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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Political by Nature

"We might label this the Hobbesean fallacy: the idea that human beings were primordially individualistic and that they entered into society at a later stage in their development only as a result of a rational calculation that social cooperation was the best way for them to achieve their individual ends. This premise of primordial individualism underpins the understanding of rights contained in the American Declaration of Independence and thus of the democratic political community that springs from it. This premise also underlies contemporary neoclassical economics, which builds its models on the assumption that human beings are rational beings who want to maximize their individual utility or incomes. But it is in fact individualism and not sociability that developed over the course of human history. That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts. Aristotle was more correct than these early modern liberal theorists when he said that human beings were political by nature." -- Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order


The individual is, in fact, a social achievement, and not something that can contract in or out of society by "preference" and still remain an individual.

30 comments:

  1. There were many points when I read Fukuyama that I was supremely confused by his sources and conclusions. This was one of them. Evolutionary psychology is the closest you can get to methodological individualism when you are playing in the anthropology sandbox. INDIVIDUALS partake in reciprocal altruism because it was useful for their genes. INDIVIDUALS engage in kin selection because it was useful for their genes. There is some push-back in favor of group selection in biology, which would be against methodological individualism, but Fukuyama's sources don't say that. The way in which humans are group-ish very cleanly fit into a utility function. This is actual more true for Rothbardians that neoclassicals! But neoclassicals will relent on this point if you push them... it just really goes against their priors on how best to construct models.

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  2. "INDIVIDUALS partake in reciprocal altruism because it was useful for their genes."

    Your being ridiculous now Ryan. Now individual in all of history before the 20th century ever did anything because it was "good for his genes," because no one had heard of genes.

    Anyway, the nonsense spouted by evolutionary psychologists is pretty well debunked at this point, isn't it?

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  3. Oh, and also, Ryan, you are confusing the individual of population genetics with the individual as "consciously individual person" -- you really don't think the individual ant of biology is "an individual" in the sense of, say, methodological individualism, do you?

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  4. In making his argument, Fukuyama cites exactly the same people I'm citing in making this argument. Only he skips over important points. Page numbers available on request.

    If you want to reject evolutionary psychologists, everything that Fukuyama says is ridiculous. His methodology in the book you are quoting from bases *everything* on evolution and geography. Please don't make me wade through 600 pages to say so; he says it himself several times.

    See Passions Within Reason by Robert Frank with a good dose of Matt Ridley's chapter on moral sentiments in The Origins of Political Order. I said "because of their genes" because I thought you knew that I meant that there are indirect mechanisms (i.e. the way the brain is structured through proteins and hence DNA) by which this can happen. Evolutionary psychology is very controversial, yes. But all of these objections are in any respected book in the field from the last twenty years.

    Lastly, ants = kin selection. You can put preferences for your relatives in your utility function, can't you?

    Fukuyama's point is a complete caricature which applies only to the silliest Stiglerians.

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  5. "If you want to reject evolutionary psychologists, everything that Fukuyama says is ridiculous."

    The passage I just cited does not depend on evolutionary psychology in any sense. Maybe everything else is complete rubbish, I don't know. That passage in no way rests on anything from evolutionary psychology.

    "I said "because of their genes" because I thought you knew that I meant that there are indirect mechanisms (i.e. the way the brain is structured through proteins and hence DNA) by which this can happen."

    Fine. Then that has nothing to do with "individuals" in the sense in which Fukuyama is talking about "individuals" in the passage I cited. You are just confusing two different sorts of individuals: the "individual" as a single specimen of a species -- who ever doubted each human was always that?! -- and the individual as the differentiated ego of modern humans.

    "Lastly, ants = kin selection."

    So what? They are not "individuals" in the sense of which Fukuyama and I are speaking.

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  6. Ryan, here is another way to look at this: All of my in-laws are Filipino, and through them I know a whole mess of other Filipinos. Here is something I can assert without a doubt: American culture is more individualistic than is Filipino culture. This is not merely my belief, but is asserted by every Filipino I've talked to about this as well -- they, in fact, consider it a negative of American culture that Americans are "cold," are "cowboys."

    But in asserting this none of us are saying that Filipinos are less genetic individuals than are Americans!

    You are confusing "individualism," which is something that arose in Western Europe in the last few centuries, with the genetic individual as the locus of natural selection. Fukuyama is clearly talking about the former, not the latter.

