Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hunter Gatherer Ethics?

Ethics is a complex subject, but the origin of some innate human moral intuitions is no doubt explained to some extent by evolution. Our species is about 200,000 years ago, and agriculture only emerged about 10 000 years ago. For most of our history (probably over 88% of it), we were nomadic hunter gatherers. Modern human psychology (which is partly and significantly caused by the evolved structure of the human brain) remains fundamentally the product of that evolution.

Therefore our evolutionary psychology has been shaped by hunter gatherer societies. Because of genetic differences owing to sexual reproduction and environmental influences, of course there is variation in us as well, but some core traits do seem to be very prevalent.

Many people have a visceral fear of spiders and snakes and this seems to come from our brain’s limbic system (see also Isbell 2006), itself created by the interactions of many genes by the process of evolution by natural selection.

There is strong evidence that some of our core moral intuitions are also the result of evolution. It is even likely that the sense of “fairness” or even “entitlement” leading to the existence of common property (the ancient equivalent of public goods) or sharing the wealth (e.g., egalitarian food sharing practices amongst hunter gatherers) appears to be evolved in us as an advantage for survival. Thus one could say that the desire to “spread the wealth” is not some alien, wicked propensity caused by “evil” governments: it is in our psychology, the psychology of egalitarian, food sharing hunter gatherers.

Public goods, modern welfare and social security paid for by progressive taxes are the effective modern equivalent of communal food sharing and cooperation; public property and public land the equivalent of the tribe’s common property; the widespread feelings of anger and injustice humans feel at gross inequality of wealth the equivalent of ancient egalitarianism.

The particular form that morality takes in any society is of course influenced by culture and history to a significant extent, and I do not wish to ignore the role of culture here, or suggest some vulgar genetic determinism (which I personally find distasteful). Human nature and our traits are a very complex interaction of environment, culture and genes (indeed some human traits are clearly explained more by environment and culture, than by genes). There can be many differences between what is regarded as moral in one society and another, and the innate moral faculty is probably like our innate language faculty (which also has a biological basis), and can lead to quite different systems of morality in different cultures in different times, just as our core language faculty leads to different languages, with different words, grammar and syntax, even though underlying that surface diversity is Chomsky’s universal grammar, with a biological basis (attempts to deny that our language faculty is the product of evolution are disposed of by Dennett 1996: 370–400).

Of course, none of this constitutes an adequate moral defence of modern taxes or public goods, since the argument from nature is a logical fallacy. Our moral intuitions provide no objective basis for morality, any more than the mere intuition or conviction that god exists can provide any rational basis for believing in god. We do in fact have many wrong ideas or irrational emotions about the world and objects in it, from
(1) sheer superstition (e.g., religion),
(2) faulty or poor inductive reasoning (e.g., pre-modern science or medicine), or
(3) innate human psychological traits that are the product of evolution (e.g., a widespread and visceral fear of, or repulsion towards, snakes, even though most of us in industrialised nations never encounter snakes, and tobacco, sugar, alcohol or cars kill more of us today than snakes ever do).
For example, belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena – which is (1) above – might possibly have some psychological basis explained by human evolution (although religion is also deeply ingrained in many people by culture as well), but such belief is most probably completely wrong. Atheists can face a difficult task trying to convince people of the falsity of religion, because of widespread cultural belief in religion and the possibility of a biological and psychological basis for it. But while modern philosophy and the natural sciences can provide atheists with strong arguments in support of their position, libertarians by contrast find little support from philosophy of ethics for their natural rights-based anarcho-capitalism and the view that all taxation is theft.

A proper defence of what is right and wrong must come from an objective theory of ethics, not from our psychology.

Quite convincing moral justifications for government and government intervention (such as progressive taxes, basic welfare and universal health care) can easily be given through act or rule utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, the non-absolutist ethics of W. D. Ross, Rawl’s human rights objectivism, or other liberal contractarian moral theories. They could still be given even if we had no innate sense of altruism towards other people.

