Archives for posts with tag: Herbert Spencer

I’ve seen a number of attacks on “empathy” recently, even a book, Against Empathy. I usually get a few sentences into one of these exercises in counter-narrative and shrug.

They seem a bit like the resentments of jilted lovers: the denigration comes from dashed love. Or else it’s just wanton contrarianism.

But what is the error? Let me guess. Perhaps too much is made of empathy, these days. Maybe because we live in an intellectually stilted, post-modern era, empathy has been forced by our cultural narrowness and the general lack of humanistic education to serve beyond its natural capacity.

Empathy isn’t everything in psychology or ethics. But it is something. Perhaps two or three somethings.

My working model, since my earliest philosophical speculations (adaptations from Plato, Aristotle, Smith, Spencer, et al.), has been that empathy is pretty important. A cardinal virtue, even.

In my old schema, it is the other-regarding virtue of our emotional life, a check on unbalanced temper as it applies to others, or even oneself conceived objectively (especially one’s self as conceived at a distant time, past or future).

But it is not justice. It is not truthfulness. (My two other other-regarding cardinal virtues.) They are linked, as are all the virtues, but a person can excel at one and be deficient in others.

And like all the virtues, a person may likely be born with an aptitude for some but not others. That is, a person can take naturally to one virtue, but be clumsy (at best) about others. Why, I’ve even known folks to be reflexively just in their social dealings, but almost congenitally imprudent. (Prudence being the self-regarding virtue of the active life.)

A person possessing empathy but lacking justice can be dangerous, to self and others. Indeed, one might define human moral error as an imbalance of the virtues, a lack of the full set. Maybe the vice at the heart of what we call the “moralistic” is the mania that results from cultivating one virtue to the exclusion of others.

So empathy isn’t everything. It certainly is not love, or faith, or hope (none of which are cardinal virtues to my reckoning, two perhaps not being virtues at all).

Empathy also is not prudence, or temperance, or the savviness with concepts that, for want of a better word, I call wisdom.* Empathy’s earliest serious investigators, Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, who discussed its importance under the name “sympathy,” never assumed or even implied it was.

But empathy’s lack of status as the be-all and end-all of sociality or personal development or ethics does not mean it is nothing, or even “not much.”


* My old list of cardinal virtues is not traditional. They are all mentioned, above, but here they are in order:


Gad Saad, the evolutionary scholar who has devoted his career to explaining consumer behavior, celebrated Charles Darwin’s birthday with a new “Saad Truth” video:

Professor Saad is one of my favorite arguers, interviewers, and monologists on YouTube. I like almost all of his online contributions, and am head-over-heels for not a few of them.

Alas, this is not up to his usual stellar standards.

He defends evolutionary theory against its many unlearned critics. Many of whom have the temerity to attack his evolutionism on Twitter and similar venues. But there are problems as to how — not that — he has done so.

Full disclosure: I am on his side. I do not see how evolution cannot be the basic view of life. But I admit: I did not really believe it until after I had abandoned theistic belief. (I exited the fold of believers, long ago, for scientific and rational reasons that were tangential to evolutionary theory proper. Psychology was a major concern, however. I abandoned a supernaturalistic explanation for all the human behavior I witnessed, and after that it proved too difficult to maintain any sort of theism. I moved to incredulity, coupled with curiosity.) But in this video he spends most of his time engaging in ad hominem arguments and the argument from authority.

img_2320Which is not wholly disreputable. It is sometimes legitimate to attack the motivations and character and methods of those one disagrees with. Sometimes it is this practice, more than rational argument, that proves the only thing carable of nudging some folks out of dogmatic slumbers.

Similarly, appeals to authority (which the professor also marshaled) are not wholly out of line. When we suggest that experts generally support some conclusion or another, those who doubt the conclusion should take pause.

But there is no logical reason to side with authorities. Authorities can be, and often are, wrong.

I can cite many cases.

But all this is moot. The reason the vast majority of biologists and allied scientists support evolutionary explanations is that these explanations are the best we have available, and the alternatives just do not seem very persuasive. If you bracket out religion, especially religious motivation, from the picture.

