.

Consider a recent example. In the spring of 2020, the American media reported on a series of cases in which white cops allegedly targeted black men because of their race. While many of the cases were ambiguous—it was unclear if race motivated any of the incidents, let alone all of them—much of the media on the Left framed the issue as an epidemic of racist police attacking blacks without justification. The selective and biased reporting of the incidents led to violent protests across the USA, followed by activists calling to defund the police. Policymakers in some of America’s biggest cities heeded the call.

Despite the dubious origins of the BLM movement’s core claims, the effects of its demands to “defund the police”—along with mass retirements by demoralized police officers—have been devastating. Violent crime has soared in precisely the areas in which police budgets were cut, and in which police were discouraged from using force in dealing with suspected criminals. While some journalists have denied these effects, or have argued that correlation doesn’t prove causation, the pattern is clear, and the hypothesis that less policing increases incentives to commit crimes is plausible. In other words, simplistic as it may seem, reductions in proactive policing seem to increase crime.

Most people are not inclined to rob liquor stores or murder their neighbors when the police aren’t looking. But aggression and self-control are unevenly distributed in the population. Among those who are bothered less by the thought of using force and fraud to achieve their goals, a small reduction in the chance that they’ll be caught and punished can lead to a big increase in their willingness to commit crime. Incentives matter: they shape human behavior by constraining the options people consider viable, given their goals and propensities.

3. Varieties of equality

Variation is the fuel that powers the engine of evolution. Even animals in the same family are different from each other. Some cheetahs are faster than others; some turtles are better swimmers than others; some people are more cooperative than others. Natural selection shapes future traits by “favoring” some variants over others. Thus, inequality, in the sense of difference, is built into the fabric of the biological world. It is natural and inescapable. And yet people in modern liberal democracies are often tempted to deny this when thinking about how resources should be allocated, or how institutions should work.

They deny this because they care about inequality and consider unfair hierarchies objectionable. Our claim is not that people should not worry about inequality; it is that they should think more clearly about it. For example, here are a few simple versions of equality as a moral ideal:

Equality under the law
Equality of opportunity
Equality of outcome

To discuss equality productively, we need to be aware of these distinctions. Equality of outcome is vastly different from equality under the law. And when Jefferson penned the immortal lines in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he did not mean that they are literally the same or that they deserve equal outcomes. Unless we attend to these differences in meaning, we risk sliding illegitimately from one claim about equality to another.

Biological inequality is clearly compatible with certain kinds of moral and political equality. For example, we might think citizens of a country should be treated as equals under the law in the sense that they have an equal right to a fair hearing when they are accused of committing a crime. This form of equality is perfectly consistent with physical and psychological inequality, as well as income and status inequality.

There is no moral reason a great athlete or scientist should receive a different kind of criminal hearing or face a different evidentiary standard than a plumber or an electrician. In fact, in the West, most people now fervently believe that there is a strong moral reason that a great athlete and a clumsy janitor should receive the same kind of hearing and face the same evidentiary standards. We can prize cognitive and physical diversity while also insisting on equality under the law.

Equality of opportunity is a stronger principle than equality under the law. It stems from our recognition that, for reasons outside of their control, some people start off with undeserved advantages over others. Some people are born to parents who are wealthy and well-connected, or who pass along traits like intelligence and conscientiousness, which make it easier to navigate the world. As John Rawls puts it, many of these advantages “seem arbitrary from a moral point of view.” Of course, this doesn’t mean the state has the right to use its coercive power to try to erase natural advantages.

4. Costs of coercion

Coercion has costs. Forcing Eve to benefit Adam reduces Eve’s freedom to spend her money as she wishes, and it might reduce Adam’s motivation to develop his skills and look for a better job. Aggressive redistributions of resources can affect individual prosperity and national productivity by altering incentives to work and invest. But sometimes these costs are worth paying, especially if we wish to increase opportunities for relatively poor children to make the best use of their talents, even if their parents can’t afford to help them do so.

It is worth pointing out, however, that equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve. We can move in the direction of equalizing opportunities with carefully crafted redistributive policies. But even egalitarians who understand human nature, such as the behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, know that we cannot truly equalize opportunities because people are born with unequal traits that are at least partially caused by different outcomes in a “genetic lottery.” We can make society open to talent, but we cannot distribute talent equally.

