26 April 2008

The Free Rider and the Dumb Ass

Here are some further thoughts on the Free Rider problem, and why the 'discovery' of the problem is distinctively modern.

I'd like to add to the Free Rider problem another difficulty, what I call the 'Dumb Ass' problem. The Free Rider problem is: Why should an individual contribute his share to a system of social cooperation, when he gets the same benefit, and even greater benefits (those of convenience and no loss of opportunity), even if he does nothing? The Dumb Ass problem is: Why should an individual contribute his share to a system of social cooperation, when others are doing nothing, and he'll get none of the benefits that ought to come of contributing?

Two examples from warfare:

Free Rider: the soldier who lays low and lets his buddies do all of the fighting; he comes out into the clear when the danger has passed.
Dumb Ass: the soldier who follows orders and holds his position, getting killed for it, when everyone else has breaks ranks and flees.

The puzzle about the Free Rider is why shouldn't everyone be a free rider?--and yet if everyone is free-rider, then social cooperation fails. The puzzle about the Dumb Ass is why ever should anyone be a dumb ass?--and yet if no one is prepared to be, then social cooperation fails.

We suggested earlier (following the SEP article) that a reason the Free Rider problem might be thought a problem in modern but not classical contexts is that classical thinkers more readily allowed the possibility, and reality, of altruism. But I think this is too crude, and false.

It's rather the case that the classical world generally held a different view of self-interest, which one might begin to spell out with the following statements:

1. 'Rational self-interest' involves not simply doing something that admits of a rational explanation (and is therefore 'rational'), but also doing something which benefits one's reason; and reason is benefited both through its expressing itself and through achievement. Thus, for instance, someone who acts in order to do his part to fulfill some rationally appealing ideal is pro tanto acting in accordance with rational self-interest. (Therefore, nothing excludes the Dumb Ass' acting in his rational self-interest. In some cases, perhaps, the Dumb Ass makes a choice of his rational self-interest over, as it were, his corporeal interests.)

2. The most valuable goods are those possessed through doing or achieving something (being active) rather than through receiving something (being passive). (Therefore, nothing excludes the Free Riders' acting against his rational self-interest: the goods he enjoys through free riding are ones that he merely receives.)

3. Greatness is a good (it is a 'value'), and greatness, or a certain superiority, is achieved through conferring goods on other persons, not through being the object of the conferral of goods. And so, someone who gives something to a friend thereby makes himself 'better' than his friend, and his friend's reciprocation is motivated, in part, by the concern to restore an equality in the relationship. (Therefore, the Free Rider is 'inferior' to those from whose social cooperation he benefits.)

Add to the above the following crucial consideration. In the dominant classical conception, human beings are by nature 'social' (civic, association-forming), and thus the question of how one is best to realize one's nature, and therefore attain one's true self-interest, is a question not of whether to enter into associations at all, but rather simply which associations are sufficient. But the dominant modern conception is that human beings are originally 'left alone' (compare Locke's 'state of nature', as the best version of this), and as result to form an association with another always requires a sacrifice or loss (of options, choice, freedom).

By the way, given the disparity as described between classical and modern, it seems to me naive to speak of the discovery of some problem or paradox by moderns, which classical thinkers all missed. What might concern me, rather, is whether modern social theory doesn't rest on some serious mistakes about human rationality and welfare.


Theophrastus said...

I think Michael's answer to the question of the ancients' supposed ignorance of the Free Rider problem is on just the right track and shows him to be deeply familiar with the ancients' way of thinking. Thrasymachus proposed the 'modern' point of view when he saw 'justice' as no more than the interests of the stronger (who would take a free ride at the expense of the Dumb Asses, so to speak) and Socrates made him blush when it turns out that the just man (who pays for his ride as a citizen of the polis) turns out "to be good and wise and the unjust man bad and ignorant." Aristotle's great-souled man, magnanimous and concerned with honor, is not an altruist, he acts from both awareness of his nature as a political animal and from a self-love that includes the polis as something integrated into the self, a part of what one is as a man. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle knew all about 'free riders' -- their project was to justify what they saw as a better kind of man. On the down side, slaves were political non-persons and invisible as producers who permitted the citizen a great deal of free-riding leisure to be magnanimous.

Anonymous said...