And Saad is quite right, the standard charge that “evolution is only a theory” is silly in the extreme. First, it is not true: evolution is not “only a theory.” And second, there are a lot of now universally accepted truths that we ordinarily view primarily as theories, since our everyday perceptions would indicate that Occam’s Razor better slices in a completely different direction.

Example? Flat Earth. It is not the spherical planet theory that seems to make sense in terms of normal, everyday experience. One must broaden one’s experience (say, fly in a jet, or travel on the open seas) and engage in some tricky mental operations (noting the round and apparently spherical character of heavenly bodies, the disappearance first of ship and then of shipmasts at the horizon, etc.) to see that a spheroid Earth better describes terrestrial shape.

Most creationists, today, seem uninterested in the vast evidence gathered by geology and paleontology. Most of which backs up the evolutionary approach. But once you begin to engage in hands-on work with rock and fossils, and then look at the huge collections of fossilized life and their origin in geological strata, then the creationist and “intelligent design” quibbles are eclipsed by the huge mass of accumulated evidence, and evolution becomes pretty darn obvious.

One of the best early arguments for the facticity of evolution was written nearly a decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species, and was acknowledged by him (along with many other precursors) in a later volume of the work. That argument is “The Development Hypothesis,” by Herbert Spencer.

“Aha!” exclaim the creationists. “You admit, it is less than ‘just a theory’ — it is a mere hypothesis!”

No. I encourage a reading of the actual text. For, as one quickly learns, even seven years prior to Darwin’s explanation of speciation, Spencer made a quite convincing case. “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by the facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.” As Darwin wrote in the Historical Sketch preceding later editions of his first ground-breaking work, Spencer makes the case with “remarkable skill and force.” If one looks at facts further away from one’s normal pathway between work and home, one sees that the case for evolution is quite clear. Even sans the Darwinian advance.

The only real reason (from what I can tell) that anyone puts any stock at all in the theory of special creation is the result of being “born to a given belief” — that is, because they accept certain ancient beliefs in the supernatural, beliefs that they find comforting or exalting or in some other way psychologically attractive.

For my part, those ancient beliefs seem not in the tiniest bit persuasive. The people who first advanced them, and the books that they produced, were not at all conducive to rational thought. Doubt and incredulity and curiosity were not attitudes they sought to inculcate. Instead, they promoted dogma and something called “faith.” They were engaging in a mythological mode, intent on fulfilling purposes other than careful inquiry. None of their writings gives off the odor of reliable reportage.

Let us move on. To the next step. The fact of evolution is one thing. The explanatory principles are another. And, yet further, the extrapolations from those principles, and their applications to other questions not directly and obviouosly related to the long course of evolution, are different yet.

Darwin helped many believe the first aspect of the problem — the actual occurrence of the development of life over many, many thousands and millions of generations of living beings — by providing a startling set of principles that helps explain how organisms adapt to environments, and, over time, change structures and behaviors so that the natures of the descendants are remarkably distinct from that of their ancestors.

There are a lot of “theories” involved at every level, here. But it is not as if the initial speculations have not been backed up by later accumulations of evidence. And while it is also true that some evidence has falsified some aspects of Darwin’s (and, more obviously, Spencer’s) notions, this is not cause for alarm — evolutionary science has itself evolved, adapting to newly discovered facts, modifying to reflect reality. Increment by increment.

Creationism, on the other hand, has mostly been restricted to apologetics, to bolstering up received notions. The expansion of its “research program” has not given us many (any?) useful new insights, much less promising avenues for further exploration. And, unlike evolutionary science, it has not produced useful technological advances in medicine or anything else.

But evolutionists have.

The distant past is difficult to explain, since it is indeed long past — and we naturally enough lack direct access to the facts of the past, especially before living memory, and most especially before the human record, reliable or not. And yet, we do possess the geological record; we also understand (in part) the astronomical context, the rapidly expanding information about genetics and epigenetics, and the massive evidence of a diversity of beings distributed throughout the world (in patterns that suggested to Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin a difficult-but-powerful idea, natural selection).

