About this Issue

In recent years, brain science has converged on a surprising framework for how we believe the things we believe. It appears that the origin of belief is emotive, rooted in things like group allegiance or the affinities we may have for certain patterns of moral values. Only later does our rationality speak up. “Motivated reasoning” is the term psychology has given this process, although a cynic might possibly be forgiven for calling it “bias.”

Where does this leave our beliefs about politics? On the one hand, we may have some cause for despair, as our beliefs may not be as objectively justified as we like to imagine. On the other, the emerging science of mind may yield effective ways to correct our biases, or at least to understand their origins. If so, a new, more sophisticated political science may be in order, one rooted firmly in brain science.

To discuss these issues, we’ve recruited an eclectic panel, even by our standards. Libertarian science writer Michael Shermer leads with a taste from his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. He will be answered by Artificial Intelligence expert Eliezer Yudkowsky, perhaps best known for his work at the group blog LessWrong.com; Christian blogger and cultural critic Joe Carter; and Reason magazine’s science columnist Ronald Bailey.


Lead Essay

Liberty and Science

Anyone who follows political commentary on a regular basis through the standard channels of talk radio and television, newspaper and magazine editorials, popular books, blogs, and the like knows the standard stereotype of what liberals think of conservatives:

Conservatives are a bunch of Hummer-driving, meat-eating, gun-toting, small-government promoting, tax decreasing, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white-thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally dogmatic blowhards.

And what conservatives think of liberals:

Liberals are a bunch of hybrid-driving, tofu-eating, tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, big-government promoting, tax increasing, bottled-water-drinking, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, Namby Pamby bedwetters.

Such stereotypes are so annealed into our culture that everyone understands them enough for comedians and commentators to exploit them. And like many stereotypes, both of them have an element of truth. Here, it is an emphasis on differing moral values, especially those we derive intuitively. In fact, research now overwhelmingly demonstrates that most of our moral decisions are grounded in automatic moral feelings rather than deliberatively rational calculations. We do not reason our way to a moral decision by carefully weighing the evidence for and against; instead, we make intuitive leaps to moral decisions and then after the fact we rationalize our snap decisions with rational reasons. Our moral intuitions—reflected in such conservative-liberal stereotypes—are more emotional than rational. As with most of our beliefs about most things in life, our political beliefs come first, the rationalization of those political beliefs comes second. I suppose this is one reason why I am a libertarian. Libertarian? I know what you’re thinking:

Libertarians are a bunch of pot-smoking, porn-watching, prostitution-supporting, gold-hoarding, gun-stashing, Constitution-waving, secession-mongering, tax-revolting, anti-government anarchists.

Yes, like the other two stereotypes, there is some element of truth in this one as well. Yet basically, libertarians are for freedom and liberty for individuals, while recognizing that in order to be free we must also be protected. Your freedom to swing your arms ends at my nose. As John Stuart Mill explained in his 1869 book On Liberty, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[1] The development of democracy was an important step to defeating the tyranny of the magistrate that reigned for centuries in European monarchies, but as Mill noted, the problem with democracy is that it can lead to the tyranny of the majority: “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”[2] This is, in fact, why our country’s founders produced the Bill of Rights. These are rights that cannot be taken away no matter how big the majority in a democratic election.

Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Equal Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement,” but there are at least a dozen essentials to liberty and freedom that need shielding from encroachment:

  1. The rule of law.
  2. Property rights.
  3. Economic stability through a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system.
  4. A reliable infrastructure and the freedom to move about the country.
  5. Freedom of speech and the press.
  6. Freedom of association.
  7. Mass education.
  8. Protection of civil liberties.
  9. A robust military for protection of our liberties from attacks by other states.
  10. A potent police for protection of our freedoms from attacks by other people within the state.
  11. A viable legislative system for establishing fair and just laws.
  12. An effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.

These essentials also incorporate moral values embraced by both liberals and conservatives, and as such form the foundation for a bridge between the Left and the Right. Nothing new needs to be invented or introduced into the system. These are values deeply ingrained in our nature and thus will likely remain a relatively permanent part of future political patterns.

What is the evidence that these political values are part of our evolved nature? After all, democratic politics developed over the past couple millennia, far too short a time for evolution to have reworked our nature from the tiny bands of hunter-gatherers who lived without any form of centralized politics.

We begin with research by behavior geneticists on identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments. For most traits measured, about 40-50 percent of the variance among people is accounted for by their genes, including both religious and political preferences.[3] Of course, just as genes do not code for particular religious faiths, we don’t inherit political party affiliation directly. Instead, genes code for temperament, and people tend to sort themselves into the left and right clusters of moral values based on their personality preferences, with liberals emphasizing values that involve care for the needy and fairness and equality of outcomes for all peoples, whereas conservatives underscore such values as group loyalty, respect for authority and the rule of law, and the moral sanctity of family, community, and nation. This would explain why people are so predictable in their beliefs on such a wide range of issues that are seemingly unconnected—why someone who believes that the government should stay out of the private bedroom nevertheless believes that the government should be deeply involved in private business (liberals); or why someone who believes that taxes should be lowered nevertheless wants to spend heavily on military, police, and the judicial system (conservatives).

In his book A Conflict of Visions, the economist Thomas Sowell argues that these two clusters of moral values are intimately linked to the vision one holds about human nature, either as constrained (conservative) or unconstrained (liberal), and so he calls these the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision. Sowell shows that controversies over a number of seemingly unrelated social issues such as taxes, welfare, social security, health care, criminal justice, and war repeatedly reveal a consistent ideological dividing line along these two conflicting visions. “If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized.” Which of these natures you believe is true will largely shape which solutions to social ills will be most effective. “In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.” It’s not that conservatives think that we’re evil and liberals believe we’re good. “Implicit in the unconstrained vision is the notion that the potential is very different from the actual, and that means exist to improve human nature toward its potential, or that such means can be evolved or discovered, so that man will do the right thing for the right reason, rather than for ulterior psychic or economic rewards,” Sowell elaborates. “Man is, in short, ‘perfectible’—meaning continually improvable rather than capable of actually reaching absolute perfection.”[4]

In his masterpiece analysis of human nature, The Blank Slate, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker re-labels these two visions the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and reconfigures them slightly: “The Utopian Vision seeks to articulate social goals and devise policies that target them directly: economic inequality is attacked in a war on poverty, pollution by environmental regulations, racial imbalances by preferences, carcinogens by bans on food additives. The Tragic Vision points to the self-interested motives of the people who would implement these policies—namely, the expansion of their bureaucratic fiefdoms—and to their ineptitude at anticipating the myriad consequences, especially when the social goals are pitted against millions of people pursuing their own interests.” The distinct Left-Right divide consistently cleaves the (respectively) Utopian Vision and Tragic Vision along numerous specific contests, such as the size of the government (big versus small), the amount of taxation (high versus low), trade (fair versus free), healthcare (universal versus individual), environment (protect it versus leave it alone), crime (caused by social injustice versus caused by criminal minds), the constitution (judicial activism for social justice versus strict constructionism for original intent), and many others.[5]

Personally I agree with Sowell and Pinker that the unconstrained vision is utopian, which in its original Greek means “no place.” An unconstrained utopian vision of human nature largely accepts the blank slate model and believes that custom, law, and traditional institutions are sources of inequality and injustice and should therefore be heavily regulated and constantly modified from the top down. It holds that society can be engineered through government programs to release the natural unselfishness and altruism within people. It deems physical and intellectual differences largely to be the result of unjust and unfair social systems that can be re-engineered through social planning, and therefore people can be shuffled across socioeconomic classes that were artificially created through unfair and unjust political, economic, and social systems inherited from history. I believe that this vision of human nature can be achieved in literally No Place.