For free market libertarians, about the only moral theory that can be used to justify absolute property rights is natural rights/natural law ethics, which has severe flaws and is untenable (itself committing the fallacy of the argument from nature too).

Free market libertarians and Austrians face the double blow of advocating (1) things immoral by most objective ethical theories and (2) things that our innate sense of morality itself finds objectionable.

Any libertarian/Austrian faces a hard upward battle trying to convince people of ideas that (1) seem naturally repulsive and (2) can be rejected by many knowledgeable people with a background in philosophy of ethics by using rule utilitarianism, Rawls’ ethics or other theories.

The mass “conversion” of people to libertarian or Austrian philosophy (and the elimination of all taxes or public goods) is about as likely as the disappearance of the widespread human fear of snakes, which also seems to have a deeply ingrained, evolutionary and psychological basis. This of course is not a defence, or justification, of social democracy, but is a realistic statement of how things actually are with respect to human nature. By a similar process, religion, whether it is rational or not, will probably exist for a long time, for better or worse (and for the worse in my view), even though there are strong arguments against it.

So our innate psychological nature, which is a legacy of our evolutionary past, cuts both ways: it has left us with some beliefs and propensities that can be justified independently and some beliefs that cannot (sometimes in ways that are pernicious).

Moreover, in the case of inductive reasoning, we have a surprising mental process which appears to have been successful in general and allowed us to survive, but which might not be capable of rational justification, because of the notorious problem of induction (see “Risk and Uncertainty in Post Keynesian Economics,” Appendix 1: The Paradox of Induction?, December 8, 2010).


Some people claim that the modern state has no parallel in the environment of our ancient ancestors. But the most obvious figure would be the dominant male/males of the tribe (just as in monkey and great ape groups) whose position was established by force and ability to protect other members of the group from wild animals and hostile humans from other tribes. That of course provides no serious justification for modern government or patriarchy, however.

Further Reading

Borders, M. “The Stone Age Trinity,” March 6, 2006

Dennett, D. C. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Books, London.

Fehr, E. and U. Fischbacher, 2003, “The Nature of Human Altruism,” Nature 425 (23 October): 785–791.

Henrich, J. et al., 2001. “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies,” American Economic Review 91.2: 73–78.

Isbell, L. A. 2006. “Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains,” Journal of Human Evolution 51.1: 1–35.

Megarry, T. 1995. Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture, New York University Press, New York.

Pinker, S. 1997. How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Ridley, M. 1996. The Origins of Virtue, Viking, London.

“Spiders, Snakes, and Evolved Fears,” January 11, 2008,


  1. I think you will discover that real libertarians have long argued for equality, that liberty need equality and that it is our natural state.

    Proudhon, for example, argued this in What is Property?. His arguments for Anarchy in the book’s final chapter follow a discussion of animal sociability. This is remarkable in its topicality as modern biology, in the form of reciprocal altruism, has drawn remarkably simply conclusions in its discussions of the evolution of ethics – not to mention the obvious links of both to Kropotkin’s equally vindicated Mutual Aid.

    And talking of which, Kropotkin argued that our ethical standards evolved from our practice of mutual aid and co-operative. Interestingly, this analysis is reflected in modern evolutionary theory. I discuss this here: Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation

    And I should note that von Hayek argued that our ethical positions reflected our origins as egalitarian hunter-gatherers and find expression in socialism. Unfortunately, he argued, these instincts go against market efficiency and so had to be suppressed. Hence his support for less-than-democratic regimes -- the elite needs to exclude the masses,with their egalitarian ethics, from power to ensure a good economy. Thus autocracy is justified to save the masses from themselves (so to speak).

    Not that libertarian... Alan Haworth has a good discussion of this in his Anti-Libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy and Myth (Routledge, London, 1994)

    And, finally, I know you know that there are libertarian-socialists (and that we first used the word "libertarian") so I'm surprised to see you use the term "libertarian" to refer solely to those right-wings who stole that term from the left.

    But other than that, good post!

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. My goodness, Iain, give it a rest. The endless talk about hijacking of "libertarian" could probably be compared to complaints about the hijacking of "liberal". Except even complaints about the latter are quite rare and not common these days.

