Recommended books:
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    Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More From The Poor And From Ourselves
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    The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics
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    Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled
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    A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem
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    The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths To Political Convictions
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  • Justice and Its Surroundings (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    Justice and Its Surroundings (Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay)
    by Anthony de Jasay
  • The Myth of Morality (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy)
    The Myth of Morality (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy)
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    Reclaiming Education
    by James Tooley
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    Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World
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    For and Against the State
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    The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
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  • Moral Matters, second edition
    Moral Matters, second edition
    by Jan Narveson
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The White Man's Burden - Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

What do colonial imperialists, military interventionists, and foreign aid bureaucrats have in common? According to William Easterly, quite a lot. They are all in the grip of utopian ideas to transform foreign peoples according to some grand plan--to impose on "the rest" a blueprint for success that (supposedly) has worked for "the west". They are all what Easterly call "planners", which he contrast with "searchers": 


A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.


Military intervention and occupation aiming for "democratization", "regime change", or "nation building" show "a classic Planner’s mentality: applying a simplistic external answer from the West to a complex internal problem in the Rest". Planners in foreign aid setting grandiose goals such as "eliminate world poverty", "bring about world peace", and "save the environment" do no better.  


The Big Plans show remarkable bipartisan support from both the rich-world Left and the rich-world Right. The Left likes the idea of a big state-led effort to fight global poverty. The Right likes the idea of benevolent imperialism to spread Western capitalism and subdue opposition to the West.


Easterly examines the history of this approach and concludes:


Sixty years of countless reform schemes to aid agencies and dozens of different plans, and $2.3 trillion later, the aid industry is still failing to reach the beautiful goal. The evidence points to an unpopular conclusion: Big Plans will always fail to reach the beautiful goal.


The plan to end world poverty shows all the pretensions of utopian social engineering. Setting such abstract goals is irrational, Easterly insists, because there is no reason to assume that the goal is attainable at a reasonable cost with the available means. One of the key predictions about Planners that history confirms over and over is that "they keep pouring resources into a fixed objective, despite many previous failures at reaching that objective, despite a track record that suggests the objective is infeasible or the plan unworkable". History further shows that planners even escalate the scope of intervention when the previous intervention fails. These planners are in the grip of what James Payne, in his book Six Political Illusions (my review), called "the materialistic illusion". They end up "throwing money at problems" despite the fact that spending more money on something can have zero effect, or worse, even exacerbate the very problem one is trying to solve. Easterly cites Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, and Friedrich Hayek. These philosophers recognized the economic and political complexity of society. This complexity dooms any attempt to achieve the end of poverty through a big plan, and no rich society has ended their own poverty in this way. The key insight of Burke, Popper, and Hayek is that social and economic reality is so complex that any top-down reform that tried to change all the rules at once could only make things worse rather than better.


It is a fantasy to think that the West can change complex societies with very different histories and cultures into some image of itself. The main hope for the poor is for them to be their own Searchers, borrowing ideas and technology from the West when it suits them to do so.


Easterly understands that free markets work, but that free market reforms imposed from the outside often don’t. His slogan is "You can't plan a market". 


... introducing free markets from the top down is not so simple. It overlooks the long sequence of choices, institutions, and innovations that have allowed free markets to develop in the rich Western economies. Markets everywhere emerge in an unplanned, spontaneous way, adapting to local traditions and circumstances, and not through reforms designed by outsiders. The free market depends on the bottom-up emergence of complex institutions and social norms that are difficult for outsiders to understand, much less change.


Some people believe that "the market" is a western invention. This is nonsense, Easterly points out: "Any visit to an outdoor market in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America will quickly convince you that markets are vibrant in poor countries. Historical anecdotes suggest that these markets predated Western contact." The world’s poor do not have to wait passively for the West to "save" them (and they are not so waiting). The poor are their own best Searchers. Searchers in aid are already finding practical solutions that actually help the poor, and Easterly gives many good examples of such. He is confident that many more could be found if the balance of power in aid would be shifted from Planners to Searchers. You just have to do whatever you discover works with your modest resources to make a difference in the everyday lives of poor people. There are things that westerners can do to help, but western aid is not in general the answer.


