Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sapolsky (6): Determinism, Free Will, and Natural Freedom in the Legal System

In 1987, Robert Sapolsky was the recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants."  Some years later, he received a letter from the Foundation asking him to submit some Big Ideas for a funding initiative.  The letter said something like "Send us a provocative idea, something you'd never propose to another foundation because they'd label you crazy." 

So he sent them a proposal titled "Should the Criminal Justice System Be Abolished?"  He argued that the answer was clearly yes, because neuroscience had proven that all human conduct is biologically determined, and therefore there is no free will, which means that the criminal justice system is wrong in holding people morally responsible for their behavior.  When the Foundation accepted this proposal and organized a conference on this, Sapolsky and other neuroscientists began debating lawyers, law professors, and judges, who tried to defend the standards of legal responsibility against Sapolsky's claim that those standards are unscientific in so far as they assume free will.  As a result of this conference, the Foundation has funded a general program for "neurolaw"--applying neuroscience to the study of law--and one of the primary issues has continued to be this debate over whether neuroscience justifies abolishing a legal system that assumes the reality of free will.

Ah yes, many of my critics would say, don't you see here, Arnhart, that this is the disastrous consequence of your biological science of human nature--biological determinism denies the concept of free will that supports our legal and moral judgments of human responsibility?  The only way to avoid this, they insist, is to recognize that human beings have a spiritual capacity for free will that transcends their biological nature and for which there is no natural biological explanation.

In response to this criticism, I have argued that biological explanations of human nature in general and of the human brain in particular are fully compatible with traditional conceptions of moral and legal responsibility (see my posts here, here, here, here, here, and here). 

To see this compatibility, we must reject the idea of "free will" as uncaused cause. Whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from eternity--God--could be uncaused or self-determined. The commonsense notion of liberty is power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice. Human freedom of choice is not freedom from nature but a natural freedom to deliberate about our natural desires so that we can organize and manage our desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. This is how Aristotle understood "deliberate choice" (proairesis)

Similarly, Darwin believed that "every action whatever is the effect of a motive," and therefore he doubted the existence of "free will." Our motives arise from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, and external conditions. Still, although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, Darwin believed, we are morally responsible for our actions because of our uniquely human capacity for reflecting on our motives and circumstances and acting in the light of those reflections. "A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals."

If we understand moral responsibility in this way, and see this as the conception of responsibility assumed in the law, then neuroscientific research on the natural causality of the brain is no threat to moral and legal responsibility. Stephen Morse--a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who specializes in psychology and law--has laid out the case for this conclusion based on a "compatibilist" view of moral choice.

As Morse indicates, the "hard determinists" and the "metaphysical libertarians" agree that "free will" would require a "contra-causal freedom." But while the determinists deny there is such a thing. The libertarians affirm its existence as an uncaused cause beyond natural causality. If we had to choose between these two positions, neuroscience would favor the determinists.

But Morse rightly argues that the law's conception of responsibility does not require a "contra-causal freedom." It requires only that human beings have sufficient practical rationality to understand their choices and to act on their deliberate decisions. When rationality is so diminished that someone cannot understand or act on his choices--a child or someone who is insane, for example--then we excuse their behavior and do not hold them fully responsible for their actions. But this conception of moral and legal responsibility as based on the capacity for practical deliberation or rationality does not require any transcendence of natural causality.

Sapolsky has debated Morse, and in Behave, he explains why he thinks Morse fails in his account of "mitigated free will" as compatible with the science of human behavioral biology.  I am now wondering whether the compatibilism that Morse and I share can be defended against Sapolsky's critique.

Sapolsky observes that there are three ways of viewing the influence of human biology on human behavior.  (1) We have complete free will in our behavior, because our behavior is always freely chosen, and it is never biologically caused.  (2) We have no free will, because our behavior is never freely chosen, and it is always biologically caused.  (3) Our behavior is somewhere in between these two extremes.

Almost no one takes the first position, because almost all of us recognize that sometimes people are compelled by biological causes to behave in ways that we have not freely chosen.  So, for example, in 1842, Daniel M'Naghten tried to assassinate British prime minister Robert Peel, and instead he killed Peel's private secretary, Edward Drummond.  He had been convinced that the Tories were persecuting him and even trying to murder him.  For years, he had heard voices telling him that Peel was spying on him.  He felt compelled to kill Peel.  At the trial, a doctor testified that he was insane.  Today, we would say he suffered from some form of paranoid psychosis.  He was declared innocent by reason of insanity, and for the rest of his life he was in insane asylums.  His case became the basis of the "M'Naghten rule" that someone can be innocent by reason of insanity if, at the time of the crime, the person is so "laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind," that he cannot distinguish right from wrong.

In Anglo-American law, this shows the limits of free will when a diseased mind creates a compulsion that drives someone to commit a crime for which they are not fully responsible.

But as our scientific knowledge of the natural causes of behavior grows, Sapolsky observes, we can see that not just brain diseases like this but all human behaviors have natural biological causes.  And if all of our behavior is naturally caused, then we don't have free will, because we cannot act outside of the naturally causal world known to natural science.  So Sapolsky takes the second position--that there is no free will at all.

But Sapolsky admits that most human beings--or at least most of those who have thought deeply about this problem of free will--take the third position--that there is some middle ground between complete free will and no free will.  This is the position that the determinism of natural causes can be compatible with a limited free will. 

Those like Morse (and me) who defend compatibilism claim that human beings can have a natural freedom of choice that is not a free will understood as uncaused cause, and therefore this natural freedom is compatible with the determinism of natural cause.  Sapolsky denies this is possible, because he believes that any notion of human freedom must tacitly assume some kind of spiritual or immaterial power acting as uncaused cause.

Morse distinguishes between causation and compulsion.  The fact that all of our behavior is caused does not mean that all of it is compelled.  When we freely choose to think or act, what we do has been caused by our beliefs and desires, but this causation is not compulsion, and so we can be held legally or morally responsible for this.

Sapolsky responds: "But try as I might, I cannot see any way of making this distinction that does not tacitly require a homunculus that is outside the causal universe, a homunculus that can be overwhelmed by 'compulsion' but that can and should handle 'causation'" (600).

Although the compatibilists deny that they are metaphysical dualists, in fact, they really are, at least implicitly:
"There's the brain--neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis.  Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone's prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritative or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast.  It's the whole shebang, all of this book."
"And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel.  The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother's admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption.  In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck."
"And the homunculus sits there controlling behavior.  There are some things outside its purview--seizures blow the homunculus's fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files.  Same with alcohol, Alzheimer's disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycemic shock."
"There are domains where the homunculus and that brain biology stuff have worked out a détente--for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot."
"But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions.  Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do.  A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science" (588).
In reply to this reductio ad absurdum argument, Morse and I will say that this is a straw man--or straw homunculus--argument, because we are not claiming that freedom of choice acts outside the causal laws of nature. But Sapolsky's claim is that despite what we say, we must implicitly or tacitly invoke such a homunculus acting outside the natural world.

Now, it should be noted that in defending a biological determinism that denies free will, Sapolsky is not a reductionist; nor is he claiming that biological science can predict behavior.  His biology of human behavior is a non-reductive multifactorial biology that sees behavior arising from a great multitude of factors interacting with one another, so that no single factor or set of factors acts as the single cause of the behavior.  So, for instance, genes influence behavior, but they do not by themselves determine behavior, because genes by themselves do nothing, and their influence depends on the various contexts in which they work.

Moreover, since this multifactorial biology is so complex, and since our scientific knowledge of how it works is so limited, we cannot now--and perhaps cannot ever--predict any behavior exactly.  We can only talk about what tends to happen on average in certain circumstancesThe variability of individuals and the variability of the contexts in which they act make precise prediction impossible.  We can say that people with paranoid psychosis will have some tendency to act as M'Naghten did, but he cannot say that every person with such a disease will do so.

So, if we were persuaded by Sapolsky that there is no free will or freedom of choice to support the standards of legal responsibility assumed by the criminal justice system today, then how would we have to reform the system to conform to this science of non-reductive multifactorial biological determinism?

Sapolsky says we should draw three conclusions--one is easy to see, one is hard to implement, and the third is almost impossible to achieve.

