It’s ironical that as I become decrepit, I experience also the most exciting intellectual era of my life. Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks is published, my mindset declared, and now I’m exposed to powerful streams of thought that marry with the Socks thesis and move it forward. New ways of thinking about human behaviour and the relationships between science and belief, and economics and morality build a tide of understanding that I could never have foreseen.
In Socks, I laid out the following propositions for review by my peers:
- Human behaviour is the outcome of three influences: Instinct, belief, and free will.
- Belief and instinct are two sides of the same coin; belief is instinctual.
- Instinct matures as we evolve as organisms.
- Free will, such as it may be, including rational thought, plays a very small part in what we ultimately do, both individually and socially.
- Our whole social construct and tribalism are produced by evolution to enhance the survival of our species, and are written into a genetic template in our cells.
- Homo sapiens is a highly socialised, territorial species, and inter-tribal conflict and warfare are natural consequences of this.
- The more natural our social model, that is, the more closely aligned to our instinctual character, the more successful it will be, and vice versa.
- Beliefs are promulgated from a self-perceived moral high ground.
- Beliefs always precede our articulated reasons for believing; justification and rationalisation of our point of view are invariably post hoc.
- Models are hypo-stacks (hierarchical stacks of hypotheses).
- Reality and truth are independent of any observer.
- Truth is obtained by matching pure reason to physical reality.
After completing Socks, my thinking turned to social organisation, and the crucial role played by economics in our evolution. In the process of attempted a dialogue on economics with my good friend and advisor Ian Campbell-Gillies, he pointed out that economics, or any other social system for that matter, without morality makes no meaningful contribution to the improvement of our species. Instinctively, I felt he was right, but that led me forthwith to the whole notion of morality and how it affects us. I was disturbed to discover that I knew very little about morality; I didn’t really understand what it was, where it came from, and how it affects us.
It was economics that pointed me in the right direction. Economic systems are in fact sets of morals. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, was a 17th century moralist whose first book was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Only after that did he write his magnum opus, On the Wealth of Nations. Suddenly I had a glimmer of understanding. I knew I was looking in the right place, but it was a moral psychologist who let it all click into place, and illustrated to me where the glaring deficiencies of Socks lay.
Free-market capitalism bought further clarification to the table of arguments, and added support to the following principles put forward rather too timidly in Socks:
- The populants of any animal species are never equal. Inequality is a natural and inviolable property of natural procreation and evolution.
- The direct consequence of inequality is intra-special competition and, in humans, specialisation of labour.
- Free market commerce and the investment of capital evolved naturally from pre-historic trade and barter; socialism, by contrast, is an intellectually derived, artificial model. Free market capitalism aligns with human nature, warts and all; socialism is diametrically opposed to human nature.
- Competition naturally determines rewards, sets values, and punishes misfits. It also balances varying individual abilities by trade (the exchanging of units of value).
- Human beings are not primarily rational animals. Irrationally-derived motivations drive us and determine our behaviour.
- Human beings are uniquely able to create and sustain an “extended order”, that is, to form groups of common purpose beyond that defined by primitive kinship, and this has been achieved without weakening completion, groups, or territoriality.
- The uninhibited market place is the most embracing and relevant expression of democracy, and consequently, of moralities. It is the backbone of the extended order.
Peter Foster, in his at-times over-zealous book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, quotes quite liberally from Jonathan Haidt, and although Haidt is too “progressive” for him, the cited passages did enough to prompt me to buy Haidt’s masterpiece, The Righteous Mind. The missing piece in the Ardrey/Climate/Friedmann/Marx/Mohammed jigsaw puzzle suddenly fell into place. Morals are a primary evolutionary instinct, and contain, define, and sustain beliefs. Beliefs are simply expressions of moral precepts. Morals, beliefs, and indeed instincts, are as much outcomes of evolutionary maturations as the mind itself. To be honest, it’s so clear in hindsight but I would not in a million years have realised it on my own. I owe Dr Haidt a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Moral psychology and evolutionary psychology, both empirical fields of study with an extensive and rigorous experimental base, added these vital illuminations to ideas put rather clumsily in Socks, or in some cases, corrected conceptual errors in Socks. Most of the following passages are quoted verbatim from Jonathan Haidt, without express permission; I cite them in terms of fair usage to promote the readership of his works.
- Intuition first, strategic reasoning second.
- Beliefs, points-of-view, and convictions are held in righteousness; we preach always from a moral high ground.
- Morals bind and blind; when a group of people makes something sacred, the members of the cult lose their ability to think clearly about it. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.
- The evolutionary purpose of morality is to cement our membership of social groups; the extended order is our higher goal.
- Morality differs around the world, even within societies; it is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.
- Human social behaviour is analogous to an elephant and a rider, where the rider is our mind and the elephant our intuitive, instinctive self. The purpose of the rider is to serve the elephant.
- The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.
- Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason; you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.
- Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.
- The very ritual practices that atheists tend to dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.
- People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.
- Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.
- Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality —people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.
- We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of that concern is unconscious and invisible to us.
- Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.
- In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.
- Can, want and must: When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence, and even if we find a single piece of supporting pseudo-evidence, we have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.
- Intuitively, we behave more like politicians seeking votes than scientists seeking truth. Scientists tend to behave this way too, despite their claim of objectivity.
- The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behaviour will bring bad consequences all the time.
There is really much more to say, and the list of unpublished thoughts grows longer in bursts and then dies with my fading memory. But try I must. We are exposed to a wide array of clever thinkers, and some, I’m afraid, are too clever for their own good. How do we choose which path to follow so that we can build something meaningful and coherent in all this chaos? It occurs to me that my journey brought me to the current intersection with Jonathan Haidt in a very important way. Haidt refers to moral receptors as “tasting” the idea before we reject it or rationalise it. We encourage certain concepts more than others, and in that way build up a buttress of biases.
