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The Science of Righteousness

Evolution helps to explain why parties
are so tribal and politics so divisive
magazine cover

Which of these two narratives most closely matches your political perspective?

Once upon a time people lived in societies that were unequal and oppressive, where the rich got richer and the poor got exploited. Chattel slavery, child labor, economic inequality, racism, sexism and discriminations of all types abounded until the liberal tradition of fairness, justice, care and equality brought about a free and fair society. And now conservatives want to turn back the clock in the name of greed and God.

Once upon a time people lived in societies that embraced values and tradition, where people took personal responsibility, worked hard, enjoyed the fruits of their labor and through charity helped those in need. Marriage, family, faith, honor, loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority and the rule of law brought about a free and fair society. But then liberals came along and destroyed everything in the name of “progress” and utopian social engineering.

Although we may quibble over the details, political science research shows that the great majority of people fall on a left-right spectrum with these two grand narratives as bookends. And the story we tell about ourselves reflects the ancient tradition of “once upon a time things were bad, and now they’re good thanks to our party” or “once upon a time things were good, but now they’re bad thanks to the other party.” So consistent are we in our beliefs that if you hew to the first narrative, I predict you read the New York Times, listen to progressive talk radio, watch CNN, are pro-choice and anti-gun, adhere to separation of church and state, are in favor of universal health care, and vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. If you lean toward the second narrative, I predict you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, are pro-life and anti–gun control, believe America is a Christian nation that should not ban religious expressions in the public sphere, are against universal health care, and vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich. (continue reading…)

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Fear & Loathing (and Freedom & Skepticism) in Las Vegas

photo by Daniel Loxton

TAM7 boasted over 1000 attendees.

The Amazing Meeting 7 and Freedom Fest were both held over the same weekend in Las Vegas, the former at the new and beautiful South Point Hotel and the latter at the classic old Bally’s hotel and casino. I spoke at both and attended as many talks as I could fit in while shuttling back and forth between events. Some impressions:

Business is definitely down in Vegas. Every taxi driver I asked put the downturn at about 35% lower than normal, and between the two casinos we passed the new MGM-backed casino under construction but now abandoned due to lack of funding to complete construction. There were never any taxi lines and room rates at both hotels were well below the normal too-high rates. Nevertheless, there seemed to be plenty of folks at the slots and tables, trying to recover their 401K losses, obviously having never taken a basic course in probabilities (my system: I give the casino $500 and ask if I can play for a couple of hours: “you’re going to get the money anyway and I just want to have some fun.” I’ve never had success with this sytem.).

TAM had about 1000 people in attendance, while FreedomFest had about 1500. Shortly after I arrived I was called up for a private meeting with Randi, who later announced to the group that he had recently undergone a serious medical procedure to rid his body of something that wasn’t suppose to be there, and it looks like they got it all but just in case he’ll have to undergo chemo treatment after TAM, just to insure that there are no renegade cells floating about. When I saw Randi in his hotel room, his voice was a little weak and he seemed frail, yet the next morning when he stood at the podium to address his fans, he came to life, energized by the standing O he received, and suddenly his voice switched to his rich sonorous self as he regaled the audience with tales of his latest exploits among medics and psychics. Randi is such an experienced and professional entertainer that he just comes to life when there’s an audience. At age 80, I know that Randi is going to have a tough time of it (chemo is nasty business indeed), but he’s one of the toughest guys I know so I’m confident that we’ll have Randi around for many more years.

