On The Social Gene [2]


it was suggested by a reader, Mike Sibley,  that I develop the argument that I first posited in the Social Gene post. So here goes:

The orthodox free-marketeers view of human nature is that human beings are first and foremost self-conscious, self-interested, competing, rational individuals. Most thought experiments to define human nature place an imaginary human being in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, that sees them alone in a world of limited resources and thus at constant war with their fellow men & women.

It is argued that, because of the unavoidability of our self-interested human nature, for us to be “free” means being free to act as we wish without constraint and that deciding to care for other human beings is simply a self-interested choice like all other choices we make.

At the extremes true believers claim that, “there is no such thing as society” and that all non-commercial collective enterprises are necessarily oppressive of  our individual will and thus must be avoided and/or resisted at all costs.[1]

This belief system recognises that we live in a world of limited resources and that there has to be a mechanism for the distribution of these resources but claims that the state represents a restraining force that must be minimised (rather than an empowering representation of collective will), and that unfettered free-markets are the only way of guaranteeing a just distribution of the limited resources, individual freedom and productive relationships between self-interested individuals.

But these self-serving thought experiments pre-suppose the very state they are trying to prove and fly in the face of the unavoidable reality that the human ‘state of nature’ is first and foremost a social one and that the self-interested, rational individual that free-market theory presupposes simply doesn’t exist!

Biological evolutionary theory supposes that Homo Sapiens evolved from some previous species of primate and/or monkey. ALL known species of primates and monkeys live in societies of several (sometimes many) family groups – they are social animals. So it would be correct to say that human beings were social beings before they were even human.

As human beings we are born into a social situation. Indeed our very survival depends on that social situation. Without parents to provide direct support a human baby cannot survive beyond a few hours. Without a family & community to grow up in a human child cannot receive emotional succour and learn the inter-personal skills necessary for social living.

Throughout human history to be exiled from the company of our fellow human beings has been rightly regarded as an extremely dangerous and unpleasant experience. Sailors marooned on desert islands often went insane; religious hermits made isolation a central feature of their suffering; prison guards have known for millennia that the worst punishment is to put a prisoner in solitary confinement; in recent years we have been horrified to discover children who have been brought up completely isolated in cellars and hidden rooms. In the overwhelming majority of cases isolation from the society of our fellows severely damages human beings. We have not evolved to live that way.

Thus the basic position of Socialism is an ontological one. We do not (initially) make claims about how the world should be; we simply aim to describe the human world as it is. The overwhelming evidence is that human beings are designed (by evolution or God, whichever you prefer) to be social creatures. We do not have a choice in this. It is simply how it is.

It is a basic philosophical tenet that “should implies can”. Thus when applying moral criteria to real-life situations we can only claim that a person should take a particular action if it is possible for them to do so.

Thus the Socialist description of the fundamentally social nature of lived human experience challenges the contemporary Liberal orthodoxy that assumes that human beings are first & foremost autonomous individuals who make more or less rational choices, based in self-interest.

One could go further and argue that the Liberal concept of the individual is incoherent and self-defeating because the concept of the individual is in fact a social concept. The concept of the individual only makes sense if contrasted with the group. Thus by definition the individual only exists as part of the group.

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Successful social living depends on being able to, more or less, accurately predict the behaviour of others in given circumstances. In other words social living requires normative social codes of behaviour. ALL social animals have normative codes of social behaviour.[2]

In all social animals these social codes are largely learnt rather than innate behaviour. It is clear from the stories of wild children, for example, that human children who survive without intimate human contact in their formative years do not develop social skills and indeed many find it difficult to learn them even when brought back into human society. The children brought up by wild animals (Wolf Children for example) learn the social codes of the creatures they are brought up by.[3]

A Naturalistic philosophical view would argue that the necessary normative codes of behaviour required for social living are the basis of what we now call moral codes. If accepted this can lead to the conclusion that morality is part of what it is to be human. This refutes the idea that without God there can be no morality and also refutes the idea that we need a rational abstract justification for morality such as A Theory Of Justice by John Rawls. On the contrary to both of them we can say that without normative codes of behaviour (morality) there can be no humanity.

This is not to deny that human beings are the most intellectually and culturally sophisticated species on the planet and that we do not as individuals ever make rational choices. The evolution of language, abstract thought and self-consciousness has allowed us to develop our intellects, technology and social interactions in a way not seen in any other species. But we are still ultimately social animals and we still need normative social codes that allow us to predict the behaviour of other members of the social group. To function as a species we have to have some form of normative code of behaviour \for human beings morality is not optional.

For most mentally healthy human beings pleasing their peer group is far more important than being right, or even being an individual. The entire fashion industry, even the concept of fashion, works on the basis that we all express our individuality by dressing like everyone else! Even groups on the edges of society like Goths or EMO’s express their difference by dressing like everyone else in the fringe group. The vast majority of choices we make are not made rationally on the basis of our own wants and needs, on the contrary the vast majority of our choices are made on the basis of whether others will approve.