    How does it matter to you what pretentious pseudo-intellectual words people use? Yes, this is a harsh way of putting it. But it's true.

    George Orwell's 1984 had, among its central points, the argument that meaningless words and labels in politics and public debate rot out all thinking. People had stopped thinking, because they let words do their thinking for them, until throwing around "war", "peace", "freedom", "slavery" had killed any sense of expression in those words. Concrete ideas and specific expression matter, not labels.

  3. By the way, LK, commons and public goods are not the same.

    Commons are not an ancient equivalent of public goods. Shepherds who have their sheep roam the commons let them graze or use the grass at will, and do so anywhere or everywhere.

    Public goods, like today's roads or bridges, are based on far more organized action and rigid rules of usage. To point to an interesting example, Singapore has road tarriffs or congestion charges. Travelling a road on Singapore will cost you money from your pocket and will cost you more money during peak hours of heavy traffic. Road space is scarce and the authorities who control the roads believe in proper allocation of that space.

    Had the roads in Singapore been commons for all to use, then there would have been no rules about traffic and they would be congested from end to end (as they were before road tarriffs), to be grazed by all the automobiles and the shepherds who drive them.

    So even public goods are not necessarilly an "evolution" of an older system. They are a newer, more contemporary creation, a product only of modern circumstances and without any older roots. We may call them artificial or inhuman, but that has no relevance to their nature or utility.

  4. So even public goods are not necessarilly an "evolution" of an older system.

    I never said they were. I said they are the "equivalent." Perhaps I should have said "are analogous to", by which I mean understood as being similar to, but not exactly the same.

  5. Interesting post, and a fair shot at libertarians and anarcho-capitalists of the 'non-aggression axiom' variety.

    Our past appears to be dominated by small group situations, i.e. where people lived in groups with smaller numbers, with no or low interaction between groups. However, in the last few hundred years large group situations are becoming more significant, and this changes the types of rules or values that prevail -- this change, from my perspective, indicates that more anonymous interactions and more short-term and once off transactions will take place, and that customs etc. will develop to support these interactions that are more impersonal, abstract and general, and that correspond with the institutions of the unplanned market economy rather than planned or collective decision making.

    The best argument against your democratic socialist argument from evolution is the work of John Hasnas into customary law. His work presents free market anarchy and a purely customary law as an evolved set of institutions that are compatible with both our evolutionary baggage and our modern economy and the opportunities from mass production, large group culture etc.

  6. Thanks for your comments.

    "The best argument against your democratic socialist argument from evolution is the work of John Hasnas into customary law"

    I don't regard any argument from evolution, from nature, or from human psychology as a serious justification of government, government intervention or social democracy.

    I have clearly stated above that any such arguments from nature are logical fallacies.

    In this case, however, the nature of humans seems inconvenient for Austrians and other free market libertarians, just as, for example, a possible psychological basis for religion is inconvenient for atheists (even though atheism may well be true).

    I support social democracy because I think it can be justifed independently of our psychology by objective moral theories.

  7. "My goodness, Iain, give it a rest. . . How does it matter to you what pretentious pseudo-intellectual words people use?"

    Oh, right. So it does not matter if, for example, fascists start calling themselves democrats? So of course it matters -- if capitalists use the term "libertarian" to describe their ideas then there becomes massive confusion, and you get people writing that "libertarian" think X when, in fact, they do not.

    "Yes, this is a harsh way of putting it. But it's true."

    Okay, I'm sure no one would disagree with me stating that libertarians think property is theft? After all, the words do not matter and I'm sure that all the "Austrians" will completely agree with that statement...

    Next up, I think we should use the word "white" when we mean "black" -- that also, I'm sure, would not lead to confusion...

    An Anarchist FAQ

  8. You're conflating economics and political philosophy in order to make your critique of Austrians. Lol.

  9. Anonymous,

    I am talking about ethics above, not political philosophy per se.