Michael, do you think that this portrait does justice to the Epicureans? What about those Athenians who opted for the quiet life for apolaustic reasons? It looks to me as though one strand of classical thinking is being allowed to speak on behalf of antiquity.

Michael Pakaluk said...


Yes, it could be that I've not done justice to those views, even though I tried to use appropriate qualifications ('generally held', 'dominant').

Your comment for me raises interesting questions about what it means for a problem to be 'discovered'. I think this means something like: 'registered within the dominant framework'. (Compare: some people still say that Columbus 'discovered' the New World even though lots of people were living there already. They mean that the existence of a New World gets registered in some framework which they regard as larger, more stable or continuous, or in some other way dominant.)

If this is so, then one can explain why a problem was not 'discovered' by appealing to how it would not naturally have arisen within the dominant framework, whatever the views of sub-groups or sub-cultures.


Anonymous said...

Just for fun, there's also a biological angle undermining modern free-rider analysis. For example, there is research into altruistic retribution that suggests several social species contain a certain fraction of members that will not only expend effort distributing adverse consequences to norms-breakers, and will do so when the ostensible victims aren't even kin to the actor, but that these individuals will do so even at considerable personal risk. It isn't necessarily every member, of these species, but some fraction, that seems to ensure norms-violation is "punished" through the distribution of some kind of consequence.

One then wonders whether formal systems of justice are not merely a social adaptation to prevent biological drives from plunging large social structures into endless rounds of retribution among and between factions with variant norms.

If so, the value of the rule of law is substantial, and may be the only thing that can stand between a nonhomogenous society and permanent civil war. I think briefly of Africa and the Middle East.

The conception in the United States that the natural state of man is placid, and is happy to stand by while leaders with disagreeable known policies take office merely because a majority of persons in a certain district voted that it was acceptable, is entertaining in light of the history of human social existence. For at least the duration of recorded human history, large-scale organizations have been organized along principles involving force and profit rather than, say, the expectation that social conflicts are properly arbitrated in an election with certain pre-arranged vote-casting and ballot-aggregating rules.

Think about places on this planet where theft insurance can't be obtained, and where title to land can't be proved, and lending isn't a scandal because it's too easy, but because interest rates are in the neighborhood of 70% per month. The alternative to widespread commitment -- even if low-grade commitment, such as taxpaying and obeying traffic signals most of the time -- is pretty poor. Folks who don't want their offspring fighting to survive in a Hobsian world would probably argue their sacrifices are very, very rational.

And there's irrational, biological reason to enforce norms, as well.

My upshot? With a little thought, perhaps social cooperation isn't such a mystery as requires lengthy analysis into what could possibly support it. Maybe the real mystery is why social cooperation can have come to such a position of disrepute in some respectable segment of society that those who do cooperate can be subjected to inquiry into why they should exist, and how it can be very widely accepted to label such cooperators dumb asses.

Anonymous said...

Consider ‘herd immunity’: If 95% of a population is vaccinated against MMR, then 100% of that population is protected against MMR. Why should I have my kid vaccinated? Arguably, utilitarian considerations fail to capture moral intuitions without a deontological or virtue-theoretic filter of sorts. But there’s context relativity to consider: If a vaccinated kid travels to a part of the word where MMR vaccination uptake is less than 95% it is not in danger while the unvaccinated kid is. Re the ancients: Could Archilochus of Paros count as the poet of ‘free rides’?

Anonymous said...

'Irrational, biological reason.'

I'm having a hard time with irrational reason.

The trouble with most biological 'explanations' of ethics is that they propose causes, but leave us without very many good reasons. The above account points in the direction of some reasons, but the general framework is still a causal one, and its failure to distinguish between these kinds of explanation leaves it in pretty thick muddle, I think. Once we disentangle the role of (normative) reasons and causes, we can see that the evolutionary story doesn't help us much.

Consider: we first get a nifty evolutionary story about 'formal systems of justice' as 'merely' (!) social adaptations that serve to preserve social structures. This is, as far as it goes, pretty plausible, and I see no reason to object to it if we get rid of the 'merely' and avoid the mistake of concluding that the causal story per se does any sort of justificatory work. For so far we have not explicitly supplied any reasons why anyone should act in accordance with these 'formal systems of justice.'