Easterly debunks the legend that the poorest countries are stuck in a "poverty trap" from which they cannot escape without an aid-financed "big push". This was exactly the legend that gave birth to foreign aid in the 1950s and it is exactly the legend that the advocates of a massive aid increase are telling today. Statistically, countries with high aid are no more likely to take off than are those with low aid. Yet, the aid Planners keep pouring in aid resources with the fixed objective of stimulating higher growth, although evidence does not support an effect of aid on growth. The response to failure of previous interventions was to do even more intensive and comprehensive interventions. So why do the ineffective and counterproductive approaches to foreign aid continue decennium after decennium? 


In any human endeavor, the people paying the bills are the ones to keep happy. The big problem with foreign aid and other Western efforts to transform the Rest is that the people paying the bills are rich people who have very little knowledge of poor people. The rich people demand big actions to solve big problems, which is understandable and compassionate. The Big Plans at the top keep the rich people happy that “something is being done” about such a tragic problem as world poverty.


"Big plans are attractive to politicians, celebrities, and activists who want to make a big splash, without the Western public realizing that those plans at the top are not connected to reality at the bottom." Aid agencies are rewarded for setting goals rather than reaching them, since goals are observable to the rich-country public while results are not. Aid managers at the top are thus free to promise everything without feedback from or accountability to those who are supposed to benefit from the aid. 


Easterly's book is not suggesting a simple recipe for success. Indeed, it argues that no recipe exists, "only a confusing welter of bottom-up social institutions and norms essential for markets. These evolve slowly on their own from the actions of many agents; the Western outsiders and Planners don’t have a clue how to create these norms and institutions."


Instead of the State: Five Books on Private Provision of Five Central Government Functions

It is often assumed that if government didn't provide a certain good or service, no one would. The five books below challenge this common assumption with regard to five different areas in which the role of government is often taken to be essential: education, welfare, environmental protection, criminal justice, and monetary institutions. It is argued not only that these things could in each case be (and historically have been) provided privately and voluntarily, but also that private provision would increase quality, efficiency, and accountability, in addition to being more just. 


1. James Tooley: Reclaiming Education

James Tooley is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Newcastle. In this interesting book, he makes a powerful case for reclaiming education from the state and giving it back to the private sector, to markets and civil society. Tooley argues for this, not from some narrow ideological perspective, nor on the basis of some controversial normative premises such as that choice is always valuable in itself, or that parents have the unconditional moral right to decide for their own children. Instead, he argues from premises that ought to be acceptable even to his opponents. He claims to give his opponents what they say they want, but without relying on the government they mistakenly think is necessary to achieve it. Many supposed justifications for state intervention in education are carefully dissected here and found wanting. Government is needed, Tooley concludes, neither in provision, funding, nor in regulation of education. Tooley's case is heavily informed by recent and historical evidence from the developing as well as the developed world, which provides us with radical new ways of thinking about the way education is provided for in society. “The private alternative”, he argues, can meet the local and global challenges facing education today and in the future. Markets in education, in combination with other agents of civil society, most notably the family and philanthropy, can satisfy educational demand, and has done so historically (before the state got involved in education in the first place). My full review of this book can be found here.