First, it should be easy to see that a legal system that denies free will would not have to allow dangerous people to roam freely in society and create havoc.  Of course, we need to protect ourselves from dangerous people, even though those dangerous people are acting under the disordered compulsions of their brains.  Here Sapolsky's neuroscience would not make any difference for the criminal justice system: we would continue to separate criminals from the rest of society for the protection of society.

But, then, the second conclusion is a little harder to adopt:  if we deny free will, then we can punish dangerous people by removing them from society, but we cannot see this punishment as justly deserved, as virtuous retribution for their immoral behavior.  It should not feel good to punish.  We cannot rightly feel that those we punish have earned their punishment.

The third conclusion, Sapolsky admits, is perhaps impossible to put into practice.  If we deny free will, then we cannot blame people for their bad behavior.  But it also follows that we cannot praise them for their good behavior, nor can we feel proud of ourselves for our good behavior.  For, if there is no free will, then no one deserves to be either praised or blamed.

It will be almost impossible for human beings to accept this.  So Sapolsky concedes:
"I can't really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will.  It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology.  Perhaps we'll have to settle for making sure our homuncular myths are benign, and save the heavy lifting of truly thinking rationally for where it matters--when we judge others harshly" (613).
"Our homuncular myths are benign," it seems, when we praise others for their accomplishments, but not when we judge others harshly.

It is not clear to me that Sapolsky can consistently deny human freedom of choice.  After all, his whole book Behave is an effort to persuade people to freely change the way they think and act--to see how the science of human behavioral biology can help them choose to create a world that is less violent, more peaceful, less vicious, and more virtuous than it is now.  He must conclude "that there is hope, that things can change, that we can be changed, that we personally can cause change" (648).

"That we can personally cause change"?  Well, yes, if we believe that we have the natural freedom to cause change.  But not if we believe that we have no such freedom.

Presumably, Sapolsky has written his book to try to persuade his readers with his arguments, and if he succeeds, this will change the neural circuitry in their frontal cortex and other parts of their brains in ways that can then exert some causal influence towards changing their behavior.  He is not trying to persuade a homunculus who can act as an uncaused cause.  Rather, he is trying to persuade those brain mechanisms that have the natural causal power to change behavior.  That is not free will.  That is the natural human freedom of choice.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sapolsky (5): Liberals Are Motivated by Moral Disgust and Fear of Death

In his interview on "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah, Robert Sapolsky showed his liberal bias in how he reports the research on the biological influences on political ideology.  It's the same liberal bias that one sees among most of the social psychologists and political scientists reporting this research.  That's why Jonathan Haidt has argued that the only way to overcome this liberal bias is to introduce intellectual diversity into the academic world by allowing conservative and libertarian scholars to participate in this research.  (I have written a post on Haidt's argument for academic toleration of conservative and libertarian scholars.)

Trevor Noah asked Sapolsky to explain his claim that the ideological differences between political progressives and political conservatives reflect deep biological differences in their psychological traits, so that "their brains are wired differently," and Noah wondered whether this led to the "frightening" conclusion that in politics people are no longer making decisions for themselves.  Sapolsky responded by saying that this should not be surprising if we recognize that "we're biological organisms," and so, of course, our biological nature is going to influence our political beliefs.

Sapolsky then referred to what he called "one of my favorite studies in the whole book."  If you put people in a room with a smelly garbage can, they become more socially conservative, in that they are more likely to decide that a social practice that is different from our own is not just different but morally wrong.  In his book, he refers to this study on page 453 (n. 44).  The title of the article he is citing is "Disgusting Smells Cause Decreased Liking of Gay Men" (Inbar et al. 2011).

Sapolsky went on to say that this is part of the research showing that social conservatives on average have a lower threshold for disgust, and the disgust reaction is seen in the activity in the part of the brain called the insula.  The insula was originally evolved to react negatively to bad tasting food or bad smells, but then later in our evolution, this brain mechanism for gustatory or olfactory disgust was appropriated for moral disgust: rotten acts create a "bad taste in our mouth."

Sapolsky and Noah could then laugh at conservatives for being driven by irrational emotions of disgust, while implying that liberals or progressives are rational people who use their reason to control the emotions that are uncontrolled among conservatives.

Liberal bias has introduced two kinds of distortion here.  The first is the silence about libertarianism as an alternative to liberalism and conservatism.  Sapolsky is silent about the research by Haidt and his colleagues (Iyer et al., 2012) showing that libertarians have a lower threshold for disgust than do either conservatives or liberals, and that libertarians are far more cerebral in their moral judgments.  I have pointed this out in the previous post. 

One might try to defend Sapolsky here by saying that his 10-minute interview with Noah was too short to bring up all the complications in this research.  But that defense won't work, because in his book (almost 800 pages long!), Sapolsky devotes only one sentence to libertarianism (446), and it's a curt, and untrue, dismissal of libertarianism as lacking any consistency.

The second kind of distortion is the false assumption that liberals are so purely rational that they do not show moral disgust or any other moral emotion.  That this is false is evident to anyone who actually reads the article about the smelly garbage can experiment that Sapolsky cites.

Here's the abstract for the paper: "An induction of disgust can lead to more negative attitudes toward an entire social group.  Participants who were exposed to a noxious ambient odor reported less warmth toward gay men.  This effect of disgust was equally strong for political liberals and conservatives, and was specific to attitudes toward gay men--there was only a weak effect of disgust on people's warmth toward lesbians, and no consistent effect on attitudes toward African Americans, the elderly, or a range of political issues" (Inbar et al., 2011, 23).

So the effect of disgust toward gay men (relative to heterosexual men) was "equally strong for political liberals and conservatives"!  Neither in his television interview nor in his book does Sapolsky mention this, because it would weaken his claim that liberals are not motivated by the moral disgust that motivates conservatives.

Now it is true that political liberals are more likely than political conservatives to say that one should not rely on feelings of disgust when making moral judgments (Graham, Haidt, and Nosek, 2009), and it is true that political liberals generally express a higher respect for homosexuals than do political conservatives.  But what this experiment with the smelly garbage can suggests is that political liberals can be influenced by the subtle effects of disgust just as conservatives are.  And keep in mind that libertarians are probably much less influenced by moral disgust towards homosexuals than are either liberals or conservatives.

If one agrees with those social psychologists who have argued that political orientation is deeply influenced by emotional intuitions rooted in evolutionary foundations--perhaps Haidt's six moral foundations--then one should expect that liberals are just as strongly motivated by their emotional intuitions as are conservatives or libertarians (Haidt 2012).  Even if one agrees with those like Joshua Greene (2013) who argue that moral judgment shows a complex interaction of intuitive emotion and deliberate reasoning, one would expect that even liberals who claim to be guided by pure reason must be motivated by emotional dispositions.  (My series of posts on Greene begin here.)

So, for example, consider the liberal opposition to genetically modified food (GM) in the United States.  Surveys indicate that a majority of Americans are opposed to GM.  And of those, most are so absolutely opposed that they say GM should be prohibited regardless of what the evidence might be as to risks and benefits.  This is remarkable, especially since there is a scientific consensus that GM is no more risky than food that has not been genetically modified, and the benefits of GM are clear, particularly for the less well off in the developing world.  Scott et al. (2016) have shown, from a survey of U.S. representative of the population, that those who are absolutely opposed to GM are more disgust sensitive in general and more disgusted by the consumption of GM than those who are not absolutist in their opposition to GM and those who are supporters.  Social liberals and social conservatives are equally motivated by their moral disgust to oppose GM. Scott et al. (2016, 322) explain:
". . . In the case of GM, we believe that disgust-based moral intuitions are grounded in intuitions about contamination and perceived violations of 'naturalness.'  The current data suggest that valuing naturalness is not the exclusive province of the political left or right. . . . We believe those on the left feel more connected to nature, whereas those on the right feel stewardship over the natural world because nature is part of God's creation.  If so, liberals may value nature because it is intrinsically part of a moral circle and object to any harm to wild animals or habitats.  Conservatives may value nature on theological grounds and object to scientists 'playing God' by disregarding the prescribed relationship between man and the natural world."
If this is correct--that liberals and conservatives are equally motivated by moral disgust in their opposition to GM--then Martha Nussbaum (2004) is wrong in her claim that disgust is an "illiberal emotion."

Okay, some liberals might say, maybe in our opposition to GM we do allow our disgust reactions to overwhelm our reason, but on most issues our reason rules over our passions, unlike those poor social conservatives who allow their irrational emotions to control all of their moral and political positions.  On the contrary, there is evidence that across a wide range of issues, liberals are motivated by moral emotions.