Reasons aren't hard to supply, of course, and the above account begins to give some. But it's important to see and acknowledge that appeal to these reasons is a different sort of thing from giving a causal story (and this is true whether or not we think that reasons can be causes, or that we can give some causal story to explain why we have certain reasons). It would be perfectly coherent to accept the causal story even if one held the extremely implausible view that there are no genuinely normative reasons to act one way or another. More philosophers hold that position about non-human animals than they do about humans, but those same philosophers have no complaint about evolutionary causal explanations of cooperative behavior among the very animals to whom they deny any normative reasons.

Yet the above account does invoke reasons when it appeals to 'the alternative to widespread commitment.' This part of the account argues that widespread adherence to formal systems of justice is rational because it is necessary for people to achieve their ends. In other words, people generally have reason to promote social cooperation because it creates the social conditions necessary for the pursuit of the good, whatever that is.

Even if these reasons have to figure in a true causal story of the development of human society, it's easy to see that they are not the same kinds of causes appealed to in evolutionary accounts. Not only is the evolutionary account conceptually independent of any appeal to such causes (even if a true evolutionary account will require them), but so too is a reason-based justification conceptually independent from any sort of evolutionary or otherwise causal account. To see that, simply consider that the normative argument just sketched is essentially the same thing we get in the beginning of Republic II, and there's nothing in there about evolutionary biology. Moreover, even if reasons can be causes, their justificatory role is quite different from their causal-explanatory role: for we can justify an action even if nobody takes it.

Once we see that the purely causal story is different from rational justification, we can more easily notice how little the evolutionary story has helped us with the original problem. For we still have a free-rider problem: it is still open to any individual agent to consider quite seriously whether he has good reason to adhere to the 'formal system of justice' and answer in the negative. The evolutionary story also threatens to leave us feeling as though we've done more than we have: in fact, we've not only failed to make any progress on the free rider problem, but we've failed to ask any of the important questions about what we have reason to do and why. To invoke Plato again, both Glaucon's and Socrates' accounts of justice agree that agents generally have reason to promote social cooperation because it is necessary for the pursuit of the good. If they can agree on that and yet differ in so much else, then surely an argument to that effect does little to settle the important questions of ethics and political philosophy.

So I just don't think that evolutionary accounts actually have any essential role to play in ethics. Perhaps biology can contribute to explanations of why certain kinds of animal have the distinctive reasons for action that they do, but it seems incapable on its own of discovering or showing that we have any such reasons.

Anonymous said...

I think we can make a bit more of biological causes for ethical practices than that.

One of the main implications of these ideas is that it's an illusion that we ever needed a rational justification for these commitments, because it turns out they are grounded in our sub-rational nature. Traditional rational justifications of, say, fairness have been doing a job that simply doesn't need to be done — like scaffolding propped against Ayer's rock.

Rational justifications are typically after the fact — they don't really explain why anyone cares about fairness; they don't really give our reasons for having those beliefs. Instead, they express our innate commitment by way of a bewildering variety of culturally determined stories: religious, mythical, Kantian, utilitarian, Stoic, or whatever. But we don't need these things. Fairness can (and does) operate just fine without them. Or any rate we don't need them in the sense that any will do.

If that seems an odd idea, then here are two perfectly good parallels that probably seem much less odd:

Why do people fall in love? Is there some rational justification for falling in love? Do we have reasons for falling in love?

Thye answer, of course, is that falling in love is an innate psychological tendency, shaped by natural selection, and no, of course we don't have reasons for falling in love or any need to justify it.

Of course, we could provide spurious, after the fact reasons for falling in love, and we often do. We could say that Aphrodite wants us to fall in love, or that there are good utlitarian or Aristotelian reasons for falling in love, or that it is consistent with Kantian principles — or whatever. But all this would be after the fact and would have nothing to do with why we fall in love.

Again, why do people get angry when they feel cheated? Do we have to justify that reaction to being cheated? Do we have a reason for it? No, of course not — but we can and do make invent all sorts of reasons for it, because we prefer to say something than nothing.

Likewise, why do we need a rational justification for our love of fairness? And if we come up with some such justification, it's very likely that it will just be some after the fact story that we tell ourselves because we like to have reasons for things. But such justifications will typically have nothing to do with why we love fairness. For example, Socrates says that he loves fairness because it is good for his soul. But that has nothing to do with why he loves fairness, and he only thinks that it's good for his soul in the first place because he already values it. Kant offers some other reason for being fair — but the majority of humanity carry on being fair without any Kantian thoughts whatsoever.