2. James L. Payne: Overcoming Welfare

As David Hume observed long ago, human beings are naturally compassionate. Giving to the needy is an extremely simple and primitive reaction to their plight. But this is taking the easy way out, argues political scientist James Payne. As Payne points out, those who oppose state welfare programs don’t do so because they are selfish and lack compassion, but because they see that such programs do not work. We could all agree that helping the less fortunate is a desirable thing, but the question remains how this can be done in a constructive manner. In order for help to really work, it cannot be based on sympathy alone. That kind of helping tends to be counterproductive and lock the needy into a destructive state of permanent dependency. What promises to lift the poor out of poverty is to help them to get back on their feet--to help them to help themselves. According to Payne this involves “giving with a definite expectation that the needy person will do something constructive in exchange for the help rendered”. One practical example is helping someone to get a job so that he can earn what he needs himself. This kind of helping bolsters the energy, self-esteem, and productiveness of people in unfortunate circumstances. But this requires taking account of the special circumstances and abilities of each individual recipient--a task much better suited for small, local charities than for large and anonymous government organizations. Even though most people probably agree that offering a "hand up" is preferable to offering "handouts", we still keep getting policies based on the latter, ineffective type of helping. Part of the explanation of this initially paradoxical situation is that government welfare programs have an inherent tendency to lapse into something-for-nothing-giving: “… fiscal, bureaucratic, and institutional pressures inherent in government […] push even programs with the best of intentions into the handout mode.” Payne points toward a fundamental inconsistency in our thinking: “we insist on using government to help the poor, yet government’s way of helping is the much-deplored handout.” Various voluntary alternatives for help and uplift are described and historical evidence indicates that such private alternatives have been effective in the past. Some people seem to believe that without state welfare the poor will be left to starve, but evolutionary theory (and common sense) strongly suggests that human beings are generally willing to help their less fortunate fellows as long as the latter are not perceived as shirkers or freeloaders (an argument made by Paul H. Rubin in Darwinian Politics). Overcoming Welfare is an inspiring book for those who really care about helping the needy (rather than about promoting their own view of the "good society"). My full review of Overcoming Welfare can be found here


3. Terry L. Anderson & Donald R. Leal: Free Market Environmentalism

This book by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal challenges the common prejudice that "free market environmentalism" is an oxymoron and argues to the contrary that "if we are to continue improving environmental quality in the twenty-first century, we must harness market forces". The authors show how this could be done (and to various degrees is being done already) applied to pollution, waste, fishing, water, energy, nature reserves, and more. In general, free market environmentalism "emphasizes the positive incentives associated with prices, profits, and entrepreneurship, as opposed to political environmentalism, which emphasizes negative incentives associated with regulation and taxes". At the heart of free market environmentalism is private ownership of natural resources and decentralized decision-making. An important insight of free market environmentalism (and free market thinking in general) is that good intentions are not enough to produce good results: "Instead of intentions, good resource stewardship depends on how well social institutions harness self-interest through individual incentives." In addition to the right incentives, good resource stewardship depends on the information available to the individuals who make decisions about the resource in question. Anderson and Leal give many real-world examples of how bottom-up processes have mitigated many environmental evils past and present, and how political regulation has very often exacerbated them. Free Market Environmentalism contains many valuable insights into how voluntary exchange can promote cooperation, compromise, and harmony between different interests, and how economic growth can be sustained while environmental quality is enhanced. My full review of this book can be found here. To learn more about free market environmentalism, a good resource is the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).


4. Bruce L. Benson: To Serve and Protect

The fact that the state has taken such a prominent role in criminal law is not a reflection of the superior efficiency of state institutions, argues Bruce L. Benson. Rather, it is a result of powerful kings beginning to see the legal process as a mechanism for obtaining revenue and for granting special favors to their supporters. Similarly, the development of public police in the nineteenth century was generally a result of their usefulness as political tools, not because they provided superior criminal justice. The rise of authoritarian law reflects the interests of powerful groups in society. Benson thinks that public-good justifications for a government-dominated criminal justice system are ex post rationalizations rather than explanations of their development. It is further argued that the state undermines the incentives for private participation in criminal law and thus forces governments to provide inferior bureaucratic alternatives. The historical reality of crime policy is that public provision of criminal justice is a recent social experiment that has not worked as predicted. Current governmental criminal justice systems are wasteful and do not work for the benefit of victims of crime and neither do they provide effective deterrence. What can be done? Benson argues that "perhaps the answer is not to 'build more prisons and employ more public police', as today's politicians seem to believe. Perhaps it is not to develop a 'bigger and better' version of some government program, as has been done throughout most of this century. Perhaps the answer is to turn back the clock in an effort to reestablish the incentives for greater private-sector involvement in criminal justice that disappeared centuries ago in the face of efforts by kings to expand their revenues and power." Benson argues further for a refocusing of criminal justice towards restitution for victims. It is criminals, not innocent tax payers, that should pay as much of the cost of crime as they possibly can, and they should pay the victim, not the state. With the right institutional arrangements, making criminals pay restitution will also increase deterrence and improve rehabilitation. Benson believes that such a refocusing towards restitution must go hand in hand with greater privatization in all areas of criminal justice. See this article for a short version of the general argument.