There has recently been much gnashing of teeth over the concept of “group think”, the idea that within organisations people often publicly agree with the majority while privately doubting the wisdom of the policy. As a result of “group think” policies often get enacted that many involved in the decision knew to be unwise. “How can this be?” Cry the liberals, “We are all rational, free individuals, why did people not speak out?” Well, duuuuur, because first & foremost we are not individuals, we are social creatures whose very survival depends on remaining at the centre of the pack.

But it is true that there is a significant difference between human beings and other social animals and that is that in human society the exact nature of the normative moral codes so essential for social living is in our own hands – we can and do think about it; then we can and do talk about it; then we can, and almost always do, disagree about it.

And so the cultural dialectic is born as individuals and groups within societies try to come to some sort of ‘shared meaning’ or ‘moral consensus’ on the normative social values (morals) they wish to live by.

This idea of a perpetual cultural dialectic is also important in defending Socialism against the criticism that it is an inherently oppressive theory.

Critics of Socialism suggest that by placing the authority for moral codes in the majority ‘shared meanings’[4] and ‘moral consensus’ of communities, rather than the conscience of individuals or in an ‘objective’ theory of justice like Rawls’, there is a danger that minority and individual voices will be drowned out by the unthinking majority. It is claimed that a universal objective theory of justice is required to ensure the freedom of all.

I would reply to this criticism in two principle ways:

(i) That a universal ‘objective’ theory of morality/justice is simply not possible. That all theorists are culturally context-bound and ALL theories are thus built upon assumptions that are inherent in the cultural context that the theorist works within.

(ii) In the attempt to create the objective perspective so valued by liberal theorists the theories themselves have to become so abstract and theoretical that they become instrumentally useless in the real-world.

(iii) Within and between communities there is, and always has been, a constant process of assessment and reassessment of the cultural and moral values we choose to live by. The cultural and moral values of communities are not static, “Nothing ever is; It is always becoming”[5], – especially in periods of crisis and change. Often when physical or cultural circumstances change the ‘shared meanings’ of a community are not sufficient to guide how individuals or the community at large should react to the change, so new ‘shared meanings’ have to be developed and open discussion where the expert[6] knowledge of individuals can be pooled is crucial to the success of this process of redefinition.

Thus we might go so far as to say that dissent from majority ‘shared meanings’ and ‘moral consensus’ is crucial to the success of the process of cultural dialogue. Expert individuals can often predict outcomes that cannot be understood by the majority. In the interests of their communities and their own, shared interests these dissident expert individuals have a duty to convey this information to the community, even if their ideas conflict with the current moral consensus. In order to thrive and react to changing circumstances communities need dissent[7]; In order to thrive communities have to allow open debate and discussion.

Indeed, history shows us that when individuals or small elites want to take or maintain power the first thing they must do is stop open debate. But such oppression is not based on a theoretical denial of the liberal concept of freedom, it is a pragmatic strategy to gain control over the ‘shared meanings’ of a community in order to manipulate the community to do the biddings of the ruler or ruling elite.

Solzhenitsyn, was not a direct threat to the Soviet regime as an individual; he did not possess a nuclear weapon, or command an army, or hold the President captive. No, the threat from Solzhenitsyn was the impact his ideas would have on the rest of the community. Power was being maintained by a dual strategy of fear and misinformation. Solzhenitsyn’s truth contradicted the lies of the regime and his courage was an example of how to respond to their oppression, this is why he was regarded as a threat, because his example could inspire others to act against the interests of the ruling elite.

One does not need a liberal theory of justice to celebrate Solzhenitsyn’s actions or to condemn the Soviet regime; one merely has to have a basic level of human empathy (see below).

So what I am describing here is a form of dynamic cultural dialectic that recognises that the ‘shared meanings’ and ‘moral consensus’ of communities and societies are never fixed but are constantly under a dialectical process of review and that dissent is as valuable in this process as consensus.[8]

And again I would argue that this dynamic, dialectical cultural transmission that I am describing is an ontological theory. What I mean by that is that I am attempting to describe the world as it is, not theorising on how it should be.[9]

Therefore I am not arguing that my interests as an autonomous, thinking individual should correspond with the interests of my community, I am arguing that they simply do, whether I like it or not.

The argument would run something like:

  1. I am born with empathy for and a mutual dependence upon members of my community.
  2. To see them harmed will harm me emotionally (because of my empathy towards them) and materially because harm to them harms our mutual interdependence and shared interests.
  3. To avoid that mutual harm it will be in my survival interests to protect myself AND other members of my community.

