There were a couple of reactions to my comments on Michael Shermer’s The Mind of The Market, just about all of which went quite wide of the mark. Some of them were obviously by people who had not read the book and who accused Shermer of writing “libertarian propaganda,” which is one charge that cannot be fairly leveled at him. (The book is quite the opposite.)
My focus in my blog post was not on Shermer’s economic perspective anyway—because, of course, I would assume anyone reading this blog is probably already sympathetic to Shermer’s economic views, or at least well versed in the theories—but on his scientific and ethical arguments. Shermer’s point isn’t to set out anything new about free markets, but to describe the evolutionary psychology insights that he thinks explain or buttress the theories of or the workings of the market. And that’s his weak point. I certainly didn’t want to get into an entire defense of free markets, something which would take much more time and space than I am willing to devote to it, and something I will not do here. Sincerely curious readers can find plenty of resources on that subject elsewhere. And those who commit such fallacies as Power Up did, in saying things like “the economic systems in every modern democratic nation-state have extensive centrally planned aspects, refuting the notion that people ‘find them [free markets] useful and resort to them when they have the opportunity’”—I mean, how do you even begin to respond to such an ignorant statement? The entire field of public choice economics is devoted to explaining why it is that, given that people will resort to free exchange when they have that opportunity, they are nevertheless stopped, and their liberty taken away, by the meddlesome state. Again, there is not time enough in the world to answer such silliness.
But a some more serious comment comes in an email from reader Bjørn Østman, who writes,
That human beings are products of evolution means nothing. What is the logical inference here? That how we became humans is the best way for all of us to live? If we were to let all sorts of diseases run their course untreated, we would not all die, and the remaining people could likewise argue that it is best not to treat diseases, which by today’s eyes would be absurd, don’t you think?
That, of course, was precisely my point in criticizing Shermer. If Shermer’s argument is that the evolution of human beings provides a scientific explanation for the origins of human nature, then I think he’s right about that. And if he then goes on to say that, given that human nature has such-and-such characteristics, political society should have this-and-that features, because then human beings would be best able to flourish, then I think that, too, would be unobjectionable. But this is not precisely what Shermer does. Instead, he seems to say that because human beings are, let us say, emotionally moved by a vision of a poor person, therefore it is morally right to sacrifice so as to give something to that poor person, or even to create social institutions up to and including a welfare state, to pay that person’s bills with money taken from me. But this certainly would be fallacious.
More specifically, Shermer uses Philippa Foot’s famous trolley example: the trolley is going to run over five people unless you pull a switch that sends the trolley down another track and thereby kill only one person. People asked this question, Shermer reports, generally answer that they would pull the switch. Change the hypo and now you’re on a bridge next to a fat man and you see the trolley about to run over five people, unless you stop it by throwing the fat man onto the tracks. People asked this question, Shermer reports, generally say they would not throw the fat man onto the tracks. The reason for this distinction, Shermer writes, “is that switches and people are categorically different,” because evolution “designed us to value humans over nonhumans.”
But this is untenable. First of all, in both hypotheticals, our action will kill a human being. So no innate sense of “humans are different from switches” (whatever that means) can explain the difference in treatment. Second, when I ran the thought experiment in my own mind, I answered that I would not throw the man off the bridge because he had not undertaken to stand on any tracks, whereas in the first hypo, all six people have assumed the risk of standing on a track. Thus in that story, the people involved have volunteered to undertake some non-zero danger of being hit by a trolley. That answer doesn’t seem to be motivated out of an evolutionary “moral sense” that humans are different from switches.
Now, maybe I answer this way because as an attorney I’m more readily familiar with the concept of “assumption of risk.” But does that mean my answer is not a valid datum for this experiment? Why? Are only gut-instinct answers acceptable for this experiment? If that is the case, why does Shermer then use non-gut-instinct answers later in the book, when talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma on p. 180? There he says that, when the game is played multiple times, people will learn cooperative strategies that increase their wealth. Fine—but then sophisticated ethical theories like Aristotle’s or Ayn Rand’s, must be seen as similarly legitimate ways of addressing our moral lives. And yet Shermer says that he rejects Rand’s views because “science shows that in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation and charity)” (something which, by the way, Rand never denied). So which is it? Do our evolutionary, gut-instinct reactions lay out the contours of moral action, or is morality a matter of philosophy? Shermer leaves the answer quite ambiguous.
I think this is basically the problem that has dogged natural law theories for a long, long time. I do not think it is insurmountable, and I think it has been brilliantly addressed in the work of Harry Binswanger, Larry Arnhart, Julia Annas, and others. The ambiguity of the term nature has unfortunately turned a lot of people off of this perfectly legitimate theory. As Østman writes, “If we were to let all sorts of diseases run their course untreated, we would not all die, and the remaining people could likewise argue that it is best not to treat diseases, which by today’s eyes would be absurd, don’t you think?” Dennett describes this as the “nudist fallacy”—the idea that “natural” means “biological” or “without conscious human intervention.” But when we say that human nature is such-and-such, we certainly do not mean that. We mean instead the distinctive characteristic that makes human beings what they are—the reasoning capacity that permits us to make clothes or cure diseases. We do not mean instinctual drives or the vestigal feelings left us from our caveman ancestors. Perhaps a way to put it is that evolution provides us with a scientific grounding for human nature, but it does not provide a substitute for human nature in our ethical philosophy.