Jacques Monod’s Ethics of Knowledge

Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod concludes his seminal essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Chance and Necessity (1970), with a chapter of reflections on evolution, the place of man in nature, culture, ideas, and the nature of morality. He writes:

During entire aeons a man’s lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to and outside of which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, was able to survive and defend itself only through its cohesion…This evolution most not only have facilitated acceptance of tribal law, but created the need for mythical  explanation which gave it foundation and sovereignty. We are the descendants of such man. From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. The same disquiet that has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself.

He then goes on to explain how religions, philosophical systems, and ideologies (such as Marxism) that see nature or history unfolding according to a higher plan can be traced back to this innate disposition to look for Meaning. And while science, and the associated postulate of objectivity, has gradually replaced those myths and beliefs, most of our contemporary thinking about values still reflects this kind of animism:

No society before ours was ever rent by contradictions so agonizing. In both primitive and classical cultures the animist tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. For the first time in history a civilization is trying to shape itself while clinging desperately to the animist tradition to justify its values, and at the same time abandoning it as the source of knowledge, of truth. For their moral bases the “liberal” societies of the West still teach – or pay lip-service to- a disgusting farrago of of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the “natural” rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism…All the traditional systems have placed ethics and values beyond man’s reach. Values did not belong to him; he belonged to them.

Obviously, this perspective on the futile attempts to ground values in something beyond man (beyond practical reason one might say) raises the question of “who shall decide what is good and evil.” Monod clearly struggles with this question because he does not want to admit that “objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains.” His answer, however, may strike contemporary readers as something of a cop-out when he tries that argue that the pursuit of science itself implies an ethical postulate:

True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge. Hence it is from the ethical choice of a primary value that knowledge starts.

This attempt to derive (or distill) universal normative claims from an activity or pursuit itself is not unique in ethics. Some have tried to derive morals and rights from the nature of human agency (Alan Gewirth), the activity of argumentation (Hans-Herman Hoppe) and so forth (one might argue that there are even traces of such an approach in Jasay’s argument for the presumption of liberty). Either such attempts produce trivial conclusions or are stretched beyond credibility to make them do a lot more work than they are capable of, such as deriving specific socio-economic norms concerning welfare rights or absolute property rights. At the end of the day, these writers fail to recognize the fact that morality is an emergent property of social interaction in nature (that is to say, morality is conventional) and attempts to “justify” moral rules is as futile as trying to “justify” the laws of physics (although one might argue that certain “strategic” advantages can accrue to those who are successful in persuading others of such moral “truths”).

Monod’s ‘ethics of knowledge’ is simply “justified” by pragmatic advantages (a similar thing might be said about accepting the principle of causality – as has been proposed by the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach). Such a pragmatic explanation for the pursuit of knowledge (and the emergence of values) places morality in the realm of individual practical reason and evolution, where serious philosophers, economists, and biologist have been making efforts to understand it.

In his introduction to the 1997 Penquin edition of Chance and Necessity, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist John Maynard Smith, briefly alludes to Monod’s rather clumsy (and dated) attempt to link his ethics of knowledge to scientific socialism in the final pages of the book, which only shows how vacuous the ethics of knowledge is for deciding moral and socio-economic questions.

A more specific concern for Monod is the end of natural selection and degeneration in man:

To the extent that selection is still operative in our midst, it does not favor the “survival of the fittest” – that is to say, in more modern terms, the genetic survival of the “fittest” through a more numerous progeny. Intelligence, ambition, courage, and imagination, are still factors in modern societies, to be sure, but of personal, not genetic success, the only kind that matters for evolution. No, the situation is the reverse: statistics, as everybody knows, show a negative correlation between the intelligence quotient (or cultural level) and the average number of children per couple…A dangerous situation, this, which could gradually edge the highest genetic potential toward concentration within an elite, a shrinking elite in relative numbers.

This is not all. Until not so very long ago, even in relatively “advanced” societies, the weeding out of the physically and also mentally least fit was automatic and ruthless. Most of them did not reach the age of puberty. Today many of these genetic cripples live long enough to reproduce. Thanks to the progress of scientific knowledge and the social ethic, the mechanisms which used to protect the species from degeneration (the inevitable result when natural selection is suspended) now functions hardly at all, save where the defect is uncommonly grave.