Although some liberals embrace just such a vision of human nature, I strongly suspect that when pushed on specific issues most liberals realize that human behavior is constrained to a certain degree—especially those educated in the biological and evolutionary sciences who are aware of the research in behavior genetics—so the debate turns on degrees of constraint. Rather than there being two distinct and unambiguous categories of constrained and unconstrained (or tragic and utopian) visions of human nature, I think there is just one vision with a sliding scale. Let’s call this the Realistic Vision. If you believe that human nature is partly constrained in all respects—morally, physically, and intellectually—then you hold a Realistic Vision of human nature.

In keeping with the research from behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, let’s put a number on that constraint at 40 to 50 percent. In the Realistic Vision, human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures. A Realistic Vision rejects the blank slate model that people are so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, and instead believes that family, custom, law, and traditional institutions are the best sources for social harmony. The Realistic Vision recognizes the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community because people have a dual nature of being selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing. The Realistic Vision acknowledges that people vary widely both physically and intellectually—in large part because of natural inherited differences—and therefore will rise (or fall) to their natural levels. Therefore governmental redistribution programs are not only unfair to those from whom the wealth is confiscated and redistributed, but the allocation of the wealth to those who did not earn it cannot and will not work to equalize these natural inequalities.

I think most moderates on both the left and the right can embrace a Realistic Vision of human nature. And they should, as should the extremists on both ends, because the evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory and its application to all three of these sciences supports the Realistic Vision of human nature. There are at least a dozen lines of evidence that converge to this conclusion:[6]

  1. The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  2. The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  3. The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.
  4. The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
  5. The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”
  7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.
  8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.
  9. The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.
  10. The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.
  11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

The founders of our Republic established our system of government as they did based on something very much like this Realistic Vision of human nature, knowing full well that the tension between individual liberty and social cohesiveness could never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and so the moral pendulum swings Left and Right, and politics is played mostly between the two 40-yard lines of the political playing field. This tension between freedom and security, in fact, would explain why third parties have such a difficult time finding a toe-hold on the political rock face of America. Typically they crater after an election or cower in the shadows of the two behemoths that have come to define the Left-Right system.

I believe that the Realistic Vision of human nature is best represented by the libertarian political philosophy, and is what James Madison was thinking of when he penned (literally) his famous dictum in the Federalist number 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”[7] Abraham Lincoln also had something like the Realistic Vision in mind when he wrote in his first inaugural address in March of 1861, on the eve of the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history that he knew would unleash the demons within:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[8]


[1]Mill, John Stuart. 1869. On Liberty. New York: Penguin Books edition, 13.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Eaves, L. J., H. J. Eysenck, and N. G. Martin. 1989. Genes, Culture and Personality: An Empirical Approach. London and San Diego: Academic Press. The correlation coefficient was .62. Squaring this number gives us an estimate of the percentage of variance accounted for by genetics, which is .384, or roughly 40 percent with error variance.

[4] Sowell, Thomas. 1987. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: Basic Books, 24-25.

[5] Pinker, Steven. 2002.The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 290-291.

[6] I present this data in much greater detail in two of my books: Shermer, Michael. 2003. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books. And: Shermer, Michael. 2008. The Mind of the Market. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.

[7] Madison, James. 1788. “The Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” Independent Journal, Wednesday, February 6.

[8] Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.: for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1989; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/124/.

Response Essays

Is That Your True Rejection?

When people ask me about my politics these days, I sometimes describe myself as “a very small-‘l’ libertarian.” I am—like many libertarians, in my admittedly skewed Silicon Valley experience—just another pot-decriminalizing, prostitution-supporting, computer-programming, science-fiction-reading, Bayesian-statistics-promoting, mainstream-economics-respecting, sex-positive, money-positive, polyamorous atheistic transhumanist government-distrusting minarchist.

Would I change my mind about the minarchist part and become a “conservative,” if tomorrow it was revealed that measurable variance in traits like IQ, Conscientiousness, Openness and so on seemed to be 90% hereditary rather than 50% hereditary?

Would Michael Shermer change his mind and become a liberal, if these traits were shown to be 10% hereditary?

There’s a technique we use in our local rationalist cluster called “Is That Your True Rejection?”, and it works like this: Before you stake your argument on a point, ask yourself in advance what you would say if that point were decisively refuted. Would you relinquish your previous conclusion? Would you actually change your mind? If not, maybe that point isn’t really the key issue. You should search instead for a sufficiently important point, or collection of points, such that you would change your mind about the conclusion if you changed your mind about the arguments. It is, in our patois, “logically rude,” to ask someone else to painstakingly refute points you don’t really care about yourself. Imagine someone went to all the trouble to look up references and demonstrate to you that those traits were 90% hereditary, and then you turned around and said that you didn’t care.

What would it take to get you to change your mind about libertarianism? What are the arguments such that, if they were decisively refuted, you would actually change your mind?

When I ask myself this question, I think my actual political views would change primarily with my beliefs about how likely government interventions are in practice to do more harm than good. I think my libertarianism rests chiefly on the empirical proposition—a factual belief which is either false or true, depending on how the universe actually works—that 90% of the time you have a bright idea like “offer government mortgage guarantees so that more people can own houses,” someone will somehow manage to screw it up, or there’ll be side effects you didn’t think about, and most of the time you’ll end up doing more harm than good, and the next time won’t be much different from the last time.

I think if you sent me to an alternate universe where politicians were honest, bureaucrats cared, and voters weren’t so irrational—a world where good-idea policy initiatives tended to actually accomplish their stated goals without unexpected negative side effects—a world where the clear and visible end result of getting governments to do more and more was that economies grew faster and faster and people became happier and happier—then, in that world, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

And I think it would genuinely rip the heart out of my libertarianism, if you showed me that I already live in that world today. I just find that proposition hard to square with Google News and history books.