    Rothbard in fact built his house-built-on-sand case for anarcho-capitalism on natural right/law ethics:

    Thus, while praxeological economic theory is extremely useful for providing data and knowledge for framing economic policy, it cannot be sufficient by itself to enable the economist to make any value pronouncements or to advocate any public policy whatsoever. More specifically, Ludwig von Mises to the contrary notwithstanding, neither praxeological economics nor Mises’s utilitarian liberalism is sufficient to make the case for laissez faire and the free-market economy. To make such a case, one must go beyond economics and utilitarianism to establish an objective ethics which affirms the overriding value of liberty, and morally condemns all forms of statism” (Rothbard 2002: 214).

    Don't waste my time telling that ethics isn't important in critiqiues of anarcho-capitalism.

  10. "And, finally, I know you know that there are libertarian-socialists (and that we first used the word "libertarian") so I'm surprised to see you use the term "libertarian" to refer solely to those right-wings who stole that term from the left."

    I am guilt of this. I apologise.

    In future I will use the qualifier "free market/laissez faire libertarian" or "capitalist libertarian".

  11. So, LK, I take it you'd not find the free marketeer's use of the concepts or assertions about free markets being natural systems of liberty, natural law, natural rights and natural justice as any indication that the principles espoused have any sense of harmony with human psychology?

    From my point of view natural law, natural rights and natural justice are endogenous to the market or the free society, and arise as a by-product of human commerce and organisation. As such, these institutions are naturally harmonised with human nature, including our weaknesses or dark impulses (to constrain or mitigate them), as well as our talents and capabilities (to allow them to flourish).

    Perhaps another insight is the similarity between the approach of Adam Smith (competition and spontaneous order etc.) and Charles Darwin (survival of the fittest, natural selection). In both cases they view the results such as social order or biological order as the product not of design but of unplanned forces and interactions.

  12. "I take it you'd not find the free marketeer's use of the concepts or assertions about free markets being natural systems of liberty, natural law, natural rights and natural justice as any indication that the principles espoused have any sense of harmony with human psychology?

    Natural law, natural rights and natural justice are indefensible concepts. They commit the fallacy of appeal to nature, to begin with.

    But I also doubt whether libertarian concepts really are consistent with nature.
    Take the libertarian insistence that we must be free from any coercive authority, done without our consent.

    This is radical violation of one fundamental part of human nature: the relationship of parents to children.

    How can you raise children without using coercion without their consent? You can't.
    The alternative is letting children run wild.

    If are an old fashioned parent who believes a
    slap or smack is the only thing that really the teaches children, then even some (reasonable and mild) force is necessary.

    As for Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest and natural selection, they don't apply to human familes and communities - do we allow "unfit" family members or members of the comunity to just die? We don't. Another fallcy of appeal to nature.

    Social Darwinism a la Spencer is deeply flawed and led to horrors.

  13. I like the post, but it's my understanding that the term "free market" is ambiguous, having at one time meant "a market free of monopolies, barriers to entry, and other rents," but now meaning "a market in which participants are free to form monopolies and engage in other rent-seeking activities." Rothbardians usually hew to the latter meaning, while blaming such distortions as result on the malfeasance of The State.

  14. LK, you're a clever cookie, and you know how to attack the weak points of the libertarians!

    Like you, I've always found the libertarian theory of parent-child rights and its harmony with the non-agression axiom etc. as suspect. This becomes important on the abortion issue: do parents have an obligation to nurture and protect their children? If so, and I believe it is so, on what basis or grounds does this obligation arise? It appears that the marriage contract may not be a sufficient answer to this question, as not all parents are married (or in similar ways engage themselves to care for their progeny).

    By the way I've not commented about the validity or otherwise of arguments from nature or human psychology, I'm only commenting on whether they represent an argument for or against a free society as understood by libertarians or anarcho-capitalists.

    Social darwinism, as far as I understand it, does not represent the death or elimination of the less 'fit' people. On the contrary, it entails the elimination of practices, customs, languages, words, technologies or production methods, land, labour and capital uses, labour and capital locations and so on that have better uses. The resulting improvement in wealth enables a greater amount of care and provision for the 'unfit' by way of both a) improvement in the productivity and income of the unfit compared to a society where inefficient production methods etc. are not eliminated and b) greater income for the 'fit' gives them more resources with which to care for their less fit loved ones.