The most sacred value for liberals is caring for the victims of oppression and unfairness.  Consequently, they think government should intervene in the economy to protect the poor and the weak from being oppressed by the rich and the powerful.  This is motivated by moral disgust elicited by what they see as oppressive or unfair conduct.  In experimental game theory, studies of how the emotions of disgust are stirred by unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game, and of how this disgust arises in parts of the brain that evolved originally to react against bad food and pathogens, indicate how liberal moral disgust can be understood as an evolved reaction against unfairness and injustice (Sanfey et al., 2003; Rozin et al., 2009; Chapman et al., 2009; Moretti and Pellegrino, 2010).

Petrescu and Parkinson (2014) have shown in an experiment that inducing people to feel disgust--by presenting them with pictures designed to induce disgust--causes them to adopt left-wing positions on economic issues.  For example, those feeling disgust were more likely to strongly agree with the statement that "government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off."  So while conservatives are more likely to be disgusted by violations of physical and spiritual purity, liberals are more likely to be disgusted by violations of economic fairness and equality.

Another sacred value for liberals is what Haidt calls the "care/harm foundation."  Human beings have an evolved disposition to care for children and protect them from harm, and this supports a general disposition to care for and protect innocent victims of violence.  Human beings are thus inclined to feel moral disgust in response to violence that harms the innocent.  Sapolsky himself expresses his liberal moral disgust with gun violence in the United States.  He explains how the insular cortex activates when someone bites in rancid food, which induces a reflexive spitting out of the food, gagging, and perhaps vomiting.  He then explains how the insula also mediates visceral responses to immoral violence:
". . . this is visceral, not just metaphorically visceral--for example, when I heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, 'feeling sick to my stomach' wasn't a mere figure of speech.  When I imagined the reality of the murder of twenty first-graders and the six adults protecting them, I felt nauseous.  The insula not only prompts the stomach to purge itself of toxic food; it prompts the stomach to purge the reality of a nightmarish event" (561).
Surely, many people have felt the same sickening moral disgust in response to the recent Las Vegas massacre; and many liberals will be motivated by this moral disgust to renew their proposals for tougher gun control laws.  To counter this, conservatives will have to make rational arguments about how gun control laws don't work to stop such gun violence and about the importance of the Second Amendment in protecting the right to bear arms, even though this has the unfortunate effect of allowing some disturbed individuals to misuse their guns as Stephen Paddock did.

Here's a video of Sapolsky claiming that moral disgust is just bad evolution:

"If it makes you puke, you must rebuke" is Sapolsky's scornful way of characterizing Leon Kass's argument for the "wisdom of repugnance" (454).  Or as Sapolsky says, "one day the neurons that help make you puke are suddenly involved in running the president's bioethics panel" (569).  He has a great time poking fun at Kass's observation that he finds it repugnant when people display the "catlike activity" of licking ice cream cones in public (445).  (Links to my long series of posts on Kass can be found here).  Even if it's only conservatives like Kass who feel morally disgusted by people who lick ice cream cones in public, there's plenty of evidence that liberals feel morally disgusted by a wide range of conduct that violates the sacred values of liberalism.

Social psychologists have also shown through experiments that liberals are motivated by their fear of death to think more like conservatives (Nail et al., 2009).  Reminding people of their own mortality and of the 9/11 terrorist attack increased support for President George W. Bush, both among conservatives and among liberals (Landau et al., 2004).  This might explain why both liberal and conservative congressmen supported Bush's Patriot Act in 2001 and the American invasions of Afganistan and Iraq.  By contrast, libertarians consistently opposed Bush's policies as threatening liberty, perhaps because libertarians feel a great passion for liberty and less fear of death.

Sapolsky is either silent about this research, or he is selective in his reporting of it, because it contradicts his story about politics as a battle of the rational liberals against the emotional conservatives.

Here's an example of his selective reporting.  The article by Nail et al. (2009) is entitled "Threat Causes Liberals to Think Like Conservatives."  But Sapolsky's reports it this way:
"Related to this is 'terror-management theory,' which suggests that conservatism is psychologically rooted in a pronounced fear of death; supporting this is the finding that priming people to think about their mortality makes them more conservative" (452).
He then observes: "Fear, anxiety, the terror of mortality--it must be a drag being right-wing."

He is careful to hide from his readers the fact that liberals have been shown to be motivated by fear of death just like conservatives.

Fear, anxiety, the terror of mortality--it must be a drag being either right-wing or left-wing.


Chapman, H. A., et al. 2009. "In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust."  Science 323: 1222-26.

Graham, J., J. Haidt, and B. Nosek. 2009. "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96:1029-46.

Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Inbar, Yoel, David Al Pizarro, Paul Bloom. 2011. "Disgusting Smells Cause Decreased Liking of Gay Men." Emotion 12: 23-27.

Iyer, Ravi, et al.  2012. "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians." PLOS ONE 7: e42366.

Landau, Mark J., et al. 2004. "Deliver Us From Evil: The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30: 1136-50.

Moretti, Laura, and Giuseppe di Pellegrino. 2010. "Disgust Selectively Modulates Reciprocal Fairness in Economic Interactions." Emotion 10: 169-180.

Nail, Paul R., et al. 2009. "Threat Causes Liberals to Think Like Conservatives." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 901-907.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2004. Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Petrescu, Dragos C., and Brian Parkinson. 2014. "Incidental Disgust Increases Adherence to Left-Wing Economic Attitudes." Social Justice Research 27: 464-86.

Rozin, Paul, Jonathan Haidt, and Katrina Fincher. 2009. "From Oral to Moral." Science 323: 1179-80.

Sanfey, Alan G., et al. 2003. "The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game." Science 300: 1755-58.

Sapolsky, Robert. 2017. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.

Scott, Sydney, Yoel Inbar, and Paul Rozin. 2016. "Evidence for Absolute Moral Opposition to Genetically Modified Food in the United States." Perspectives on Psychological Science 11: 315-24.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Sapolsky (4): Left or Right? What about the Libertarians?

Robert Sapolsky thinks that our evolved human biology has some influence on our political ideology, in that all of us are born with genetically inclined dispositional preferences that influence our political behavior and our attitudes on specific political issues.  Studies of identical twins reared apart show that if you know that one of the twins is politically conservative, you can predict that the other twin is likely to be politically conservative.  So it seems that there is some genetic influence on whether one is politically conservative or liberal.  Sapolsky's thinking has been shaped by studies of the evolutionary psychology of political orientation by people like Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and John Hibbing and his colleagues (444-455, 508-512).

This suggests two questions.  First, what does "genetic influence" mean here?  In 2008, the Journal of Politics published an article entitled "Two Genes Predict Voter Turnout," which implied a simple model in which genes directly influence political behavior.  In a previous post (here), I have argued that such a simplified genetic model cannot explain or predict the emergent complexity of political animals, due to the individuality, contingency, and historicity of their behavior.  Indeed, the failure to replicate the claims in that Journal of Politics article has forced the authors to retract what they said.  This supports my argument that the older biopolitics movement is correct in arguing for a complex interactive biopolitical framework that is superior to the simplifying models of genopolitics proposed by Hibbing et al.

In fact, over the past five years, Hibbing et al. have moved away from the simplistic model of genopolitics in adopting the complex interactive model of biopolitical theory (see Kevin Smith, Douglas Oxley, Matthew Hibbing, John Alford, and John Hibbing, "Linking Genetics and Political Attitudes: Reconceptualizing Political Ideology," Political Psychology 32 [2011]: 369-397).  This is the model accepted by Sapolsky, who sees that the genetic influence on human behavior is almost always very indirect and dependent upon a complex interaction of many factors in a specific context (see Sapolsky's citation of Smith et al. at 445, n. 32).

Instead of a simplistic model in which genetics directly influence attitudes on specific political issues, Hibbing et al. now propose a complex model that moves through six stages with environmental factors influencing five of these stages.  Here are the six stages: (1) genetics, (2) biological systems, (3) cognition/emotion information processing biases, (4) personality and values, (5) ideology, and (6) attitudes on specific political issues.  The environment influences stages 2 through 6.  Each of these stages has many interacting factors.  So, for example, (5) ideology includes not just political ideology but also many other kinds of preferences for religion, educational styles, occupation, styles of art, child rearing, music, leisure pursuits, types of humor, and more.  Political ideology is defined as "preferences for bedrock issues of social organization."