And the people Gad Saad calls morons and Dunning-Kruger-affected nincompoops? They think they understand creationism. But they do so mainly on faith, or by metaphor — they still are infat Yates with Priestley’s found artifact. The Argument from Design. But they have no real grasp of even their own theory, for, as Spencer explained,

This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. It is not that they can truly conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, but that they think they can do so. Careful introspection will show them that they have never yet realized to themselves the creation of even one species.

Of course, “careful introspection” is not something everyone has a knack for. And it is certainly not something that our schoolmasters and institutions have spent much effort in inculcating.

I quote this passage not only because it is relevant to the folks Gad Saad laments and pillories. It helps to explain their error. And, on a personal note, it was with careful introspection that I started the intellectual journey that has not yet ended, but has led me to positions not too far from Professor Saad’s.

Yes, I came up from the ranks of [what Saad sadly thinks of as] the Yahoos. It was an ascent, if not an evolution. But, like an evolutionist, I never really stop trying to understand my ancestors. Which includes my very own past self.

And, we must remember, that the greater nescience of others is tragic not because of what they do not know, but because they do not know that they lack important knowledge. For the rest of us, our growing knowledge is comic: as science expands, the surface where knowledge meets nescience also expands, and we know more and more of how much we do not yet know. Knowledge increases, but so does the realm of the known unknowns.



An “Inclusionist” contra Liberty


In 2011*, Psychology Today presented us with a screed against libertarianism, an absurd array of cliché and error. All this from a man who — to judge by his credentials — should know better. He is an academic who specializes in complexity theory. Yet he seems entirely unaware of the importance that complexity has played in the development of ideological individualism.

It becomes painfully obvious that the author of this sad screed did not do much research. Indeed, the author appears not to understand that his central case against libertarianism was the case for liberty in the classic writings of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer.

Here is the most relevant passage:

We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses (as Darwin himself pointed out in The Descent of Man).

Well, yes. As Adam Smith “himself” pointed out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments over a hundred years earlier, and as Herbert Spencer elaborated in many of his books, most especially the Principles of Ethics. Darwin was not advancing a wholly new thesis. He was developing a theme already well-established among his contemporaries. It was, in fact, “settled science.”

Yes, I know, of course: the word “empathy” hadn’t been coined yet. Eighteenth and 19th century writers used “sympathy.” Smith and Spencer were the leading theorists of sympathy in their respective centuries. Their work was well known, and, if a modern sociologist or psychologist appears oblivious, it is usually the result of never having read Smith and Spencer. Few modern sociologists have bothered with Spencer, for instance, since Talcott Parsons pronounced his reputation “dead” in the first pages of The Structure of Social Action. (Later in his career Parsons revived many of Spencer’s ideas, but without citation, without any recognition of what he was doing.)

Herbert Spencer was the first evolutionary psychologist — though this is rarely acknowledged by today’s EP crowd. They do not need to burden themselves with a reputation declared toxic. But Spencer advanced a very complex theory of complexity. And it encompassed ideas his critics pretend are theirs — but usually Spencer’s treatment is more sophisticated.

Consider the obsession with inclusion, which is now the official focus of campus radical ideology, a watchword of the cult of “social justice.” (Spencer wrote merely of justice, and Hayek later followed in his footsteps to criticize social justice as a “mirage.”) Spencer called the inclusionary and loyalty aspects of human cooperation “the ethics of amity,” in the first chapters of The Inductions of Ethics. What our critic misses is what all modern progressives shield from their eyes: in parallel to this in-group allegiance exists a chthonian out-group antagonism, which is just as much a part of our evolutionary heritage empathy and the general sense of cooperativeness.

Spencer called this contrasting set of historically demonstrated imperatives “the ethics of enmity.”

Throughout the history of human civilization, the ethics of enmity has had a huge part in the foundation and structure of social systems. It is inevitable in eras of vast social conflict. And it has always uneasily existed in parallel to loftier, more charitable-sounding pronouncements of amity. And what the liberal tradition — modern libertarianism, especially, which in a sense grew out of Spencer’s work —always tried to do was solve the problems of human discord by rationalizing the terms for peace, making the standards of justice public and limited to a few tasks, mainly regulating when force can be used in society. And the key contribution of this form of individualism, not addressed anywhere in our critic’s analysis, has become the bedrock position of the modern libertarian position: the same standards that apply to individuals must apply to groups of individuals, including people working in the State.

