"The Darwin Economy" by Robert H. Frank

Series:  Part 1Part 2  |

Robert Frank’s brilliant book, The Darwin Economy, a very well-argued long statement against the inanity of political and economic discussions in the United States, should be taken seriously by the political right, left, center and none of the above.  Although I differ from his consequentialist framework, I want to emphasize two things:

  1. Even though it may appear that he is not interested in issues regarding social justice, I don’t think it is the case that he is indifferent towards those issues (pp. 131, 169).  There is a feel in the book for the opposite.  He is motivated by those issues, but he is not being ideological about it.  This can be seen very clearly about his interest about labor-managed firms and their failure to proliferate in the market (Frank, 2011, pp. 30-35).
  2. It is good not to lose sight of his line of argument:  even if you become the most recalcitrant libertarian in the universe …  a John Galt, a Prime Mover a la Ayn Rand, and being totally selfish about the whole thing … you will eventually end up choosing a society very similar to a welfare state, very, very close to one that is built on principles of social justice (pp. 131, 202-207).  In other words, the most selfish of libertarians living all the Randian virtues, if he or she is intelligent, will end up in no less than a libertarian welfare-state (pp. 211-215)

Of course, for those who haven’t read the book, talking about a “libertarian welfare-state” sounds nonsensical.  Yet, everything becomes transparent when we realize that Frank’s whole argument is not solely founded on Darwin’s observation regarding individual and group interests, but also on the views of one Nobel Prize laureate, Ronald Coase.  Frank’s reasoning regarding Coase holds perfectly for the creation of a welfare-state.  Yet, there are some aspects regarding his use of Coase which, I argue, can be better understood within a deontological framework, as presented in my previous post.

Meet Ronald Coase …  and the Reason He Won the Nobel Prize …

Ladies and gentlemen … meet Ronald Coase!

Ronald Coase

This picture pretty much presents Ronald Coase as he looks today.   Did you know he was born in December, 1910?  Yep!  That makes him …. ummm…  101 years old.  Yes, he is alive … not kidding!

Anyway, Coase is famous for two great works in economics.  The first one has to do with his research on why corporations exist.  In his article “The Nature of the Firm” (1937), he discovered the obvious …  at least it is obvious to us now, but not then!  Why do corporations exist?  For one simple reason, because if production consisted solely of independent businesses specialized each in one sole activity (one for extracting metal, another business for making them into pieces for assembly, another for building the product, and so on), each one of them would have to sign contracts with the others in order to create a chain of production between them.  Even supposing that these contracts are negotiated at negligible cost and very easily, it wouldn’t be practical to negotiate all of them, and would drive product prices sky-high.  Imagine a car that is built this way, nobody will be able to buy it.  Yet, Coase realized that corporations exist because it is far easier, cheaper, and more efficient that a hierarchy of command is established, and then create a whole division of labor with a chain of workers doing different jobs … just like Adam Smith envisioned (Frank, 2011, pp. 90-91).

But the work that deserved him the Nobel Prize in 1991 was his 1960’s article, “The Problem of Social Cost“.  The statement of this article has made us understand better the relationship between the law and the economy.  Before this very important article, the law usually saw disputes within an ethical framework:  perpetrators vs. victims.  This framework does seem to hold in some cases, but in other cases, it is clearly inadequate.  For instance, the paper (and an earlier one) makes one reference to the Sturges vs. Bridgman case (1879) as an example.  In The Darwin Economy, Frank modifies it a bit, but the situation is exactly the same.

Before I go into details, I wish to talk about externalities.  The term “externality” has to do with what all of us “internalize” and “externalize”, when we invest in something.  Sometimes that investment has a positive or negative effect that a third party did not consent.  For example, if I paint my house, and modify it to look good, clean, and so on, not only do I have internalized a gain from that investment, but I also externalize value to my neighbors’ houses, in this case, this is a positive externality:  my investment in my house has the side effect of increasing my neighbors’ house value.  I never sat down with my neighbors to ask their permission to increase their houses’ value, yet, in 99.99% of the time, they won’t protest because of it, they will welcome such intrusion without their consent.  However, most of the time when economists talk about “externalities”, they mean negative externalities, i.e. externalities that cost to others.

In “The Problem of Social Cost”, Coase argues that externalities are reciprocal in nature.  How so?  He uses some cases illustrate his argument perfectly.  I am going to use Frank’s version of the Sturges vs. Bridgman case.  Frank quotes Coase:

A confectioner had used certain premises for his business or great many years.  When a doctor came and occupied a neighboring property, the working of the confectioner’s machinery caused the doctor no harm until, some eight years later, he built a consulting room at the end o the garden, right against the confectioner’s premises.  Then it was found that noise and vibrations caused by the machinery disturbed the doctor in his work.  The doctor then brought an action and succeeded in securing an injunction preventing the confectioner from using his machinery.  What the courts had, in fact, to decide was whether the doctor had the right to impose additional costs on the confectioner through compelling him to install new machinery, or move to a new location, or whether the confectioner had the right to impose additional costs on the doctor through compelling him to do his consulting somewhere else on his premises or at another location (Coase, 1959, p. 26).

If we use the perpetrator vs. victim ethical framework, we have a problem.  As Frank argues very well in The Darwin Economy, it is not clear, from an ethical standpoint, who is the perpetrator or the victim (Frank, 2011, pp. 85-95).   The situation for the doctor is the following:  the noise costs him $20,000 in damage.  The doctor could move at a cost of $10,000, or he could install soundproofing machinery at $5,000.  In light of this scenario, there are two possibilities:

  1. The state could make the confectioner liable, in which case, he would have to install soundproofing machinery at $5,000 as the most efficient solution.  After that, the confectioner would not have to compensate the doctor for the damage.
  2. If the state did not make the confectioner liable, the doctor’s best option is that he himself would have to install the soundproofing machinery at $5,000.

Most people find (2) troubling.  Why should the doctor have to pay to the confectioner?  Yet, as noted, no one is perpetrator or victim in this scenario. In case the state did not hold the confectioner liable, the confectioner would not have to pay, making the doctor adopt the most efficient solution to the problem (Frank, 2011, pp. 88-89).  This is the problem of reciprocal externalities, where a simple and at low-cost negotiation would have been enough to solve without state intervention.

Of course, libertarians took Coase’s solution as if he had said that the state were not necessary, and that the state were actually hindering the market.  Yet, as Frank notes, this could have not been Coase’s message at all.  Actually the moral of the story is not that the state is not necessary in such situations.  As we have stated above, Coase has studied the need for corporations to solve the problem that arises when negotiations among parties are impractical.  In such cases a corporation establishes an authority which facilitates the whole process of production very efficiently.  What happens regarding the confectioner and the doctor when negotiations become impractical?  Very simple!  It becomes the role of the state to mimic the situation where free parties would have negotiated if it were practical.  That would be the best possible solution (Frank, 2011, pp. 89-91). If we generalize this situation, then we will end up in a libertarian welfare state.

Frank states that such a view would be classified as consequentialist (Frank, 2011, pp. 93-94).  Yet, I see no reason why this should be the case.  Referring to my earlier post, the problems considered here belong to the techno-scientific stratum of society, not to the ethical stratum.  Why?  Because this is not an ethical problem:  again, none of the parties can be classified as perpetrator or victim.  So, from a deontological point of view, there is no ethical principle to defend here.   This is a market problem, to be solved in the most efficient way possible: there are reciprocal externalities, so the best possible way to solve this problem is the Coase’s approach.

Misapplications of Coase’s Approach

Before I make my core-criticism, I want to point out that Frank is being careful with many of his statements.  Although he suggests Coase’s approach, he also says:

It isn’t my claim that the Coase framework is the uniquely correct way of thinking about such decisions.  But to the extent that we can agree that the costs and benefits of the alternatives we face matter to at least some extent, I hope we can agree that the Coase framework might often facilitate clearer thinking about the relevant trade-offs  (Frank, 2011, p. 98, my emphasis).