In effect, Hibbing et al. and Sapolsky have embraced what I have called "biopolitical science," which is a science that moves through three levels of deep history: the natural history of the political species, the cultural history of a political community, and the biographical history of political actors in a community.  I have illustrated this by discussing Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation at these three levels.  Such a biopolitical science would have to include all of human behavioral biology (as surveyed by Sapolsky in Behave) as well as all of the traditional fields of political science and political history.  Hey, I've never said this was going to be easy!  This has been the subject of various posts.

For Hibbing et al., the crucial factor in this complex model is political ideology understood as "preferences for bedrock issues of social organization," which assumes that there are some universal principles of social organization that were shaped in the ancient environments of human evolutionary adaptation, so that the "bedrock issues" are not as transient as the specific political issues that happen to arise at particular points in time for particular communities.  So, for example, the current debate in the United States over the Affordable Care Act is a historically unique event in American political history.  But underlying this debate, there should be some enduring "bedrock issues" that explain the ideological divisions in this debate, so that liberal Democrats tend to support Obamacare, and conservative Republicans tend to oppose it.

This leads to the second question raised by the evolutionary psychology of political orientation: How exactly should we understand the evolutionarily bedrock spectrum of political ideology?  Traditionally, American political scientists have mapped the spectrum of political ideology along a single dimension from left to right, liberal to conservative.  Although the terminology of "liberal" and "conservative" is in many ways unique to the recent history of American political culture, Hibbing et al. think that this left/right or liberal/conservative dichotomy taps into "bedrock issues of social organization" that could have been shaped by the ancient social evolution of the human species.  Sapolsky agrees.

But doesn't this give us another implausibly simplistic model that cannot account for the complex diversity of evolved political ideology?  Isn't it hard to see how the complexity of political thought and behavior could be reduced to two categories at opposite ends of one dimension--the political left or the political right--or perhaps three categories if we include the political center?  At the very least, I will argue, we need to recognize libertarianism (or classical liberalism) as a position that is neither purely liberal nor purely conservative, a position that is ignored by Sapolsky and by Hibbing et al.

The political metaphor of "left" and "right" originated in the French Revolution of 1789, when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the King and the Church who sat to the right of the President and supporters of the Revolution who sat to his left (see Marcel Gauchet, "Right and Left," in Pierre Nora and Lawrence Kritzman, eds., Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. 1: Conflicts and Divisions, 241-300 [Columbia University Press, 1996]).

Against the claim that this traditional left/right dichotomy is no longer applicable to political debate today, Norberto Bobbio has contended that these terms "left" and "right" are fundamental, in that the left promotes equality, while the right promotes inequality; and this split between those favoring human equality and those favoring human inequality is an enduring political debate, rooted in the experience of human beings as both naturally equal, as members of the same human species, and naturally unequal, as showing individual diversity in their traits and propensities. 

Bobbio writes: "right and left . . . indicate opposing programs in relation to many problems whose solution is part of everyday political activity.  These contrasts concern not only ideas, but also interests and judgments on which direction society should be moving in; they exist in all societies, and it is not apparent how they could disappear" (Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction [University of Chicago Press, 1996], 3. 

Hibbing et al. quote this passage from Bobbio (Smith et al., 379).  But they ignore his point that a full accounting of political ideology requires seeing two dimensions of political thought--not just left/right (or equality/inequality) but also liberty/authoritarianism.  Combining these two dimensions, Bobbio claims, creates at least four categories.  The extreme left (such as Marxist totalitarianism) represents egalitarian authoritarianism.  The moderate left (such as liberal socialism) represents egalitarian libertarianism.  The moderate right (such as American and European conservatism) represents antiegalitarian libertarianism.  The extreme right (such as Fascism and Nazism) represents antiegalitarian authoritarianism. 

But notice the incoherence in some of these positions.  Egalitarian authoritarianism is self-contradictory.  Bobbio admits this when he says that the "egalitarian utopia" of the extreme left "turned into its opposite," when the party vanguard became the new ruling class (82).

Notice also that Bobbio does not recognize libertarianism as a distinct position.  Similarly, Sapolsky passes over libertarianism quickly with the claim that this cannot be a consistent ideology, because "libertarians are a mixture of social liberalism and economic conservatism" (447), and because he agrees with Hibbing et al. that liberalism and conservatism are the only consistent ideologies.  Neither Sapolsky nor Hibbing et al. respond to the claim of libertarians that they are fully consistent in the commitment to liberty--both economic liberty and personal liberty--while liberals and conservatives are self-contradictory in accepting one form of liberty but not the other, so that liberals and conservatives are partly libertarian and partly authoritarian.

The insistence of Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. that everyone is either liberal or conservative, left or right, requires that everyone be forced to make dichotomous choices about the "bedrock issues of social organization."  Hibbing et al. have done this by using a "Society Works Best Instrument" (Smith et al., 390-91).  People are given a series of 14 binary choices about how "Society works best when . . ."  Amazingly, they ask about how "society" works best, but they ask nothing about "government" or "the state"; and so they make it impossible to distinguish between the natural and voluntary associations in civil society and the coercive power of government.

Here are some examples.  "Society works best when . . . 1. Those who break the rules are punished. 2. Those who break the rules are forgiven.  1. Every member contributes. 2. More fortunate members sacrifice to help others.  1. People are rewarded according to merit.  2. People are rewarded according to need.  1. People take primary responsibility for their welfare. 2. People join together to help others.  1. People are proud they belong to the best society there is.  2. People realize that no society is better than any other."

Every choice of a 1 was given a score of 1, and every choice of a 2 was given a score of -1.  Those whose total score was close to 14 were extreme conservatives.  Those whose total score was close to -14 were extreme liberals.

I assure you I am not making this up.  This is what Hibbing et al. regard as real social science. 

Wouldn't any reasonable person object that most of these dichotomous choices are ridiculous, because they are false dichotomies?  Those who break the rules should always be punished and never forgiven?  Or they should always be forgiven and never punished?  People should always be rewarded according to merit and never according to need?  Or people should always be rewarded according to need and never according to merit?  People should always take primary responsibility for their welfare and never help others?  Or people should always help others and never take primary responsibility for their own welfare? 

If you insist that political ideology consists of a choice between only two alternatives, these are the kind of silly choices that you have to give to people.  Remarkably, Sapolsky  endorses this nonsense.

Perhaps we need a somewhat wider range of choices.  Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. are silent about the proposal by some political scientists--such as William Maddox and Stuart Lilie (in Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum [Cato Institute, 1984])--for using the two dimensions of freedom--economic freedom and personal freedom--to construct a matrix of four or five political ideologies.  American public opinion survey data shows, they contend, that American citizens are not just divided into liberals and conservatives, but also into libertarians and populists.  Some libertarian theorists (such as David Boaz), as well as the Libertarian Party, have adopted this analysis to construct a matrix of political ideologies based on two dimensions--personal liberty and economic liberty:

You can take a short quiz to see where you belong.  If you score high on personal liberty but low on economic liberty, you're a liberal.  If you score how on personal liberty but high on economic liberty, you're a conservative. If you score low on both personal liberty and economic liberty, you're a statist (or an authoritarian).  (Maddox and Lilie would call you a populist.)   If you score high on both personal liberty and economic liberty, you're a libertarian.  If you score towards the middle on both scales, you're a centrist.

Someone like Bobbio might object that constructing this matrix based on two dimensions of liberty ignores the dimension of equality that separates the egalitarian left and the antiegalitarian right.  But the libertarian could respond by arguing that using the two dimensions of liberty does not deny equality if equality is understood as equal liberty rather than equal results.  Classical liberals have always understood the natural equality of human beings as the condition of being born "equally free and independent" (in the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776): we are equally free from being ruled over by others without our consent.  But this equal liberty will always lead to unequal results, in that there will be some inequality of property, social status, personal achievement, and general success in life.  If equality is understood as equal results, then the egalitarian left will have to use governmental coercion to force an equality of outcomes, which is an authoritarian denial of liberty that will also be a denial of equality insofar as authoritarian rulers will have superior power over those they coerce.

Bobbio recognizes this problem in speaking about the egalitarian authoritarianism of the extreme left, but he does not explicitly recognize that even the moderate left is at least partly authoritarian in denying economic liberty.  And while Sapolsky tends to identify authoritarianism with the right wing, he does recognize, in at least one passage, the left-wing authoritarianism in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution (468).