For it is not just selfishness that morality and law must contend with as criminal, but group frenzy and tribalistic suppression of individuals, as well as group-to-group antagonism.

Liberalism, like libertarianism, is an attempt to minimize and control the impulse to go to war, in part by limiting the number of issues over which force may legitimately be used.

Liberty, in the libertarian system — as, more loosely in the classical liberal order of an extended civilization — serves as the moderating middle-point, a marker of equilibrium, among competing interests. It is a constraint not only on the excesses of egoistic self-serving at the expense of one or all others, it also serves as the rational regulator (in rule-of-law terms, in Weber-speak, it possesses rational-legal authority) of in-group/out-group antagonisms. It constrains communal misbehavior as well as individual misbehavior.

From our critic, no peep about this possibility. He appears to be a utopian, hinting that group action is pristine, placing human sin entirely in the “selfishness” category. Blink after reading, and see: the man has a limited view of human nature, apparently thinking that only selfishness is an evil.

To believe this is to be a fool. And a tyrant, perhaps, at heart.

There is one excuse the man could marshal, to explain his witless and inaccurate take-down: Ayn Rand. She muddied things up with “egoism” and “the virtue of selfishness.”

Combined with the author’s Econ 101ish misunderstanding of the place of Homo economicus in market theory, his calumny makes sense . . . in terms of the filiation of his ideas.

But this set of intellectual errors does not justify — cannot be justified— for Liberty is all about constraining both selfish criminality in the individual and the “altruistic” horrors perpetrated by mass man and his obsession with hierarchies.

And the author’s closing gambit is droll, in the context of debate about liberty:

A more serious concern is that the libertarian fixation with individual freedom distracts us from the underlying biological purpose of a society.  The basic, continuing, inescapable problem for humankind, as for all other living organisms, is biological survival and reproduction.

When Herbert Spencer is acknowledged for his extended analysis in this vein (that our critic suggests), he is derided, declared a Social Darwinist.

The level of cluelessness here is astounding.

This particular hit piece popped into my consciousness as a Facebook posting, a blast from the past. Belatedly, I bite. It is a good example of barely intellectual nonsense that academic folks periodically bring out, to  beat back, if they can, skepticism about the nature and functions of the State. They really dislike skepticism about the State, and basically freak out when confronted with an ideology that encourages resistance to allegiance to the modern state, in part by frankly discussing the perils as well as difficulties associated with collective action. The modish progressive, today, looks at “inclusion” as a solution, not as a problem also meant to be solved by the institutions of a free society.

The original draft of this essay appeared on the Herbert Spencer’s Shade Facebook page.




Representative Government


Many to One


From my Facebook page devoted to Herbert Spencer’s “camp,” to which I belong, as did the page’s patron philosopher, George Santayana.

Humility is the best policy. It’s either all-too-apt, or an instance of being on the high end of the Dunning-Kruger skills continuum.

It’s better to be thought of at that high end, and overzealously self-deprecating, than actually at the low end of the continuum and comporting oneself as an ass.

I’m thinking of a new judgmental trap, however: The Dunning Macleod Effect. I name it after economist H. Dunning Macleod, of course.

10672307_833793376655015_7764855380977681825_nMacleod was one of his time’s most lucid writers on economics. He was also fantastically knowledgeable about the history of the science and the practice of finance — far in excess of most of his better-thought-of contemporaries. He knew what he knew, too. No false humility. But this self-knowledge not only encouraged him to make some important and quite sensible claims that ran completely contrary to the accepted paradigm of his day, it also emboldened him to think that every one of his paradigm-shifting notions was just as valuable as the rest. And he was occasionally wrong — sometimes spectacularly so; more often he got close to the truth, and then veered off at the last moment, making his error more noticeable if not more intolerable.

