The latest in a line of preparatory essays: “The problem with political philosophers who think you can improve society is that they just do not understand human nature”.
The history of political thought is riddled with error. “Four centuries ago, we thought that rule by kings was the best way to arrange a government; a mere century ago, we thought that women were too stupid to vote; and, presently, non-human animals are denied important rights” (Peter Hurford). This essay will suggest that the historical failure of political theorists to form pragmatic ideas is due to their incomplete understanding of the biological causes of human behaviour. It will critique the views of three political philosophers and supply contemporary discoveries in science and sociology to demonstrate concrete ways their thoughts might be improved. To end, some suggestions will be made about how to correct traditional errors, suggestions which are evidence-based and—hopefully—free of most of the errors of the other philosophers discussed.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher and political economist. His treatise On Liberty heavily influenced liberal political thought and he was the chief acolyte of Jeremy Bentham and the ethical theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory of ethics which aims to secure the greatest good for the greatest number. By happiness, Mill intended “pleasure, and absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill 2007, 6). Mill believed that humans are conscious utility maximisers who perform cost-benefit analyses and rationally decide on the most beneficial course of action. However, this understanding of human nature is flawed for three reasons.
First, the idea that human beings are conscious maximisers of utility has been debunked by the advent of a new field of cognitive science called behavioural economics. Beginning in the 1970s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman performed a series of experiments which showed that the human brain is wired to behave in stereotyped ways that are not always sympathetic to the best interests of individuals. The heuristics and biases people use to simplify the decision making process can lead to “severe and systematic errors” (Kahneman and Tversky 1974, 1124). For example, the way a choice between two options is worded can cause a reversal in preferences even though the outcome remains constant (Kahneman and Tversky 1981).These findings suggest that Mill’s understanding of humans as rational utility maximisers is severely flawed and that we engage in consistently irrational behaviours which occur unconsciously.
These findings create further problems for utilitarianism: the utilitarian conception or defence of democracy fails to achieve its end. Democracy is defended on utilitarian grounds due to the belief that without the threat of accountability, rulers will maximise only their own pleasure, and neglect their citizens’. Democracy is required to motivate leaders to help the majority (Ferdinand, Garner & Lawson 2009, 74). Even if this is true, due to cognitive limitations it no longer follows that leaders will be able to fulfil their duties; and the compromise of relying on statistics is confounded too (Kahneman and Tversky 1974, 1124).
This leads to the final flaw in Mill’s conception of human nature. Utilitarianism and biases conflict with Mill’s other concerns, namely his concern for individual liberty and the Harm Principle (HP). The HP states that only self-protection and the prevention of harm to others provide sufficient reason to interfere with the liberty of another human (Mill 2011, 73). In any instance where no immediate physical harm is threatened, there is no legitimate reason to impose on another’s autonomy. This is problematic for the utilitarian because, as has been shown, people are unable to optimally maximise their happiness and minimise their pains due to biases and cognitive deficits. The only way to do this is for debiased people or agencies to interfere with personal autonomy. It may be that democratic leaders are less able to maximise aggregated happiness than an enlightened and debiased despot, who may use technologies such as optogenetics to bypass conscious autonomy. Mill’s belief that human behaviour is eo ipso utilitarian has been undermined by scientific advances, and the undermining of this rational actor theory gravely complicates the pragmatic potential of utilitarianism and, in particular, the meaningfulness of the HP.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher who envisaged the fall of capitalism and the creation of socialist and communist societies in its wake. Marx’s ideas contain many mistakes. For example, he believed capitalism to be inherently unjust because it enforces the rapacious capacities of humans. By extension, it was thought impossible for humans in a capitalist society to resist this attitude of rapacity due to historical materialism, or the belief that human consciousness is controlled absolutely by the social environment. It was therefore believed impossible for humans in a capitalist society to not be money-hungry and egoistic: if the culture was capitalist, so too would be the people (Germov and Poole 2011, 23-25).
The simplest way to disprove something is to find empirical examples to the contrary. Modern capitalist philanthropists are urging the wealthy to give to the poor (Chu 2013) and the Effective Altruist movement relies on capitalism and mass profit accumulation to do the most good possible (Tomasik 2013). The Marxist claim that humans under capitalism are irreparably greedy thugs is, at least, open to exception. However, at most, these exceptions show only that capitalism is not inherently unjust—what it does not do is disprove the idea of historical materialism, which is intimately linked with Marx’s view that human behaviour is
Marx believed that since social conditions change human behaviour, it was possible for class differences to be eradicated simply by creating a classless society. What Marx failed to acknowledge about human nature, Mill, who championed liberalism, realised to a consummate degree. In agitating for a classless society, Marx denied human diversity. As Isaiah Berlin notes: “Marxism is opposed to this [diversity] … [and believes that] this precarious condition is a form of chronic social and personal disease, since health consists in unity, peace, the elimination of the very possibility of disagreement, the recognition of only one end or set of non-conflicting ends as being alone rational” (1997, 121). On the face of it, uniformity of individual character is prohibitively utopian. It just does not mesh with our daily experience: we see diversity everywhere. As Will Wilkinson writes, “Marx’s theory of human nature [that humans are infinitely malleable] … is a biological fantasy, and we have the corpses to prove it” (2005, 11). Indeed, even within a classless society, the family will—presumably—exist, and differences will arise from filial relations. So we have anecdotal, prima facie reasons to reject Marx’s claim.