5. George Selgin: The Theory of Free Banking

Economist George Selgin argues that even though states have monopolized coinage and money supply, this does not mean that they were the best makers of coin or that coinage is a natural monopoly. Rather, "state coinage monopolies were established by force. Once rulers had set up their own mints they prohibited private issues, making their coins both a symbol of their rule and a source of profits." Selgin challenges the belief held by most economists that "money will not manage itself" and he argues against central banking. As an alternative, he sketches a free banking system with unregulated and decentralized currency supply. Such an unregulated system would respond much better to demand for currency and avoid both shortages and excessive money supply and be more stable. The full book is available online for free: The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply Under Competitive Note Issue. There is also a very interesting podcast from Econtalk in which Selgin talks about this subject. Selgin has recently published a paper in which he considers the potential of electronic currencies (like Bitcoin) "to supply the foundation for monetary regimes that does not require oversight by any monetary authority, yet are capable of providing for all such changes in the money stock as may be needed to achieve a high degree of macroeconomic stability." See also this blog post by Matt Ridley in which he refers to Selgin's works.



The Moral Society - Its Structure and Effects

This very interesting, but little read, book by philosopher Ian Hinckfuss is sadly out-of-print (but the manuscript can be found online here). Hinckfuss is a moral sceptic and nihilist, arguing that the only way in which we could possibly gain moral knowledge would be by a "sixth sense" of moral "intuition" or "conscience" (that we have no good reason to think that any human possesses), and that there are no (good reasons to think that there are any) "moral facts" to have knowledge of. The enemies of scepticism are the rationalists (who believe that we can gain moral knowledge in the same way we gain knowledge of logical or mathematical truths), the naturalists (who believe that moral facts are just ordinary natural facts, and thus that moral knowledge can be gained by empirical observation), and the non-cognitivists (who think that moral opinions are not beliefs at all, and can thus be neither true nor false). Hinckfuss makes a good case against these non-sceptical views, paying special attention to the naturalist view.


But if it is widely believed that all knowledge of the natural world must come from empirical observation, and it is also widely believed that moral knowledge, if any, must be rooted in "conscience", why isn't the world filled with moral sceptics? One reason, Hinckfuss maintains, could be that


... societies can live with obvious contradictions for generations or even centuries - especially if the contradictory beliefs are part of the rationales for important societal relationships. In religion this phenomenon is commonplace. It is no less so in morality - or, for that matter, within science. What usually happens under these circumstances is that the apparent contradiction becomes tagged as a philosophical problem so that society can go on believing in its inconsistencies while the philosophers wrestle with their “problem”.


Moral scepticism is hardly new, and has been around in one form or another since the very beginnings of Western philosophy. What is original with Hinckfuss is that he explicitly connects his moral scepticism with a healthy scepticism of elitism and authoritarianism:


[M]embers of the moral elite are often treated as authorities about moral obligations. Since most members of the society will want themselves and others to act in accordance with what they believe their obligations to be, they will tend to favour conformity to the injunctions of the moral authorities. This restricts their own freedom and the freedom of others. Since an authoritarian society is one in which obedience to authority is preferred to individual freedom, morality and authoritarianism go hand in hand. 


Insofar as people believe that there are objective moral facts, they are prone to also believe that some people are better than others at gaining knowledge of these facts (that there are "moral experts"). And those who are thought to know what ought to be done are also often thought to be worthy of leadership. What Hinckfuss calls "moral societies" are societies where belief in the reality and objective validity of moral obligations is widespread. He conjectures that most or all actual societies, past and present, are moral societies in this sense. He notes that authoritarianism is regarded as some sort of evil in most moral societies. So the question arises as to how moral people live and practice within a system which has properties that they regard as evil. The answer, Hinckfuss proposes, is that they seldom regard their own moral society as authoritarian. People tend to be blind to their own authoritarianism. Yet these same people see so readily the authoritarianism in societies other than their own.