Despite this, I have a disagreement with Frank regarding a misapplication of the Coase framework.  For example, should it be applied to interracial hand-holding?  Let’s imagine that in the south, in the 1960s, each interracial couple would be willing to pay $100 a week for the right to hold hands in public.  If there are 100 interracial couples, then that would be a total of $10,000 a week for the city or the state.  Yet, there are a million whites willing to pay $1.00 a week to avoid the sight.  If negotiations may have been practical, each white may have paid or $0.10 a week for a total of $100,000 which would finance a payment of $1,000 a week to avoid holding interracial hand-holding.  That would mean that each interracial couple would be $900 better than before ($1,000 a week they receive minus the $100 they suffer from not holding hands).  Each offended white would be $0.90 better than before.  Therefore, this is a good deal for both parties … or is it?  (Frank, 2011, pp. 95-96)

Of course, Frank makes it clear that such an arrangement is completely unacceptable (Frank, 2011, p. 96).  Yet, what would prevent such thing from happening?  Why wouldn’t it be ethically right for interracial couples or whites to carry out this transaction?  What is the ethical reasoning that would make us regard this as unacceptable?  Again, Frank uses a particular consequentialist framework.  He explains his position to be against this arrangement in the following way:

… the analysis completely ignores the fact that people adapt over time in dramatically different ways to different forms of real or imagined injuries.  The cumulative amount that white residents o Atlanta in the 1960s would have been willing to pay to avoid the sight of interracial hand-holding probably did outweigh the cumulative amount that the small number of interracial couples would have been willing to pay for the right to hold hands.  But as interracial relationships have become more common during the intervening years, attitudes have changed dramatically, and in ways that were completely predictable at the time  (Frank, 2011, p. 96).

As a deontologist, I cannot avoid thinking that Frank’s heart is in the right place, but this reasoning is not.  I think that he implicitly carries out another misapplication of the Coase framework.  Does Frank mean that if people are not able to adapt over time to interracial hand-holding, then the Coase framework would be ethically acceptable?  Even if we were to argue that in such circumstances whites and interracial couples were to end up economically “better” under the Coase framework, it really strikes our moral sense to actually consider interracial hand-holding as being subject to negotiations.

As Frank does recognize, the Coase framework works very well when allocating scarce resources, which is what the market is all about.  Yet, the example of interracial hand-holding is an ethical and not a market problem.  From a deontological standpoint, we are treating a couple’s legitimate loving expression as being subject to commercial exchange, as if it had a price (in the Kantian sense).  Yet it is not subject to price, because it involves dignity (see my previous post regarding the difference between price and dignity).

We have seen that in most of the cases, consequentialism and deontology usually end up in almost the same place, to account for what, phenomenologically, strikes our moral sense.  Yet, here deontology has a very clear-cut criterion to establish why the Coase framework should not be applied in the case of interracial hand-holding, and why the consequentialist criteria don’t seem to work very well … at least the way Robert Frank applies them.


Coase, R. H.  1937.  The nature of the firm.  Economica, 4,  386-405.

Coase, R. H.  1959.  The Federal Communications Commission.  Journal of Law and Economics, 2, 1-40.

Coase, R. H.  1960, October.  The problem of social cost.  Journal of Law and Economics, 3, 1-44.

Frank, R. H.  2011.  The Darwin economy:  liberty, competition, and the common good.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

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The Darwin Economy


Many people who have heard about the terms “deontological theory” and “teleological or consequentialist theory” in the field of Ethics, usually have a very particular way of understanding the debates engaged by ethicists on both sides of the field.  Sometimes the image people have about it is a caricature of the more nuanced views in both sides.  Let me give you an example of what I mean, in the movie Robin Hood:  Men in Tights, there is a scene where Robin Hood, Achoo and Blinken want to cross a bridge.  Robin assumes what we could call a deontological approach to the problem, while Achoo chooses a more consequentialist and more efficient approach.

At least in the Anglo-Saxon environment, there is a lot of favor for consequentialist approaches to problems.  At the same time, there is an image of deontological approaches as being noble in spirit, but inherently stupid in practical terms … much like the way suggested by Robin Hood:  Men in Tights.

A similar perspective is shared by Esperanza Guisán with her highly critical exposition of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and his pure deontological views.  In fact, she alleges that Kant was moved by his pietist prejudices against inclinations and emotions in general as being inherently “evil”.  These are the grounds with which she practically insults Kant’s philosophy to the ground in a very aggressive criticism.  Since Kant’s proposal is, for all practical purposes, religion in disguise, and she is absolutely unable to stand any religious view in any way throughout her book, then she gives the impression that no one should pay any more thought on the subject, and apparently the discussion ends there (Guisán, 1995, pp. 170-189).

Other authors who actually admire Kant’s contributions, and assume a deontological view (like myself), are more moderate.  In fact, as the eminent bioethicists Jorge José Ferrer and Juan Carlos Álvarez point out, rarely can you find today a “purist” deontological philosopher, all of them incorporate consequentialist aspects to their philosophy in one way or another (Ferrer & Álvarez, 2003, pp. 113-114).  In this case, I wish to talk about a deontological approach that I think is adequate to understand many of the proposals of The Darwin Economy from a deontological framework.

The Ethical Points that Kant wanted to Make

Kant has been damnable in the minds of many consequentialists.  Some of their complaints are well founded, especially regarding the inflexibility of what should be done under specific circumstances.  Others, like Guisán’s attacks, are unwarranted.  It may be that Kant was playing a closet pietist while writing his ethics, yet that should be irrelevant when we are evaluating the validity of his contributions.

The question we should ask is what did Kant want to do with his philosophy.  I have written about this before, and I invite the reader to read that article on deontological ethics, but I will repeat the main idea.  In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant points out that we all have the equivalent of what David Hume called “moral sense”, a very basic instinctual knowledge of what is good or bad, right or wrong.  Yet, the major problem everyone has is that we, humans, are the masters of deception and self-deception.  Sometimes, demagogues, religions, politicians, or even our own friends, can deceive us to make us do what is wrong or evil.  It may well be that even though we believe that we are doing something inherently good, in another level we know it is wrong.  What Kant said was that his proposal should be taken like a sort of compass to point to a secure ethical north (AK:404-405).  He may have gone too far dismissing inclinations altogether, but this dismissal is not an issue of piety, but an issue of the subjectivity of inclinations.  Today we know that we are unable to make rational decisions without emotions, nor with too much emotions.  Still, Kant’s point is still valid, in the sense that too many times our inclinations can lead us astray.  Instead by operating by inclinations, Kant is saying that we should use the rational compass of his proposal.

Also, it is worth noting that Kant “was not born yesterday”.  He did say that good actions carried out contrary to inclinations are more ethically praiseworthy than those when we act in full agreement with inclinations.  Yet he did not really pretend that every single human being can act from duty all the time.  Sometimes we will act in conformity with duty, sometimes from duty, sometimes none.  Yet, if we are confronted with a situation when we need to act the best way possible, Kant says that we should keep in mind the formulae of the categorical imperative to discover which maxims are the actual ethical laws to follow.

A More Contemporary Deontological Model

After G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, metaethics has become important, and its distinction from normative and the applied levels of ethics is far more significant in this process.  So, the framework I am proposing for the discussion is the following:

  • We can assume the formulae of the categorical imperative as Kant proposed or certain revised versions other people have made on them as our metaethical criteria to establish which are the objective ethical norms.
  • At the normative ethical level, we can adopt all of the maxims that are consistent with our metaethical criteria as being objective ethical norms.  These are the sort of norms which we should follow from duty, as Kant would say.
  • In the practical or applied level, we deal with black and white situations and all of the grayish area in between.  It is the juice of ethical discussions in philosophy.

In the normative levels, the ethical norms have their own rational foundation and can be assented and recognized as valid by all rational moral beings.  I add here the term “moral”, because as Robert Frank says in another work of his, the term “rational” is often used in equivocal ways, which is one of the reasons he points out that “rational” choice models used by economists can be wrong very often.  Some define rational as “intelligent selfishness”, yet humans do not always behave in such ways.  The way I use the term “moral” in “moral being” is a person you can consider responsible for his or her actions, who is able to choose in terms of right and wrong according to a set of values, and is aware of the consequences of his or her actions.