The Darwinian view changes the whole shape of the normative question. It's quite true that it cannot provide a rational justification for our ethical beliefs. But that certainly doesn't make it useless. On the contrary, evolutionary psychology offers us by far the most powerful and important discoveries in meta-ethics to date. I think that we philosophers can deny this only if we're annoyed that we didn't come up with this stuff ourselves.

What the biological approach can do is help us to see that the question was very poorly formed: we were mistaken to think that it was up to US to discover rational justifications for our most basic ethical commitments. You might as well say that we have to justify the circulation of the blood.

Aristotle had it right all along: "just like in mathematics, there's no arguing for starting points in ethics."

Anonymous said...

PS Here's how this argument applies to our problem. You said:

"[W]e still have a free-rider problem: it is still open to any individual agent to consider quite seriously whether he has good reason to adhere to the 'formal system of justice' and answer in the negative."

This is, in a not very important sense, true. But the following are also true:

We have the "unromantic problem": individual agents are free to decide whether or not to adhere to the "falling-in-love" system, and answer in the negative. They can always decide that falling in love is something that they see no reason ever to do.


We still have the "cheats-leave-me-cold" problem. Individual agents are free to decide whether or not to adhere to the "cheats make me angry" system. They might decide that they see no reason to find cheats annoying, and instead choose to see them as lovable and amusing.

Now, sure, people could technically adopt those attitudes, but this is not really a serious problem. The rest of us are happy to brush off those people as silly or mad.

But likewise, if someone doesn't feel the same way as the rest of us about fairness, what of it? How could that possibly undermine our conviction that, given the way WE feel about it, we have excellent and powerful reasons to treat people fairly, and excellent reason to recommend fairness as a policy to others, including him? Thrasymachus and Callicles are not a serious challenge to the task of rationally justifying fairness; they're just psychopaths, and it's far from clear that there is any such task.

Anonymous said...

Well, second anonymous, I'm glad you took up the challenge. I'm sorry that you haven't convinced me a bit.

You want to say that we don't need reasons for our most basic ethical commitments and that the mere fact that most human beings happen to have some commitment allows us to brush off people who question it as silly or mad.

This just doesn't take the problems or the phenomena of ethical judgment very seriously. You write as though beliefs about justice, or at least the 'basic commitments' that ground particular beliefs, are mere non-cognitive attitudes. This raises two problems.

1) Even if it is true, it settles nothing about what we have reason to do. You seem to assume a pretty blandly Humean conception of reasons, but even on that conception it is an open question whether I have reason to adopt the (ex hypothesi) non-cognitive attitude of caring about justice. If I am a Humean about reasons, then I believe that I have reason to do X if doing X will fulfill some desire that I have or promote some end(s) that will fulfill that desire. Even though all my reasons will be based on my desires, I can still reason about whether or not to maintain some desire or non-cognitive attitude. In the case of justice, it actually sounds like a fairly good idea to abandon any serious concern for it beyond whatever is necessary to protect me and my own from harm. After all, the more we care about justice in general, the more likely we are to have our desires frustrated. Perhaps I can't actually get rid of my commitment to justice because it is just 'hard-wired' into me. Besides being pretty deeply implausible, that wouldn't matter, because I could still have reason to regret that I can't get rid of a certain non-cognitive attitude. I regret that I seem unable to shake my fear of harmless snakes, for instance, but I have concluded (truly) that I have no good reason to fear them.

If you think that this sort of question is one that only insane, Calliclean types would ask, then you're either not a very astute psychologist or you just don't know a very diverse range of human beings (nor do you see how far Callicles is from being insane). I know very many libertarians, for instance, who have abandoned any concern for justice beyond the extremely minimal non-interventionist respect for others that is required to allow them to do what they want when they want with whomever they want and so on. They would call me a sentimental idiot who substitutes unreflective emotion for genuine reflection, whereas I want to say that justice requires more than they think it does and that they should care more about it. Your view makes my debate with them hard to understand, since neither of us are obviously defective psychopaths. Our debate is about reasons, and you're telling us that we should just let out pre-rational nature do what it does -- despite the fact that apparently the libertarians and I don't have the same 'pre-rational' commitments.