  15. David Hillary,

    This becomes important on the abortion issue: do parents have an obligation to nurture and protect their children

    Undoubtedly. Children are human beings and not chattels. The problem here is at what point does a zygote/embryo become human?

    The Darwinian metaphor may well apply to businesses and "unfit" capital goods etc, and I don't deny this.

    Geoffrey M. Hodgson, who is an Institutionalist economist, argues for use of Darwinian concepts in eocnomics. E.g.,

    Hodgson (ed.). 2009. Darwinism and Economics, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA

    But Darwinism in economics has its limits.

    A debt deflationary depression of the type in 1929-1933 destroyed perfectly solvent, otherwise productive businesses.

    Yes, there were malinvestments which would have been liquidated, but there was no reason to allow whole swaths of the productive sectors of the economy to be destroyed -
    many businesses didn't go bankrupt because they were "unfit": they went bankrupt because there was insufficent effective demand for their output.

    People lost their life savings, were starving and unemployed - gutting demand for commodities.

    I am not sure what ethical theory you subscribe to, but intervention was justifed on moral grounds alone, if you think one of the following is a defensible theory:

    (1) act or rule utilitarianism/Consequentialism,

    (2) Kantian ethics, or

    (3) Rawl’s human rights objectivism.

    I defend rule consequentialism, but no doubt you can criticise that position, by raising the issue of interpersonal utility comparisons or aggregated utilities etc.

    As it happens, intervention was - and is - justifiable on grounds of economic efficiency too.

    The belief that it was all a "necessary" process is utterly unconvincing: it relies on Austrian business cycle theory, which, I think is a false.

  16. LK, and of course tariff wars, legislative/regulatory price/wage inflexibility and government engineered creditor screwing and gold standard destruction had nothing to do with the misery of the GD?

    I'm sure you can construct well reasoned arguments for your position on the GD if you try. The fare you're serving up now doesn't convince anyone of anything they didn't already hold. I don't buy any of the three plus one theories you say justifies 'intervention' of the type you're supporting, and even if I did, the intervention doesn't follow without an economic model in support of it also. I doubt I'd agree with your economic model that you'd import to bridge that gap either.

  17. "of course tariff wars, legislative/regulatory price/wage inflexibility and government engineered creditor screwing and gold standard destruction had nothing to do with the misery of the GD?"

    Asumming they did, and everything you say is true (which I don't beleive), that still provides no argument against intervention to alleviate suffering on moral grounds.

    You don't state your own moral position or theory, I notice.

    Some basic points:

    (1) I support Post Keynesian economics, a non-neoclassical, heterodox macroeconomic theory.

    (2) The Great Depression had complex causes.
    Yes, a cheap money policy by the Fed contributed. But cheap money does not necessarily lead to asset bubbles and excessive private debt. When financial markets are effectively regulated, these things can be prevented.

    The contractionary phase of the Great Depression from 1929-1933 was caused by

    (1) excessive private debt used in leveraged speculation on financial assets in a poorly/minimally regulated financial system

    (2) the collapse of the asset bubble, causing debt deflation, a process described in the model of Irving Fisher and Hyman Minsky, and now developed by Post Keynesians

    (3) bank runs and bank collapses leading to loss of people's savings

    (4) Demand shocks causing deflation in commodity prices, leading to loss of profits, unemployment, further demand collapse, and onwards in a vicious circle

    (5) Severe shock to business expectations and collapse of investment and production

    The role of tariff wars no doubt increased the economic problems of those countries with large export sectors. The US was not such a country. Tariff wars do explain that depth of the US contraction. US exports fell from 7% of US GNP in 1929 to 5.5% of GNP by 1931. If we assume a multiplier of 2, the tariff wars exlain only 3% of the decline in US GDP in these years, even though GNP contracted 14.2% from 1929-1931.

    And the tariff war only came by the end of 1931, when 25 countries raised their import duties on US goods.