And yet even if libertarianism can be defended as a consistent political ideology in its consistent devotion to freedom, we still might wonder whether libertarianism can be understood as rooted in evolved human nature.  Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology makes a plausible case for the libertarian principle of liberty as one of six moral foundations shaped in human evolutionary history.

I have written a long series of posts on Haidt.  The posts here and here include links to some of the others.

Originally, Haidt argued for five moral foundations in human nature: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.  Liberals tend to stress the first two.  Conservatives tend to stress the last three.  But then libertarians complained to Haidt that they had no place in this scheme.  Beginning in 2011, Haidt began to survey libertarian attitudes, and he decided that he needed a sixth moral foundation--liberty/oppression--that libertarians tended to stress.  (See Ravi Iyer, S. Koleva, J. Graham, P. Ditto, and J. Haidt, "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians," PLoS ONE 7 (2012): e42366.)

Here's a video of Haidt lecturing at the Cato Institute on libertarian moral psychology:

To explain the evolutionary roots of liberty and the resistance to oppression as a moral foundation, Haidt relies on Christopher Boehm's theory of how human ancestors in hunter-gatherer bands used social pressure and punishment to keep bullies and ambitious people from exercising exploitative dominance over society.  This is what John Locke saw as the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature: not that human beings were completely equal in every way, because there will always be some high status people who will try to dominate others, but that human beings are naturally inclined to resist being oppressed by those who seek some dominance.

Haidt is best known for his theory of moral disgust--the idea that what originally evolved as a visceral disgust with bad food could evolve into a moral disgust with bad people or bad conduct.  Conservatives have a high sensitivity for feeling disgust, and this underlies their principles of loyalty, authority, and sanctity:  conservatives are disgusted by people they see as betraying their country, disobeying authority, or desecrating sacred values.  Liberals have a low sensitivity for feeling disgust, which allows them to tolerate a lot of conduct that conservatives condemn--homosexuality for example.  Sapolsky makes a lot of this (453-55), because like Hibbing et al. he wants to be able to scorn conservatives as people whose moral and political judgments are driven by crude emotional and visceral reactions, as opposed to liberals who are so rational in controlling their emotions and showing tolerance for unconventional behavior and ideas.  But in doing this, Sapolsky is silent about Haidt's report that libertarians show the lowest sensitivity to disgust and the highest rationality in their judgments.  Libertarians are highly emotional only in showing the emotions of "reactance"--that is, emotions of resistance to those who threaten their individual freedom.

Sapolsky is also silent about how Haidt has shown that most social scientists and psychologists are liberals who display a liberal bias in their research, and therefore Haidt has argued for allowing more conservatives and libertarians to become professors in order to achieve some intellectual balance.  I have written about that here.

One of the signs of liberal academic bias is that researchers studying political ideology often show a remarkable ignorance of conservative and libertarian thought.  For example, it has long been assumed in this research that all of those people who are not liberals show the "authoritarian personality."  This ignores the fact that modern conservatism has been a largely liberal or libertarian conservatism, because it has been a fusion of traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism.  So, for example, the illiberal conservatism of Joseph de Maistre has almost no supporters today among modern conservatives.  Consequently, most conservatives today think it is important for society to enforce moral and religious virtue in civil society, but they don't think this should be coercively enforced by government. 

Even Haidt often misses this in his studies of conservative moral disgust.  He will ask conservatives about their disgust for homosexuality, for example, and he then reports that they do indeed feel such disgust.  But he doesn't ask them whether they think homosexuality should be a capital crime, as it often was in many legal systems in the past, and continues to be in some legal systems today.  If he were to ask this, he would see that conservatives today do not think that such coercive punishment by government should be inflicted on homosexuals.  He might even discover that many conservatives are beginning to accept the legalization of homosexual marriage, although they still want the freedom to condemn homosexual marriage in their churches, their families, and their other voluntary associations.  This is their way of combining political liberty and social virtue.

But at least Haidt shows a much broader understanding of conservatism and libertarianism than is the case for those like Sapolsky and Hibbing et al. who show a blinding liberal bias.  This is manifest in Haidt's moral matrices for liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism.  Here are his three figures from The Righteous Mind.

For each moral matrix, the six lines connect the moral thought to the six moral foundations.  The thickness of the lines represent the thickness of the commitment to those foundations.  So, liberals show their strongest commitment to care/harm, a strong commitment to liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating, and only a very weak commitment to the other three foundations. 

Social conservatives show an almost equal commitment to all six moral foundations, which is why Haidt often says that conservatives have a broader matrix than do liberals.  Consequently, conservatives are better at understanding liberals than liberals are at understanding conservatives.

The libertarian moral matrix shows a predominant commitment to liberty/oppression, a somewhat strong commitment to fairness/cheating, and much weaker commitments to the other four foundations.

Notice that of the six moral foundations, liberty is the only one that has a strong commitment in all three moral matrices.  Is this because liberty provides the common conditions for these moral matrices to coexist in the same society?  If so, does that justify the preeminence that libertarians give to liberty as the ground of any good society?

The libertarian moral matrix might seem to be the most narrow of the three.  But one should notice that the questions in Haidt's surveys asked about the importance of these six foundations, without asking about the compulsory or voluntary enforcement of these foundations.  Libertarians would probably recognize the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity as moral principles, as long as they are voluntarily enforced, and thus free from coercion.

Here, again, Haidt misses the libertarian fusion of political liberty and social virtue, which rests on the crucial distinction between state and society.

Sapolsky also misses this when he criticizes conservatives for being "more concerned with 'binding foundations' like loyalty, authority, and sanctity, often stepping-stones to right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation," and when he praises liberals for having "more refined moral foundations, having jettisoned the less important, more historically damaging ones that conservatives perseverate on" (450).  Sapolsky doesn't recognize that what made the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity "historically damaging" was the enforcement of these through coercive violence, and that the libertarian principle of voluntarism allows people to freely commit themselves to the morality of these binding foundations without impeding the equal freedom of others who disagree with them.

Sapolsky's liberal bias is evident in his interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah here.  Sapolsky is happy to join with Noah in ridiculing conservative Republicans as people whose ideology arises from their disgust reaction to bad smells!  He says nothing about libertarians.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sapolsky (3): The "Spirit Level" Debate over Inequality and Health

One of the weakest parts of Robert Sapolsky's Behave is his claim that economic inequality necessarily causes bad physical, mental, and social health, even in societies where poverty has been largely abolished.  The problem is that he relies on the research of Richard Wilkinson and a few others who argue for this position without acknowledging that many critics have pointed out flaws in this research, which one can see in the debate over the book coauthored by Wilkinson and Kate Pickett--The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.  This book was first published in 2009, and it became an international bestseller.  It provoked many critical responses, including two books: Christopher Snowdon's The Spirit Level Delusion (2010) and Peter Saunders' Beware False Prophets (2010).  (Saunders' book can be found here.  The Epilogue to the second edition of Snowdon's book can be found here.)  In the paperback edition of their book, Wilkinson and Pickett added a "Postscript," in which they attempted to answer their critics.  A longer version of their reply to critics can be found here.  Remarkably, Sapolsky is completely silent about this debate.

Sapolsky is also silent about the political implications of this debate.  The apparent failure of the Marxist economies and the apparent success of the capitalist economies at the end of the 20th century had had a dispiriting effect on the Left.  Marx's prediction that the impoverishment of the proletariat in capitalist societies must necessarily lead to revolution had proven false, because capitalism was raising the standard of living for all classes, while socialism was failing.  But then Wilkinson and Pickett seemed to show that capitalism was ruining human life by creating high levels of economic inequality, so that while absolute poverty was disappearing, relative poverty was rising: those people living low-status lives felt poor, because they saw that others with higher status had so much more, and the chronic stress from this feeling of relative poverty made people sick.  Moreover, this sickness from inequality created lots of social problems: not only higher rates of disease and reduced life expectancy but also higher rates of crime, mental illness, social distrust, obesity, poor educational performance, teenage births, and high rates of imprisonment.  Capitalist inequality was making everyone desperately unhappy, and the only solution was socialist programs for creating greater equality through redistribution of the wealth and welfare state policies.  Thomas Piketty and others have elaborated this argument about the corrosive effects of capitalist inequality.  This has given new life to the Left.