Every rational being is moral, but do not always act ethically.  I contrast moral with ethical.  An act is moral if it follows the norms and values of a given society.  On the other hand an act is ethical if the actions are made from objective norms and values which may or may not coincide with moral norms and values.  Acting ethically is objectively good, acting morally is not always good.  The ethical norms and values are themselves prescribed metaethically, set in the normative ethics arena, while applied ethics seeks the best objective criteria to act the best possible way given certain circumstances.

Given that by extension moral beings can be also ethical beings, and given that there is a distinction between acting in conformity with duty and acting from duty, the question is:  which of the norms should prevail given certain circumstances?  In this case, the Formula of Humanity can be our guide.

Act so that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.  (AK 4:429)

We can polish Kant’s Formula of Humanity in such a way as to replace “humanity” with “moral rational beings”, which would save us from specismI wrote about a way we can phenomenologically provide the adequate foundations to determine who is a rational moral being and who is not, while not falling into specism.  Other eminent bioethicist, like Diego Gracia, have also made similar approaches from the phenomenology of Xavier Zubiri, but the discussions on these matters are beyond the scope of this blog post.

For now, we should remind ourselves that rational moral beings can claim slight (but only slight) superiority from non-rational non-moral beings.  We have the capacity to make rational and intelligent decisions that have great impact on non-rational non-moral beings as a whole.  Yet, this superiority is not an argument in favor for “raping the Earth” as Ann Coulter so colorfully described it, or doing with it “whatever the heck we please”.  And even if we were to have that sort of gross position, it is a poor approach, since we cannot claim absolute superiority above everything else.  As environmentalists, religious naturalists, process theologians and many others have pointed out, we are all connected to the Earth in some way.  If we do “whatever the heck we please”, the joke will be on us in the end, especially if we don’t decide to establish unsustainable policies.  The religious naturalist, Michael Dowd, reminds us that we can’t live without bacteria, yet they can live fine without us.

Finally, the formulas of Humanity and Autonomy imply the Kantian distinction between price and dignity.  For Kant, price is a property of that which can be replaced by something else as its equivalent.  He makes a distinction between two sorts of prices:  market price is the price that is related to general human inclinations and needs; and fancy price, is the property of something which conforms with a certain taste, with a delight in the mere purposelessness play of our mind.  Yet, for Kant, dignity is the property of those beings whose value cannot be replaced by something else, and which can only be ends-in-themselves.  In other words, dignity is the property of those who have no price, which means necessarily that every other being does (AK 4:434-435).  For Kant, moral rational beings have dignity, nothing else does.

Part of respecting the dignity of moral rational beings is the respect on people’s own freedom, and the people’s ability too choose among some options.  In this sense, Mill’s harm principle is perfectly compatible with this notion of dignity, and we can state with perfect consistency that we can create a society whose economy and jurisprudence is based on people’s freedoms, but we should exclude from them all of those unwarranted liberties which create undue harm to others.  As Robert Frank has explained extensively in his book The Darwin Economy, this principle of harm does not say that nobody should do any harm to others:

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, it’s permissible to constrain an individual’s freedom on action only when there’s no less intrusive way to prevent undue harm to others (Frank, 2011, p. 9).

Also, as Frank argues very persuasively, we as social animals, cannot establish the harm principle only to direct harm (e.g. hitting a person with a stick, robbing a bank).  For the harm principle to have coherent meaning, we should also include indirect harm.  For instance, if an athelete, say a runner, has worked hard for so many years to reach a certain level in a championship, and there is another player who decided to use steroids, there is no direct harm on the former, but there is indirect harm.  If the runner has to choose to use steroids too to win, it will lead to serious health and social risks.  If her or she decides not use steroids, then, in all likelihood, he or she will lose.  No one can argue that there is no undue harm being done here.   Frank says:

If Mill’s harm principle is to have any coherent meaning, indirect forms of harm must count.  My conception of what constitutes harm to others strike some as expansive.  But it’s one that even libertarians will find difficult to challenge in their own terms …  Even if libertarians had complete freedom to join others in forming any sort of society they pleased, they’d find compelling reasons for joining one that gave indirect harm equal footing with direct harm.  (Frank, 2011, p. 12)

No matter how much is an athlete willing to defend his freedoms to choose, he or she will ever join a competition where there are no rules and penalties against using steroids to win a championship.  He or she would love to participate in a competition where such rule is enforced.  Hence, from a deontological standpoint, this rule would be completely consistent with the dignity of the rational beings participating in it, because it takes away a freedom that prevents undue harm to all participants.

If this is the case, from a deontological standpoint, economic and political institutions built to guarantee people’s freedoms and help them make better choices without taking people’s freedoms away.  In this sense, I wholeheartedly agree with Frank in recommending the book Nudge by the economists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (follow their blog here).

How would We Organize Conceptually a Deontological Approach to Society

Unfortunately due to language and ideological leanings, some of the social philosophy being elaborated in Europe never reach the United States.  For example, the thinking of philosopher André Comte-Sponville on this matter is pretty much unknown in North America.  One of the best books he wrote is Le capitalisme est-il moral? (2004), which I have discussed extensively in other blog posts.  He proposes four different conceptual strata in order to understand social complexities.  Here, I will change the terminology of some of the strata to adjust it to the discussion, but the idea is more or less the same.  Here is the illustration:

Comte-Sponville Social Model

From bottom-up direction, we can distinguish the following four strata:

  1. The Techno-Scientific Stratum:  It involves techniques which have their own logistics, i.e. their own intrinsic problems, and their own solutions to those problems.  Among these we can find the different natural sciences, technology, and the economy.  For Comte-Sponville, all of these mechanisms are amoral, hence none of their mechanisms can be considered themselves ethical in any way.  Since amoral processes generate good and ill for society, it needs an external social force to diminish the ill (the negative externalities) and increase society’s welfare (the positive externalities).
  2. Juridical-Political Stratum:  The juridical-political stratum consists of the law and the state.  It is up to the juridical-political stratum to restrict externally the processes of the techno-scientific stratum.  However, this stratum also needs several restrictions.  According to Comte-Sponville, laws are not equivalent to ethical norms, which means that unethical people can indeed follow the law verbatim, and still be evil.  Also, at the level of the state, which he understands within Rousseau’s conception of what the Republic should be, it is important to point out that the people or the state should not have all the powers.  It should have the power to guarantee its citizens’ welfare, but it should never have power against minorities, nor should it have the power to establish concentration camps.  Therefore, it also needs the external restrictions established by another social force.
  3. Ethical Stratum:  Comte-Sponville calls it the “moral stratum”, but it is the same idea.  This is the stratum of ethical norms as well as the rational beings (as ends-in-themselves), who can establish these external restrictions through their votes, the courts, or even on the street, creating political pressure.  It is the stratum where responsible decisions are made regarding the law, and the techno-scientific stratum.
  4. Emotional Love:  Comte-Sponville is based on some of the Christian philosophy regarding what should move us to act ethically.  Yet, the “emotional love” in a very loose sense of the term as a way to promote ethical behavior is exactly what cognitive scientists and neurologists have been studying for years.  Love for our neighbor, for a nation, for God, can be powerful means to move us to act ethically.  He points out three sorts of love that should be at the very top of all emotions that lead us to act ethically:  love towards truth, freedom, and humanity.

According to Comte-Sponville, we make a mistake if we want to moralize the economy (which Marx tried to do), i.e. to adjust the economy to be forcibly fair and just using internal, not external, mechanisms.  It is equally a problem to eliminate the needs of the ethical stratum and let the dog of the techno-scientific stratum loose (which is the movement-libertarians’ mistake).  The state must have a role in the interaction between the techno-scientific stratum and the ethical stratum.