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  7. As a more important question, does an individual really exist? In the social, philosophical sense, I mean.

    Till date, I have not heard of any abandoned baby that somehow managed to raise itself on its own in a wilderness away from human civilization, and acquire all sustenance on its own. And even if there is, did such a person acquire some degree of moral and intellectual enlightenment to be at par with the average person afterwards?

    I am tempted to say there is no such thing as an individual, and it is probably a conceptual abstraction more than anything.

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  8. Yes, Prateek, as the British Idealists would have put it, the individual of methodological individualism is a "mere abstraction."

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  9. Maybe I'm just silly, but I find a lot of this either-or stuff neither-nor. I think society is not a function of the mind of any particular individual, nor does any individual become such in the absence of society, nor does society exist in absence of a large number of individuals. And the criterion for being an individual is not about how it got to be that way, nor if it is somehow (physically, cognitively, psychologically, metaphysically?) disconnected from "society", but about a particular aspect of the thing in question (is it possessed of a will such that its will and person is not directly subject to the dictates of another consciousness, or something). Feral children are not the only candidates for becoming individuals, nor is an individual a "mere abstraction" (at least no more than is "society"!).

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  10. Nathan, if you look at what I wrote, it is that "the individual *of methodological individualism* is a mere abstraction." (Emphasis now added.)

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  11. Someone once casually called me a "fascist" when I said, "I believe there exists a corporate nature of man."

    He said he called me so because the idea of a corporate nature of man sounds eerily like certain terminologies of fascism (isn't that "economic corporativism"?)

    Now, I wonder. The fact that liberalism failed and fascism succeeded in prewar Europe - could this failure partly have had a philosophical dimension to it? That liberals, with their invidualism, failed to convince the masses, while the fascists happened to be closer to understanding of the realities of human life and were thus more convincing?

    The problem with people who try to criticise fascism by lumping it with communism under a broad category called "collectivism" is that they engage in self-defeating rhetoric. Human beings are collectivist. What victory do liberals win, if they hint that their opponents are less fantastical than they are?

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  12. Yes, I saw that. I didn't see it from Prateek, however, and wasn't speaking solely to you, though I used your words. Sorry if that was some aggregate of confusing and misleading.

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  13. So, it seems necessary, when trying to understand this sort of thing, to assume Fukuyama (and others) assume individuals are fundamentally equal to each other. One must remove gender, relationships, intelligence, etc- in order to arrive at the abstraction of individual.
    This isn't particularly surprising given the political gestalt, and those libertarians insistent on treating older, personal forms of governance with the same brush that we do the modern state are probably making the situation worse, but it fundamentally alters the meaning of the word.

    The individual is different from other individuals; he is even different from himself over time. The unequal nature of humankind engenders relationships, and these relationships must be assumed. Even gender must be assumed- we may not know what gender it would be, but we know a human will have one and it will figure heavily in decision making. This is the only way you'd get individuals making different choices; if they are all the same, why would they value things differently?

    But definition based arguments are a lost cause; if you have to make them, it means folks have already adopted a different definition. I would likely still cringe if I heard the 'mean-spirited' being so poorly abused as it has been in recent times, but what can you do?

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  14. [No] individual in all of history before the 20th century ever did anything because it was "good for his genes," because no one had heard of genes.

    They didn't use that _term_, but they did act for the good of near-equivalent referents -- the good of the family, tribe, clan, (genetically-homogenous) community/nation, etc. The "races" refered to in the title of Darwin's Origin of Species, a term in common use and understood long before, had a meaning that very closely coincides with what we now call "genes".

    In any case, a charitable reading would take Ryan's comment as (common) shorthand for, "the desire to do things that coincides with spreading of genes is selected for" (which is more awkward to unwind).

    Anyway, the nonsense spouted by evolutionary psychologists is pretty well debunked at this point, isn't it?

    Who else correctly predicted (or indeed, could have predicted) the later empirical finding that parents are most traumatized by the death of a child when s/he is an infant or 16+, and least by when s/he is 10? Or that poor women tend to have children until they have a boy, while rich women tend to have children until they have a girl?

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  15. Well, Silas, it's nice of you to be charitable, except that your charitable version totally removes the point of Ryan's contention. Now, instead of some genetic inheritanve calculating individual, we have groups of people following traditional practice that *very loosely* track genetic proximity. How does that dispute Fukuyama's point?!