As I indicated in my previous post, Sapolsky's distinctive contribution to this lefty critique of capitalist inequality is his evolutionary explanation of inequality as the necessary consequence of the move from an egalitarian state of nature for hunter-gatherers to a hierarchical dominance structure in societies based on an agricultural mode of production; and from this he draws the conclusion that it is impossible to restore equality in modern societies that cannot go back to hunter-gatherer life, which means that no socialist policies can ever succeed in overturning inequality and its corrosive effects on human health.

Unlike Sapolsky, I do not see any clear scientific support for Wilkinson's theory of the inequality/health relationship--particularly, the idea that inequality is inherently harmful to human health because of the chronic stress that it creates for low-status people, even in the absence of real poverty.  The flimsiness of the empirical evidence for this theory is evident in the debate over Wilkinson and Pickett's Spirit Level.

Sapolsky's assertion that "numerous studies" support this theory, as if there were a general consensus among researchers about this, is not true (441).  Wilkinson and Pickett say that "there are around 200 papers in peer-reviewed academic journals testing the relationship between income inequality and health in many different settings" (279).  But if you check the footnote for this assertion, you will see that they are citing one of their own papers (Wilkinson and Pickett, "Income Inequality and Population Health: A Review and Explanation of the Evidence," Social Science & Medicine 62 [2006]: 1768-1784).  If you read their paper, you will see that they survey 169 results from 155 studies on inequality and wealth; and of these, they identify 88 as supportive of their theory and 81 as either unsupportive or "mixed" in their results.

One of the best surveys of this research is by Andrew Leigh, Christopher Jencks, and Timothy Smeeding ("Health and Economic Inequality," in W. Salverda, B. Nolan, and T. Smeeding, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 384-405).  It's available online.  They conclude that "the empirical evidence for such a relationship [between inequality and health] in rich countries is weak.  A few high-quality studies find that inequality is negatively correlated with population health, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that the relationship between income inequality and health is either non-existent or too fragile to show up in a robustly estimated panel specification.  The best cross-national studies now uniformly fail to find a statistically reliable relationship between economic inequality and longevity.  Comparisons of American states yield more equivocal evidence."

The popular appeal of Wilkinson and Pickett's book comes from their graphs that apparently show a statistical correlation between economic inequality and bad health across 23 nations.  (A few of these graphs can be seen online).  For example, here is a graph that seems to show that life expectancy is longer in more equal rich nations.  This graph is easier to see at the online location, where it is figure #17.

This is typical for most of the graphs.  It's a simple linear regression model with the level of income inequality in the nations on the x axis for the explanatory variable and level of health (in this case, life expectancy in years) on the y axis for the dependent variable.  A best-fit line is drawn through the scatter points of data to indicate the trend.  In this case, the declining trend line shows life expectancy declining with rising income inequality.  This downward sloping line depends mostly on the relatively high life expectancy in Japan and Sweden and the relatively low life expectancy in the USA and Portugal.

The data for this graph is from the 2004 United Nations Human Development Report.  A reader who notices this might wonder why they used the 2004 report when the 2005 and 2006 reports were available to them, and actually they do use the 2006 report elsewhere in their book.  They even use the 2006 report for its life expectancy data in another graph (compare pages 7 and 82 in their book).

Christopher Snowdon has shown that if Wilkinson and Pickett had used the 2006 report for their data, the graph would have looked like this:

A larger picture of this graph can be found here.

Now the trend line is going up!  If they had used the 2009 report for their data, the trend line would again be going up.  So here increasing income inequality is slightly correlated with increasing life expectancy. 

Now you should notice that Snowdon has added Hong Kong, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, which were excluded by Wilkinson and Pickett.  Hong Kong shows that a very wealthy but less equal society can have high life expectancy.  Slovenia and the Czech Republic show that more equal but less wealthy societies tend to have low life expectancy.

So the trend line here will slope down or up depending on one's selection of the data points.  Wilkinson and Pickett selected data points that would give them a downward sloping line, while Snowdon selected data points to give him an upward sloping line.  At least Snowdon points this out to his readers, while Wilkinson and Pickett hide this from their readers.

But let's say that we accept Wilkinson and Pickett's graph as showing us a correlation between less equal societies and lower life expectancy.  What exactly does this tell us?  If we remember the common saying that correlation is not causation, then we see that this graph by itself tells us nothing about causation, although Wilkinson and Pickett want their readers to assume that it does show that inequality causes low life expectancy.

Moreover, Wilkinson and Pickett never follow the common practice in the statistics of correlation of testing for alternative explanations that might be confounding variables.  For example, if we compare Japan (the most equal society) and Hong Kong (the least equal society), we would have to notice that despite their great differences in income inequality, they tend to perform about the same not only in life expectancy but also in many other respects.  Is this perhaps explained by their similarity in their Asian culture?  Wilkinson and Pickett never consider this possibility because they never consider any alternative explanation beyond income inequality.

In the Postscript to their book, Wilkinson and Pickett explain their failure to test for alternative explanations: "including factors that are unrelated to inequality, or to any particular problem, would simply create unnecessary 'noise' and be methodologically incorrect" (285).  Since they assume that inequality must be the only explanation, any other possible explanation is to them "unnecessary 'noise'"!

Actually, of course, just glancing at their data might suggest many alternative explanations.  Consider, for example, freedom as measured by the Human Freedom Index, which has been the subject of a post.  Most of the countries with high life expectancy rank in the top 15 of the Human Freedom Index: such as Switzerland (2), Canada (6), Australia (6), and Sweden (15).  The one exception is Japan (32).  Is it possible that greater freedom has something to do with higher life expectancy?

Wilkinson and Pickett point to the Scandinavian countries as setting the standard for how egalitarian societies can promote human health and happiness.  But they ignore the fact that these countries generally score high on both the Economic Freedom Index and the Human Freedom Index (combining economic freedom and personal freedom).  As I have argued in other posts here and here, the Nordic social democracies are not purely socialist, because they are actually capitalist welfare states.

Here's another graph from Wilkinson and Pickett:

This seems to show that homicide rates are higher in more unequal rich countries.  But notice that the upward slope of the line depends entirely on the USA as an outlier.  It is standard statistical practice to throw out outliers to avoid creating spurious correlations.  Wilkinson and Pickett do not do this, because taking out the USA here would create a graph with no correlation between inequality and homicide, which is contrary to the result they want to find.  They say nothing about the high rate of gun ownership in the US as a possible explanation for high homicide rates in the US.  But they do mention gun ownership in their attempt to explain away the high homicide rate for Finland, which is a more equal country, and the low homicide rate for Singapore, which is a less equal country.  "In the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation," they observe, "Finland had the highest proportion of households with guns, and Singapore had the lowest rate of gun ownership" (136).

One might notice another problem in these graphs from Wilkinson and Pickett's book.  Inequality is measured by inequality in income.  Is this the best standard?  Is it possible that in countries with extremely high income tax rates--like the Scandinavian countries--people will be motivated to hide their true income or accumulate wealth in forms other than income?  If so, then measuring inequality by income inequality will tend to make countries with high income taxes appear more equal than they really are.

Actually, as Snowdon points out, Wilkinson and Pickett use at least five different measures of inequality in their book, which allows them to change the measures to achieve whatever results they want to find.  For example, on page 239, they compare the incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 10% in the US and UK, which shows that "both countries experienced very dramatic rises in inequality which peaked in the early 1990s and have changed rather little since then."  But on page 296 they want to show that inequality peaked just before the financial crisis of 2008, and to achieve this result, they measure inequality through the share of wealth held by the top 1%.  This is the only place in the book where they use this as the measure of inequality.  They don't use this measure elsewhere in the book, because by this measure Norway and Denmark are less equal than the USA, and so using this as the measure of inequality would not give them the results they're looking for.

Wilkinson and Pickett admit that there is at least one social problem that is more common in more equal countries--suicide.  To explain this, they suggest: "suicide is often inversely related to homicide.  There seems to be something in the psychological cliché that anger sometimes goes in and sometimes goes out: do you blame yourself or others for things that go wrong?  In Chapter 3 we noted the rise in the tendency to blame the outside world--defensive narcissism--and the contrasts between the US and Japan" (175).  So, you see, in the less equal countries, when people are unhappy, they are inclined to kill other people; but in the more equal countries, unhappy people have the decency to kill themselves rather than others!