Finally, Comte-Sponville tells us about the importance of taking into account all four strata when making a decision that is going to affect society.  We should prioritize one or the other depending on the circumstances, and have the best welfare of humanity when making the decisions.  To omit the importance of each one, would lead to irresponsible decisions.  Therefore responsibiity, should take into consideration the ethical ideals for society as established metaethically and by normative ethics, but taking into account the consequences that lead society to the best welfare possible.

This is not incompatible with the “libertarian welfare-state”, which Frank advocates, or even the “libertarian paternalism” as Thaler and Sustein advocate.

Why Teleological-Based Models do not Work for Me

Of course, Robert Frank seems to favor a teleological model.  His main objection to deontologists, at least as it appears in The Darwin Economy seems to be the following:

Deontologists face other hurdles, such as how to explain where the bedrock moral principles they invoke come from.  (Frank, 2011, p. 94).

Of course, this is not the whole objection, which we will discuss in our next blog post on the subject.  Yet, he knows that at a practical level, deontologists and consequentialists (teleologists) are almost in the same place:

Consequentialist and deontologists have been at each other’s throats for millenia.  Nothing I say here could possibly settle the issues that divide them.  But because I will advocate policy claims that follow from Coase’s consequentialist framework, it’s important to emphasize that the two frameworks are less squarely in conflict than may often appear  (Frank, 2011, pp. 94-95).

Yet, although there is little difference in extension, there is a difference in intension.  I think that the objection quoted above actually is better understood from a consequentialist framework.  For example, at all times consequentialism posits the importance of happiness of most individuals possible as the guide for all ethical decisions.  Yet, stating this begs the question as for why should we should use this as a criterion for any decision.  There is a problem de jure, regarding why should our happiness or interests (in the language of Peter Singer) be considered superior to all other beings, or even if there were no other being, why is happiness and interests good?  How do you establish this as an objective criterion when whatever especially when this is moved by subjective inclinations that do not necessarily have a tendency towards ethical behavior.  G. E. Moore’s criticisms to the naturalistic fallacy in all modalities, does include pleasure and happiness as identical to being good.  He advocated a form of utilitarianism, but a platonist utilitarianism, where happiness alone is not the sole value to be sought by our actions, but many objective abstract values as well.

Deontology, since Kant, has provided an adequate response.  The preference of rational moral beings should be preferred because it is us who are the ones who have the ability to make the best decision for society and the world.  Also, notice that in all of this there is a consequentialist component of deontology.  All non-rational, non-moral beings serve as means, such as the economy as a whole, the jurisprudence and political body (the state), and all the sciences.  In this sense, we have provided a more complete deontological model for ethical behavior, especially regarding the economy, in contrast with some other consequentialist models.

In my next blog post on this subject, I will examine other objections by Frank to deontologists, and the consequentialist approach of Ronald Coase.


Comte-Sponville, A.  (2004).  El capitalismo, ¿es moral?.  España:  Paidós.

Guisán, E.  (1995).  Introducción a la ética.  Madrid:  Ediciones Cátedra.

Ferrer, J. J. & Álvarez, J. C.  (2003).  Para fundamentar la bioética.  España:  Universidad Pontificia Comillas & Desclée de Brower.

Frank, R. H. (2011).  The Darwin Economy:  Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Kant, I.  (1999).  Groundwork of The metaphysics of morals.  In M. J. Gregor & A. Wood (eds.),  The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant:  practical philosophy.  (pp. 37-108).  US:  Cambridge University Press.

Moore, G. E.  (1903).  Principia Ethicahttp://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica.

Moore, G. E.  (1912).  Ethicshttp://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/ethics/.

Paton, H. J.  (1971).  The categorical imperative:  a study in Kant’s moral philosophy.  US:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

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Como ustedes saben, he hecho disponible en mi página de internet una lectura con fines educativos titulada: "¿Por qué somos seres morales? Una perspectiva biológica". Hoy hice disponible la versión 2.2 del escrito.

Lo que es distinto de esta versión de la anterior es fundamentalmente un énfasis en selección de grupos. Al principio de la sección titulada "Condiciones Ambientales para el Desarrollo del Sentido Moral" puse una cita del mismo Charles Darwin en el que propone la selección de grupos como la explicación ambiental de cómo los seres humanos adquirimos un sentido moral. Además, en las notas finales, añado que este tema de selección de grupos, aunque es aceptado hoy día por la mayoría de los evolucionistas, es un tema controversial y señalo algunas referencias que pueden ayudar a los estudiantes a comprender mejor los aspectos controversiales. Por otro lado, también proveo fuentes para que los mismos estudiantes puedan aclarar sus dudas en torno a la selección de grupos, ya que, por lo visto, aún en las mejores universidades del mundo, algunos de los mejores evolucionistas presentan una extraordinaria caricatura y representación maliciosa de dicho concepto (véase, por ejemplo, la Clase número 3 del curso abierto de la Universidad de Yale titulado: Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior por Stephen C. Stearns).

Nota Aclaratoria: El curso de Stearns es buenísimo y lo recomiendo para cualquier persona que desee comprender con lujo de detalles la teoría de la evolución neo-darwiniana y gran parte de la evidencia a su favor. Sin embargo, entiendo que suscribe un punto de vista ingenuo en torno al llamado "conflicto genético" como alternativa a la selección de grupos y una mala exposición del punto de vista de selección de grupos.

Incluí entre las fuentes al libro de Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, por entender que, a pesar de que él es teólogo, él comprende muy bien el debate que se está dando entre los biólogos hoy día en torno a este tema. Él hace una breve, pero extraordinaria, exposición de los orígenes del debate en torno a la selección de grupos: tanto el origen de la idea en las obras de Charles Darwin, como la formulación ingenua conocida como el análisis Wynne-Edwards, su rechazo en la comunidad científica a favor de la selección por parentesco, para que resurja (como dicen en inglés "with a vengeance") la selección de grupos a la luz de nueva evidencia a favor de esta perspectiva.

A la misma vez, añado como fuente un artículo publicado en la revista Nature titulado "The Needs of the Many", que explica brevemente la mayor parte de los aspectos del debate .

Finalmente, añadí también la referencia a un artículo publicado en la revista académica, Evolution, titulado "Eight Criticisms not to Make about Group Selection", porque ayuda a distinguir entre la concepción de selección de grupo que los opositores sostienen y lo que la selección de grupos (no-ingenua) realmente sostiene.

Para leer o bajar ¿Por qué somos seres morales? Una perspectiva biológica en distintos formatos, pueden ir a esta página.



Tema aparte: Para posibles objeciones al uso de la selección de grupos en el escrito educativo por ser un tema controversial.

Mis Conclusiones en Torno a la Selección de Grupos

Soy un cristiano evolucionista (un teísta evolucionista), en calidad de filósofo de las ciencias trabajo también temas relacionados a la teoría de la evolución, pero no soy evolucionista en el sentido de que no soy un biólogo evolucionista. He estado estudiando la teoría de la evolución orientándome bastante con autoridades en el tema. Utilizo como referencia principal el libro de texto (universitario) Evolution (2nda. edición) de Douglas J. Futuyma, un estudioso evolucionista mundialmente reconocido, además del curso de Stephen C. Stearns que mencioné anteriormente. El libro Evolution contiene una discusión importantísima en torno a selección de grupos, aunque lo entiende como una suerte de selección de parentesco, y que me da a entender su cientificidad porque tiene un alto poder explicativo y los modelos que provee pueden ser cuantificados, lo que hace que esta propuesta sea falsable (en términos popperianos). Otras autoridades como E. O. Wilson (cuya formación en este campo no puede ponerse en duda), David Burnie, David S. Wilson, entre otros, endosan abiertamente la selección de grupo. Incluso, el artículo de "The Needs of the Many" cita a un antiguo opositor de la selección de grupo, Andy Gardner: "Everyone agrees that group selection occurs". En el caso de este artículo y del libro de Futuyma, selección de grupo a múltiples niveles parece explicar un tipo de adaptación especial de organismos, aunque parece que no otras.