2) Beliefs about justice, and even the basic commitment to justice, don't really boil down into a mere non-cognitive attitude. If we persist in calling it an attitude, it is at least an attitude that is deeply sensitive to and rooted in beliefs that can be given propositional form. We at least reason and argue in terms that presuppose that we can be right or wrong about what is and isn't just. Beliefs about justice typically boil down into beliefs about desert and value: what kinds of people deserve what things? Presumably, when we argue that racism is unjust because it deprives people of goods that they don't deserve to be deprived of, we are making claims that can be true or false. Even if some additional non-cognitive attitude is an essential component of having a belief about justice, it wouldn't be sufficient, since it would be hard to see how it could be an attitude of any particular kind if it weren't associated with some sort of propositionally-formulable beliefs.

You draw an analogy with love that makes me pity your loved ones. You write as though love is just a non-cognitive attitude for which a person could have no reasons. But I at least love the people that I love because of certain qualities that they have. In particular, I tend to love them for those parts of them that are most definitive of their personality. If I turned out to be deeply mistaken about those things, my love would thereby diminish if not disappear. Love is peculiarly complex, and it's hard to imagine that I could just flat out stop loving someone that I've loved for a long time. My difficulty imagining that seems to derive from my difficulty imagining the case in which I turned out to be quite that mistaken about someone's personality. In any event, love is not just a brute non-cognitive attitude towards an object: it is responsive to and rooted in beliefs about the beloved.

So I just don't think your alternative view really takes life very seriously. Not only does it brutalize the phenomena of love and concern for justice; it doesn't avoid the very real problems that still surround justice even on a non-cognitive account. I don't need to be a psychopath or a Calliclean to raise these problems. Your attempt to explain them away is just an abdication of rationality. Most importantly, it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with a characteristically Humean and eminently disputable set of philosophical theses about reasons, emotions, desires, and the relationship between them.

Anonymous said...

It is also amusing that second anonymous' arguments for his central theses amount to asking a rhetorical question, answering it in the negative, and declaring the case closed. Do we have a reason to get angry when we get cheated? Of course not!

A dazzling feast of argumentation!

Anonymous said...

Dear First anonymous,

Of course I didn't mean to imply that you were a Calliclean psychopath! (On the contrary, the question is above all raised by Plato, not just by his amoralists; and it is typically raised by people anxious to defend justice, not to attack it.) Nor do I mean that these questions aren't worth asking. It's one thing to say we don't need reasons for liking fairness, quite another to say that it isn't worth considering whether or not we have or need such reasons. I think that's an excellent question, and I'm only asserting the former (which is an answer to the question).

I'm very sorry if I gave any offense. You make some excellent points.

But I certainly stand by my central claim that we don't need to devise a rational justification for our most general attachment to fairness, and that when we have historically devised such justifications they have been after the fact, and in that respect quite unlike real justifications, or real reasons.

People have thought that valued fairness because they believed in God; but they were wrong about their own reasons. Even people who don't believe in God carry on valuing fairness in exactly the same way. Others have thought they valued fairness because they had accepted a social contract. They were wrong. It's easy to show that we carry on valuing fairness even when we're free of the contract. Plato thought he valued fairness because he had grasped its effect on the soul. He was wrong. People who have no thoughts about the soul carry on valuing fairness in exactly the same way as Plato. And so on.


Is this idea really so shocking? I don't see why.

Take your last point, about my rhetorical question. It doesn't seem such a bad argument to me. Imagine a conversation going like this.

"I am angry with Frank"
"Because he cheated me."
"So, why are you angry?"
"I just said — because he cheated me."
"Yes, but I don't understand. What's your reason for getting angry with him for cheating you?"

Doesn't the last question seem a bit odd? Isn't it a perfectly fair point that we don't really need, and typically don't have, an answer to that last question — i.e., that we don't need a reason for getting angry when people cheat us?

Whatever exactly is going on there, THAT's the phenomenon that I'm referring to.

As you partly guessed, I'm only talking about very foundational commitments. Of course our claims about fairness can be true or false, and it's worth arguing over them, and of course we have to be rational and do lots of thinking and reasoning in that process. Nothing I've said contradicts any of that. We can have important arguments about how to do what's just and fair. I just don't think that we need to answer Glaucon's challenge. We don't have to give a reason — in terms of some other interest that we already have — for caring, at all, about fairness.