Wilkinson and Pickett recognize that "social integration" is important for human health: "It's not just social status and psychological wellbeing that affects our health.  The relationships we have with other people matter too. . . . Having friends, being married, belonging to a religious group or other association and having people who will provide support, are all protective of health" (76).  But then they are silent about the possibility that people  with low social status but high social integration might show good health and happiness.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Charles Murray (in Coming Apart) has shown that people in the white underclass in America can be very happy if they are married, if they find satisfaction in their work, if they live in places where neighbors help one another, and if they are active religious believers.  Contrary to what is suggested by Wilkinson, Pickett, and Sapolsky, low social status need not by itself make people unhealthy and unhappy. 

My defense of "good inequality" can be found here, here, and here.

Here is a video of a debate between Wilkinson, Pickett, Saunders, and Snowdon.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sapolsky (2): Is Inequality Making Us Sick?

Like Rousseau, Robert Sapolsky believes that the biggest mistake human beings have ever made was in leaving the egalitarian life in the state of nature and entering the agrarian societies where inequality was invented.  That inequality--in which people are ranked by their social status from high to low--makes us all physically, psychologically, and socially sick. 

In animals with dominance hierarchies, an animal's rank in that hierarchy can greatly influence its physical and mental health.  The most commonly studied physiological effect of social status is the response to stress, as shown in the blood level of glucocorticoids (GCs), adrenal steroid hormones that are secreted during stress, such as cortisol or hydrocortisone in primates.  GCs help to mediate adaptation to short-term physical stressors, such as the fight-or-flight response to an attacking animal, but GCs become pathogenic when they are secreted chronically, such as when animals are exposed to frequent social stressors because of their ranking in a hierarchy.

Is it more stressful to be dominant or subordinate?  In the 1950s, researchers talked about "executive stress syndrome"--the idea that those at the top suffer from the stressful burdens of their responsibilities.  Sapolsky thinks this has been mostly refuted by research showing that those at the top of a hierarchy who have a sense of control, but who are not directly responsible for supervising many subordinates, benefit from reduced stress.  By contrast, those in middle management, who are responsible for supervising many people under them, but who have little ultimate control, are more exposed to chronic stress.

Early in his career, Sapolsky argued that being subordinate was far more stressful than being dominant.  He became famous for showing that the low-ranking baboons that he observed in Kenya showed the bad health consequences of chronic stress, and he suggested that this might also be true for low-ranking human beings.

Later, however, he conceded that things were more complicated--that whether low-ranking or high-ranking individuals experienced the most stress depended on variable social conditions and individual personality traits (Behave, 435-42; Sapolsky, "The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health," Science 308 [29 April 2005]: 648-52).  For example, when the maintenance of a despotic hierarchy requires that the alpha male frequently engages in physical reassertion of dominance, the dominant individual will experience the most stress.  But if the alpha male can maintain his dominance by social intimidation (a threatening stare) without violent aggression, then it's the subordinate individual who experiences the most stress.  If the hierarchy is stable, the dominant individual is less stressed, and the subordinate individual is more stressed.  If the hierarchy is unstable, it's the dominant individual who is more stressed.  If the dominants have a personality that make them skillful at exerting social control while being sociable with others, while the subordinates have a personality that make them poor at coping with their subordination and finding support from others, then the subordinates will be more stressed.

Among human beings, Sapolsky argues, the suffering of those in the low status positions does not necessarily come from their being desperately poor, because even in those prosperous societies where there is almost no poverty, the people with low status still suffer from being less well off than those ranked above them.  Their suffering comes not so much from being poor as from feeling poor.  What counts is not absolute poverty but relative poverty.  Even in prosperous societies that have abolished absolute poverty, because almost everyone enjoys an abundant level of economic resources for a materially comfortable life, those who have less than others suffer from the psychosocial stress of living a low-status life.  Even those in high status positions suffer from the social maladies caused by inequality--including high crime, low levels of social trust, and a futile pursuit of happiness through competitive consumerism.  As Sapolsky puts it, everyone is unhappy because "marked inequality makes people crummier to one another" (Behave, 292).

In surveying the evidence for these conclusions, Sapolsky relies on the work of many researchers, but he particularly stresses the "crucial work by the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham" (Behave, 294).  Wilkinson argues that a comparative analysis of the international data for socioeconomic conditions shows that the more economically unequal societies suffer far more from bad health and social maladies than do the more equal societies.  He contends that social welfare programs for redistributing wealth to achieve more equality--as has been done, for example, in the Scandinavian social democracies--will make life better for all.

Remarkably, Sapolsky does not share Wilkinson's belief that socialist or welfare-state policies can alleviate the suffering from inequality.  Sapolsky observes:
"The SES/health gradient is ubiquitous.  Regardless of gender, age, or race. With or without universal health care.  In societies that are ethnically homogeneous and those rife with ethnic tensions.  In societies in which the central mythology is a capitalist credo of 'Living well is the best revenge' and those in which it is a socialist anthem of 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.'  When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world" (Behave, 442).
So if Sapolsky thinks that neither capitalism nor socialism can overturn the oppressive inequality invented in the move from foraging bands to agrarian societies, then does he think we should look for some way to return to the egalitarian state of nature?  No, he dismisses that as a ridiculous idea.  He quotes Lawrence Keeley as expressing "a pretty weird worry" in writing: "The doctrines of the pacified past unequivocally imply that the only answer to the 'mighty scourge of war' is a return to tribal conditions and the destruction of all civilization."  "In other words," Sapolsky remarks, "unless this tomfoolery of archaeologists pacifying the past stops, people will throw away their antibiotics and microwaves, do some scarification rituals, and switch to loincloths--and where will that live us?" (Behave, 315).

Sapolsky identifies himself as a lefty.  But while he shows the lefty lament for the evils of inequality, he lacks the lefty optimism about overcoming that inequality through a collectivist egalitarianism.

I must say that I find it hard to take seriously this leftish moaning about the devastating effects of any social inequality for those who suffer so from a low-status ranking that they can never live a happy life.  I am not even sure that Sapolsky really believes what he says about this.

Consider the following remarks by Sapolsky:
". . . in humans, there is a robust imperviousness of SES-health associations to differences in social and economic systems. . . . it is a testimony to the power of humans, after inventing material technology and the unequal distribution of its spoils, to corrosively subordinate its have-nots" ("Social Hierarchy," 652).
"As with other species, human quality of life also varies with the consequences of rank inequalities--there's a big difference between the powerful getting seated at a restaurant before you and the powerful getting to behead you if the fancy strikes them. . . ."
"We belong to multiple hierarchies and can have very different ranks in them.  Naturally, this invites rationalization and system justification--deciding why hierarchies where we flounder are crap and the one where we reign really counts."
"Implicit in being part of multiple hierarchies is their potential overlap.  Consider socioeconomic status, which encompasses both local and global hierarchies.  I'm doing great socioeconomically--my car's fancier than yours.  I'm doing terribly--I'm not richer than Bill Gates."
"An example of this [membership in multiple hierarchies] that I found to be excruciatingly uncomfortable: I used to play in a regular pickup soccer game at Stanford.  I was terrible, which was widely and tolerantly recognized by all.  One of the best, most respected players was a Guatemalan guy who happened to be a janitor in my building.  At soccer he'd call me Robert (on the rare occasions when anything I did was relevant to play).  And when he came to empty the garbage from my office and lab, no matter how much I tried to get him to stop, it would be 'Dr. Sapolsky'" (Behave, 431).
Now I don't think that the Guatemalan guy must necessarily be a desperately unhappy man suffering from stress-related disorders because he happens to be in a low-status job.  If his janitorial job is secure, if he's a successfully married man with a family, if he has good friends, if he lives in a good neighborhood, and if he's an active member of his church--if his life has such conditions for a good life--then he's living a happy life.  And it does make a big difference that he lives in a liberal social and economic order, where even though Stanford professors have higher status than he does, they are not permitted to behead him if they so choose.

And I don't think Sapolsky really thinks he's doing terribly--as a well-paid Stanford professor--because he's not richer than Bill Gates.

I think both Sapolsky and the Guatemalan are living much happier lives in a liberal capitalist society that allows for inequality of social status than they would in an illiberal socialist society.

I have surveyed some of the global empirical evidence for this claim in my series of posts on "human progress through the liberal Enlightenment" in November and December of 2016.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sapolsky on the State of Nature: Hobbes or Rousseau? Why Not Locke?