And since Monod seems to categorically rule out gene therapy in germ cells (“the genome’s microscopic proportions today and probably forever rule out manipulation of this sort”), his only hope resides in “deliberate and severe selection.”

Notwithstanding Monod’s unduly pessimistic perspective on human genetic engineering  and the missed opportunity to recognize the evolutionary and conventional nature of morality, Chance and Necessity remains a classic, uncompromising, exposition of modern evolutionary biology and the scientific view of the world that has made this knowledge possible.

A presumption of equality?

In his recent 2011 interview for the Independent Review, Anthony de Jasay writes that he would have liked to write a short book on equalities but he has given up on the idea due to the challenges that his declining eyesight presents for meeting his usual high standards. However, his short contribution to the Václav Klaus festschrift offers some insights on his recent thoughts on equality. The starting point of ‘Ranking Worlds by Words: A Case for Inequality’ is the observation that, unlike pairings such as good and bad, or adequate and inadequate, there is no self-evident argument in favor of the position that equality is better than inequality, and whether we prefer one over the other is context-dependent.

Arguments in favor for ranking equality over inequality include the observation that “God has created all men equal,” “all human beings are worthy of equal respect,” and that “unequal endowments are unfair.” Jasay counters that, as a matter of empirical fact, men are not equal, basic individual introspection reveals that some people are more worthy of respect than others, and that to condemn the distributional consequences of different endowments is itself morally arbitrary and dependent on other assumptions (impartiality, equal respect, etc.) and produces an infinite regress of arguments.

If we judge equality and inequality on their merits it becomes clear that the argument cannot be decided one way or another. Not only do we sometimes value inequality over equality but enforcing equality in one realm of existence implies or produces inequality in other realms. For example, equality before the law can sustain inequality in income. As has been analyzed in great detail in other Jasay articles, any kind of public policy preferences can be stated or re-stated in such a way that it conforms to some kind of equality postulate.

Given this predicament, one may question whether is it possible to argue in favor of a presumption for or against equality, similar to Jasay’s argument favoring the presumption of liberty. Jasay writes that “the burden of proof need not be assigned to one of the parties to the debate. In a draw, neither party could discharge it. Failing conclusive argument that it ought to be changed, the world of the status quo prevails.” But “there is no presumption in favour of continuing the maintenance of equalities by continuous redistribution and the other related measures meant to prevent inequalities from arising again.”

While recognizing the usefulness of Jasay’s argument in favor of the presumption of liberty, one can reasonably wonder what kind of work arguments in favor or against any “presumption” can really do.  As Jasay himself recognizes in this article, “people will readily believe affirmations that favour their interests.” In a sense, Jasay’s arguments against the self-evident nature of equality as a normative ideal are just an extension of his non-cognitivism in ethics. Despite Jasay’s rejection of justificationism in moral and political philosophy, one cannot help suspecting that he may overestimate the importance of political philosophy and “ideas” (as opposed to human nature or bargaining) in shaping society.

Substituting the rational individual for the political philosopher, we can ask ourselves a rather different question; how does equality as a political objective enter a person’s practical reasoning and what does collective choice offer a typical citizen to make the world conform to this preference?

A related issue is the relationship between the pursuit of equality and poverty. In ‘Against Poverty and the Misuse of Language that Helps to Perpetuate it,” published in a recent collection of essays in honor of H.S.H. Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein, Jasay observes that human inequality is not a social construct but a fact of existence. Therefore, attempts to suppress inequality involve costs. Jasay mentions three kinds of costs: enforcement costs (ranging from record-keeping of taxable subjects to tax compliance), foregone capital accumulation due to income redistribution, and worsening of the marginal rate of transformation of effort into net income. This leads Jasay to ask the question whether the poor actually benefit from such redistributive efforts compared to the rise in income that they would enjoy under laissez-faire capitalism.