I was strongly influenced recently by Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, and the references contained therein. It was Foster who led me to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman on the plus side of economic theory, as well as to John Maynard Keynes on the negative. And along with Adam Smith, he brought me to the other unsung genius of centuries past, 18th century moral philosopher David Hume. But something unusual happened; I was going along with Foster quite nicely when he brought up the name of Jonathan Haidt, but in a condescending, somewhat critical way. That would normally cause an acolyte to reject the cited person too. But it didn’t. Quite the contrary.
I looked at the Haidt quotes with some puzzlement; what was Foster actually grumbling about? I called Haidt up on the Internet and found some critiques of his books, including the four-year-old The Righteous Mind. Despite a title that stuck in my craw, I bought the book and began to read it at the same time as the other two latest additions to my library, Ayaan Ali’s powerful work on Islam, Heretic, and Robert Spencer’s well-worked socio-political biography called simply The Truth About Muhammad. You can imagine what a mouthful of spicy ideas was being spooned into my head!
Before long, I was focussing on Haidt’s book to the exclusion of the others, which now lay at my bedside with forlorn book-markers pointing accusing fingers at me. It took me right up until chapter seven in The Righteous Mind to finally get what upset Peter Foster. Of that, more later. I am deeply impressed with Jonathan Haidt’s approach to the mysteries of human behaviour, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, he is an empiricist who has conducted rigorous experiments to illuminate each point he makes in the book. He has done the hard yards himself, sometimes alone but more often in collaboration with other leading researchers in the field. He is not the least bit woo woo! Secondly, the book contains hundreds of footnotes and detailed references that the reader can check at his leisure. He lays it all out for us to look at. That’s the mark of a great scientist and a truly remarkable book.
Now, let’s get back to the irritation (it was no more than that) in which Peter Foster wrapped the Haidt quotes. Like me, Peter Foster is convinced about the virtues of free market capitalism as the socio-economic system best suited to human aspirations, such as they may be. Foster displays a clear grasp of Adam Smith’s invisible hand directing the flow of human endeavour, and to be quite frank, he’s one of the few human beings I’ve come across who does. Foster also understands the role of personal greed and selfishness in spreading the greatest good to the largest slice of humanity; but, in my opinion, he doesn’t totally get it. The reason, I think, is because he canonises the idea, and that blinds him to the broader view of Jonathan Haidt.
From The Righteous Mind, chapter seven – The Moral Foundations of Politics:
“Behind every act of altruism, hedonism, and human decency, you’ll find either selfishness or stupidity. That, at least, is the view long held by many social scientists who accepted the idea that Homo sapiens is really Homo economicus. ‘Economic man’ is a simple creature who makes all of life’s choices like a shopper in a supermarket with plenty of time to compare jars of apple sauce. If that’s your view of human nature, then it’s easy to create mathematical models of behaviour because there’s really just one principle at work: self-interest. People do whatever gets them the most benefit for the lowest cost.”
Neither Foster nor Haidt is wrong on this issue. It’s a matter of emphasis. In my view, Haidt has the better of it, because he takes a wider stance. Self-interest is certainly a fundamental motivator, as we would expect from success-based evolution, but it is not alone. Haidt goes on to illustrate just how wrong the total self-interest model is by showing us a ten question list he used in his research, where the answers can be materially manipulated by the inclusion of tweaks that introduce moral “flavours”. My own reaction as a reader confirms the results he got in the field: People are motivated by six prime moral precepts that very nearly dictate what our reactions will be. We get an intuitive flash from each of these six triggers that sets the agenda for the post hoc mental discussion we have with ourselves afterwards.
Arguably the most shocking realisation brought to me by these elite authors—Darwin, Ardrey, Haidt, Pinker, Foster, et al—is that there is no such thing as universal human rights. In fact, put to scale, there is no such thing as universal anything about Homo sapiens, certainly not amongst our rational concepts at any rate. No actual human rights! That rocked me back on my heels like I’d just been swatted by Mike Tyson. Now, in hindsight, it’s perfectly clear—of course there aren’t universal human rights, but it’s staggering how deeply etched into my psyche the notion was. Our intuitions, coming as they do from a swarm of double helixes manufacturing proteins in our cells, can and do fool us utterly. It felt as if the last vestige of liberal moral posture had been snatched from my soul and tossed into the furnace of natural contrition.
But, at the same time, it was immensely liberating. At last, I was free to grasp the nuances of the human moral matrix—the tribes, the conflicts, the superstitions, the kindness and the cruelty, all operate in equilibriums as definite and as beautiful as the ordering of galaxies. I must add that part of the relief I felt was the understanding that I’m as human as anyone else, and my elephant leans whither it will; there is no need me for to apologise for having opinions.
The danger I’m all too aware of in quoting passages selected from the Haidt thesis is that they lack the proper context. Haidt’s rigorous approach to citing and evaluating evidence is exemplary, and I must urge you to read the book before you decide how you’re going to judge human behaviour.
In summary then, we realise that morality is relative, not absolute. If we take a moral position in any political effort, we exert our own personal morality. This may conflict with the morals of those we seek to influence. What is required to solve this dilemma is a social system that seamlessly incorporates and expresses all individual morality, and allows the moral matrix most favoured by the social group to percolate to the top. Any attempt to force a particular moral standpoint at the expense of general consensus will ultimately fail.
Now what is left is for someone younger than I to pick up these disparate threads and weave them together into a coherent model of human behaviour, one that we can learn from to ultimately protect our species from suicide, or, if that’s not a good thing, at least to improve our behaviour to some significant degree.
Over to you.