During its heyday, the Soviet Union held that human beings were a blank slate, that selfishness was a matter of being raised selfish, that human beings were perfectible—not by actual genetic engineering, mind you, but just by being given the right schoolbooks. But rather than saying, “The Soviet Union believed human beings were perfectible, therefore they mistakenly believed that communism would work,” I should sooner guess that the order of causality was, “The Soviet Union mandated political adherence to communism, and if humans are perfectible then communism would work better, so human perfectibility seemed like a politically allied belief.” If the belief “humans are perfectible” had been unfashionable for whatever reason, they would have mandated some other belief instead, and things would have gone much as before, I suspect. Even in the days of Marx and Engels, I have some degree of prior skepticism that empirical beliefs about the plasticity of human nature were truly the cause of belief in communism, rather than its effect. But then I don’t consider myself a student of that history, so I am willing to be corrected on this point.

My main point where I feel like I want to object to Shermer’s presentation on scientific grounds is where he implies that because variance in IQ seems to be around 50% genetic and 50% environmental, the Soviets were half right. And that this, in turn, makes libertarianism the wise, mature compromise path between liberalism and conservatism.

The idea of variance is mathematically subtle. If predictable variance in IQ seems to correlate around 50% with variance in genes and around 50% with variance in environment, this doesn’t mean that genes have half the causal power and environment has half the causal power. Suppose we put everyone in the best possible environment that exists today, IQ-wise, sent everyone to the most advanced and adaptable schools and gave them all interested parents with large book collections and so on. Then the amount of variance in IQ that seemed driven by variance in environment would go down, because everyone would be in the same environment—it wouldn’t vary from person to person. But that wouldn’t mean the environment had no causal effect on IQ.

By the same token, if we sequenced the DNA of everyone on the planet, got a statistical picture of which genes seemed to correlate with IQ, and genetically engineered everyone in the next generation to have the “best” alleles at each location—not that I’m saying this would be a good idea, it would imply a tremendous decrease in cognitive variety, just bear with the thought experiment here—then the amount of variance in IQ that was due to variance in genes would drop to zero, because everyone would have the same genes. It wouldn’t mean that those genes had no causal power to produce intelligence.

Once you look at things from this perspective, you realize that if you take a bunch of puppies and try to put them through the best human schools, then nothing you can vary in the puppies’ environment will make up for the fact that all humans have certain genes which these puppies do not.

The logic of sexual reproduction demands that complex adaptations be universal, or nearly so, within a species. If gene B depends on gene A in order to work, then gene B is not a significant fitness advantage until gene A has already become prevalent within the gene pool. Complex genetic machinery does not evolve all at once. It starts with a gene A that is advantageous by itself, all on its own. Gene A spreads and becomes widespread in the gene pool; and then gene B comes along which depends on the presence of A; and then, when gene B has spread enough, gene A* comes along, with dependence on the presence of B; and then C comes along which depends on A* and B, and this goes on for thousands of generations. Eventually you end up with powerful, complex adaptations composed of many interdependent bits of machinery—like your hand, which is made of muscles and tendons and bones shaped exactly right to let your thumb and forefinger grasp an object.

But if you have a complex adaptation with 20 interdependent parts, and each of the 20 parts are only at 50% prevalence in the gene pool, the whole adaptation will only assemble itself one time in a million. If it took merely 100 genes to make a hand, and every one of those genes was independently at 90% frequency, nobody would ever have a complete functioning hand. At any given point in time, only small variants on a complex piece of machinery will be selected on within a sexually reproducing species—slightly longer fingernails, or whatever—because other genes can’t depend on that variant until it wins the evolutionary contest and becomes widespread. Thus complex adaptations must be universal, or nearly so, within a sexually reproducing species. All of this is standard biology, and should not be confused with a creationist fallacy, the argument that a whirlwind cannot assemble a 747. This argument overlooks the fact that interdependent machinery can evolve incrementally via the path described above.

This same evolutionary logic applies to that incredibly complex bit of biological machinery we call the human brain. In every known culture, humans experience joy, sadness, disgust, anger, fear, and surprise. In every known culture, these emotions are indicated by the same facial expressions. This empirical observation, which is predicted and mandated by the structural logic of evolution, is known as the psychic unity of mankind. (I prefer the term “psychological unity of humankind,” but I didn’t invent it.)

Complex adaptations like “being a little selfish” and “not being willing to work without reward” are human universals. The strength might vary a bit from person to person, but everyone’s got the same machinery under the hood, we’re just painted different colors.

Which means that trying to raise perfect unselfish communists isn’t like reading Childcraft books to your kid, it’s like trying to read Childcraft books to your puppy.

The Soviets were not 50% right, they were entirely wrong. They weren’t quantitatively wrong about the amount of variance due to the environment, they were qualitatively wrong about what environmental manipulations could do in the face of built-in universal human machinery. Having said this, though, I now feel no particular impulse to vote Republican.

Also, it’s quite possible that someday you could create perfectly unselfish people… if you used sufficiently advanced neurosurgery, drugs, and/or brain-computer interfaces to engineer their brains into a new state that no current human brain occupies. Whether or not this is in fact possible isn’t something that ideology gets to decide. The reasoning errors of past communists can’t prohibit any particular future technological advance from being possible or practical. Having said that, I feel no particular impulse to turn “liberal.”

What makes me a small-‘l’ libertarian isn’t that I believe it’s impossible—or easy—to reconfigure human brains using sufficiently advanced technology, or any other method.

What makes me a libertarian is that the prospect of having that reconfiguration done by the same system that managed to ban marijuana while allowing tobacco, subsidize ethanol made from corn, and turn the patent system into a form of legalized bludgeoning, makes me want to run screaming into the night until I fall over from lack of oxygen.

I’m out of room in this reply (and then some), but I can’t end without mentioning that there has been some empirical work done on investigating which cognitive features make people libertarians. The main example that comes to mind is Philip Tetlock’s investigation of taboo tradeoffs. Roughly, if you present subjects with a dilemma about a hospital administrator who has to choose whether to spend a million dollars on buying a six-year-old child a kidney, or spend the same million dollars on hospital equipment, doctor salaries, et cetera, what you discover is that most subjects, liberal or conservative, want to punish an administrator who even thinks about the question. People who identify as libertarian don’t get angry at the administrator for thinking about it. And the first obvious interpretation of an experimental result isn’t always the correct one, but sometimes, you know, it is. I’ll end on that.

Should Libertarians Trust the Monkey Mind?

“With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy,” wrote Charles Darwin. “Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

I was reminded of Darwin’s moment of doubt after reading Dr. Shermer’s thoroughly engaging new book, The Believing Brain. Shermer makes the convincing case that in many situations we should indeed be skeptical of the convictions of our “believing brain.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t follow his own argument to its surprising, though logical, conclusion.

I had picked up the book after reading an advance copy of Shermer’s essay “Liberty and Science” and finding, to my dismay, that after agreeing to write a response essay that I could not find enough to disagree with. Although Shermer is a skeptic and a libertarian while I am a Christian and a conservative, we share an appreciation of the Realistic Vision of human nature and an agreement that it should influence our political philosophy. While I disagree with his contention that it is “best represented by the libertarian political philosophy” that is a rather minor quibble with his levelheaded essay.