But empirical data is wanting. The theory of historical materialism is opposed to genetic determinism, which states that biology plays an important role in the creation of character. While the location of a figurative “gay gene” has proven elusive, there are indications that behaviour may have a genetic basis. For example, the “warrior gene” monoamine oxidase-A, which is in one in three Western men, has been linked with aggression and sociopathy (Hunter 2010), and testosterone levels can predict empathic ability (van Honk et al. 2011). It is pointless to multiply examples: human behaviour, to some degree, cannot move beyond a genetically-constrained ceiling. Marx’s perception of human behaviour as being totally devoid of biological influence has been made void by scientific advances, by disconfirmations of his predictions about human behaviour in capitalist societies; and the idea that a classless communist society can exist free of violence and discord is, for these reasons, invalid.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English polymath, chiefly remembered as a political philosopher. Among his many contributions to intellectual history are the social contract theory and his idea of the ‘Leviathan,’ an absolute sovereign with total political authority. Of particular relevance to this essay is the latter concept. Essentially, while Mill believed maximal utility would be derived through democracy and a system that makes the rulers answerable to the ruled, Hobbes believed that utility is best secured through monarchy and despotism, with rulers that need not answer to the law nor opinion. Hobbes believed that. Rulers who had impunity would not violate their citizens’ interests because “It is a law of nature … That no man suffer him, that thus trusteth to his charity, or good affection towards him, to be in the worse estate for his trusting” (Peters 1962, 291). The belief of Bentham and Mill that the state, unless it is made answerable to society, will act in its own best interests and forgo or squander the interests of the state, is a criticism that can be levelled at the Hobbesian view of state governance. And any cursory glance at world history in the 20th century can in an instant disprove the utopian idea of benevolent dictators leading their countries to prosperity.
Each political philosopher discussed in this essay has failed to have their ideas retain their primacy. With time it has become evident that they are not applicable to human society. Political philosophers who fail to understand human nature are a problem because their theories cannot be transposed to reality without running into error. Whoever advises people to give their belongings to a community share-pool will not account for simple human emotions like jealousy, possessiveness, and the evolutionarily predisposition to tribalism (Wilkinson 2005), all of which can lead to discord and violence. It is pointless to multiply examples. Theories cannot fit humans to a bed of Procrustes; rather, it is the other way round, as ideas are prima facie more amenable to change. So, instead of dismissing the discredited ideas out of hand, we can modify them, with a mind to the reality of human nature, and make them more practicable.
What can be done to improve the failings of these political philosophers? Obviously, we must use the resources of those fields of study which we believe has the most detailed knowledge about human nature. In general, those fields are all scientific. Mill’s failed idea of humans as rational utility maximisers can be corrected through such interventions as cognitive enhancement, which can be as simple as providing iodised salt supplementation (“Iodine deficiency is the number one cause of reversible mental retardation worldwide,” Patrick 2008, 1); and through the help of techniques of debiasing which would significantly improve overall reasoning ability (Lilienfeld et al. 2005; Bostrom & Ord 2006). A Millian increase of liberty may suffice to discount the negative consequences of Marxist government. However, there are two caveats to note when considering increasing liberty.
The first is that the radical decision to institute an all-female government—to institute gynocracy—may be one way to limit liberty while nevertheless improving overall wellbeing. Contemporary philosopher David Pearce states that the aforementioned “warrior gene”, crime statistics implicating males in 90% of all violent crime, the historical paucity of violent female figures, and other considerations, all lend credence to this suggestion (Pellissier 2011). To wit, Francis Fukuyama expressed similar ideas before him, basing his conclusions on findings by the “hard” sciences (Fukuyama 1998). Second, in order to allow for maximal liberty and freedom of choice without spilling over into anarchy, we must allow some governmental intrusion. Counter intuitively, these minimal intrusions can be radical—even bordering on the totalitarian—and they needn’t violate the harm principle. For example, in vivo applications of optogenetics technology have allowed scientists to control the spatiotemporal motor activity of mice in real-time (Airan et al. 2009). The rat no longer has its own volition yet does not perceive itself to be out of its own control. Further, in vivo studies of “wireheading” show that there is no liminal threshold to pleasant experiences, and that precise intracranial stimulation—of the type used by optogenetics—can be used to create and sustain them (Portenoy et al. 1986). Lastly, feelings of superhappiness created by wireheading actually increase diversity, freedom of choice, and willingness to help others—people do not become drugged-out, selfish and apathetic (Arana et al. 2003; Karam, E. et al. 2010). Theoretically, the HP can be violated without the populace ever knowing, and their response to the violation of their autonomy will be one of appreciation. The autocratic ideals of Hobbes, the liberal and utilitarian ideals of Mill, and the communitarian ideals of Marx can all be reconciled if human nature and contemporary science is taken into account.
Political philosophers have a history of getting things wrong. One of the chief reasons for this is the lack of insight into human nature. Contemporary discoveries in science can remedy this. Indeed, an understanding of human nature, and of its ability to be manipulated through science and technology, can lead to wild speculations about what is possible. If political philosophers began to concern themselves with the actual limitations of human nature, instead of the theoretical limitations of their ideas, “utopia” could blossom into something more than a pejorative.
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