Against Politics: 15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception in 2000 the outlook of Against Politics has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom 

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

The Psychology of Liberalism

Modern liberalism is characterized by a set of beliefs that stand in such strong contradiction to what we know about human nature and society that some authors believe that a psychological assessment of this movement will give insights that cannot be gained by simply identifying its claims and demands. In this tradition, the Catholic reactionary Andy Nowicki has published a short book called The Psychology of Liberalism: Character Study of a Movement.

It should be noted from the outset that the author does not have in mind what today would be called “classical liberalism,” although one could argue that all forms of liberalism have some beliefs in common (a point that he addresses at the end of the book). On the other hand, the author’s analysis does not just refer to those who self-identify as liberals, but to all those who (unconsciously) state their beliefs in the framework of liberalism, which includes most contemporary conservatives.

Nowicki identifies the promotion of tolerance while excluding oneself from its requirements as the essence of the psychology of liberals. This is not a straightforward issue of hypocrisy because, in their own mind, they are the truly tolerant. This lack of recognition that they do not value diversity at all is what characterizes the liberal mind. “But should one point this out to liberals, one discovers to one’s perplexity that what is apparent to people of below-average intelligence is not necessarily so to a victim of “doublethink,” no matter how clever and well read the latter might be,” he writes.

Liberals often counter that tolerance does not require “tolerance of the intolerant,” but then re-define tolerance in such a manner that tolerance requires conforming to liberal ideas. Such selective and circular reasoning constitutes modern liberalism.

One thing that puzzles the writer is how liberals can persist in believing that they are an oppressed minority who speak “truth to power” when they are the status quo in the media, academia, public policy, etc. But as he correctly notes, progressives have to believe this or be faced with the uncomfortable fact that they are not fighting power but exercising it. And that their demands for tolerance are not demands for justice but commands to conform.

Nowicki observes that liberals reject the doctrine of “Original Sin,” but only to resuscitate the doctrine in a secular and highly selective manner, where it seeks to induce guilt in people who belong to a certain groups (males, individuals of European descent, etc.) and place other groups beyond all criticism.

Liberal guilt is concerned with abstractions; the “system” is to blame. Those who prosper under the system, the “privileged,” ought to feel guilty, even if they themselves  have done nothing personally to oppress or tyrannize others. Liberal guilt, again, is corporate; it is no respecter of persons, but rather of groups. While original sin is applicable to everyone, liberal sin only taints those groups which it designates as “privileged.”

Of course, many liberals themselves are part of the privileged. As Nowicki notes, the more prestigious the school, the more likely that it promotes a liberal outlook. These “limousine liberals” can hardly claim to be among the oppressed but they do see themselves as a vanguard for the oppressed. The problem is that their translation of the concerns of the oppressed are highly contestable. Feminists may claim to speak for women but most women reject feminism, labor unionists speak on behalf of the workers but many workers are not supportive of unions. Black community leaders justify and excuse violence that is condemned by many ordinary black people. Undeterred, the vanguard considers such objections as evidence of the degree that the victims are brainwashed to condone their own oppression, which produces a perfect, circular, self-justification of liberalism.

As with tolerance, liberals also have a complicated relationship with anger. When liberals are angry it is because they are outraged about injustice and oppression but when their opponents are angry this indicates “hate.” As a consequence, anger from the right people reinforces the correctness of liberalism, while anger of the wrong people indicates an inability to reason and “insensitivity.” One might add that if we recognize that in many cases liberals are those who yield power, their anger takes on a different, darker, dimension. It is not the anger of the victims of oppression but the anger of rulers who are provoked by people not conforming to their views.

Closely tied with progressive thinking is the cult of self-esteem. “..where Marxism aimed at redistributing the wealth, self-esteemism wants to redistribute the praise. Marxism, self-esteemism, and all other humanistic philosophies pragmatically fail because they ignore the obvious reality – that we are all unequal.” Self-esteem is a necessary condition for “empowerment” and liberals show little restraint in exercising political  power on behalf of the powerless, despite their obligatory “Question Authority” bumper stickers.