Fortunately, the book expands on his argument and provides fodder for a reasonable dispute: While I believe that the brain and the mind were created through some form of theistically guided evolutionary process, Shermer believes that the mind doesn’t exist at all and that the brain was created quite unintentionally. The problem with his view, in my opinion, is that if evolution is a non-teleological process, then it undercuts our ability to trust that we can form true beliefs and convictions. Considering that his book is full of examples of how we have not formed true beliefs, I’m surprised that Shermer does not see how this follows from his own initial premises.

Where he goes astray is in smuggling teleology into a closed materialistic system. For example, Shermer says that the brain is a “belief engine” that finds patterns and infuses those patterns with meaning. He calls this process patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process involved is what he calls agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency.

The concept of agenticity is marginally plausible (though not compatible with his belief in monism) but patternicity, as he defines the term, seems confused. “Meaningfulness” is not a property of physical matter, and thus cannot be discovered in nature. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the brain can infuse patterns with meaning (how the laws of nature acting on neurons produce meaning is a mystery we can set aside for now). Since meaning is not a property to be discovered, to say that something is “meaningless” is merely to claim that a particular brain has failed to infuse that pattern of data with meaning.

How would it be possible to determine such meaning? In order to find meaningful patterns and form trustworthy convictions, we have to possess properly functioning noetic equipment (i.e., a brain, spinal cord, sensory apparatus, etc.) that is able to recognize reality.

But can a strictly materialistic, non-teleological, evolutionary process produce such reliable equipment? The philosopher Alvin Plantinga, one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era, contends that it cannot. Although Plantinga’s claims are too complex and tightly argued to be adequately summarized, the basic outline of his case shows his conclusion is all but incontrovertible.

Plantinga claims not that evolution is untrue, but that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of naturalism. “As far as I can see, God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go,” he argues. “Hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life.”

What does imply that life is not directed, he adds, is not evolutionary theory itself, but the theory of unguided evolution: the idea that “neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing, or orchestrating the course of evolution.” For our purposes, we’ll call this view “evolutionary naturalism.”

Evolutionary naturalism assumes that our noetic equipment developed as it did because it had some survival value or reproductive advantage. Unguided evolution does not select for belief (or meaningful patterns) except insofar as belief improves the chances of survival. The truth of a belief is irrelevant, as long as it produces an evolutionary advantage.

Our noetic equipment could have developed at least four different kinds of beliefs that are compatible with evolutionary naturalism, none of which necessarily imply that we have trustworthy cognitive faculties.

Consider Zed, a prehistoric caveman. Zed is the first to cross the line over to Homo sapiens (his parents are very proud) and is the first to develop functioning noetic equipment that is the equivalent of modern humans. His equipment could produce four types of beliefs.

Option #1: Beliefs that are effects but not causes of behavior, whose truthfulness is irrelevant since they have no place in the causal chain leading to behavior. These beliefs are sort of the garnish on the plate of behavior; they are there, but they have no purpose. For example, Zed may feel pain when he is bitten by a sabertooth and yet have a physiological reaction that is correlated, but not caused, by his pain sensation. Zed’s beliefs would be invisible to evolution and therefore can play no role in survival. (This view, called epiphenomenalism, is surprisingly popular among biologists. Since Shermer does not believe in the existence of the mind, I’m not sure why he doesn’t subscribe to it also.)

Option #2: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors but whose truthfulness does not affect the behavior. For instance, Zed has discovered both language and singing. He notices that singing “UGGA BOO UGGAGA BOO” at the top of his lungs scares off birds and small animals. He believes that the words “UGGA BOO” have a magical effect on the animals that causes them to run away in fear. The words, of course, have no effect on the animals. It’s Zed’s horrendous voice that is scaring them away. (This view, called semantic epiphenomenalism, is surprisingly popular among philosophers of mind. This is similar to what Dr. Shermer classifies in his book as superstition.)

Option #3: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors but don’t help Zed survive. For example, he could develop a belief that letting a sabertooth bite his brain will make the animal happy. Such a belief would lead him constantly to put his head in the mouths of the great cats until he was able to find the true effect of the brain-biting.

Option #4: Beliefs that are caused by and cause behaviors and have an evolutionary advantage. Zed develops a belief that letting a sabertooth bite his brain will make the animal happy—which leads him to stay far, far away from brain-eating animals.

Option #4 is the best example of useful patternicity. But what are the chances that that this evolutionary advantage results from the belief being true? According to Plantinga, we have no reason to believe that it is necessary for a belief to be true in order to be advantageous.

Zed needs to act in certain ways to survive. For example, he needs to avoid the sabertooth tiger taking a bite out of his big brain. We’ll call this “Tiger Avoidance Behavior.” Now Tiger Avoidance Behavior could be produced by Zed’s desire not to get eaten plus the presumably true belief that Tiger Avoidance Behavior will increase his chances of not having his brain eaten.

The problem is that Tiger Avoidance Behavior could also be produced by false beliefs. Perhaps Zed likes the idea of being eaten and wants to run toward the tiger, but he always confuses running toward with running away from tigers. His false belief actually aids, rather than hinders, his survival. Therefore, a belief could have a survival advantage and yet be false.

The point of all this is that Zed’s noetic equipment does not need to produce true beliefs for him to survive. This is true for all four types of belief that unguided evolution can produce. Since this holds true for even the most basic survival behavior, it is especially true for abstract ideas (e.g., evolutionary naturalism, libertarianism). Whether it is right or wrong is purely accidental. Although it is possible that any particular belief can be true, it is not, from an evolutionary perspective, necessary that any beliefs be true.

If, as evolutionary naturalism claims, our noetic equipment might have developed in different ways, then a belief in evolutionary naturalism itself could be any of the four types of belief listed above. What is the likelihood that evolutionary naturalism has produced in us cognitive equipment that is able to reliably form true beliefs and know that they are true? Extremely low. Even then, we could never truly know that we knew the truth, because we would know our belief might merely be the most advantageous to us.

Shermer claims that science begins with the null hypothesis, that a hypothesis under investigation is not true, or null, until proven otherwise. As he says, “If you think X does cause Y then the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis.” In this case we could say that anyone who thinks a non-teleological process causes the production of reliable noetic equipment has the burden of proof to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis. Since it is impossible to produce such experimental data (without begging the question that we have reliable noetic equipment to judge the results), we can say that believing in non-teleological evolution should undercut our confidence in being able to find or create any meaningful patterns or other true beliefs.

To accept the naturalistic evolutionary explanation for the development of our noetic equipment we have to be skeptical about that equipment’s reliability. All we would really know is that it works for evolutionary purposes, not for the purposes of discerning truth from falsehood. Evolutionary naturalism, it turns out, is a self-defeating proposition: If we believe the theory is true, then we have no reason to believe that the theory—or any theory at all—is true.


Plantinga, Alvin. 1994. Naturalism Defeated. http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plan….

