An Evolutionary Argument for Decentralism
By anon anon at Jan 10, 2008
Jean-Jacques Rousseau once asked his European readership to consider the following question: suppose you had the power to kill a man in China whom you had never met by simply wishing for his death, and you could greatly improve your own life by doing so. As you would have the power to kill him by sheer will-power and would not need to physically engage in the act, there would be no evidence to incriminate you and no one would suspect your culpability in the murder, so you would never have to deal with any adverse consequences of your decision. Would you choose to kill this man, or would you sacrifice a great increase in your own well-being to save the life of a complete stranger?
Rousseau’s thought-experiment, while perfect for 17th Century Europe, may not be as effective in our modern, globalized world. Perhaps it would better achieve the effect originally intended by Rousseau if we substitute an intelligent alien in a distant galaxy for the Chinese man. So, ask yourself: would you choose to kill an intelligent alien in a distant galaxy, if by doing so you could gain, say, a million dollars?
I suspect that my readers may have vague intellectual inhibitions about killing an alien being, but I seriously doubt that any of you will be viscerally, instinctually opposed to doing so. I would not be in the least bit surprised if at least some of my readers decide that they would kill the sentient alien to secure personal gain, or at least find themselves open to considering that possibility.
Now, ask yourself: would you kill your next-door neighbor, if by doing so you could gain a million dollars? In this case, I expect every single one of my readers to be viscerally opposed to the idea.
I think this thought experiment reveals something very interesting about human nature. Why do we have such a different reaction to the thought of killing an intelligent alien or a stranger in China as to the thought of killing our next-door neighbor, when ethically, the two acts are equally terrible? I believe it is because human beings evolved in small, clan-based communities, and thus, our innate morality is adapted to operate in such an environment. Our instinctual morality—as opposed to our intellectual morality—works quite well when we are dealing with local matters and individuals we actually know face-to-face, but it cannot deal with abstract moral problems nearly as well. Hence the difference between your reaction to the idea of killing an alien and your reaction to the idea of killing your next-door neighbor.
In order to understand this phenomenon, we need to understand the evolution of our moral instincts, but first, we need to define morality. I will define the term as “a set of behavioral adaptations ‘designed’ by natural selection to allow an individual to reap maximum gains from his or her society so as to increase this individual’s chance of replicating his or her genes.” Instinctual morality, as opposed to intellectual morality, is not a cultural artifact, but is innate in almost all human beings (there are exceptions; individuals who for whatever reason are born without an innate moral intuition are called psychopaths); it is the reason we have intense, visceral reactions against things like rape and murder even before we can describe why these acts are wrong, and why every culture ever studied has prohibitions against rape and murder (See the appendix of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate). This instinctual morality evolved because, on the whole, it increased an individual’s chance of evolutionary success for obvious reason. An individual who habitually engages in amoral acts will not be able to reap the benefits of society and will be left to fend for himself, and will in all likelihood find it harder to find a mate as well, and therefore will be less likely to reproduce successfully.
Richard Dawkins, a preeminent evolutionary biologist, writes:
“Through most of our prehistory, humans lived under conditions that would have strongly favoured the evolution of … four kinds of altruism [i.e., moral behavior; following Dawkin’s lead, I will use the terms interchangeably]. We lived in villages, or earlier in discrete roving bands like baboons, partially isolated from neighbouring bands or villages. Most of your fellow band members would have been kin, more closely related to you than members of other bands—plenty of opportunities for kin altruism to evolve. And, whether kin or not, you would tend to meet the same individuals again and again throughout your life—ideal conditions for the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Those are the ideal conditions for building a reputation for altruism, and the very same ideal conditions for advertising conspicuous generosity.” [from The God Delusion]
Each of these four kinds of altruism has distinct evolutionary benefits associated with it—behaving morally towards one’s kin makes sense from the perspective of the ‘selfish gene’ because a person’s kin share a great deal of his or her genes; behaving morally towards individuals with whom one can reciprocate makes sense because engaging in reciprocation allows one to increases one’s economic well-being which in turn increases one’s biological fitness. Behaving in ways that will allow one to foster a reputation for altruism or in ways that will conspicuously advertise one’s altruism will increases one’s opportunities for reciprocation and increases one’s desirability as a mate. There is a clear evolutionary explanation for the existence of our “local” moral intuition, i.e., our moral intuition concerning people that we see face-to-face and interact with.
The important thing to note is that, while human beings were undergoing their formative evolution, they were not in situations in which it would have been adaptive to evolve altruistic or moral behavior towards individuals that they did not know or would never meet. There would not have been situations where an individual’s behavior would affect the lives of people that he did not know, so humans did not develop and perfect complex behavioral adaptations to deal with these situations. This fact about human nature has important political explanations, which I will now explore.
When Joseph Stalin famously remarked “The death of one is a tragedy; the death of millions is just a statistic” he was commenting on this exact feature of human nature. Our brains have evolved to feel this way, precisely because, as previously discussed, we evolved in small-scale communities. We viscerally empathize when tragedy befalls an individual person that we know, but oftentimes, we find tragedies that occur on massive scales—like wars and genocides—to be incomprehensible, unless we break them down into individual stories about individual people. Otherwise, the best that we can do is attempt to understand the situation by creating abstractions and generalizations to represent the actual events—our brains are simply not capable of understanding these massive phenomenon in any other way.
This is why, when otherwise ethical men are put in charge of centralized institutions and are given the power to make decisions that will effect millions or even billions of human beings, they often make terribly unethical decisions. I think that President Bush is probably a pretty decent man. I don’t think that he would murder anyone that he knew face-to-face; like normal individuals, he is probably fairly moral with people that he knows personally. But, because his mind is not built by natural selection to make moral decisions about millions of strangers, he is forced to make these decisions based on moral abstractions, and the result is that 655,000 Iraqis and over 3,000 American have died in the name of “freedom” and “democracy,” prototypical moral abstractions.
The point I’m trying to make is that, no matter how good an individual’s intentions are, he or she is simply not equipped to make truly ethical decisions about such a large number of people; the amount of input data that one would need to analyze to draw a conclusion about the most ethical course of action to take far exceeds the amount of data the human brain is capable of understanding.
Therefore, if we want to create an ethical society, it is vital that we dismantle authoritarian, centralized institutions like governments and corporations, in which small groups have the power to make decisions that will affect millions of lives, and bring all political and economic power back to local communities, in which people only make decisions about matters that affect themselves and other people that they know personally.