After offering such level-headed insights about modern liberalism, Nowicki seeks to make sense of the fact that progressives undoubtedly share certain features with Christianity (such as a belief in universalism, a “golden future when all shall be well,” and a missionary mindset) but also reject certain aspects of Christianity. I must admit that I find his discussion of the similarities more persuasive and decisive. I doubt it is a coincidence that political correctness has been perfected in the country that was settled by Puritans with a strong sense of guilt. His case against liberalism seems to depend quite strongly on designating it as an individualist, nihilist movement, but after spending a lot of pages documenting its ultra-moralism and collectivism that is not completely persuasive either.

It is correct that liberalism seeks to undermine much of traditional morality, but it also aims to strengthen and purify certain aspects of it to the point where it has to exclude other aspects, including the divine derivation of morality. At some point, progressives recognized that this requires a break with Christianity itself, but its moralist eschatological framework remained intact, albeit in a secular form. Of course, this sets the stage for a never-ending debate between Traditionalists and secular zealots about which values really matter because their is no meta-perspective agreed to by both parties that can mediate such disagreements.

There is a strain in social thought that attributes the existence of  oppressive and murderous regimes to a lack of recognition of objective values. One problem that has plagued these kinds of theories is that the regimes in question were never composed of card-carrying nihilists. The outlook of their leaders may not always have been universal, but they were strongly convinced of the truth of their moral views. In a sense, one could argue that this is inevitable because power needs a claim to legitimacy to grow and persist. A regime that would claim that truth, morality, and progress are nonsense and that it is solely pursuing its own self-interest against the interests of the people is not ensured a long existence. It is also doubtful that real nihilists will be drawn to the political process and public policy.

It is not really possible to predict the outcome of a society composed of people who do not recognize the existence of objective morals (or “rights”) because we have never been in such a state. But we can reasonably claim that morality is not dependent on the discovery of God-given or absolute values and will thrive whenever people with shared and competing interests recognize the need for coordination and rules.  The evidence for this can even be observed in the world of the great apes and prehistoric humans. The source of complex moral behavior may not have been a supernatural being but something as “trivial” as the discovery of fire.

One does not need a “coherent argument” against Nazism when its policies clearly contradict the interests of many people. Arguments are often powerless in the face of coercion and violence and the best one can hope for is to establish an equilibrium in which resorting to violence will be a self-defeating strategy. Ironically, such as state of affairs is prevented as long as those seeking power can command submission by claiming some mysterious legitimacy for their conduct.

The power that liberals exercise, and that others of different ideological persuasion enjoyed in times past, goes beyond what is needed to coordinate and regulate mutually beneficial human interaction. The ideology of modern liberalism looks particularly incoherent and tortured but, as the author has so perfectly identified, this should be expected if one claims to fight power and hold it at the same time. This feature of modern liberalism also explains why the libertarian socialism that preceded the rise of the Protest Generation to power looks at least somewhat coherent compared to its contemporary form, in which the “libertarian” element has strangely disappeared.

Nowicki believes that in the end liberalism will self-destruct because as its dark nihilism will be recognized and practiced by society, no moral order will be possible.  An alternative perspective is that liberalism still draws upon the residual moralism and herd behavior of Christianity and as soon as that is recognized people will no longer submit to its demands and more enlightened arrangements will emerge. Yet another perspective is that power and struggle have followed humans since they were great apes and that the real difference between us and them is that we can create elaborate thought systems that seek to “justify” such behavior. As a consequence, we can get too carried away by the analysis of “ideas” and pay insufficient attention to the dynamics that regulate power. It is only quite recently that evolutionary theory and economics seek to identify the biological basis and “micro-foundations” of political power.

Andy Nowicki is one the sharpest observers of contemporary liberalism that I know and it is unfortunate that his little book on the peculiar reasoning of modern liberals is now out of print. Unlike his book on suicide, there is no strong language or treatment of sexually explicit themes in this book. As such, there is no excuse for contemporary liberals to read it. If they would, many of them would prefer to skip his relentless assault on the incoherent nature of their ideology and focus on the “no morality without God” message, which I suspect, is an easier target. Such an approach would not be possible in the case of the atheist conservative Gustave Le Bon, whose 1898 classic, The Psychology of Socialism, analyzed socialism as yet another manifestation of the religious mindset and group hysteria that needs to be overcome.