Mientras más leo del tema, más me doy cuenta de que la razón del debate se debe a que distintos evolucionistas sostienen perspectivas incompatibles en torno a la evolución, lo que lleva a algunos a pensar que hace falta refinar la semántica de la discusión para que se aclaren muchas dudas teoréticas en torno al tema. Aún así, aparentemente, hoy día, la opinión predominante en torno al tema es que la selección de grupo realmente ocurre.

Hay otro factor importante en cuanto al conflicto: los prejuicios y unos puntos de vista transmitidos de una generación de académicos a otra ("received views"). Gran parte de este problema tiene que ver con la primera formulación de la teoría en el siglo veinte en la modalidad Wynn-Edwards, que postula que las características de los organismos evolucionan "para el bien del grupo". A esto se le conoce como "punto de vista ingenuo de la selección de grupos". Hoy día, ningún proponente de la selección de grupos sostiene este punto de vista. Ningún organismo evoluciona características para el bien del grupo, sino que estas características prevalecen porque hay factores ambientales que lo permiten y que resulta en el mejor comportamiento entre los miembros de un grupo. Una vez estas características, en combinación con factores ambientales, posibilitan un comportamiento altruista o solidario entre los miembros de un grupo, la tendencia de ese grupo es a la de sobrevivir. Sencillamente, grupos en que prevalecen los solidarios y altruistas sobreviven sobre los grupos en que prevalecen los egoístas. En otras palabras, el comportamiento altruista es desventajoso dentro de los grupos (porque el altruista está en desventaja ante el egoísta), mientras que es ventajoso entre grupos (porque un grupo en que predomina el altruismo aventaja al que predomina el egoísmo). Eso lo explico con lujo de detalles en mi escrito educativo ¿Por qué somos animales morales?

Supuestamente, de acuerdo con la visión predominante ("received view"), William D. Hamilton propuso la selección de parentesco como una medida para explicar el altruismo en especies tales como las hormigas o las abejas. Esta perspectiva se ve entre mucho como una extensión de la selección genética y una alternativa a la selección de grupos. De acuerdo con los oponentes de la selección de grupos, los comportamientos que son resultado de la evolución solamente se pueden entender en términos de selección de genes. Esta perspectiva tuvo su máximo empuje con la propuesta del "gen egoísta" de Richard Dawkins en su famosa obra The Selfish Gene. ¿Qué dice la "selección de parentesco"? Que, usualmente, los organismos hacen que sobrevivan los genes suyos mediante su comportamiento altruista al sacrificarse por aquéllos otros que comparten su propio código genético. Hamilton también proveyó una famosa ecuación que describe cómo esto ocurre y que parece confirmarse a nivel experimental. Muchos despreciaron la versión ingenua de la selección de grupo y abrazaron las ideas de Hamilton.

Lo que los evolucionistas en general no saben, y que fue bien documentado por David S. Wilson en su blog, Hamilton no formuló la selección de parentesco como alternativa a la selección de grupos, sino que más bien los que se oponían a la selección de grupos tomaron la propuesta de Hamilton para no abrazar cualquier versión de la selección de grupo. En su mente, ellos equiparaban la visión ingenua de selección de grupos con la de cualquier otra propuesta similar. Es iluminador observar cómo Hamilton concibió ulteriormente su propia propuesta cuando se encontró con otra fórmula matemática hecha por George Price que suponía la selección de grupo. El mismo Hamilton admitió que su propuesta de selección de parentesco no es otra cosa que una forma de selección de grupos. (Para más información, leer este artículo).

Este prejuicio contra la selección de grupos empeora aún más cuando tomamos en cuenta cuáles son las voces públicas (fuera de la academia) más importantes para la divulgación de la teoría de la evolución. La voz más conocida es, sin lugar a dudas, la de Richard Dawkins. Le tengo una tremenda admiración a Dawkins en términos de cómo él hace exposiciones bien lúcidas de aquellos detalles de la teoría de la evolución que son difíciles de exponer al público, además que me resulta un intelectual bien agradable con un celo por las ciencias que realmente admiro y que, en muchos aspectos, quiero emular. De todas las obras de Dawkins, siempre recomiendo las siguientes: The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, Climbing Mount Improbable y The Greatest Show on Earth. De hecho, en mi escrito educativo, utilizo los libros de Dawkins como referencia.

Lo que lamento de Richard Dawkins es dos cosas. La primera es que utiliza la teoría de la evolución como una bandera contra la religión y a favor del ateísmo, lo que ha hecho la vida de cuadritos para aquellos de nosotros que queremos enseñar la teoría de la evolución al público. Contrario a lo que la mayor parte del público parece creer, Charles Darwin y Thomas Huxley, despreciaban este tipo de abuso de la teoría de la evolución.

La segunda, es que la voz de Dawkins tiene una carga de autoridad pública desproporcionada, lo que lleva al público a pensar que lo que él sostiene en sus libros y en su página de internet (con todo y lujo de detalles) es el consenso de los evolucionistas. Es cierto que la mayor parte de lo que él expone en sus libros es plenamente correcto en torno a los detalles de la teoría de la evolución. Sin embargo, no todos los evolucionistas están de acuerdo con su punto de vista de selección genética (o su metáfora del gen egoísta). Por ejemplo, Simon Conway Morris, evolucionista hartamente reconocido, considera que esta metáfora es simplista y que no da cuenta de la enorme complejidad de los procesos evolutivos. Sin embargo, la voz de Dawkins en cuanto a este tema, especialmente en cuanto a sus más ávidos lectores, se asemeja mucho a la de los seguidores de alguna figura religiosa, que creen que la autoridad de su "líder" es casi universalmente aceptada, cuando, en realidad, sus puntos de vista tanto en la religión como en otros asuntos no son realmente compartidos por la inmensa mayoría de los evolucionistas. Es más, muchos resienten el hecho de que haya hecho de la evolución su bandera anti-religiosa.

Uno de los temas en los que Dawkins no goza de mayoría es precisamente en el tema de selección de grupos. Él abraza la selección de parentesco y la selección genética como alternativas a la selección de grupo. Inevitablemente sus expresiones contra aquéllos que favorecen la selección de grupo, específicamente sus palabras decepcionantes contra E. O. Wilson y, especialmente, contra David S. Wilson, han llevado a una gran parte del público (no de los científicos) a pensar que Dawkins está en lo correcto. Desgraciadamente los dos Wilsons no gozan de la misma popularidad de Dawkins, pero, aún así, David Sloan Wilson ha mostrado por qué Dawkins está rotundamente equivocado. La selección genética promovida por Dawkins y la selección de parentesco no conflijen con la selección de grupos, contrario a lo que parece insinuar Dawkins (véase las respuestas de D. S. Wilson a Dawkins aquí y aquí). Utilizando la metáfora del gen egoísta, un gen podría sobrevivir mejor si utiliza como "vehículo" a organismos sociales cuyo comportamiento altruista permite la supervivencia de un grupo o una especie. ¿Cuál es el problema? El problema es que Dawkins desea que el metafórico egoísmo del gen sea fundamento exclusivo del proceso de evolución y selección natural, y que explique, a su vez, el comportamiento altruista. Desgraciadamente, si los genes individuales compiten con otros genes individuales, la evolución moral no hubiera sido posible, así como Thomas Hobbes ilustró en el caso de los hombres: la moral no se puede desarrollar en una "guerra de todos contra todos". La selección genética sí ocurre, pero la selección de grupo es un mecanismo por el cual la selección natural hace que sobrevivan grupos en que predominan altruistas y solidarios, lo que a su vez permite el desarrollo del sentido moral en muchos de los primates, incluyendo al ser humano. Ésta y otras razones muestran por qué, aunque la metáfora del "gen egoísta" es útil, puede ser simplista en un gran número de casos si no se tienen en cuenta otros procesos evolutivos. David Burnie, una autoridad de la evolución, también caracteriza a esta metáfora como simplista por la sencilla razón de que los genes no luchan o compiten entre ellos, sino más bien los organismos. Es más, a veces es competencia entre grupos a diferentes niveles. Otras críticas aparecen en la obra de Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, que contiene aún más críticas de otros científicos y eruditos en el tema, incluyendo las críticas de Jan Sapp, Simon Conway Morris, K. Weiss, S. Fullerton, entre otros (pp. 41-78). Como filósofo, también Cunningham le echa más sal a la herida cuando afirma que la distinción "gen/vehículo" re-establece una especie distinción cartesiana mente/cuerpo que no es deseable en las ciencias. Yo también añadiría, con un poco de mayor malicia (lo confieso), que el concepto de memes también vuelve a introducir otro elemento indeseable para las ciencias: la creencia en la posesión diabólica o demoníaca … "no es que creas en la religión por impulsos racionales, sino porque los memes religiosos te han poseído"; para Daniel Dennett "nuestro yo es también un meme".