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  16. "But it is in fact individualism and not sociability that developed over the course of human history. That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts."

    Well, the fact that individualism developed over time doesn't necessarily make it any less "natural" than (or preferable to) the communal ideas and attitudes that preceded it. Older is not always better. One might just as easily characterize this development in positive terms, as a result of man's discovery and cultivation of his individual nature.

    (Given the context of this post, I assume you're referring only to political individualism here. I assume you're not denying the reality of the "I," like eliminative materialists or [for very, very different reasons] Hegelians are wont to do).

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  17. That being said, though, I agree with the broader point that Aristotle tends to hit closer to the truth than modern liberal theorists on these questions.

    Although, it has been a while since I've looked at Hobbes and Locke. I don't recall the extent to which they argued that governments were *historically* formed by social contracts motivated by individual self-interest vs. simply setting forth normative proposals about how legitimate governments *ought* to be formed, irrespective of their actual origins. (The answer might not be the same for both; I don't recall).

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  18. I'd appreciate if you only replied to comments of mine that existed, Gene.

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  19. I was going to right something angry but whatever Gene.

    Ziveli druze!

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  20. I mean... I'm rather puzzled. Fukuyama is very explicit in the ways that Everything He Writes In The Book is fundamentally based on biology and geography. Yes, everything you were talking about is based on "methodological individualism" as we typically define the term.

    See pages 22-25, or the first citation to evolution of whatever edition you have.

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  21. Ryan, on pages 22-25 I see a lot of talk about biology and geography. I see none about methodological individualism. In fact, the term is never used in the entire book. So your post is a litle like me saying, "See-- on page 128 he mentions Ying Zheng -- therefore he supports Christianity!"

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  22. Avram, you should right angry things whenever possible!

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  23. And Ryan, let's say that Fukuyama *did* endorse methodological individualism throughout the book (which, of course, he never does). Given the paragraph I quoted, that would merely show that he is confused!

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  24. "Well, the fact that individualism developed over time doesn't necessarily make it any less "natural" than (or preferable to) the communal ideas and attitudes that preceded it."

    Quite true. And no, I am not an eliminative materialist!

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  25. Just tossing this out there, inspired? by rereading the original post:

    If Lockean homesteading is true, then individuals are the property of society.

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  26. I was very unclear in my last post. He lays out his methodology on 22-25, where he says he is building everything on human biology (read: evo psych) and geography. He needs to stop somewhere (i.e. choose a turtle as a stopping point), and this is where he stops. Geography is basically orthogonal to social science methodology. But the "human biology" stuff is all game theory, the epitome of what he elsewhere criticizes.

    What would be the methodologically holistic counterpart of evolutionary psychology would be blank slate anthropology. The typical methodological critics of evolutionary psychology are the anthropologists who want to keep referring to this magical concept of "culture" that floats in the ether and changes the behavior of individuals, but no individual can change it.

    If you don't like me connecting methodological individualism with the approach of evolutionary psychologists, see here for where Nozick (your favorite!) does so while criticizing both: http://increasingmu.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/did-you-know-nozick-later-rejected-methodological-individualism/

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  27. Ryan, holism is not the only alternative to methodological individualism. Here is Tony Lawson: "Human agency and social structure then presuppose each other. Neither can be reduced to, identified with, or explained completely in terms of the other, for each requires the other."

    Neither individualism nor holism, but a recognition of the dialectical relationship of individuals and society.

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  28. "If Lockean homesteading is true, then individuals are the property of society."

    Well, Nathan, Locke himself is confused on this matter: At one point, we are all the property of God, while at another we all own ourselves. So if he couldn't get this straight, I don't see why we should be expected to do so.

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  29. We can maintain that dialectic quite easily by rephrasing what you said as individuals and their relationship with the rest of individuals in a given arbitrary group. But this is far afield from my original points, which are that Fukuyama contradicts himself and that his own sources use the closest thing you would find to methodological individualism in anthropology.

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  30. "which are that Fukuyama contradicts himself and that his own sources use the closest thing you would find to methodological individualism in anthropology."

    OK, Ryan, you may be right -- I'm only 100 pages in! We seem to have been talking at cross-purposes.

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