Unfortunately, his self-confident iconoclasm signaled to his peers that they could safely ignore nearly everything he said, dismissing his good ideas along with the bad.

All most readers took from Macleod was his suggested name change for the discipline, from “political economy” to “economics.” That proved his only substantial legacy. Everything else that he was right about had to enter the tradition from other sources. (Though it is worth noting that Herbert Spencer’s best essay on economics, “State Tampering With Money and Banks,” was a review of one of Dunning Macleod’s many treatises, a notable expansion on his ideas.)

Thus the Dunning Macleod Effect: discouraging a necessary degree of self-criticism while encouraging hyper-criticism and even dismissal by others. It’s as if breaking a paradigm taboo uncorks the inner crank while corking up the staid status quo.

A great book about the political and economic nature of the Incan empire.

A great book about the political and economic nature of the Incan empire.

Yesterday, when not reading Democracy in America for one project, I scoured the Net, in service of other projects. A few interesting stories I stumbled upon:

  • A Phalanx of Lies,” by Mark Steyn. He identifies “government health care” as fundamentally redefining “the relationship between the citizen and the state into one closer to that of junkie and pusher.”
  • The Climate Inquisitor,” by Charles C. W. Cooke. This National Review Online story covers the Michael Mann libel suit against the above-mentioned Mark Steyn and NRO itself. I haven’t finished reading it, but it looks interesting enough to go back to. In my opinion, public intellectuals don’t get to sue each other over disagreements like this. Steyn has a great case in defense of the ludicrous lawsuit. And Mann should be ashamed of himself.
  • What Private Builders Build,” by Paul Jacob. I actually entered into the comments section of this short opinion piece. I used to do this a lot, commenting all over the Web, usually under my initials “TWV,” as here. Perhaps I don’t do this very often, any longer, because of a tendency on the Web for people to behave like anal openings, repeatedly spewing mean-spirited and poorly reasoned diatribes of a personal nature. I tried to move the discussion into a respectful territory, something to do with the facts of the history in question. But this sort of thing is probably futile. Haters gonna hate.

Interestingly, while grabbing text for this post, I just found on Paul Jacob’s site a great quotation from one of my favorite social philosophers, Herbert Spencer:

It is not … chiefly in the interests of the employing classes that socialism is to be resisted, but much more in the interests of the employed classes.… Under that compulsory cooperation which socialism would necessitate, the regulators, pursuing their personal interests with no less selfishness, could not be met by the combined resistance of free workers; and their power, unchecked as now by refusals to work save on prescribed terms, would grow and ramify and consolidate till it became irresistible. The ultimate result … must be a society like that of ancient Peru, dreadful to contemplate, in which the mass of the people, elaborately regimented in groups of 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000, ruled by officers of corresponding grades, and tied to their districts, were superintended in their private lives as well as in their industries, and toiled hopelessly for the support of the governmental organization.

Here we find an acknowledgment of the basic realism of Public Choice economics: that folks in government are as selfish as anyone else, and their behavior should be explained in similar terms as, say, “greedy” market participants. We also find a reference to Incan socialism, something I first encountered from conversation with the late R. W. Bradford, but later heard from French economists Yves Guyot and Louis Baudin. For more rumination on this subject, read my foreword to Laissez Faire Book’s recent re-publication of Baudin’s classic on the Inca empire. Or Mises’ introduction. Or, best yet, the book itself. It’s magnificent.

Well, I have to go back to reading De Tocqueville. But it’s not one of my random readings, as when I take up Evelyn Waugh or a science fiction author. Nope, this is part of actual work. Other books, for the next year, that add onto this project list include

  • Fiat Money Inflation in France, by Andrew Dickson White
  • The Man vs. The Welfare State, by Henry Hazlitt
  • On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
  • The Production of Security, by Gustave de Molinari
  • The Outcome of Individualism, by J. H. Levy

A great list of interesting books. I will no doubt write more about them, later.


July 1, 1858, the modern era began. Celebrate! Or “like” the Facebook page for “Herbert Spencer’s Shade.”

Stephan Kinsella, libertarian anarchist, has begun a series of polls on Facebook, starting with one asking libertarians to select their “biggest influence.”


