Moral Sentiments and Material Interests
|Not by Genes Alone,
Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, eds., Chicago, 2005.
Moral sentiments and Material
Interests, Herbert Gintis,
Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, eds., MIT,
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Moral sentiments and Material Interests
is, from my point of view, an enormous advance on all the orthodox
economics I've ever read. My primary complaint is "What took so
long?" For decades now economics has been spreading disinformation,
and it's about time that they started looking at reality.
The ev psych ideas found in the Gintis book are more fully developed
in Not by Genes Alone. I should note that both books include
a lot of technical argument which I haven't even touched upon. What
I've written here is only a summary of the conclusions, written from
the point of view of a non-biologist and a non-economist..
The book's starting point is an empirical look
at the actual economic behavior of individuals, in order to see
whether it matches the rational-self-interest assumed by economic
theory. It is found that it doesn't, and the actual behavior
observed is next interpreted in terms of evolutionary psychology.
Finally, the political and social significance of these new
observations is sketched.
The empirical studies are standard
cash-incentive psych lab tests designed to find out where people
actually stand on the altruism / self-interest scale. In general,
the tests find that people behave more altruistically than they
would if they decided according to rational self-interest. (The
tests also find that the degree of altruism varies according to
culture, and is not a universal).
The results of these experiments square with
my own convictions, but I've always felt that this kind of
artificial, low-payoff game-playing is of only moderate scientific
value -- there's even some evidence that the authors themselves
think this way. To me the real story is that there's never been any
evidence at all that economics' assumption of individual economic
rationality is valid, and a lot of evidence that it isn't. The
rationalizations found in Friedman's Positive Economics have
allowed economists to rely thoughtlessly on these unproven
assumptions for about five decades, and if a few little experiments
are required to convince them to drop this inaccurate and unproven
default, that's cool with me. But it's a little like someone
cherry-picking Bible verses to make their point to the Vatican.
The authors define three mechanisms leading to
altruism and social cohesion: strong reciprocity, conformity, and
"costly signaling". These are made possible by innate dispositions
evolved in two steps -- simple reciprocity first at the early
primate small group level, and the more complex behaviors next at
the early human. Altogether they make possible genetic selection for
altruism, via net fertility advantages for all members of organized
social groups (not simply biological groups or kinship groups) which
are successful because their members behave altruistically.
Biological competition within the group is suppressed by non-innate
social and cultural mechanisms, giving an advantage to members of
the group on the average (but not to every individual in the group).
This way, with gene-culture co-evolution and mutualism, there can be
genetic selection for a degree of innate altruism in a way that
there could not be without culture and society, which form a kind of
"Strong reciprocity" is what replaces "rational self-interest". It
consists of the weak reciprocity described by Axelrod (initial
cooperation, continued until the partner defects) plus an additional
altruistic propensity to punish defectors even if there's no
personal advantage in doing so. In a society of strong reciprocators
(altruists both in giving and in punishment), defectors do not have
an advantage, whereas in a society of non-punishing altruists, the
defectors have an advantage which causes the defector gene to drive
out the altruist gene.
Two other behaviors are mentioned. "Conformity" is a weaker
principle explaining social uniformity in the absence of the threat
of punishment, and mostly applies to cases in which there is no
clearly-perceptible advantage or disadvantage for the individual, so
he just does what everyone else does. "Costly signaling" only
appears in one chapter, which uses the biological concept to explain
generosity of the potlatch / largesse / big man type. To me these
are less immediately interesting than strong reciprocity, though
"costly signaling" is a step on the way toward defining a more
complex heirarchal society extending beyond the face-to-face level.
A significant advantage of this book is that it describes a social
world which, like the world observed and described by historians,
has "multiple equilibria and tipping points" and is thus less stable
and less predictable than the imaginary world of equilibrium
In the final chapter Bowles and Gintis point out that local
community is always grounded on a fundamental ethic of strong
reciprocity. They describe it as a positive force which is usually
wrongly maligned by the partisans of the market, the state, and
elite culture. This brings them close to the communitarians, for
whom the local community is a valid and necessary third leg of
society, distinguishable (and sometimes at odds with) both pure
market behavior and the state. (A lot of liberationist and
libertarian ideology is hostile to the naive sorts of strong
retribution that make small-group community possible).
The three innate principles described by these authors can be
thought of as a ground for ethics, and the authors speak openly of
"trust" and "fairness". However, all actual ethics involves further
cultural processing, beyond the innate foundation. For one example,
one of the great advances making civilization possible was the
suppression of vendetta and feud, which are completely natural
developments of "strong reciprocity". For another, the mechanisms of
natural ethics described here work best at the face-to-face level.
The description, much less the attainment, of fairness (the goal of
strong reciprocity) within a large, complex, multi-level society is
an extremely tricky and difficult task indeed. (The authors do touch
on these questions, and they cite Fried's Evolution
of Political Society, which sketches a general view of the
move toward complex society).
Anyway, after about fifty years, economics seems to be returning to
the real world.
My post got a bit of attention from
the nature of selfishness is more complicated that economics
typically assumes, if it is indeed tied up in considerations
of family, friends, nation, species -- whatever -- then let
the science of economics try to adopt itself to those
I have trouble thinking of this as a
useful addition to the theory of rationality. It reminds me of
the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu's humorous mysticism: "Yes,
I'm selfish! But I'm selfish for the whole universe, not just
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J