The question of whether the original state of nature for human beings in foraging bands was a state of war or a state of peace has been a contentious question in the history of political philosophy, beginning with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  This continues today to be one of the most intensely  debated questions in the social and biological sciences, with some people (such as Richard Wrangham, Azar Gat, and Steven Pinker) adopting the Hobbesian view of the state of nature as a state of war, and others (such as Douglas Fry, Brian Ferguson, and Robert Sussman) adopting the Rousseauian view of the state of nature as a state of peace.  Remarkably, however, these folks never recognize the Lockean alternative--that the state of nature is predominantly a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war--even though they often end up agreeing implicitly with this Lockean view. 

Weighing the evidence and arguments in this debate supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  I have argued for this assessment in various posts (here, here, and here). 

It is surprising to see how this modern debate repeats the same pattern over and over again.  First, it's assumed that the only choice is between Hobbes and Rousseau.  Then, some people try to argue for the Hobbesian position, and others try to argue for the Rousseauian position.  And yet, eventually most agree that neither extreme position is completely right.  But they cannot recognize the Lockean position as superior to both, because they haven't thought about Locke's argument, or how the evidence gathered by modern scientists might confirm what Locke says.

So, for example, much of the debate over the past 20 years was initiated by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996).  He frames the debate as a choice between Hobbes and Rousseau (5-32).  And, as the subtitle of his book indicates, he seems to take the side of Hobbes against Rousseau.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it right: "If Rousseau's primitive golden age is imaginary, Hobbes's perpetual donnybrook is impossible" (178).  And yet he never considers the possibility that the archaeological and anthropological evidence that he surveys in his book could be seen as supporting Locke's position as mostly right.

One can see the same pattern repeated in the debate sparked by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).  In a report on this debate in Science, the author says that the debate is rooted in the dispute between Hobbes and Rousseau; and he identifies some scholars as Hobbesians and others as Rousseauians (Andrew Lawler, "The Battle Over Violence," Science 336 [2012]: 829-30).  But then he reports that most scholars agree that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau are completely right.  "They do not argue for a Rousseauian perspective. But that doesn't mean they're ready to embrace a Hobbesian view, either" (830).  The reader is left wondering whether there is some third alternative that is closer to the truth.

I see this pattern again in Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).  Sapolsky is a primatologist (particularly, a baboonologist) and neuroscientist at Stanford University, who is famous on the Stanford campus for his popular lecture courses, and also famous around the world for his lectures on YouTube from his course "Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology" that have attracted over a million views.

I first heard him lecture at Stanford in 1988 when I was auditing courses in the Program in Human Biology.  Now, in his new book, we have a massive (790 pages in small print!) magnum opus that brings together much of his thinking from that human behavioral biology course.  The book also has the casual hipster wit that makes his lecturing so engaging for students. 

Sapolsky's book is a comprehensive textbook surveying all of the work over the past forty years--since the publication in 1975 of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology--on the biological bases of social behavior.  Like his teacher Melvin Konner, Sapolsky explains behavior as arising from a complicated interaction of many biological, psychological, and cultural factors, in which every single factor exercises some causal power only in the context of all the other factors.  He is particularly interested in explaining social cooperation (humans at our best) and violent aggression (humans at our worst).

Explaining the deep evolutionary roots of human violence leads him into the debate over whether warfare is rooted in the evolved human nature of our ancient nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, or whether war is a relatively recent cultural invention that began only a few thousand years ago when human beings moved into sedentary agricultural societies ruled by militaristic states. 

Here he follows the recurrent pattern in this debate that I have just sketched.  He says the debate is "Hobbes-versus-Rousseau" (305-27).  He generally takes the side of the Rousseauians--particularly, Douglas Fry--in criticizing the Hobbesians (Keeley, Pinker, Wrangham, Napoleon Chagnon, and others).  And he tells the story of how a baboon troop that he studied in Kenya experienced a change in their social culture, so that they became less aggressive and more peaceful, less Hobbesian and more Rousseauian, which shows the cultural flexibility emphasized by the Rousseauians.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it completely right.  "So, Hobbes or Rousseau? Well, a mixture of the two, I say unhelpfully" (325).  He never mentions Locke or considers whether a Lockean account of the state of nature might be best.

In reviewing Sapolsky's book for the New York Times Book Review, Richard Wrangham generally praised the book.  But he also criticized Sapolsky for becoming a "partisan critic" in his account of the Hobbes-versus-Rousseau debate over the evolution of human violence.  Sapolsky's Rousseauian partisanship is subtle in that it depends mostly on his remaining silent about evidence and argumentation that contradict the Rousseauian claims.  For example, he endorses Marshall Sahlins' claim that nomadic  hunter-gatherers were "the original affluent society" (317-18).  But he is silent about the anthropologists who have shown  that Sahlins' argument is not supported by the evidence, which I have indicated in a previous post.

Similarly, Sapolsky relies on the research of Douglas Fry to support the conclusion that nomadic hunter-gatherers have always been peaceful (322).  But Sapolsky is silent about the many criticisms of Fry's reasoning, which I have surveyed in a previous post.  For example, Fry has failed to recognize that many of the modern hunter-gatherer bands that he has identified as peaceful have been surrounded by militarily superior farmers, and so it's hardly surprising that the hunter-gatherers have not gone to war in such circumstances.

Sapolsky says that there is no archaeological evidence for warfare among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  There is, however, one recently discovered site in northern Kenya dated at around 10,000 years ago that had the skeletons of 27 people killed in a massacre.  Sapolsky says that this is not evidence for ancient warfare among nomadic hunter-gatherers, because the victims here seem to have been sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were living along the shoreline of Lake Turkana, where there was probably abundant fish and game animals; and so the attackers wanted to steal this "prime beachfront property" (321). 

Sapolsky does not tell the reader that the discoverers of this site could not agree on this.  As I indicated in a previous post, one member of the team accepted the interpretation repeated by Sapolsky--that this is evidence for ancient warfare arising among sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were no longer living a nomadic life.  But another member of the team had a different interpretation.  She said that while there is lots of evidence of warfare "among settled, sedentary communities," the discovery in Nataruk is the first "archaeological record of armed conflict between early nomadic hunter-gather groups."  She suggested that the foragers who were massacred had not established a settlement on the lake, but rather they were a "small traveling band of hunter-gatherers who stopped by a lagoon to hunt or fish."  And so, she seemed to adopt the Hobbesian interpretation of this archaeological discovery as confirming that warfare was prevalent among our earliest foraging ancestors, and thus deeply rooted in our evolved human nature.

But no matter which interpretation one accepts, this confirms Locke's claim that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a state of peace that easily became a state of war whenever there was any resource worth fighting over--like a good fishing spot.

Sapolsky seems to agree with this when he says that even purely nomadic hunter-gatherers "are no tie-dyed pacifists," because they often engage in lethal violence (323).  If so, then Sapolsky's account of the state of nature is neither Hobbesian nor Rousseauian but Lockean.

But what about Sapolsky's baboons, who showed, he argued, that even if their evolved nature is Hobbesian, they can develop a social culture that taps into their "inner Rousseau"?  I have written a post on Sapolsky's earlier reports of this in 2004 and 2013.  In his new book, he emphasizes the great "flexibility" and "social plasticity" that this shows in baboon life, which sounds like what Rousseau identified as the "perfectibility" of human ancestors, so that nature put no limits on how far human beings could be transformed by cultural history.

In the earlier reports, however, Sapolsky suggested that baboon "perfectibility" is not unlimited.  The changes brought by cultural history are "within the limits of baboon sociality," and the new culture of Forest Troop did not bring "an unrecognizably different utopia."  There was still a dominance hierarchy.  There was still displacement aggression, although it had been reduced.  And while the rate of reconciliations had increased, the need for reconciliations showed the persistence of conflict.  Sapolsky even indicated that the overall rate of aggressive conflict in Forest Troop was similar to other troops.  So despite the cultural malleability shown here, "there are not infinite amounts of social plasticity in a primate social system."

I have argued that we see three levels of social order in these baboons--baboon nature, baboon culture, and baboon individuals.  The repertoire of social behavior characteristic of a baboon species sets the natural limits of baboon sociality.  This baboon nature constrains but does not determine baboon culture.  And, finally, nature and culture constrain but do not determine individual behavior.

I will be writing more posts on Sapolsky's book.