As for love, the same applies. I am talking about our foundational interests and tendencies, not our particular choices. You may well have reasons for loving person A more than person B. But do you have reasons for liking generous and loyal people more than you like stingy, two-faced liars? If you do, are you saying that the rest of need those reasons too? That we have to be able to articulate them, or we are renouncing rationality? REALLY? Again, consider this conversation:

"I like Bill."
"Because he's kind, thoughtful, and witty."
"But why do you like those qualities in him?"


"I don't like Mary."
"Why not."
"Because she's aggressive, mean, and cruel."
"So? Why is that a reason not to like her?"

Aren't these last questions a bit odd? It's simply a mistake to think that reason just keeps going, down and down and down. Maybe it can keep going beyond this point. But obviously it stops somewhere. We can all agree that, can't we? And my claim is that it stops ABOVE our feeling that justice is better than injustice, not somewhere BELOW that thought.

That's the idea that has been given a new force by Darwinian theory, which seems to have shown that human beings have an innate and inarticulate attachment to fairness — and more importantly, shown how and why we could have come to have such a thing.

This is not a Humean position. Hume, like you, thinks that we need some kind of reason to endorse justice, at the very least a kind of communal, or social reason. Accordingly, he thinks that justice is an 'artificial virtue', ultimately based on other, natural commitments. The Darwinian view is that Hume is dead wrong, and justice is a natural commitment, not based on anything else in our psychology at all.

Here's something I wanted to ask a out your own view of love:

Do you have reasons for loving your children or your siblings (if you have some)? If you discovered new facts about their personalities, would your love for them diminish and disappear? In general, do you think parents' love for their children is based on their beliefs about their personalities, and that parents love their children more if their children are more charming?

If not, why not?

Anonymous said...


It's useful if we keep track of what we're actually arguing about. It's not entirely clear to me that we really disagree — odd as that sounds.

At ay rate, I certainly agree with everything you say about the cognitive and rational elements of our debates about justice, and for that matter with your claims about having reasons for liking your friends.

The questions to concentrate on are these:

(1) Do we have a rational justification for thinking that justice, in general, is better than injustice?

My view is that people typically don't have an articulate, non-circular, reason for this attitude, and that often when they come up with reasons, they are pseudo-reasons. Also, that even when we propose some very good reason for having this attitude, it typically isn't be a reason that people actually have, or need in order to be just — in which case, what exactly is the point of it?

In Plato's case, once he'd found his reason for preferring justice, he rightly noticed that the vast majority of people were completely oblivious to this (philosophical) reason for justice, and promptly concluded that the vast majority of people don't really care about justice! Call this the Platonic fallacy. Any proposed reason for preferring justice to injustice has to avoid that fallacy, at the very least. Yet it seems very hard to avoid, because just about ANY proposed rational justification for fairness will be something that billions of very fair people know nothing about.

Please note that the ONLY question at issue so far is question (1). I'm certainly not saying that we don't need reasons, e.g., for thinking that racism is unjust, or that policy or action X is more or less just than policy or action Y. On the contrary — we see eye to eye on that. That's exactly what reasoning is for.

The other question at issue is this:

(2) If it turns out to be true that human beings have an innate and sub-rational attachment to justice over injustice, does this have any bearing AT ALL on traditional ethics or meta-ethics?

I think the answer to this is, obviously, yes: it must have SOME bearing on meta-ethics. Your response seems to be no, but I can't work out exactly what you're claiming. You could be saying

(a) Our having an innate attachment to justice doesn't in itself constitute a reason to be just, and is therefore an irrelevant and trivial fact.


(b) We don't have an innate attachment to justice and it would be appalling and shocking if we did.

You need to decide which of these you are claiming.

If (a), then please note that I agree fully. An innate disposition is not the same as a reason, and discovering it certainly doesn't give us any new reasons we didn't have before. But that's simply not the point. The point is that the discovery of this disposition at least reveals the Platonic fallacy. It at least reveals that we will not all collapse into being unjust unless we can discover a philosophical reason for being just; and it shows that we are wrong to think that other people must be unjust (or inadequately just) if they cannot articulate their reasons for being just. I think this philosophical consequence is very, very important.