Some redistributive taxation is compatible with respecting the dignity of all people. But each move in the direction of equalizing resources or opportunities will have diminishing marginal returns. Initially, the recipients of redistributive policies gain a lot and the wealthiest citizens may barely notice their reduction in income. The first hamburger a starving person eats is delicious. The 20th hamburger less so. The first bundle of cash the government taxes from the rich won’t change their lives much. But when redistributive schemes become too aggressive, the highest earners will spend less time working on their laptops in the office and more time working on their tan at the beach.

This is not an ideological claim. Indeed, leisure is good, and there’s more to life than economic productivity. We are simply emphasizing that people respond to incentives, and that however benign they may begin, aggressive attempts to equalize resources or opportunities have predictable costs. Those who promote redistributive policies because the outcomes of the genetic lottery are random and unearned need to grapple with these costs honestly and directly.

Other, more elaborate versions of equality seem incompatible with human nature. They are either impossible to achieve or would be undesirable to try to achieve given the costs of the required coercion. As Kurt Vonnegut recognized, even if we were to equalize material resources, we’d still be left with unequal genetic endowments. We would need a ministry of handicaps to make beautiful people bland and sharp people dull.

Equality of outcome is only desirable under narrow circumstances, for example when a group of kids finds a $10 bill on an empty beach and decides to use it to buy Big Macs for all of them. As David Hume argued, even if a government were to achieve equality of resources at a moment in time, “men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality.” Enforcing such equality over time would, Hume thinks, “reduce society to the most extreme indigence.” That is, equality of outcome would only be momentary because once unequal humans freely traded and bartered with each other, resources would, once again, become unequally allocated. The only way to prevent this inequality would be constant and costly coercion that would leave people equal in anger and immiseration.

4. Private benefits and social costs

Why, then, would anyone endorse a principle that seems so strongly to contradict human nature? If enforced equality of outcome (or “equity”) would destroy the main reasons we have political institutions, such as protecting individual liberty and promoting social welfare, why would any rational person endorse it? For some people, part of the answer may have to do with motivated reasoning: the kind of extreme egalitarianism embodied in “equity” may be so appealing to moral fundamentalists that they ignore the predictable consequences of enforced equity. For others, such as politicians and corporate executives, publicly endorsing a principle like “equity” may signal their virtue—their symbolic commitment to the poor—even if it is insincere.

Paradoxically, it is perfectly consistent with human nature to publicly endorse principles that are inconsistent with human nature if by doing so the individual benefits exceed the individual costs. Wearing a tee shirt with Fidel Castro’s face on it is cheap, and in a culture that is obsessed with equity, it may gain us praise. Moving to Cuba after Castro’s revolution is expensive, which is why few proponents of communism in affluent countries actually move to places like Cuba or Venezuela.

Screaming from the rooftops that “equity” is a dangerous fantasy that would harm everyone has less expressive resonance than declaring our fealty to equal outcomes, at least in our current culture. In the realm of politics, many people engage in expressive behavior like moral grandstanding because, as individuals, they do not bear the costs of promoting misguided beliefs about public policy, even if all of us would suffer the costs if those policies were implemented.

If a professor says that she does not believe in anthropogenic global warming, then she might be shunned by most of her colleagues (a cost) but feted by rightwing media (a benefit). Often, these costs and benefits are more consequential to an individual than are the costs and benefits of the long-term social effects of his or her public proclamations, which are generally quite small. The effect of a single vote, for example, is often meagre, but the effect of a public statement about whom one voted for can be large. For instance, a professor at an elite university who wore a MAGA hat would likely pay a large social cost.

As many have pointed out, the radical progressive version of social justice has all the hallmarks of a religion. To the extent that we are religious creatures, it makes perfect sense that in a society dominated by a religion that elevates “equity” as the sole virtue of institutions, individuals would publicly endorse and sometimes sincerely support equity. And this is true even if the actual implementation of equity would destroy the society that incentivizes each of its members to support it. Laws and institutions are, after all, emergent orders: no single person controls them and they are path dependent in ways that make them hard to understand or predict.