    That cannot be a serious explanation of the depression into which many countries had already plunged in 1930.

    As for the gold standard, that proved to be the major mechanism by which deflationary shocks were transmitted all over the world. Abandoning it was a major solution to the problem.


  18. Oops:

    Tariff wars do NOT explain that depth of the US contraction

  19. Firstly, to Iain, who knows, maybe fascists can start calling themselves democrats. After all, Mussolini held plebiscites and referendums to advance or reject policies. Do you dispute this minor piece of historical data? Why exactly is it so hard to avoid labels and simply work on explaining or elaborating your ideas? Why do you need one single word as a quick explanation of it? Again, as George Orwell argued, you wish to use empty epithets instead of specific, concrete expression and language. Words must do people's thinking for them!

    Secondly, on topic, there is the question of tendencies innate to human nature such as phobias of snakes. Neuroscientist James Fallon did extensive research on serial killers and psychopaths. He tried to determine psychological traits typical to serial killers and found three generally common traits - "violent" genes, some brain damage, and childhood trauma. Early in life, Fallon believed that while there was some free will, it could be strongly limited by some tendencies in people. Relatives and descendants of serial killers had a high chance of becoming serial killers and they could hold it off, like going to the bathroom, but eventually had to do it, like going to the bathroom. That's why serial killers would commit their first murder after a long, healthy life. They would put it off for many years, and suddenly do it again. Eventually, they can't hold it in and do it regularly.

    However, Fallon came to realize he too was a textbook case for a potential serial killer. A HIGHLY likely future serial killer. He came from a family of 8 notorious murderers. He had the ingredients.

    Why didn't he do it? Because, he was eventually forced to concede ( that there is such a thing as free will and genes were perhaps no excuse.

    Science can explain many things, but it hits a road block with something as complicated as human nature. That is because man is not an entirely "natural" being. There is little case to be made for him as a deterministic creature, even by a distinguished neuroscientist.

    So in the end, I agree that appeal to nature is wrong, but for another reason: there is no such thing as typical human nature. Man is capable of doing anything, from cannibalism to child murder, and if we ever have to ask ourselves why Carthaginians burn their children alive or why West African tribals eat each other, it's not because of "violent genes" - it is because they made a choice. Today's moral civilized western people are as capable of doing those things, but they don't do them because they made a choice, not because of innate repulsion.

  20. "Don't waste my time telling that ethics isn't important in critiqiues of anarcho-capitalism."

    But they play no role in a critique of austrian economics, which you name-drop several times in your post.

    And critiquing natural rights anarcho-capitalism is too simple. Fact is it is a circular argument, resting on the basis that private property/self-ownership is a normative right. Your critiques are nothing new and rather common within libertarian circles.

  21. "But they play no role in a critique of austrian economics, which you name-drop several times in your post."

    If by Austrian economics you mean the inferences of praxeology, then you are right.

    Even on the grounds of deductive validity and soundness, praxeological inferences are unconvincing.

    Moreover, as public policy, even Mises admits that praxeological inferences can be overriden by utilitarian arguments.

  22. This is delightful! However you miss that the austrian school is actually a very nice representation of what would be required in a predominantly agrarian civilization based upon storage or resources and required long term planning. Given animals can evolve undergo forced evolution via selective breeding in extremely short periods of time, it seems not improbable that as humanity would evolve as we became predominantly agrarian. The farmer cannot afford to give all of his seed to the poor if he is to plant more crops the next year. In fact, the more of his crops the farmer keeps, the more productive his efforts will become as he benefits from them and he enters into productive exchanges with his fellow man via trade.

    You are describing what Jung saw as the difference between Extroverted feeling and extroverted thinking.

    When resources are only available on a random basis and are perishable-such as in a hunter gather society, it makes sense that all must share in trade for future sharing on behalf of others.

    When resources are non-perishable and are directly proportional to the amount of work put forth, then each must work for his own self-support and the best you do for your brethren is to trade what you have for what they have to make both of your lives better.

    So you are both right in your ideas but wrong in your attack of libertarians.