If (b) then be clear about that. It makes a big difference whether you are saying that the Darwinian claims are irrelevant or FALSE, and if you think they are false then it is not for us to discuss — we should leave it to the experts. If several independent sciences converge on the discovery that there is an innate attachment to fairness, it makes no sense for us philosophers to try to overthrow their claims from the armchair. We'll have to go and do the science, overthrow the studies by presenting peer-reviewed papers in science journals, not philosophy journals — etc.

Finally, although I was very interested by your point about friendship, it wasn't really what I was talking about when I said that "we don't have reasons for falling in love." Actually my claim was crucially ambiguous. What I meant was this:

Suppose humanity had to sit down and decide how to organize sex in their culture. Suppose they had these three options on the table:

(a) People shall fall in love and form monogamous bonds with the people they fall in love with.

(b) Sexual partnerships shall be assigned by lottery.

(c) People shall form polygamous bonds consisting of 100 men and 100 women in indiscriminate sexual combination.

Suppose we prefer option (a) — as we do, in the real world. In that situation I would claim that we don't really need reasons for preferring option (a), that is to say "we don't need reasons for the falling-in-love system." We could come up with reasons, but they would be irrelevant. People would follow option (a) whether or not they have any awareness of those reasons. And there is an equivalent to the Platonic fallacy: it would be crazy to think that, if people were unaware of those reasons, or unable to articulate them, they wouldn't follow option (a).

That's what I meant when I said that it seems inappropriate to look for reasons for the practice of falling in love; and I still say that it is equivalently inappropriate (no more, or less) to demand reasons for our preference for fairness over unfairness, and that this is a good analogy.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that either you're hedging or you're being inconsitent. You take option a:

(a) Our having an innate attachment to justice doesn't in itself constitute a reason to be just, and is therefore an irrelevant and trivial fact.

You then say in your last post that you 'agree fully,' since an innate disposition isn't the same as a reason and discovering an innate disposition doesn't give us any new reasons. You then claim that your real point is simply that we aren't going to collapse into being unjust unless we can discover a 'philosophical reason' (whatever that is) for being unjust. But I certainly never claimed that people would all run around doing injustices to eachother if we turn out not to have any good reason ('philosophical' or otherwise) for being just. My claims have all along been about what we have reason to do, and my original complaint is that psychological stories, Darwinian or otherwise, about why we want what we want do not do anything to give us reasons.

For the record, I'm skeptical about most claims that human beings have innate attachments to justice or fairness, but my skepticism boils down to questions about what it means to have innate attachments and what it would mean to have an innate attachment to justice in particular (and conceptual questions like that are one reason why your strong science/philosophy distinction is problematic). But for the sake of clarification, I can grant the hypothesis that all normally functioning human beings have an innate and incorrigible attachment to justice. That by itself settles nothing about whether or not human beings have any reason and especially any good reason to be just. By 'having reason' here I do not mean that all human beings secretly and mysteriously promote justice and fairness for some unconscious reason. By 'having a reason' for X I mean instead that there is some rational justification for X.

Now, if you agree that an innate tendency to do X does not make for a reason to do X, then we've come quite a bit further than we seem to have at the beginning. Hooray for clarity. But that's not all you say. You say that we don't need a reason to be just.

The idea that we do not need a reason for acting in some way is interesting, but I have doubts about whether it can be understood in any way that doesn't turn out to involve having a reason. You're a bit vague on this point, but ultimately the only way I seem to be able to make sense of your claims is that we can be just simply because we want to be, can promote justice simply because we want to promote it. If that's the idea, then I don't think you're really saying that we can be just for no reason at all; you're saying instead that wanting X is a sufficient reason to do X.

But any sensible person can see that simply wanting X is not a sufficient reason to do X. Even if our wanting of X's is not in need of any further justification (as our wanting of, say, pleasure seems not to be), it is still a wide open question whether or not we have sufficient reason to do X. If we are Humeans, we might say that we don't need anything more than a desire for X to give us a reason to do X, but that we still may turn out never to have a good reason to do X because of the relationship between X and our other desires. If we are not Humeans, the sheer desire for X will count for even less. But in neither case do we get anywhere from the knowledge that we have an innate attachment to X.