Understanding human nature and social incentives can help explain political pathologies. But it can also help us fix them. Moral reflection and social science can help us consider which moral principles and political institutions are compatible with our nature, and which are likely to push most of us up rather than pull most of us down. Ultimately a political vision that is not constrained by human nature is like an architectural vision that is not constrained by physics: the results might make for good fiction, but they can be tragic in the real world.

Jonny Anomaly has taught at PPE programs around the USA, including Duke, Penn, Arizona, and San Diego. He is currently a visiting professor in Ecuador. Along with Aparicio Caicedo, Anomaly co-directs the new Center for Filosofia, Politica, y Economia at La Universidad de las Americas, the first of its kind in Latin America. Bo Winegard is an essayist with a PhD in psychology from Florida State University.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/03/human-nature-and-political-philosophy/
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The irony of conservative incentive philosophy is it’s actually sown the seeds for the unreasonable demands of equality of out come. Reducing all barriers to genuine equality of opportunity as “inescapable” natural human variables & therefore conveniently unmanageable also prevents incentives that have their consequences…

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Which is why balance should be the essential virtue. Indeed the fundamentalists on both sides each empower the other. The voltage behind the radical left is the consequence of the absolute avarice of the plutocrats. But it’s my theory that the latter have very cleverly diverted the left from worrying about class – the natural business of the left – to worrying about all the other Victimhoods we hear about every day.

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One of the greatest amplifiers of inequality of ability is progressive education. There is such a thing as intelligence-induced blindness. In a class of mixed ability, future educational theorists may judge learning times tables by rote as a waste of time, given they grasp maths so easily- but for a substantial portion of the class not learning their tables will mean that they become functionally innumerate in later life, unable to perform any maths other than simple sums. We know this from Cognitive Load Theory and from the fact that an increasing number of young people suffer from Maths trauma, for the simple reason that they haven’t had the basic building blocks of maths drummed into their long-term memory. It is not enough to be able to work out 6 x 8 = 48 -for more cognitively complex maths tasks one simply needs to know automatically that the answer is 48.

Similar principles operate in relation to reading and phonics, although whole word or language is useful when encountering words you have never heard for the first time.

K-12 or early education should be the great leveller- but by introducing ideas into education which have little or no proven merit, which are more creative and wishful in origin than scientific, the progressive approach has turned what should be a levelling force into a magnifier of inequality on the basis of ability. Smart kids will always get it, and will be more likely than not to possess two parent families, affluent home with ample resources and highly educated parents who will be better able to mitigate the disaster bad theories in education have caused to public education. But for the Left Behind kids, the ones who will inevitably struggle, this intelligence-induced blindness has done nothing other than erect more obstacles further along in their education.

The problem with education is not that is a death valley for creativity- for decades teachers have been trying to inculcate creativity to no avail. The problem is that it has increasingly prevented teachers from imparting the basic building blocks of higher knowledge without which less smart kids will never thrive. Who cares whether children learn to code, if they can’t perform anything other than basic maths and will never pick up a book to read for pleasure in their entire lives?

I touch on a related topic in my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Nice essay. One major problem I see in actually eliminating these pathologies is that there is an unspoken assumption that unequal outcomes must, just must must must be the result of inequality of opportunity, because too many people are uncomfortable with the fact that talent is distributed so unequally. There’s a Confucian saying quoted in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age which goes “By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be far apart.” This is true, of course, but no one wants to look at a garbage collector or public housing denizen and think “yeah, that’s about where you belong” because it just seems cruel. At the same time, I think we in the west are still suffering a hangover from the long tyranny of aristocratic privilege that predominated for…well, since at least ancient Greece, and so there’s a tendency to view anybody with higher status with suspicion, resentment, or paranoia.

Basically, we collectively cannot stand the idea that low or high SES people might have earned that status with some collection of hard work and talent, or the absence of them. And that’s before you get to the correlations between SES and ethnicity, which make the whole thing thornier still. I don’t know what to do about this other than to emphasize the flaws in the current fad of making “equity” the operating principle of every effing institution in the country, plus try to point out that nobody begrudges a professional athlete or actor his success, why should it be so different when it comes to other well-paid groups like real estate developers, hedge fund managers, tech entrepreneurs, and the like?