The Evolution of Liberty

In his lead essay, Michael Shermer usefully defines what he calls the Realistic Vision as one accepting that “human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures.” Accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures are exactly what liberalism (libertarianism) has done so brilliantly since its advent a little over two centuries ago at the edges of Europe.

The sweep of history clearly shows that the natural state of humanity is abject poverty. Very much in line with the views of Friedrich Hayek, the most brilliant economist of the twentieth century, I understand human evolution and history as a search through time in which thousands of societies and billions of people tested religious, political, family, and economic institutions.[1] Those slowly discovered institutions differentially helped some groups to out-reproduce and out-compete other groups. The institutions that helped groups that discovered and adopted them to succeed against other groups can be thought of as embodying an ever better understanding of our human natures.

One gets a good idea of just how slow this undirected search for ever more effective institutions has been when one considers the income data compiled by economist Angus Maddison. Maddison calculated that the average income per capita in western Europe in the year 1 was about $600 (in 1990 real dollars). Incomes finally doubled to $1200 by 1820. Nearly 1800 years for average western European incomes to double! But after 1820, incomes took off, nearly tripling by 1913, tripling again by 1973, and nearly doubling by 2003 to $21,000 per person. In other words, people living in western Europe make 35 times more on average than their Roman ancestors did. On the other hand, a group of researchers recently noted that a billion people live on less than a dollar per day and “are roughly as poor today as their ancestors were thousands of years ago.”[2] Why did some portion of humanity finally escape our natural state of abject poverty? Because their societies finally stumbled upon the set of institutions that are broadly defined as liberal.

Jonathan Rauch in his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors offers a nice schema for the institutions that comprise liberal societies.[3] Rauch argues that our Enlightenment civilization stands on three pillars: democracy, which is how we determine who gets to wield legitimate coercive force; capitalism, which is how we determine who gets what; and a third pillar that Rauch calls liberal science, which is how we determine what is true.

In Rauch’s conception, liberal science embodies the principle that the “checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.” Liberal science is broadly speaking free speech, and it encompasses everything from the most biased activist pamphlet to rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journals. Shermer highlights this point when he quotes Timothy Ferris, author of the superb The Science of Liberty. Ferris asserts that “[l]iberalism and science are methods, not ideologies.”[4] Both embody the freedom to explore and experiment, enabling people to more systematically seek truths about the physical and social worlds. Both science and liberalism advance in better understanding their subject matters by falsifying asserted claims. As Hayek argues, “Human reason can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist in finding out where it has been wrong.” It is through a continual process of trial and error that science and liberalism ultimately yield better ways of doing things.

It is telling that the motto for one of the first official organizations of scientists, the Royal Society in Britain founded in 1660 is “Nullius in Verba,” which roughly translates to “Take nobody’s word for it.” Arguments from authority, religious or political, no longer went unquestioned. Another crucial Enlightenment insight might be summarized as “I may not know the absolute transcendent truth, but I do sure as Hell know that you don’t either.” It is the combination of the three institutions identified by Rauch that produced and continues to produce the material progress that the rising trend of Maddison’s income figures so vividly illustrates.

In fact, the World Bank has completed a study that puts a cash value on liberty. It turns out that the vast majority of the world’s wealth is embodied in liberal institutions and human brains. The report titled The Changing Wealth of Nations shows that the average American has access to about $734,000 in wealth.[5] However, most of it—85 percent—is intangible. In fact, the United States was first in the world in the amount of its intangible wealth, at $628,000 per person. In comparison, despite a couple of decades of unprecedented economic growth, the average Chinese person has access to just $19,000 in per capita wealth, of which $9,000 is intangible.

What is intangible wealth? The World Bank study defines it as “human capital, social, and institutional capital which includes factors such as the rule of law and governance that contribute to an efficient economy.” Note that this is a pretty good summary of the twelve essential institutions of liberty listed by Shermer. The study goes on to point out that free societies are the ones that encourage the accumulation of human capital—they educate their people—and also allow for its effective use.

Effective use is the key. Russians average nearly $340,000 in human capital, but the effects of the country’s bad institutions—corruption and squelched speech—more than offset the benefits of Russian human capital by a negative $350,000. The bottom line is that the intangible wealth of living in free countries with honest governments surrounded by educated people dramatically boosts a person’s ability to earn income and create wealth.

The arc of history must be on the side of liberty, right? After all, don’t groups discovering and using successful institutions eventually out-compete groups with less successful institutions? Friedrich Hayek identified a significant problem—human nature brings with it human hubris.

Surely Shermer is right that the values that undergird the love of liberty are “part of our evolved nature.” They would have to be; otherwise relatively free societies like ours would never have arisen. But the slow progress of institutional innovation shows that the countervailing values of tribalism have been dominant over most of history. As Shermer shows in his excellent new book, The Believing Brain[6], humans are a conservative species. And why not? Most experiments don’t work out, and in the Paleolithic era, a failed experiment (like eating the wrong fruit or grub) took the experimenter out of the lottery to become an ancestor.

In his last book, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek persuasively argued that “an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition.”[7] Tribal instincts once helped roving bands of primitive people to survive and are still the bases of the bonds of intimacy we share with our families and friends. However, the more recently evolved institutions of individual liberty—contracts, the rule of law, private property, profit—strike modern tribalists as cold and unfair. This sentiment was well captured in The Communist Manifesto, in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared that the avatar of “Free Trade,” the bourgeoisie, “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”[8]

Modern progressives are motivated by an old instinct to restore the primitive egalitarianism that characterized human social relations when people lived in intimate hunter-gatherer bands, corresponding to the Marxian notion of primitive pre-state communism. For their part, modern conservatives intuitively dislike the socially disruptive character of markets and free speech and want to protect their group from outside competition and cultural corruption. These atavistic longings are part of the bio-psychological heritage of humanity and must be constantly resisted if the ambit of liberty is to thrive and expand. Liberalism (libertarianism) rises above and rejects the primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of progressives and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives. In doing so, it made the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and modern prosperity possible.

Hayek also identified a specific problem with the development of science—its success tempts some people to believe that they now know enough to mold society after their hearts’ desires (and those desires are always in a collectivist direction). As Hayek pointed out in The Constitution of Liberty, “those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom.”

In truth, the would-be molders-of-the-future have it exactly backward. The expansion of science means that every individual is increasingly ignorant relative to the amount of information now known. Free markets, democratic political institutions, and liberal science enable people to discover, marshal, and benefit from new, widely dispersed information. As Hayek explained, “It is because freedom means the renunciation of direct control of individual efforts that a free society can make use of so much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could comprehend.”

As the history of the last two centuries has shown, Hayek was surely right when he concluded:

Nowhere is freedom more important than where our ignorance is greatest—at the boundaries of knowledge, in other words, where nobody can predict what lies a step ahead….the ultimate aim of freedom is the enlargement of those capacities in which man surpasses his ancestors and to which each generation must endeavor to add its share—its share in the growth of knowledge and the gradual advance of moral and aesthetic beliefs, where no superior must be allowed to enforce one set of views of what is right or good and where only further experience can decide what should prevail. It is wherever man reaches beyond his present self, where the new emerges and assessment lies in the future, that liberty ultimately shows its value.[9]


[1] Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press, 1960.