Randi, Penn, Teller, Ray Hyman, Jamy Ian Swiss. Only the scientist has two names; the magicians have either one or three names. Um…

Randi, Penn, Teller, Ray Hyman, Jamy Ian Swiss. Only the scientist has two names; the magicians have either one or three names. Um…

On Friday afternoon I spoke at FreedomFest on myths about Darwin, including: that Darwin was an atheist (he was an agnostic); that acceptance of evolution theory leads to atheism (obviously not since 40% of American scientists — all of whom accept evolution — believe in God); that Darwin was always an evolutionist and got that from his grandfather Erasmus (Darwin was a creationist before and during the voyage of the Beagle and didn’t become an evolutionist until nearly a year after his return); that Darwin was a racial egalitarian (he was against slavery, and although he was very progressive in his social attitudes about race compared to his contemporaries, compared to people today Darwin, like his birthday twin Abraham Lincoln, did not believe that the races were biologically equal); that evolution is progressive and is “leading” somewhere (it isn’t leading anywhere — there are certain convergences in evolution, such as locomotion, hearing, seeing, etc., but there is nothing inevitable about, say, human intelligence); that evolution is “red in tooth and claw” and is nothing more than nasty, competitive, brutish, and bloody (a successful strategy for survival among social animals is pro-social, cooperative, and involves mutual aid among members of a group); and that conservatives should not accept evolution because it doesn’t explain human nature as Christians see it (in fact, as I argued in Why Darwin Matters, the Christian view of human nature is very similar to that of a Darwinian human nature). My talk seemed to go over well, perhaps because I share similar political and economic beliefs as the conservatives and libertarians at FreedomFest, so to have “one of their own” explain why it’s okay to accept evolutionary theory perhaps makes it all easier to swallow.

diagram by David Nolan

diagram by David Nolan

Likewise, I think that my talk at TAM Saturday morning, entitled “Rise Above: Toward a Type I Civilization,” was equally well received. At least everyone who said something to me afterwards seemed positive about it (perhaps my critics will just email me later). Even the famed magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who is most definitely not a libertarian, said he liked my talk. When I said “really?”, he responded, “yes, absolutely; of course, I still disagree with you on many points,” which I took as a compliment. During my talk I put up a side of a well-known heuristic diagram for classifying yourself politically, that moves beyond the traditional left — right spectrum.

I then asked for a show of hands among the 1,007 people in the audience of who identifies themselves as left of center (I estimated about 80%), libertarian (I estimated about 20%), and right of center (a grand total of 4 people raised their hands!). I then reviewed the standard left-right stereotypes of what liberals think of conservatives, and vice versa:

Conservatives are a bunch of gun-totting, Hummer-driving, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white-thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally-hypocritical blowhards.

Naturally, this received a huge round of applause, along with hooting and hollering in agreement. But, to my surprise, so too did my characterization of what conservatives think of liberals:

Liberals are a bunch of tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving, sandle-wearing, bottled-water-drinking, ACLU-supporting, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, Namby Pamby bedwetters.

I then suggested that we need to “rise above” such stereotypes, and proposed a solution based on the research by the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his model of morality that allows us to avoid being trapped by such linear left-right thinking in which one side is right and the other side is wrong. You can read my summary of Jonathan’s research in last week’s blog, but recall that Haidt argues that there are 5 foundations of morality:

  1. Harm-Care (do not harm others, people should be cared for)
  2. Fairness-Reciprocity (justice for all)
  3. In-group Loyalty (we live in a dangerous tribal world so we need group unity)
  4. Authority-Respect (a free society depends on the rule of law and law-and-order)
  5. Purity-Sanctity (conservatives: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll; liberals: food, environment)

Instead of one side being right and the other wrong, I think we would all be better served if we recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values: Liberals are high on the Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity dimensions, but low on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity; whereas conservatives are about equal on the 5 dimensions (although slightly less on Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity, slightly higher on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity).

photo by Daniel Loxton

Volunteers Jason Loxton and Jillian Baker staff the Skeptics Society table.