Éstas son las razones por las cuales decidí introducir el tema de la selección de grupo en la discusión del escrito educativo que escribí para mis estudiantes. Recuerdo que como el escrito está disponible bajo una licencia libre, cualquiera que use este escrito puede modificarlo si lo considera apropiado. Aún así, espero que la gente entienda perfectamente por qué creo que el poder explicativo de la selección de grupo para dar cuenta de la moralidad de los seres humanos es bastante grande. La validez del argumento es sólida. Como siempre, estoy abierto a cambiar mi parecer si el argumento está bien explicado. A fin de cuentas, no debería predominar el fundamentalismo en la filosofía, en la teología ni en las ciencias.

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This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3), X (1), X (2), X (3), XI (1), XI (2), XI (3), XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI

Evolution, Ethics, And Spirituality: Part XVII — Two Big Mistakes in Twentieth Century (and the Twenty-First?) (1)


Today we have a globalized world, where countries are joining together forming economic blocks, and whose resources are either exploited or shared among countries. Some blocks are created in order to create a solidarity among countries to recover from economic previous disasters, which is the case of European Union. There are other economic blocks which are created to create an internal solidarity among nations close in culture and geography, which are a response to what are seen as external economic threats. This is the case of Latin America, which has created two economic blocks which run parallel among countries: the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos: ALBA-TCP (Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas), and Unión de naciones Suramericanas: UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). These were created as a solidarity of Latin American nations and as an economic defense against NAFTA, CAFTA, and other free trade agreements with North America (United States and Canada). African countries created the AFrican Union in order to see if the situation of instability in many African countries can change.

Although this tendency began before the end of the Cold War, much of it is a result of the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the crumbling of the Soviet Union, corporations everywhere had no obstacles to expand their capital. Yet, as I have said before, some countries are responding to these expansions of corporate capital, sometimes adopting also a capitalist path (such as UNASUR), but there are others adopting a more socialist approach (ALBA-TCP).

Aren’t we falling in the same errors of the past, but on a bigger scale? Let’s use the our Popperian modification of Compte-Sponville’s scheme to analyze this problem.

Popperian Modification of Comte-Sponville's Proposal

Marx’s Fatal Error

Certain people are wondering if I’m a Marxist. I assure you, I am not. Yet, I have used Marxian analysis before, because I think that Marx made a very serious, honest, systematic, and brilliant approach to capitalism as a system. You may love Karl Marx or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. Capital is still a must read for anyone who wishes to understand capitalism. Too bad that the media demonizes Marxian works so much that people reject them, even when they haven’t read it, and have absolutely no idea what it is about.

As I have stated before, if you wish to evaluate historical events using the materialist view of history elaborated by Marx, handle it with care, since it is very tricky, and, in many cases, it is either worthless or misleading. In other cases, it has been extremely valuable.

However, I’m not here evaluating Marx’s materialist view of history or historical materialism as a framework for historical explanation, but actually what it predicts. In the realm of prediction, the materialist view of history has failed altogether.

Marx described capitalism very accurately as the relations of production where the mode of production is social (collective), the mode of exchange is social (collective), but that the mode of appropriation is individual. One trait of capitalism is the massive scale of exchange of commodities, as well as its way of producing through division of labor. It’s not that one worker specializes in creating one commodity, but rather that a series of workers (a collective) produce one product. A car is created by workers in an assembly line specializing in one sole aspect of production. This lets production be efficient and faster, compared with previous modes of production.

Yet, according to Marx (as well as other classical economists), this labor accumulated in the commodity by the workers (the proletariat) adds value to the commodity. Part of the value is used as salary for the proletariat, part is used for rent, but another very, very important part of the value produced by the proletariat is appropriated by the bourgeoisie: the social class which owns the means of production. This is what constitutes the Marxian doctrine of the surplus value: the workers produce more than they are actually paid in salary. For Marx, the surplus value is that part of the value added by workers in the process of production that is not remunerated in salary, and is appropriated by the bourgeoisie.

As far as it goes, this is totally correct and the situation hasn’t changed much in this respect. Quite the opposite, the more the global market expands, the more people become proletariats, they are paid very low salaries for massive productions, and at the same time, the bourgeoisie (the stockholders and their allies) lobby in different countries to pay less "rent" (in the classic economic sense of the word). Hence the surplus value they receive in exchange is massive, literally in a global scale.

Another thing that hasn’t changed at all is class struggle. As I have pointed out before, Marx was totally right in this aspect. Natural resources and labor are in principle scarce resources. I point this time and time again so that people grasp the nature of this problem. If wealth were not scarce, there wouldn’t be any class struggle. Why? The whole value created by workers is itself scarce wealth. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat have two very different conceptions of what to do with it. On the one hand, the proletariat wants higher salaries in the form of higher wages, more health care benefits, more vacation time (with pay), more days off, and so on. Of course, that costs to the bourgeoisie, it is less value they can lay their hands on. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie wants more wealth in the short-term, which necessarily implies paying lower wages, not provide health care benefits, not granting any vacation time, etc.

As a result, there is class struggle. This concept of "class struggle" is far from being ideological. The denial of its existence is of ideological origin. What the so-called "first world countries" did during so much time is try to get the state to intervene in the midst of the economy to calm down the class struggle and make the economy more functional. In Capital (in the Epilogue to the Second Edition), Marx states that class struggle sometimes is calm, sometimes is more agitated, but it is always there. Nothing can be seen clearer than the recent union busting legislations in Wisconsin and Ohio in recent months. It has all been relatively calm between workers and corporate interests, but thanks to corporate lobbying, they are eliminating rights of workers to form unions. In Marxian terms, this weakens the proletariat, and opens the door to more exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Then workers respond massively to these union busting legislation in these states. Marx’s analysis in this respect is impeccable.

Yet, here is where Marx failed:

  • Marx assumed, brilliantly, that in a moment of serious economic depression (Engels would call it "economic crack"), the situation would agitate class struggle to the point of the proletariat rebelling against the bourgeoisie, a proletariat revolution.
  • Marx predicted that workers would establish what he called socialism, which is nothing more than the establishment of what he called the dictatorship of the proletariat. This notion of dictatorship should be understood correctly, because what he meant by the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was very far from what history would know as the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao or Castro. For Marx, the current democratic-capitalist condition is the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", where the bourgeoisie is the ruling class. "Dictatorship of the proletariat" means that the proletariat becomes the ruling class.
  • During socialism, the state (the proletariat in power) would take away the means of production of the bourgeoisie, and appropriate itself of the surplus value.
  • Marx also predicted that this socialism would be a transitional stage, where the proletariat would eventually transform socialism to communism. Again, "communism", as understood by Marx, is not understood in terms kin to the Soviet Union or the current Cuban government. For Marx, communism is a stateless society, a state of anarchy (correctly understood, not in a pejorative sense).