[2] Matthew Bonds et al., “Poverty trap formed by ecology of infectious diseases,” Proceedings of the Royal Academy B, 22 April 2010 vol. 277 no. 1685 1185-1192.

[3] Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

[4] Timothy Ferris in Michael Shermer, “Democracy’s Laboratory: Are Science and Politics Interrelated?Scientific American, September, 2010.

[5] Kirk Hamilton et al., The Changing Wealth of Nations: Measuring Sustainable Development in the New Millennium (pdf), World Bank, 2010.

[6] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times Books, 2011.

[7] Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

[9] The Constitution of Liberty, p. 394.

The Conversation

Are Conservatives Fearful Dogmatic Thugs?

This exchange was enlightening, and I have several comments. But first, since we all share many values in the libertarian philosophy, with a nod toward some conservative values (e.g., Joe Carter in this exchange), I thought you all might appreciate a smackdown of my book’s political chapter, from which the excerpt in this Cato Unbound exchange came. It appeared in the journal Science and was written by the NYU professor John Jost, whose work I criticized in The Believing Brain. Specifically, I was not disputing his data as much as I was his POV. While not overtly stated, it is there on every page of his big paper entitled: “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” in which he and his colleagues write:

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of conservatism has for centuries posed a challenge for historians, philosophers, and social scientists. We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

Although Jost, as you will see, eschews any bias against conservatives, the media picked up on it instantly: One commentator for Psychology Today asked, “Is Political Conservatism a Mild Form of Insanity?” The British paper The Guardian reported: “A study funded by the U.S. government has concluded that conservatism can be explained psychologically as a set of neuroses rooted in ‘fear and aggression, dogmatism and the intolerance of ambiguity.’” As if that was not enough to get the blood of conservatives boiling everywhere, the report’s authors linked Ronald Reagan and the rightwing talk show host Rush Limbaugh to Hitler and Mussolini, arguing they all suffered from the same affliction.

Jost’s response to my analyses was predictable:

The chapter “Politics of Belief” opens with an attack on a paper I coauthored, so Shermer will not be surprised to learn that I found it the worst in the book by far. He could have rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the now-abundant scientific literature documenting significant differences between adherents of leftist (or liberal) and rightist (or conservative) belief systems in terms of personality and cognitive and motivational styles as well as neurocognitive and other physiological structures and functions. Instead, he besmirches the entire enterprise of political psychology, perpetuating canards from the right-wing blogosphere and lazy, empirically unsubstantiated accusations of “liberal bias.” For example, Shermer writes: “Why are people conservative? Why do people vote Republican? The questions are typically posed without even a whiff of awareness of the inherent bias in asking it in this manner—that because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning. Much as medical scientists study cancer in order to cure the disease, liberal political scientists study political attitudes and voting behavior in order to cure people of the cancer of conservatism.” In passages such as this, Shermer is not merely hyperbolic, inflammatory, and wrong about the specifics of the scientific articles he purports to critique. (One doubts he even read them.) By resorting to ideological deconstruction and essentially ad hominem forms of attack, Shermer violates his own intellectual standards—succumbing to the tendency, which he scorns in others, to reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.

As I noted in my book, let’s begin by reversing the process and characterizing Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states: a lack of moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, an inordinate lack of certainty about social issues, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence to the notion that culture and environment alone determine one’s lot in society and therefore it is up to the government to remedy all social injustices. Once you set up the adjectives in the form of operationally defined personality traits and cognitive styles, it is easy to collect the data to support them. The flaw is in the characterization process itself.

I am curious to know if this estimable panel of Cato Unbound commentators sees the same bias that I do, or is it my own libertarian (and fiscally conservative) bias that bristles at being so characterized by such personality dimensions as “fear of uncertainty” “dogmatism” and “endorsement of inequality”?

Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence

Maybe I’m severely dating myself here, but I remember a time when the Republicans at least seemed like the lesser of two evils. I’ve heard about the studies showing how government spending and debt grew faster under Republican than Democratic administrations, meaning that I was fooled by surface rhetoric, but still, I remember a time when the Republicans seemed more libertarian-friendly than the Democrats, and I was actually telling people to vote Republican if no third-party candidate was available. As opposed to modern times when the Democratic Party is corrupt, spineless, and lacking in any discernible principle beyond individual campaigns for re-election, and the Republican Party is… maybe the phrase “anti-sanity” might describe it? It goes out of the realm of what I’m accustomed to thinking of as U.S. politics and into the realm of the sort of antigovernance one reads about in history books with titles like The Collapse of the Third Republic. I say this to emphasize that I was raised with no inherent prejudice against the name “Republican”; and I understand that many kindhearted people may still identify as “Republican” based on good feelings left over from before the Sarah Palin days.

The temptation to psychoanalyze people so you can dismiss their motives is very common; I know people who have psychoanalysis the way other people have bad breath. I see two relevant rationality tropes; the first doesn’t have a standard name, but I’d phrase it as “If you understand their core flaws so well, please demonstrate it by refuting their actual arguments and conclusions.” It does no good to explain at great length why nanotechnologists are immature utopians, or something, unless you can actually pull out a copy of Nanosystems and point out where one of the equations is wrong. (Why, yes, I do meet a lot of people who think they can produce solid judgments about difficult empirical or computational questions by sagely psychoanalyzing the motives of people who disagree with them.) Psychoanalyzing Republicanism, or Democratism, or Libertarianism, or whatever, does not absolve you of the job of refuting anyone’s actual arguments about what some particular regulation is going to do to the economy. (That really annoys me, actually; I feel an unusually strong impulse to hit somebody with a sock full of spare change whenever Party A is trying to conduct a modular argument about how reality works and Party B is responding with a self-satisfied literary analysis of their personality flaws.)

The other relevant trope is “Reversed stupidity is not intelligence” or as Robert Pirsig put it, “The world’s stupidest man may say the Sun is shining, but that doesn’t make it dark out.” It’s possible and perhaps even probable that a majority of people in the world who claim to believe in “quantum physics” do so for extremely bad reasons, and that what they believe in is sheer woo and nonsense. But to psychoanalyze these people’s flaws, even correctly, and even if they constitute a numerical majority of the people talking about “quantum,” says nothing at all about whether the smartest people who believe in “quantum” might perhaps be justified in doing so. “There is no cause so good that you cannot find a fool following it,” said Larry Niven. If you had a friend who was reliably wrong 99% of the time on Yes-or-No controversies, you could just reverse their answers to end up being correct 99% of the time. You would need to do all the work of gathering reliable evidence and processing it correctly just to be wrong that reliably. You would need to be superintelligent just to be that stupid. Hence the phrase, “Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.”