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I lost a potential client just yesterday over that very issue. I told the mother that the first lesson is always times tables and we will not proceed until they are learned. She said her daughter was already in pre-calc and she didn’t need to know them. I said that she could be at MIT and I’d still require it. So that was that.

When I was a kid, so it was. Lived in the richest municipality in Canada but we were only middle class. But there were many very rich kids around and … it didn’t matter. Everyone was treated the same and acted the same. Nobody put on airs, nobody played Victim either – Victimhood as we have it now hadn’t even been invented. You just wanted to be seen as normal and 99% of us were just that.

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Let’s take the four topics in order.

  1. Constraints of human nature. The reason that Jordan B. Peterson talks about lobsters is that male lobsters have a hierarchy, as do pretty well all animals. And the point of hierarchy is that is reduces violence. So as soon as you start talking about equality you are messing with God’s Big Idea for reducing violence. My lefty neighbor up the hill has a yardsign that says “Equality never hurt anyone.” Oh yeah?

  2. Incentives and outcomes. The reason for police to crack the heads of lower-class males is that lower-class males need to be taught that being an “aspiring rapper” is probably not a very good plan for rising in the hierarchy.

  3. Varieties of equality. Women have a culture of equality – among the community of women. That is all. Everything else is hierarchy, especially among men.

  4. Costs of coercion. Government is force; everything government does is coercion. So the only question is: just how much force and coercion is really needed? Then there is politics, “There is no politics without an enemy.” And as Nazi Carl Schmitt says, where there is an enemy there is the potential for conflict. You get conflict when the “enemy” resists “coercion.”

So, how much politics is really good for us, given that politics needs an enemy? And how much government is good for us, given that government is force?

Your turn.

Really? They are often very good at faking sisterhood I grant you but when they attack each other over some status issue, it gets pretty nasty.

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Geary, you seem to think that this approach to education has taken over public schools. Do you have evidence to support this assumption?

Seems the GOP just took Virginia over mostly that issue. Nationwide there’s one heck of a lot more smoke than one can explain without a fire. One hears and reads of the woke takeover of education constantly. Nothing to it? Yet the progressives are all looking innocent and saying that the whole thing has been made up. As usual one does not know what to believe but I’m inclined to lean towards the parents of Virginia knowing what their kids are bringing home from school every day.

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That’s not what he’s referring to.

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I suppose I’m broadening the topic a bit but surely Geary’s points are within my scope? ‘progressive’ and ‘woke’ are surely at least adjacent. Or maybe I’m missing something here. But I just read that latest article by the Texas teacher, it adds fuel to my fire.

The signs……please, please somebody make them stop with the signs.

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We have to differentiate between progressive education and progressive politics here- because although there is an overlap between their adherents, the two are separate things. And no, I by no means meant to suggest this was a universal phenomenon. Generally, we can draw distinctions between younger teachers with less experience who follow the progressive style of pedagogy and older teachers who have learned through experience that the didactic method is better for children- at least until 14.

Here are a few questions along these lines. Does the teacher impart knowledge or does the child discover it? Are the desks in a classroom aligned to face the teacher, or arranged into groups? Is the emphasis on skills or useable knowledge (distinct from facts)? Especially in primary/elementary schools are children taught the basics by rote? Are the ideas of Dewey commonly used in schools, or the empirically more proven to succeed ideas of E. D. Hirsch in place?

Basically, does knowledge pass from the teacher to the students? This doesn’t mean that children don’t ask questions, or aren’t expected to ask questions- far from it- but generally we want them asking questions and probing the knowledge that’s just been passed to them- not exploring or discovering for themselves. We both know that source materials can be far more biased than teachers themselves, and the internet can be great provided one already possesses the knowledge to ask the right questions. It’s pointless saying they can just Google it, when without help they won’t have any idea of what types of questions to ask. Knowledge begets more knowledge, a point sadly lost through the postmodern influence.