How best to parse the different kinds of influence that people have had on your own thinking?

Robert Nozick’s first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, was the first libertarian book I read, not counting John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, or the Declaration of Independence. Nozick didn’t convince me of libertarianism, on that first reading, but he did

  1. Impress me that it was worth considering,
  2. Convince me that mainstream interventionism is a crock, and
  3. Solidify my basic approach to politics as that of establishing a framework for experiments in human betterment — that is, as constitutional, broadly speaking, and not that of piecemeal social engineering, today’s dominant model.

So Nozick was a huge influence. But I was not a libertarian — and even scoffed at the doctrine — for another three years.

When I finally got around to really considering libertarian ideas, I quickly read

  • Rothbard’s FOR A NEW LIBERTY and other books and essays
  • David Friedman’s MACHINERY OF FREEDOM

it was the latter book that made me realize how central and useful liberty was in solving the value diversity problem. I became a libertarian at that time.

But was Mises my biggest influence?

I was not convinced of a unitary method to doing social science. And in normative matters, I believed my new libertarian friends simplified too many problems out of existence, or didn’t fully confront issues of ideal and expediency in social change with any thoroughgoing method. They seemed careless, haphazard, and dogmatic all in one.

So when I found Herbert Spencer — who at least attempted to address such issues — I was impressed. I had pretty much set the tone of my political philosophy before ever reading one sentence of his works, and yet I felt such a respect for his aim, and for parts of his method, and for the breadth of his vision, that even today I list him as my major influence. And that’s who I selected for Kinsella’s poll.

But in a sense, reading Destutt de Tracy concurrently with Carl Menger taught me more about the theory of marginal utility than any other writer, though Rothbard and F.W. Taussig helped. But it was Destutt de Tracy’s errors as much as his successes in speculation that influenced me, more. And sometimes, as Nietzsche put it, the errors of great men are more important than the truths of little men. So, Bentham’s and Sidgwick’s errors were as important to my education as Spencer’s successes.

Among contemporary thinkers, philosophers Loren Lomasky and Jan Narveson are the two philosophers I feel closest to…. though they, too, didn’t influence me much, either. Same for Thomas Szasz, whose basic attitude towards liberty in society is so very close to mine: liberty is freedom from coercion (or “interference”) plus responsibility. And we live in a society where the division of responsibility has shifted away from individuals and towards groups. We live in a society of status, where my station and its duties define life, rather than in a society of contract, where one meets obligations and accepts and rejects new ones based on uncoerced action.

In looking over Kinsella’s list of possible influences, it is gratifying to see such a long one, and to note that no longer is it the case that “It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand.” I was an outlier in the libertarians of my generation, in not having read much Rand, and never having been influenced by her. My former boss R. W. Bradford (on the list! — and no, he was not an influence for my political philosophy) used to ridicule the idea that there could be libertarians like me. Because i was influenced by Nozick and Rothbard and even Tuccille, her influence of them meant I was influenced by her, if indirectly. But then, the same can be said for Isabel Paterson, who tutored Rand in liberty.

Bradford’s prioritization of Rand seemed strange to me. Why select her out as the one to be pumped up, when so many others meant more to me, and so many others influenced her?

And the gray eminence of Thomas Jefferson was there from my childhood; the green eminence of Henry David Thoreau; the deeply ironic and critical traditions of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets — all these counted as influences to my selection of freedom as paramount. A study of Church history surely didn’t help me admire men with power. And a reading of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, at age 16 — before I heard of Nozick — suggests to me that influences come from everywhere, at least for some of us, and just as King Arthur, on his last battlefield, realized that the problem was territory, borderlines, I realize, today, that selecting just one influence among many encourages just the kind of thinking that leads to political ruin. Diversity saves; diversity nurtures. The unitary idea prejudices young souls to accept the weird, twisted hierarchy of the State. Or accept one guru as one’s own cult’s Maximum Leader.

P.S. I really enjoyed Stephan Kinsella’s poll, in part because he included “obscure” figures and, apparently in jest, non-libertarians like “Gingrich,” “Clinton,” and “O’bama.”