Chris Noble over at The Noble Pundit has functionally agrees with my position on the usefulness of education, but takes issue with my foundational explanation (after saying a bunch of nice stuff about me).

He then continues on to assert that man is inherently evil and that we are so because we are selfish (among other reasons). I disagree.

For a long time, I have believed that man was inherently good. We didn't always act on our goodness, but by and large, we were good. I've spent the last three or four days trying to reconcile man's goodness with his actions and have actually, to an extent, readjusted my position. Man isn't born pure and then corrupted. No, man is born in a neutral state (tabula rasa) and everything from there on is acquired by a form of education or conditioning.

The idea that a human mind is born as a "blank slate" onto which anything can be written by the pen of experience was first advanced by one of my favorite philosophers, John Locke. However, modern cognitive psychology does not support such a belief, and Steven Pinker recently published a quite convincing refutation of the theory, titled "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature". (Pinker is also a brilliant linguist; although he is a disciple of Chomsky, he does not appear to share Chomsky's socialist/communist politics. In "The Blank Slate" Pinker condemns the horrendous application of the blank slate concept by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.)

There is no denying that environmental factors influence human psychological development, but that development does not occur in a biological vacuum; human brains are inherently wired for certain behaviors that do not vary under any set of controls (such as language). Pinker elaborates in great detail, and although I do not concur with all of his materialist beliefs I still highly recommend the book. For more on "The Blank Slate", please refer to this entry on Everything2.

Chris then goes on to describe a sort of "social evolution".

One of the underlying assumptions of this position is that the basics of being human - those first things we learn after we're born - are subject to Darwinian evolution. Traits that are good for mankind, like societies, religion, conscience, and laws will expand and evolve. Traits that are bad, like racism, murder, and theft will eventually wither away to near extinction (I'm not crazy enough to believe that they will ever die off entirely).

However, social evolution is quite a controversial subject, and there is no scientific support for Chris' assertions that racism, murder, and theft are bad from a survival standpoint. There are a great many circumstances in which racism, murder, theft, rape, deception, psychosis, and many other despicable behaviors are quite beneficial to an individual and his genes. Consider the animal world that is ungoverned by culture, and you will see instances of all of these. One of the most fascinating problems in artificial intelligence is explaining how culture can work to suppress these clearly beneficial strategies. I have mentioned a few papers on the topic previously, but no one has yet devised a sustainable scenario that explains the suppression of cultural free-riders. (The issue is quite complicated, because those individuals who act to punish free-riders incur a cost to do so that isn't distributed back to the society as a whole -- creating meta-free-riders.)

Chris then goes on to discuss the many benefits of selfishness.

Capitalism has been far and away the closest to the ideal economic system that has ever been devised by mankind. It does more to provide for our needs than any of the other variations of control economies have. Capitalism is based on people selling what other people want. But why do some people sell their time, their labor, or their resources to others?

Because they're selfish. They think that whatever the buyer is offering, be it cows and chickens in the ancient barter systems or cash in the modern economy, is worth more than the item that their selling. They want to possess the most possible value because it will give them the best standard of living. They don't care a whit about the other party involved; they're acting on pure selfish, hoarding motives.

He's quite right. As all of my readers should know, I'm an ardent capitalist. However, I think Chris misses the underlying issue: capitalism is the most efficient economic form precisely because humanity is selfish; capitalism balances my selfishness against yours.

However, if no one were selfish, capitalism and competition would be a waste. If everyone could be trusted to function altruistically, the ideal structure for society would be either anarchy (assuming broad information flow) or benevolent dictatorship. A society of altruistic anarchists could certainly out-produce a society of selfish capitalists, but as the old joke goes: "A smart blond and the tooth fairy are walking down the street, and they see a penny. Who picks it up? The tooth fairy, because the smart blond doesn't exist." Immediate families often operate as altruistic anarchies -- and they function quite efficiently -- but the structure doesn't scale, due to selfishness.

So although I agree with Chris that capitalism is the best we can do, that best is predicated on humanity's selfishness and inherent evil.

And freedom is best protected by those who are reasonable and selfish about their freedom. For a reasonable and selfish person will understand that to protect the most individual freedom, it is necessary to have equitable rules for all.

Be selfish for the common good.

Freedom would be best protected by an altruistic society, but unfortunately that don't exist and never will -- because we're evil.

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Michael has assembled a great defense of the fundamental argument for the selfishness of mankind in response to a post by Chris Noble. This is one of those topics that keeps coming up in my discussion with friends, co-workers and... Read More



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