Look , you might have seen this Ted on education. Don’t get wrong he is an inspirational speaker and educator and doubtless a wonderful teacher, but he is dead wrong about creativity in education- we’ve been trying it for over four decades with no almost success whatsoever. All that has been accomplished is the erosion of the traditional methodology. I was a ‘victim’ of this methodology- I learned grammar using the learning through doing method (which was popular in the UK) and it took me roughly ten year post-university to educate myself out of the bad habits it inculcated. I still find myself poorly structuring sentences!

And we know the shift from traditional to progressive has been harmful. Over two decades ago the BBC did a test asking people who were educated in the 50s to try GCSE exams, whilst trying to get kids to take the older exams. The oldies aced the tests- often getting high marks in French, for example- which they hadn’t spoken or read in decades. Meanwhile the 16 year olds, couldn’t cope with the difficulty of the Maths or the English. And this actually related to their functional day-to-day knowledge as well- not just the dry environment of the exam room. Because it really can be important to work out 30% of 2100 quicker than a calculator- even if you are a chef, because a lot of jobs entail working out dozens of guestimates at speed- a materials intake or loading bay supervisor, for example.

Here is a simple acid test- you are a university professor, right? You should be able to give a lecture which lasts roughly 90 minutes, without breaks or interruptions and your students should be able to sit there and, for the most part, not drift off. It’s OK to use power point, to survey the auditorium to keep the class engaged. But they should be able to sit there and listen to a relatively engaging professor for 90 minutes because that’s what previous generations were capable of doing, and more importantly that’s what’s expected of adults in their work schedules- focused attention on a task for 90 minutes. We’ve run the numbers and that’s the period for optimum efficiency. Better employers give a ten to fifteen minute break between cycles.

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Men are status competitors, women are status enforcers- we dance to their tune. My hairdresser, who has since retired to Spain, worked in Audi dealership as a receptionist when she had back issues. Obviously, it is quite common for people who buy a high value product to feel as though the price tag entitles them to treat other people like shit if they are dissatisfied.

I asked here whether it was mainly the men or the women? The women, she said. There had been a couple of men, but they unfailingly asked to speak the manager, rather than chewing out the poor receptionist. Although it might be because women tend to stew longer.

You only have to look at examples of girls social media to each other, to realise just how cruel women can be to each other. Boys just fight it out and forget it.

I suspect the resentment stems more from barriers like poverty that some experience which prevent an equal chance at developing talents rather than an inability to accept natural talent.
If it’s a genuine meritocracy society values then there’s a loss of efficiency that it misses when not all can compete. But try to point that out to someone who believes their ‘efforts’ & not their luck earned them their success…

OK, but you haven’t answered my question: how pervasive has this shift been? I’d like to see some statistics regarding how many primary and secondary educators (in the U.S. and/or the U.K.) have abandoned traditional styles of teaching in favor of an exclusively progressive approach. I suspect that the percentage is rather low. The majority of teachers now incorporate active learning into their teaching, but they’re still instructing their students; they’re just doing so in a more engaging and interactive way.

I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t pass that test myself. There’s abundant evidence that active learning is more effective at conveying information than straight lectures. Here’s one example:

There’s a significant difference between engaging in focused work on a project and listening to someone speak. The oft-cited claim that students’ attention span maxes out at 10 or 15 minutes has not been established, but there’s absolutely no evidence that 90 minutes is an optimal length of time.

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It seems to me typical of the zeitgeist that it so often comes down to devotion to one creed or the other. As you know I’m basically on your team when it comes to educational issues, yet I’d never allow myself to be received into any doctrine. Too narrowing. All doctrinalists can tell a just-so story about how their creed is obviously the right one. The only one. Disbelievers are sick or evil or just fools. Think of Andras back in the day. My last math student came to me in complete despair but got 98% on her final. What’s my doctrine? Don’t have one. I impart knowledge yet encourage discovery too. I can’t turn it into a contest. What works for this student? But … times tables will be memorized, so thereyago.

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Yeah, but those same barriers exist for actors and athletes, too. Not everybody gets into Juliard. Not everybody’s parents can afford to pick up the cost of AAU ball, either. Why the resentment towards one group but not the other?

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