As an example of this difference between emphasizing individual v. group morality, I showed a clip from one of my favorite films, Rob Reiner’s 1992 A Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson’s character — the battle-hardened Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup — is being cross-examined by Tom Cruise’s naive rookie Navy lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee. In the context of Haidt’s moral dimensions, I think of Kaffee as the liberal and Jessup as the conservative. Kaffee is defending two Marines accused of killing a fellow soldier named Santiago at Guantanamo base on Cuba. He thinks Jessup ordered a “code red,” an off-the-books command to rough up a lazy Marine trainee in need of discipline, and that matters got tragically out of hand. Kaffee wants answers to specific questions about the incident. Jessup wants to lecture him on the meaning of freedom and the need to defend it. The ensuing dialogue includes Jessup’s penetrating testimony about the true nature of human nature:

Jessup: You want answers?!

Kaffee: I want the truth.

Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!

Jessup (continuing): Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.

You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty … we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I’d prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to.

Who is the man and what is he thinking? Write your answer in the comments section.

Who is the man and what is he thinking? Write your answer in the comments section.

The fact is we need all five moral dimensions. Personally, I tend more toward the liberal emphasis on individual fairness and justice and freedom, and I think our inner tribalisms are divisive and set people against one another, and so overemphasizing loyalty to group and nation can be dangerous. But ever since 9/11 I’ve come to see that we do live in a world with walls, and that those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. And when it comes to religious tribal fundamentalisms I think liberals agree with me on this point (certainly Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion make the point that fundamentalist religions are dangerous, and both are liberals).

In the long run, however, we need to rise above all this tribalism, and that’s what I mean by my lecture subtitle: “toward a Type I Civilization.” Next week I’ll outline the Kardashev scale of typing civilizations and suggest how we can move from where we are now to a global Type I civilization.

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Left, Right & Center

Liberals, Conservatives & Libertarians

In last week’s post I mentioned my trip to Santiago, Chile, for a conference on evolutionary economics hosted by Alvaro Fischer, in conjunction with the year-long series of celebrations of Darwin’s 200th birthday.

The three main speakers at the conference were Ullrich Witt, a liberal economist from the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany (part of the old Iron Curtain East Germany), Kevin McCabe, a conservative economist from George Mason University, known for its free market leanings (unlike most universities and colleges in America), and myself, a “radical for liberty” (pace Ayn Rand’s self-description as a “radical for capitalism”). Our talks were formal, professional, and technical, but the lively action was in the table talk over meals. I very much enjoyed hearing the opinions of these learned economists, even while vehemently disagreeing (mainly with Witt). Since McCabe and I mostly agreed on everything, I’ll briefly summarize Witt’s lecture, which I think explains how he and I differ on the issue of the collective v. the individual.

Witt’s Lecture

Ullrich Witt’s talk was entitled “Animal Instincts and Human Sentiments: On the Origin and Evolution of Economic Institutions.” What is an institution? Do institutions have something in common? How similar/different are the post office, the government, or the law? Does a Darwinian perspective help us understand the origin and evolution of institutions? Yes. Proto institutions arose in early hominids: instinct based and subject to natural selection and adapted to the environment. How do we know? No fossils! Observe higher animals to infer what most likely developed in early hominid bands.

For example, hunting requires cooperation, and many mammals employ joint chasing tactics (conventions), have a set of rules about feeding dominance/subordination, show rules for food sharing, and the like, and these are all examples of proto institutions (genetically fixed, shaped by natural selection, adapted to survival conditions similar to those of early hominids).

The scope of cooperation in social situations is constrained by social structures. Proto institutions in proto humans probably began with coordinating hunts, uniting to fight against rival clans, etc. Observational learning is a way of transmitting knowledge and cultural adaptations in interactions and these proto-institutions. Genetically based forms of proto-institutions emerged in human evolution to ease the coordination (when conflict is absent) through recognizing self in others as well as the intentionality of others.

Cultural success accrued to populations when we needed to settle down and make the transition to agriculture. It was here, during the Neolithic Revolution, that informal institutes spontaneously emerged from our genetic architecture for cooperation. Formal institutions must be purposely created for the coordination of behavior in interactions. Natural domination leads to proto institutions as a way of preventing others from contesting domination (thereby preserving the domination rent from competition).

Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” is an institute grounded in a social contract that legitimizes authority and enforces constitutional constraints on personal power. This governmental leviathan was necessary as populations grew too large for informal institutions to be effective in governing behavior. The concept of human rights is a radically new social model deviating from inherited dispositions and yet presupposes nonetheless formal institutions with coercive power.

At Wit’s End with Witt (and other liberals)

At the core of our disagreement, I think, are several fundamentals: Witt emphasizes the institution, the society, the collective. I emphasize the individual, the person, and the fundamental rights of the individual from abuses and usurpations of the collective—what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the majority” and for which our founding fathers brilliantly constructed the Bill of Rights. The danger of collectives is mob psychology. It is so easy to convince ourselves, especially when we are in a group, that we are right and “they” are wrong.

Most liberals would agree with me on this point (I’m socially liberal myself, agreeing on free speech, separation of church and state, pro-choice, etc.), but would differ on what the individual has a right to. Here I make a distinction between liberty rights and benefits rights. Liberty rights are the rights we have not to have our liberties taken away from us: the right to believe what we want, the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to practice whatever religion we want (or even not to practice any religion at all!), the right to own private property, the right to a fair trial, etc. At the core of liberty rights is what I call the Principle of Liberty: the freedom to think, believe, and act as we choose so long as our thoughts, beliefs, and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

Where I (and most conservatives) disagree with liberals is on the issue of benefits rights, that is, the right to have certain things given to individuals by the state: the right to an education, the right to a living wage, the right to paid vacations, the right to three square meals a day and a roof over our heads, the right to retirement pay (Social Security), the right to healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid and whatever is coming next), etc. I think people should have the liberty to procure these benefits themselves without interference from other people or the state, but the problem with the state granting them as “rights” is that someone has to pay for all these benefits, and that someone is all of us, adding the always inefficient government as a middle-man to deliver these goods and services, which can almost always be done more efficiently through the private sector.

A Solution to the Left-Right Dilemma

One conceptual solution to this left-right difference has been nicely outlined by the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt through his model of morality that allows us to avoid being trapped by what he calls a “moral matrix.” Haidt argues that there are 5 foundations of morality:

  1. Harm–Care (do not harm others, people should be cared for)
  2. Fairness–Reciprocity (justice for all)
  3. In-group Loyalty (we live in a dangerous tribal world so we need group unity)
  4. Authority–Respect (a free society depends on the rule of law and law-and-order)
  5. Purity–Sanctity (conservatives: sex, drugs, rock’n’roll; liberals: food, environment)

In a study encompassing over 23,000 subjects from countries all over the world, Haidt found:

  • Liberals are high on the Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity dimensions, low on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity.
  • Conservatives are about equal on the 5 dimensions (slightly less on Harm-Care and Fairness-Reciprocity, much higher on Loyalty, Authority-Respect, Purity-Sanctity.
  • Liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, keep your hands off my body. Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed, they want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.
  • Conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions; they want order even at the cost of those at the bottom. Edmund Burke: “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”
  • Liberals and conservatives both bring something to the table. Libs and Cons as yin/yang.
  • Vishnu the Preserver (stability–conservative) and Shiva the Destroyer (change–liberal).

Haidt cites a study by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter, (“Altruistic Punishment in Humans,” Nature, 415, 137–140, 2002), employing a cooperation game in which people can give money into a commons. When there is no punishment for “free riding” (not giving but receiving the benefits) they discovered that cooperation decays fairly quickly within the first 6 rounds. But in the 7th round Fehr and Gachter allowed the subjects to allocate some of their money to punish free riders, and this they did, which immediately triggered a rise in the levels of cooperation and giving. Conclusion: it helps to have some sort of punishment to encourage people in big groups to cooperate.

One of these sources of control and authority and punishment is religion. The other is government. Conservatives prefer the former, liberals the latter. The problem we libertarians have with both institutions is that our moral minds evolved to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and convince ourselves that we are right and the other group is wrong. And that has dire consequences, from 12/7/41 to 9/11/01.

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