I am a human being born into a specific cultural context and to a significant degree my wants & needs and even my ability to think and act autonomously have been prescribed by that cultural context and my interests are inextricably linked with the interests of my community in a myriad of complex and interdependent ways. To deny this is to deny a significant part of the lived reality of being human.

These are normative, generalised claims about human nature and as thinking individuals it is, to a degree[10], possible for us to act contrary to the norms of our species – and often it would be in our rational self-interest to do so; in a world where everyone is honest a liar would have great advantages over their fellows.[11]

However, it is arguable that human beings who ONLY try to satisfy their own desires become (or already are) mentally ill. People who live entirely hedonistic lives based in satisfying only their own desires often become alienated from society and suffer from problems such as addiction, paranoia, hypochondria and other forms of social and mental malfunction.

Vast acres of psychological, spiritual and religious literature, and millennia of lived experience, have led most who have reflected on the matter to conclude that for human beings mental health and well-being necessarily entails taking into account, and providing for, the needs and wants of others.

So for most of us over longer periods of time our biologically determined social natures will inevitably lead us to try and be part of a community by taking into account the wants & needs of others. But on the one hand we also want to satisfy our own self-centred needs & wants which often conflict with the needs & wants of others BUT one of our wants & needs is the need to belong to a community which requires us to take into account the needs and wants of others.

Frustratingly it appears that our biologically determined human nature is paradoxical and as thinking self-conscious individuals we are still left, despite our biologically determined social nature, with the question, “Why, in this specific situation, should I not act purely in my own interests?” or to put it the other way round, “Why, in this specific situation, should I take into account the needs & wants of others?”

I think that in the real world universal ‘moral truths’ are very few and far between and that in a biologically determined human social world ideas of all kinds, (social, scientific, moral, and aesthetic) are constantly being reviewed, debated and updated and that is the point of public discourse.

The free-marketeers seem to think that these conservations are dangerously oppressive and that free markets take away the need for that cultural dialectic, that the mechanism of the market tells us directly what people want and is thus just. BUT only if as they claim we are first and foremost competing, selfish, rational individuals – which we are not!

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

corporate democracy economics freedom left-wing libertarian managerialism moral philosophy politics radical socialist society


[1] Commercial activities are clearly collective and require cooperation but the free-marketeers claim that this commercial type of social activity is solely motivated by self-interest (wages and/or profit) and is therefore different from non-commercial collective activity.

[3] See Savage Girls And Wild Boys : A History Of Feral Children Michael Newton, Faber. 2002.

[4] For a definition of ‘shared meanings’ see Communitarianism And It’s Critics By Daniel Bell. Oxford University Press USA 1993.

[5] Michel De Montaigne: The Complete Essays. Trans/Ed: M. A. Screech. Penguin Classics. 2003.

[6] I am using the word ‘expert’ here to mean anyone with specific skills and knowledge that gives them an insight that will not initially be shared by the majority. So any individual could be an ‘experts’ depending on the circumstances but the term certainly includes scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers and politicians.

[7] See Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2003)

[8] It could be argued that just as the concept of the individual is meaningless without being contrasted with the group, similarly implicit in the concept of consensus is the concept of dissent. i.e. without discussion between competing dissenting views genuine consensus cannot be achieved. Which is also a communitarian argument for an informed electorate; if the cultural dialectical process is to work effectively the community as a whole has to have access to relevant information and has to have the emotional and intellectual skills to assess that information in an effective way.

[9] This is an important point because much of what passes for moral debate is in fact a debate about how the world actually is. For example if I actually, 100%, believed that there was an all powerful, omnipresent God, who had decreed that abortion was murder, and that as a result abortionists and all those who aid them will be damned to an eternity in the fires of hell, then I would be obliged to try to prevent as many abortions as I could, both in the interests of the abortionists and myself, because as sure as eggs is eggs I don’t want to spend eternity in the fires of hell either. So when a non-believer argues with me about the morality of my actions they are completely missing the point. This isn’t a decision for me to make, God has decreed it! So the only way they will convince me to change my view is to convince me that God did not in fact make this decree. In which case we could then discuss the matter on the terms they are trying it to discuss it i.e. using reason to balance the pro’s & cons of abortion.

[10] Individual free will and the moral choices we face and the moral decisions we take are necessarily contextuated within our social nature.

[11] The Ricky Gervais film The Invention Of Lying (2009) is based on exactly this premise.

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2 responses to “On The Social Gene [2]

  1. Thanks for writing this up Chris. I suppose that I might summarise by arguing that we are all social animals, and the question is not whether there is a society, but the nature of the relationships which govern it, and the ways in which we all regulate our behaviour. The right wing view that we should all be left to get on being individuals not only misses the point (as you say) but leads to a very inefficient, uncaring, and brutal world which is a worse world for everyone, even the minority with the lavish material wealth.

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