In this prediction we find the problem. For now, it is obvious that none of this became true. If you study the Marxist states which arose during the twentieth century, you realize something very important: none of these states resembled what Marx wanted. Take Russia, for instance. Marx’s idea of socialism is that it would be carried out in developed capitalist societies, since the only component to be changed was the mode of appropriation, from individual (to the bourgeoisie), to collective (proletariat). Yet, the term "state" here should be understood more in Rousseau’s sense of the word, not in the sense of "government". In Russia, what do we find? A country with only two industrialized cities: St. Petersburg and Moscow. Other than that, everything other region of Russia was pretty much in the feudal stage (in the Marxian conception of the economy). When Lenin assumed power, and then Stalin became head of state, the programs carried out by the Bolsheviks were totally different from what Marx had in mind, because of that reality. They made the political communist party the only legal party in government, created a new ruling class at the expense of the proletariat, and for all practical purpose established what is called today a "state capitalism", which competed with capitalist countries, especially the United States.

Yet, Comte-Sponville in his work invites us to go beyond that. He reminds us of a passage in Marx’s early work on historical materialism called The German Ideology, where Marx said, in categorical terms, that man is selfish by nature (Comte-Sponville, 2004, p. 94). Comte-Sponville accepts Marx’s anthropological comment seriously, but in my case I want to soften it a little bit. From an evolutionary Darwinian standpoint, it is reasonable to assume that humans in general are selfish when it comes to scarce resources, and I want to emphasize, underline, establish in bold-italics, etc. the phrase "scarce resources". Why do I do that? We are the sons and daughters of evolution, which means that within our own nature, there is a struggle for life, for survival. Therefore, this inherent selfishness in our nature as humans is what has let us thrive and survive for thousands of years. However, what happens when you give away things which are valuable but never scarce? What happens when you give away the sort of stuff that you will never lose by giving it away? As incredible as it may seem, there is such valuable stuff, and we will discuss it later. However, our natural tendency to give away stuff which isn’t scarce is to share it. Forbidding people from not sharing this stuff can lead to lots of social ills, including human rights issues.

Now that we have made the proper clarifications, Comte-Sponville is correct when he says that Marx lacks a proper anthropology to address the solution to the problem of capitalism, and class struggle (Comte-Sponville, 2004, p. 94). Let’s say for the sake of the argument, that the proletariat revolution occurred in a fully developed capitalist country. Let’s say also (for the sake of the argument) that the proletariat will carry out socialism exactly as Marx stated. The question is, would such socialism lead to the communism as Marx expected (a stateless society, without any social classes)? The answer is a decisive "no".

Comte-Sponville invites us to think about Marx’s anthropology at this stage. Humans are inherently selfish when it comes to distribution of scarce resources such as physical wealth. Yet, he says that for some reason the proletariat, whose members happen to be human, will give up their own instinctual selfishness to distribute wealth through socialism, which would lead then to communism: a stage where everyone is treated equally, where everyone would receive the wealth they deserve according to the amount of labor they have worked, where no need for coercion is necessary. Of course, Marx’s anthropology, when it comes to the proletariat, falls into the Funes Syndrome, which we explained in an earlier post. Communism a la Marx is not possible, simply because it would require every member of society to give up his or her own natural instincts towards private wealth. Huge problem! As it has been shown in Israel’s experience with the kibbutzim, it doesn’t matter how "collective" your mindset tries to be, there are little aspects of selfishness which pour out of you, things you want for yourself, there is self-interest, and there is more interest to take care of your kids rather than care for all of them! Not that you don’t actually care for them, but there is always that instinct that you want to care for your children more than others. The same happened with Fourier’s phalanstères, the same thing happened with other social experiments (Pinker, 2002, p. 256).

Marxism failed because the success of its theory depended greatly on the disposition of people to share wealth. The only way to establish a just and fair economy is by forcing people to share in a certain way. We are no longer here talking about mere coercions to make society functional, but rather to establish a dictatorship where people are continually forced to share wealth. And this explain perfectly why all efforts to establish a Marxist socialism are always accompanied by either dictatorship or authoritarian rule Comte-Sponville, 2004, p. 94-96; Pinker, 2002, p. 256). Not surprisingly, many so-called "Marxist" countries are now moving towards a more liberalization of the economy by legalizing many forms of private property in the capitalistic sense, some are even transforming themselves to capitalist countries, something which makes them "communist" in name only.

Capitalism works, precisely because much of it is based on our natural tendency to selfishness when it comes to scarce wealth. It is a system which constantly tells us to be greedy. It’s good! It works! Hence, it triumphed over Marxism in the end, and which is one of the reasons (not the only one) which resists proletariat revolutions from the inside. The bourgeoisie is effective when it comes to its rescue in times of recession or depression, even if it has to use Keynes to make it last.

From Comte-Sponville’s standpoint, Marx’s error was essentially to cancel out the requirements for the functionality of the capitalist economy, and moralize it through the juridical-political stratum (the state). In other words, Marx tried to moralize the economy. As we have said before, regardless of which economic system you use, the economy generates problems of its own, and has an internal logic which makes it work. Any economy, regardless of how effective it is in being "fair", is by its own nature amoral. What Marx tried to do is to apply ethical practice to the economy, and the end result was failure. Economies work because they are functional, not because they are ethical. So, here is an illustration of Marx’s error according to Comte-Sponville (with our revised Popperian modifications).

Marx's Error


Comte-Sponville, A. (2004). El capitalismo, ¿es moral? México: Paidós.

Marx, K. (2002). El capital. Tomo I/Vol. 1: Libro primero — El proceso de producción del capital. P. Scaron (Trans.). México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. (Work originally published in 1867).

Marx, K. (2004). Manifesto of the Communist Party. [Webpage] Accessed in: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm. (Work originally published in 1848).

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. US: Penguin Books.

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This article is part of a series of articles on the subject of evolution, ethics and spirituality:

Parts: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1), VI (2), VII, VIII (1), VIII (2), IX (1), IX (2), IX (3), X (1), X (2), X (3)

Karl R. Popper

Returning to Popper’s Proposal

If there is a common denominator for memeticists is that they all, in one manner or another, thank Karl Popper for the idea of a Darwinian evolutionary growth. Darwin’s theory of evolution establishes that nature is a "blind watchmaker", as Dawkins would say. Yet, culture seems to be another thing altogether. Memetics doesn’t work, because memes are supposed to operate irrationally (blindly), they jump from human brain to human brain and create the illusion that humans have an ego, that they think, that they reason, etc.

But, did Popper actually propose a Darwinist epistemology? Actually he did not, even thought he actually thought he did. Popper is to be blamed for this confusion. There are three reasons for it:

  1. The first big problem which confused Popper has to do with the remarkable resemblance between the way organisms speciate, and the way that culture evolves or develops. In both cases, they both look alike. This is the Popperian diagram on how culture develops (left), and Darwin’s own diagram in The Origin of Species, as we have explained in a previous post (Popper, 1994, p. 62).

    Evolutionary CultureSpeciation According to Darwin

  2. This first problem leads to a second problem: the confusion was that he established a strong analogy (there is that problem again!) between the Darwinian way which living beings evolve non-progressively, and the way culture evolves (Popper, 1994, pp. 60-62). Popper is correct when he says Darwin’s proposal excludes the concept of "progress". Since nature is a "blind watchmaker", it is not trying to "perfect" organisms, rather what organisms do is to survive or die depending on their genetic makeup, behavior, and environmental factors. But this is not true about culture. Yes, there are some cultural aspects which are non-progressive, but this is not true in cases such as science, philosophy, theology, or even fields such as art and literature. In fact, Popper recognizes some of this as deviation from Darwinism (Popper, 1994, pp. 63).
  3. Finally, the third problem: Popper does not establish a clear distinction (although it is confusingly there) among kinds of problems. For instance, he does recognize that at the level of unintelligent organisms, we can talk about "problems" and "solutions" to these "problems". For example, organisms in general have problems regarding survival. Not being able to survive is a "problem", which gene-mutation and natural selection "solve" by predisposing the organism’s brain or its structure to overcome the "problem". Yet, these "problems" are unlike those like these: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or the problem of how Mercury does not behave according to Newtonian theory, i.e. problems with no survival value.

    This problem is aggravated by the fact that even when Popper recognizes a teleology in culture, both unintelligent and intelligent organisms create an abstract World 3 (see previous post on these details).