So, it seems to me that it's up to you to get clear on what you mean by saying that we don't need reason to be just and why that's supposed to make the problem go away.

There are a dozen other points worth making in response to your last post, but that seems to be the core of the problem. If we want to know whether we should do X, we're asking about reasons. If Darwinian theory gives us no reasons to be just, then it doesn't solve (or dissolve) any problems.

Anonymous said...

My heart beats automatically.

(1) That fact does not give me a rational justification for beating my heart.
(2) But it does certainly mean that I don't need to find a reason to beat my heart.
(3) It also means that I needn't worry about whether or not I have reason to beat my heart. After all, it'll just carry on beating regardless. My deliberations are irrelevant.
(4) I could, I suppose, stab my heart and stop it from beating, since I am at a loss as to why I should let it carry on. But that would be silly.

My attachment to justice is innate and automatic.

(1) That fact does not give me rational justification for favouring justice over injustice.
(2) But it does certainly mean that I don't need a reason to favour justice over injustice.
(3) It also means that I needn't worry about whether or not I have reason to favour justice over injustice; I'll carry on favouring it regardless. My deliberations are irrelevant.
(4) I could, I suppose, renounce justice and become a brutal criminal, since I am at a loss as to why I should carry on with my attachment to justice. But that would be silly.

What's the problem here?

The fact that I favour justice, by the way, gives me plenty of reason to do lots of things using deliberation, and to make lots of careful choices in all sorts of situations.

This talk about 'wanting x' obscures the issue and is unhelpful.

True if I merely want to kill someone, that doesn't give me reason to kill someone.

But if I 'want X' in the sense that I, as a memeber of the human species, have the deep, innate dispositions of that species, one of which is a strong and very distinctively flavoured attachment to fairness, then that fact surely DOES give me reason to act in ways that serve that attachment.
(The attachment is not a rational justification for itself; but it does give us reason to act acording to it; according to the well-arranged disposition, as Aristotle would say.)

As for these Darwinian discoveries having no bearing on anything. Frankly this just doesn't make any sense.

These discoveries at the very least answer arguments made by Plato (they negate Callicles, who says that justice is unnatural; and Thrasymachus who says that it is a cultural imposition; and Plato himself who assumes an absolute love of justice could only come from God); they have a bearing on Hume (who thinks our attachment to justice must be artificial). They contradict Epicurus, who thinks that our love of pleasure is the basis of our attachment to justice.

Darwin provides major news to all these thinkers. Are these people not philosophers? Are their questions not in philosophy? Are 'philosophers' to be redefined as only those whose questions are not affected by Darwinian theory? This is just absurd.

Enough of the sour grapes.

Anonymous said...

PS my apologies for the discourtesy. These are tricky questions and your position is not at all absurd.

That's the trouble with blogging — it's far too easy to be bad tempered.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I can't meet you on the apology for discourtesies. Your position is absurd. Whatever 'attachment to justice' human beings have that is on par with the beating of hearts is a very thin attachment indeed. Maybe you should read something like Glover's Humanity and see if you still think that there is some important analogy between justice and the beating of hearts.

Is there some 'commitment to justice' that underlies everybody's actions, then, even when they're committing genocide, say, or plainly subordinating the interests and even the lives of thousands of others to their own pursuit of economic gain? If there is any such disposition, it's not what anybody interested in the rationality of morality has been asking about when they've asked the questions which you have been insisting don't require answers.

For the record, though, if the beating of our hearts were under voluntary control, then it would make perfect sense to ask whether or not we had reason to allow our hearts to beat. The answer would be pretty obvious in most situations, but I doubt whether we would always have sufficient reason to allow our hearts to beat. At least, we would fail to have such reason if we ever have reason to kill ourselves or allow ourselves to die. But that would take us into that messy realm of practical reason that you're so keen on avoiding. So I guess we'll stop.

Xerographica said...

"We suggested earlier (following the SEP article) that a reason the Free Rider problem might be thought a problem in modern but not classical contexts is that classical thinkers more readily allowed the possibility, and reality, of altruism. But I think this is too crude, and false."

Taxes, which are the solution to the free-rider problem, have been around since the beginning of civilization.

"And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

The next step in our political evolution will be to allow tax payers to "vote with their taxes".