Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Larry Arnhart on Singer, Bowles, and Gintis and Darwinian libertarianism

Posted 28 Jun 2012 / 0

Darwinian ConservatismDoes Strong Reciprocity Support a Darwinian Left?

This is a really interesting comparison of the “utopian” and “realist” versions of leftist politics, and of the struggle of thinkers like Singer. What I think needs to be kept in mind is that all these folks are doing more than just trying to produce science describing human cooperation: they are also producing culture in the form of ideas about the nature of our cooperation. Are Singer’s ideas of universal rights based in a scientific version of nature? No, but the question is whether adopting his premises would lead to a more sustainable society.

As far as the science goes, we need to be honest about what we do not understand: our models are crude, small in scale, and by-and-large lack the nuance of real human behavior. To claim that from our models we know how to best maintain a cooperative society would be pretty silly, and so we are far from the point where we should be deciding on social policy based on scientific theories of cooperation. We still exist in an ’empirical mode’ that requires that we test out social policies via trial-and-error, and it may be some time before theory sophisticated enough to represent the actual dynamics of human societies can provide any help. Arnhart’s arguing as if strong reciprocity is scientifically established as a good description of humans, and it is not. It makes nice models that advance our understanding, but that is not the same as being an accurate description of human behavior.

I like that Arnhart has laid out three potential sources of social regulation: governments, markets, and communities. He is right to question the role of each of these in producing cooperative outcomes, and to wonder which is most effective. Missing from this essay is any discussion of scale, and I think that scale is a critical issue here. Each of these forms of regulation have a certain ‘domain of scale’ where they can foster cooperation, and unfortunately markets and community only extend so far. There is a big problem with Arnhart’s proposal that governmental welfare programs being replaced by local community charity (or by some sort of ‘marketplace of charity’): this only works if all communities have a comparable mix of wealthy and poor. Clearly there are entire states that are impoverished when compared to other states, and here is where the need for government arises, where scale issues prevent local communities from maintaining civil (i.e. cooperative) society.

A Minor Post, Cooperation, Evolutionary Modeling, Punishment, Reciprocity, Social Norms

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