There are large numbers of embarrassing people who believe in flying saucers, but this cannot possibly be Bayesian evidence against the presence of aliens, unless you believe that aliens would suppress flying-saucer cults, so that we are less likely to see flying-saucer cults if aliens exist than if they do not exist. So even if you have truly and correctly identified a cluster of people who believe X for very bad, no good, awful, non-virtuous reasons, one does not properly conclude not-X, but rather calls it all not-evidence. On the other hand, having lots of low-prestige people babbling about aliens can certainly operate to lower the prestige of belief in aliens, since to profess belief in aliens would be to affiliate yourself with all these low-status people—you would probably feel a rather deep twinge of instinctive discomfort before you dared to publicly agree with them. This is one of the primary mechanisms whereby, if a fool says the sun is shining, we do not correctly discard this as irrelevant nonevidence, but rather find ourselves impelled to say that it must be dark outside.

The Reversed Stupidity trope has a famous and specific application to this exact question: “Although not all conservatives are stupid, most stupid people are conservatives.” We must attain a frame of mind where this statement, even if true, tells us nothing at all about the wisdom of conservatism one way or another, just like the vast hordes of believers in quantum woo say nothing about the truth of quantum mechanics.

With all that said, I find it quite plausible that:

(1) Political scientists have correctly identified major contributing psychological factors of conservatism in some substantial clusters of Republicans, i.e., what they state as contributing psychological factors to identification with the modern U.S. Republican party are indeed such factors in many or even a majority of such adherents, including factors Ravenclaw types like me tend to consider nonvirtuous, such as dislike of novelty and need for closure; and also that:

(2) Michael Shermer is also well justified in complaining that they structured their research and phrased their results with clearly biased political affiliation; with malice aforethought to treat Republicanism as a disease and psychoanalyze it; and without a corresponding effort to find non-virtuous-looking psychological factors contributing to some people identifying as Democrats, the other major political power group that happens to be around in the early 21st-century United States. They lumped all “conservatives” into a single cluster; not explicitly disclaiming that you can find a fool following any cause, nor that reversed stupidity is not intelligence; and that they did all this because in the realm of political academia, getting in a few good punches on the Republicans is more likely to help your career than hinder it.

But I also think that in the end, science is not under any obligation that its results never favor one political party over another, and that results like Haidt’s classification of moral justifications, or Tetlock’s research into taboo tradeoffs, are allowed to be what they are, even if someone could potentially use it to put some random political party in a bad light.

With all that said, Michael, if you would prefer less government spending, I think you’re better off not naming yourself as “conservative” at this point. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence, nor is morality a see-saw: whatever sins the Democrats may have committed in your eyes, their downward motion doesn’t push the Republican Party upward. Government grows under Republicans and under Democrats, and arguing over who grows it more slowly is missing the point; even if you vote for the lesser of two evils you shouldn’t go around identifying your self-image with them. We should only let ourselves identify with causes and groups that are actually, y’know, good in a non-comparative sense—never with the mere lesser of two evils.

The Moral Arc Bends Toward Justice

I would like to respond to Ron Bailey’s well-crafted argument for “The Evolution of Liberty” by expanding his point to include morality and moral justice. Bailey notes that “[t]he sweep of history clearly shows that the natural state of humanity is abject poverty.” As Thomas Hobbes argued in his 1651 book Leviathan, the sweep of history also clearly shows that the natural state of humanity is abject violence and cruelty to those not in our immediate clan or tribe (and sometimes even to our own kin and kind):

In such condition there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain … no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The full title of Hobbes’ great work is: Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. Hobbes was the first modern thinker to apply the newly developing methods of the physical sciences to the social sciences. Hobbes fancied himself as the Galileo Galilei and William Harvey of a new science of society. The dedicatory letter to his earlier work published in 1644, De Corpore Politico, has to be one of the most immodest statements in the history of science:

Galileus…was the first that opened to us the gate of natural philosophy universal, which is the knowledge of the nature of motion. … The science of man’s body, the most profitable part of natural science, was first discovered with admirable sagacity by our countryman, Doctor Harvey. Natural philosophy is therefore but young; but civil philosophy is yet much younger, as being no older…than my own de Cive.

Hobbes’ introduction to scientific thinking came at the age of 40, when he happened upon a copy of Euclid’s Elements at a friend’s home and turned to a theorem he could not understand until he examined the preceding definitions and postulates. This stimulated Hobbes to apply geometrical logic to social theory. Just as Euclid built a science of geometry, Hobbes would build a science of society, beginning with the first principle that the universe is composed of material matter in motion. His second principle was that all life depends on “vital motion,” just as, in Hobbes’ words, “the motion of the blood, perpetually circulating (as hath been shown from many infallible signs and marks by Dr. Harvey, the first observer to it) in the veins and arteries.” Through the senses, the brain detects the mechanical motion of objects in the environment. Since all simple ideas come from these basic sense movements, complex ideas must come from combinations of simple ideas. Thus, all thought is a type of motion in the brain called memories. As the motion fades, the memory fades. Humans are also in motion, driven by passions—appetites (pleasure) and aversions (pain)—to maintain the vital motion of life itself. To gain pleasure and avoid pain, one needs power. In the state of nature everyone is free to exert power over others in order to gain greater pleasure. This Hobbes called the right of nature. Unequal passions among individuals living in nature lead to a state of “war of all against all.” Fortunately, Hobbes continued, humans have reason and can alter the right of nature in favor of the law of nature, out of which comes the social contract. The contract calls for individuals to surrender all rights (except self-defense) to the sovereign who, like the biblical Leviathan, is responsible only to God. Compared to a war of all against all, a sovereign presiding over the state is far superior and forms the basis for a rational society in which peace and prosperity are available on a mass scale.

Of course, we libertarians worry that Hobbes’ social contract can evolve into a state Leviathan that wields so much power that we have even fewer liberties than in the original state of nature. And so the history of modern politics has been a history of finding the right balance between the order brought about by living in a society based on the rule of law, and that rule becoming so draconian as to stifle our freedoms.

Between the time Hobbes was writing in the mid-seventeenth century and today, something dramatic has happened: the moral arc of the universe has been bending ever more toward justice. This observational metaphor was made famous in a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 16, 1967, when he encouraged his freedom fighters to take the long view despite the numerous setbacks they were experiencing: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” King was inspired by the 19th century Unitarian minister and slavery abolitionist Theodore Parker, who wrote in his 1853 book, Of Justice and Conscience:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Fortunately, thanks to the tools of modern science, we no longer have to divine it by conscience. We have data, comprehensively compiled by the Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker in his new book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011). The thesis sounds counterintuitive. Shortly after Reverend Parker penned his book, over 600,000 Americans died in a brutal civil war. Half a century later, millions more died in the Great War, and just over two decades later tens of millions more were murdered in the Second World War and the Holocaust, followed on by Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields, and the numerous genocides in Africa. With bodies stacked like cordwood and the ashes in the crematoria still cooling in living memory, how can anyone seriously argue that there has been a decline in violence?

