Saturday, March 17, 2012

Michael Shermer on the Evolution of Fairness

Michael Shermer is the founder of the US-based Skeptics Society, and editor of the Skeptic, a magazine I have always enjoyed, being skeptically-minded on a good many things myself.

This is a short excerpt from a talk where Shermer discusses the evolution of our sense of fairness (curiously, Shermer describes himself as a libertarian).

Some comments:
(1) I have to say I find it unconvincing that all relations and exchanges must be analyzed in economic terms. Reciprocal gift exchange, for example, goes well beyond some crude economic transaction: it involves a wealth of social interactions and obligations. Economic transactions for thousands of years in many societies were deeply embedded in social life. But this is perhaps a minor criticism.

(2) 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.

It is 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. Hunter gatherer societies obviously had a degree of social coercion to enforce egalitarianism as well (to solve the free rider problem and to deal with the appearance of selfish impulses deemed unfair).

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.

This has consequences: most of the social and economic positions held by virtually all forms of libertarianism would appear to me to be unnatural (if one can use that word) to most people, and go against the deeply ingrained, evolutionary and psychological traits that many humans have. The belief that the rich cannot be made to give up some of their wealth to provide for humans unable to find work on the market or any private charity would, I contend, find few supporters. Yet it is a requirement of natural-rights based libertarianism that there is nothing immoral about allowing the deaths of humans unable to find work on the market or unable to obtain private, voluntary charity. The mass “conversion” of people to libertarian or Austrian philosophy (and the elimination of all taxes, public goods, government provided social security) is about as likely as the disappearance of the widespread human fear of snakes, which also seems to have an evolutionary and psychological basis.

(3) I do not wish to ignore the role of culture, or suggest some vulgar genetic determinism (which I personally find distasteful) here, of course. Human psychology is the complex interaction of genes and environment. There are exceptions to general genetically-influenced psychological traits. Culture can have a very significant role in shaping behaviour, attitudes and preferences.

Nor do aspects of our psychology justify in the moral sense egalitarian behaviour or political/social systems. For proper justification, an objective ethical theory is required. Intelligent people have felt themselves able to defend a reasonable degree of egalitarianism via independent ethical theories, such as some form of consequentialism, Rawls’ ethics, Kantian ethics, etc.
I have discussed this subject in a longer post here:
“Hunter Gatherer Ethics?,” February 23, 2011.


  1. 200,000 years old? Human evolution goes back more than that, Lord Keynes.

  2. 200,000 years is the widely cited figure for the rough emergence of Homo sapiens, that is, anatomically modern humans.

    Perhaps you are thinking of longer hominid evolution stretching back to Australopithecus afarensis?

  3. Haven't you yourself said that appeal to nature is a logical fallacy?

    Let's consider the word "civilization".

    The fact that man had to be "civilized" implies that his nature had to be changed to something other than what it previously had been. If man were simply meant to be himself as he is from the day he was born, then civilization has no real purpose.

    This is not some endorsement of any selfishness-based policy, I myself being a believer in the Corporate Tendency of Man. I am just saying that we won't become a better people by emulating our ancestors from 200,000 years ago.

    Furthermore, I believe you are using the Cracked Mirror fallacy. Just because elimination of public goods and social security are reckless acts does not automatically lead us to conclude that the Egalitarian Religion is the way of the future for all men.

    Indeed, egalitarianism itself is often poorly justified, because it is generally discussed as a means unto its own ends - a circular doctrine, just like religion.

  4. "Haven't you yourself said that appeal to nature is a logical fallacy?"

    You are absolutely correct. That is why I do not believe that any social/economic system is justified merely by aspects of our primitive psychology.

    I thought I made this clear above.

    I would use a consequentialist ethics as the philosophical justification for a social democratic system.

    Note that the latter could in theory justify such a system even if moderate egalitarianism were contrary to our nature (say, if we had evolved to be much more selfish and less social animals).

  5. "Hunter gatherer societies obviously had a degree of social coercion to enforce egalitarianism as well"

    I always wanted to have a band called "Darwin and the Altruistic Punishers"

  6. "virtually all forms" of libertarian ideas?

    Surely not, if we look at the people who first used "libertarian" -- namely anti-state socialists like Kropotkin. This research confirms Kropotkin's arguments in Mutual Aid and Ethics, as I indicate in Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation.

    But, yes, if you limit "libertarian" to the propertarians who stole the term from the left, then you are correct.

    An Anarchist FAQ