If all of this is problematic for Popper, it is because of one thing. As we have seen in our previous post on memetics, culture is not Darwinian. And by establishing important exceptions to a Darwinian view, Popper is actually denying that culture is Darwinian without realizing it. However "alike" are the process of speciation among living beings, and cultural evolution, in reality culture is Lamarckian. Why? Here is the difference between Darwinian and Lamarckian. "Lamarckian" means that whatever the process is occurring, it has a purpose, a goal. "Darwinian" means the most quoted passage ever from Richard Dawkins:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (Dawkins, 1995, p. 133).

Of course, after those depressing words, there is a downer within us, but Dawkins has a point. Darwinism is an amoral process. We should not be surprised that we find instances of disgust when we look at nature and are puzzled at how much struggle and suffering can be engines for life and evolution. This is one of the reasons why Darwin could not conceive a Creator Who could be so cruel as to create a ichneumon wasp that would paralyze (but not kill) caterpillars, so that it could lay its eggs within them for its larvae to eat them alive.

Yet, there are many cultural aspects which are concerned with many rational and intelligent aspects of the problem-solving process: design of the economy to make it more effective, the best possible political process, concern with ethical acts, and so on. Nature may not be intelligently designed, but culture is.

This means that we have to understand the realm of culture in very different terms. Here is my suggestion, not exempt from problems, but I think it is the best philosophical direction to this discussion I can think of:

  • Let’s establish a difference between improper problems and proper problems. Improper problems are those which occur unintelligently in nature as "problem for survival" (be them genetic, environmental, or dealing with sexual appeal). Proper problems are those arising from culture, they are intelligently grasped, understood, and recognized, hence requiring intelligent solutions. Improper problems are Darwinian, while proper problems are Lamarckian.
  • Let’s assume, for our discussion Popper’s problem-solving scheme for culture, and avoid the misnomer "Darwinian".

From this perspective, I think that we can properly address the way we have culturally organized society.

Our Ethical Framework

We have already stated that the way organisms develop, and how Darwinian evolution works is essentially amoral. However, we, humans, are moral animals. Theologian John Haught, frequantly points out the difficulty of how amoral processes can give rise to moral beings. Yet, what do we mean by "moral beings" or by the term "amoral"? This needs to be clarified.

  • Amoral: a being or a process whose way of being or its operations are not concerned at all with the ethical values of "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", or "evil". The concepts of "virtue"and "vice" in an amoral being and in amoral operations are not determined at all by ethical values either.
  • Moral Being: a being whose way of behavior is determined by the values of "right", "wrong", "good", "bad", or "evil". The concepts of "virtue" and "vice" are determined by these values.

This is the consequence of being a rational animal, and also a result of the very complex way our brain is designed. When we discussed the way our brain developed as a result of the Darwinian process of exaptation, the article gives us a gist of how we became moral animals:

  1. The R-Complex is where all our basic and fundamental instincts reside. Without them, we wouldn’t have stimuli which are essential to every decision making.
  2. The limbic system is where primary emotions come in. As many labs and studies have shown extensively it is impossible to make rational decisions without emotions. The reason is that the limbic system gives the emotional twist to the instincts provided by the R-Complex, and it provides us with the faculty of empathy. Empathy lets us place ourselves in someone else’s shoes from an emotional standpoint. People without empathy are unable to have feelings of guilt or regret, which are psychologically necessary to develop a good and healthy moral sense.
  3. The neocortex lets us calculate, reason, and rationalize our behavior. It also processes higher level emotional processes. This helps us in the decision making, itself made possible by …
  4. The executive part of the brain, or the frontal lobes. This is the part of the brain where our consciousness (our "self" or our "ego") in the intuitive resides, where we make our decisions, where we actually project the consequences of our actions.

I’ve discussed this in more detail in another blog post in this series.

Without these parts of our brain originated through exaptation, we wouldn’t be able to be moral animals. We must not overestimate ourselves, though. We are not the only moral beings on Earth. Many other primates do share a lesser degree of moral sense: they can be predisposed biologically to be upset when they are lied to, or when there is adultery, or when a member of the group steals. There is a sense of "right" and "wrong" in them.

Of course, multilevel-group selection proposed by David Sloan Wilson and others can explain this perfectly: anything that erodes the trust of the group is rejected by that group. Also, moral behavior, especially with kin organisms within a group, is part of the whole system of solidarity and cooperation that makes a species survive.

For more information on this interesting subject go to http://evolutionofmorality.net.

Now, I have mentioned this notion of moral sense, a term used by David Hume and other philosophers to refer to that feeling or intuition of what is "right" or "wrong". If other animals have moral sense, it would seem that humans are not unique in that sense either. Some people have stated that it is no longer plausible to establish a significant difference between humans and the rest of the animals in terms of reason and morality.

Yet, I beg to differ. The rest of the animals, even those acting with moral sense, are unable to rationally reflect on what they are doing. In humans we find the fact that our brain has a recursive quality: not only am I thinking, but I am also aware that I am thinking, and that I am aware that I am aware that I’m thinking. As Descartes would say: even if I denied that I’m thinking, I’m still thinking. The cogito (our thinking activity) is an essential part of human consciousness.

Due to this self-reflection, we are able to know that even our moral sense can be wrong from time to time. This is one of the great puzzles for those who wish to naturalize ethics. Dawkins said that sometimes we should go against our "selfish-genes" to do what is "right". Yet, he is unable to answer in purely naturalistic terms how do we know what is "right" and when to oppose our selfish genes. If we go to the multilevel group understanding of selection, not always the solidarity system established by organism can be said to be "right" regarding such and such individual. A behavior which alienates a member which a group considers the "odd" one can be beneficial in the amoral evolutionary process, but it is not said to be objectively good. Also, different forms of alienation within the groups (e.g. alienating either males or females, or the weak, or the less able) can be advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint, and yet it is not good from an ethical one.

Hence, we should distinguish between the moral and the ethical. An act is moral if it follows the uses and customs of a society. This might include uses and customs depending on biological dispositions, or adopted culturally by human society. An act is ethical, if it is inherently good. The field of ethics is precisely the one which investigates what is rationally which actions can be called good. This field is subdivided in three:

  • Metaethics: Imagine that some extraterrestrials from planet Melmac, the world of ALF (aka Gordon Shumway), sends a spaceship full of scientists and intellectuals … if that is possible in Melmac 😛 … to study and evaluate human behavior. Indeed they would use some rational principles to evaluate those behaviors (supposing that Melmacians are rational). These principles are the concern of metaethics. This is the field that investigates the rational principles which let us evaluate moral norms as being ethical or not.
  • Normative Ethics: This is the field which investigates ethical norms themselves, which should derive from principles investigated by metaethics.
  • Applied Ethics: Given that our experiences in the world does not lead us to "black or white" clear-cut decisions, applied ethics deals with the problem of prioritizing ethical norms in every day life. This can go from bioethics, to environmental ethics, to law, business, etc. Practically most ethicists are dedicated to this field.

There are also two different approaches to the subject of ethical behavior. One is called teleological ethics, that is, the ethical view that we should take a course of action due to the consequences in the long run. It is teleological because it has a goal external to our actions. Utilitarianism which is so praised in the Anglo-Saxon world is a form of teleological ethics.

The other approach is called deontological ethics, which is the ethical view that we should follow ethical norms because they themselves are good, they themselves are our only goal regardless of their consequences.

Each of these views has advantages and disadvantages. My approach from here on will be a deontological, that ethical norms should be followed because they good-in-themselves. This will give us the appropriate framework to discuss ethics within the complexities we find in every day life.

P.S. That you do not know about Planet Melmac???? That you have no idea who Gordon Shumway is (aka ALF)??!!! Here I post two videos to refresh your memory!


Dawkins, R. River out of Eden: a Darwinian view of life. US: Basic Books.

O’Hear, A. (1980). Karl Popper. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Popper, K. R. (1994). Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defence of interaction. London: Routledge.

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