The idea that we live in an exceptionally violent time is an illusion created by the media’s relentless coverage of violence, coupled to our brain’s evolved propensity to notice and remember recent and emotionally salient events, of which violence plays second fiddle to none. Pinker’s thesis is that violence of all kinds—from murder, rape, and genocide to the mistreatment of blacks, women, gays, and animals—has been in decline for centuries as a result of two forces: (1) a top-down rule of law created by Hobbes’ Leviathan state and an ensuing social contract, and (2) a bottom-up civilizing process brought about by trade, travel, and other social forces that have expanded the circle of our moral sentiments to include people beyond our kin and kind and clan.

Consider how far we’ve come since the violence of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Data from dozens of studies reveals the percentage of deaths in warfare from prehistoric times to the present. The contrast is striking: Prehistoric peoples and modern hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists are far more murderous than states, with the percentage of death by violence for the former ranging from 10 to 60 percent, and an average of 24.5 percent, compared to 5 percent and under for the latter. Even the bloody twentieth-century wars weren’t so bloody by comparison: About 40 million people died in battle deaths during the century in which around six billion people lived, which amounts to 0.7 percent battle deaths. What about noncombat deaths, such as all those citizens who became the collateral damage of war? “Even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate societies,” Pinker explains. Even all those genocides and the Holocaust only bring the death toll up to 180 million deaths, which “still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the twentieth century.” And it’s been getting better ever since. In 2005, Pinker computes, a grand total of 0.008, or eight tenths of one percent of Americans died in two foreign wars and domestic homicides combined. In the world as a whole, the rate of violence from war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias was 0.0003 of the total population, or three hundredths of one percent.

Just consider a few of the things we no longer have to worry about, says Pinker: “abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments; punishments on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.”

The civilizing process begins, says Pinker, with “the centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals,” and the like. But this is not enough. There has been as well a centuries-long process in which the moral arc has been bending toward justice, first documented by the Jewish historian Norbert Elias in the 1930s, which he subsequently reported in his 1939 book The Civilizing Process:

beginning in the eleventh or twelfth and maturing in the seventeenth and eighteenth [centuries], Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children until they became second nature.

Second nature. Our first nature is to be selfish, greedy, and nasty, as Hobbes noticed. Our second nature requires a little coaxing and persuading to come out. Analysis of medieval books of etiquette, for example, reveals that the numerous prohibitions are reducible to a few principles related to this second nature. Pinker sums them this way: “Control your appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature. And the penalty for these infractions was assumed to be internal: a sense of shame.”

Of course the moral arc is not a perfectly sloping curve. It is filled with bumps and back turns when the darker demons of our nature emerge in points of history where they can express themselves. Yet compared to 500 or 1000 years ago, today a greater percentage of people in more places more of the time are safer, healthier, wealthier, and freer. With the recent ascendancy of the Tea Party movement and the media coverage of angry white men, liberals understandably believe that things are grim and getting worse. But, in fact, Pinker notes that “in every issue touched by the Rights Revolutions—interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals—the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

The moral arc is ultimately grounded in our moral natures, so well captured in Abraham Lincoln’s prescription for a nation about to be hurled into a civil war, in his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Social Science Discovers Experience-Loving, Hard-Thinking Libertarians

In his response essay, Michael Shermer asks, “Are Conservatives Fearful Dogmatic Thugs?” His query is provoked by the fact that many academic researchers claim to have reached this conclusion through the objective application of the scientific method. In particular, Shermer cites New York University professor John Jost, whose work he critiqued in his book The Believing Brain. Jost and his colleagues have concluded:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

Jost, who was given the opportunity to review Shermer’s book, accused Shermer of engaging in ad hominem attacks on Jost and his fellow researchers, thus, in a sense, proving that Shermer is in fact motivated by thuggish fear as opposed to objective science.[1] In effect, Shermer’s “attacks” are just more QED for Jost’s research on conservatives.

Shermer ends his essay by asking other participants in this round of Cato Unbound if they see “same bias that I do, or is it my own libertarian (and fiscally conservative) bias that bristles at being so characterized by such personality dimensions as ‘fear of uncertainty,’ ‘dogmatism,’ and ‘endorsement of inequality’?”

To answer Shermer’s question: Yes, I do see the same bias that you do. But then again, according to Jost, I would, right? Still, the interesting question remains: Is it possible that academic psychological researchers are biased against conservatism? A telling anecdote was reported in the New York Times earlier this year when University of Virginia researcher Jonathan Haidt asked participants in the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology how many in the audience considered themselves to be politically liberal. As the Times reported:

A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility—and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

The process of science is supposed to help humanity overcome our innate tendencies toward confirmation bias—a point strongly made in Shermer’s new book. Science is necessary because confirmation bias is everywhere. Research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project[2] has shown time and again that when confronted with policy issues involving tradeoffs involving technological benefits and risks, it turns out that those who identify as liberals (egalitarians and communitarians) in particular fear change and—to quote Jost—“reject out of hand scientific findings that might be experienced as disagreeable.”

For example, a 2009 poll[3] by the Pew Center for the People and the Press reported that 70 percent of scientists favored building additional nuclear power plants. Sixty-two percent of Republicans also favored this, but only 45 percent of Democrats did. A more recent Pew poll [4] (without reference to scientific opinion) done after the nuclear disaster in Japan found that 49 percent Republicans still favored increased use of nuclear power, whereas only 31 percent of Democrats did.

Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues have been doing political and moral values surveys for a number of years and have consistently identified value differences among conservatives and liberals. But new research shows when it comes to really being open to new experiences and evidence, an often overlooked group surpasses both liberals and conservatives—libertarians.

In their paper “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology,”[5] Haidt and colleagues turn their attention to libertarians. The researchers found that libertarians are as open to new experiences as liberals and outscore both liberals and conservatives when it comes to a need for cognition. The researchers explain that people who score high on need for cognition are more likely to form their attitudes by paying close attention to relevant arguments, whereas people with low need for cognition are more likely to rely on peripheral cues, such as how attractive or credible a speaker is. Libertarians certainly have biases and values, but they attend more closely to evidence and logical argument when issues arise. I translate this to mean that libertarians are just a bit more amenable than either liberals or conservatives to having their minds changed by new evidence.

In the end, I believe that the shift in social science research signaled by the work of Haidt and his colleagues is a strong indication that the blinkered ideology that blinds old-style left-leaning academicians like Jost is already being swept away.


[1] New York Times, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” Feb. 7, 2011.

[2] Yale Cultural Cognition Project, various studies. http://www.culturalcognition.net/; see also my article, “More Information Confirms What You Already Know,” June 12, 2007, http://reason.com/archives/2007/06/12/more-information-confirms-what

[3] Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, July 9, 2009 poll; see also AAAS press release, July 9, 2009.

[4] Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, March 21, 2011.

[5] “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology”; see also my article “The Science of Libertarian Morality,” Nov. 2, 2010.