Thus moral agents, identifying as they do with what they believe to be their moral obligations, do not feel coerced by them, and insofar as these beliefs coincide with the moral propaganda of the society in which they reside, which will usually be the case, that society will not appear unduly authoritarian to them. It is only when we allow ourselves to take an outsider's view of the moral society in which we live that its authoritarianism becomes apparent.


Hinckfuss seems to also think that coming to accept moral scepticism helps a person to take an outsider's view of one's own moral society; to take an amoral (which is not the same as immoral!) perspective. 


From an amoral point of view, the moral elite of a moral society would be seen as a bunch of free riders [...] who survive by virtue of the doctrine of deserts, moral parsing and associated arts of good public relations, plus, above all, the fact that it is their moral intuitions which bear weight in social decision making.


But despite his disapproval of freeriding and authoritarianism, and his approval of individual freedom, Hinckfuss also disapproves (which, given his nihilism, obviously cannot be moral disapproval) of economic inequality. This implicitly assumes that liberty and equality are compatible. This is a debated claim (and one that I for one think is deeply mistaken). Under liberty, since people are different from each other in all kinds of ways, including in what ends they strive for, they will use this liberty in different ways, pursuing different ends, and will inevitably end up in very different outcomes as a result. Further, Hinckfuss also seems to disapprove of hierarchies of all kinds. A moral sceptic cannot, of course, say that some hierarchies are morally bad and others morally good, but it must still be recognized that some hierarchies benefit those who are part of them, and thus might not merit disapproval (moral or otherwise). The economist Paul H. Rubin noted in his book Darwinian Politics (my review) that, because of our evolved nature, humans often confuse dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The same factors that (very understandably) lead humans to dislike dominance hierarchies in the environment in which we evolved, can (less understandably) lead them to dislike productive hierarchies today, even though the latter may benefit all its members. 


Hinckfuss notes that it is often argued (even by moral sceptics) that morality is useful in securing peace and bringing about the prerequisites for mutually beneficial co-operation. But Hinckfuss argues againt this. He thinks that, on the whole, we would all be better off without morality! Naturally, given his purpose, he focuses on the bad aspects of morality. 


In an amoral society, Hitler and Stalin could not have used moral injunctions to lead ordinary people to persecute fellow citizens and the citizens of other countries in such a heartless manner. In an amoral society, moral propaganda is unavailable to the megalomaniac as a tool for mass manipulation. Tyrants could, of course, still use fear to establish and maintain their position. Nevertheless, fear unaccompanied by moral charisma is a two-edged sword as many tyrants have found to their cost when rebellion has finally broken out. Fear and moral constraints have different social consequences. 


There could be war without morality. But moral propaganda eases the task of those with control of the mass media to get almost all the nation determined to attack, plunder, slaughter and subjugate another group of people.


While this is undoubtedly true and important, it doesn't show that morality on the whole leaves us worse off compared to an amoral society. Wouldn't a wholly amoral society be chaotic and messy? How could we co-operate with each other without moral prohibitions on lying, stealing, killing? Hinckfuss tries to calm us:


Apart from any basic altruistic motivations, there is a more self-interested amoral mechanism which encourages people to want to satisfy the desires of others and which thereby augments the possibility of the rational resolution of conflicts. Everyone soon learns the advantages in receiving the co-operation of others in achieving ends which one desires. But such co-operation is unlikely to be forthcoming from those who do not trust us - from those who believe for whatever reason that there is a considerable possibility that we may behave in ways which are detrimental to their interests. Such people will want to distance themselves from us - to put themselves in a position where our actions are less likely to have an effect upon them. If, therefore, we wish to reverse this tendency, it is necessary for us to become trustworthy in the eyes of as many people as possible - to be thought of as people who are likely to act in the interests of others. It is such mechanisms, rather than any moral injunctions, which encourage us to abide by our promises and contracts, to be open and honest in our dealings with others and to be predictable and cooperative in our own behaviour. It is true that there are occasions when people can advantage themselves by disadvantaging others or by risking a disadvantage to others, with little likelihood of any adverse reaction. Likelihoods build up with frequency, however, so, on the surface, at least, it would seem imprudent to so behave with any regularity. Sooner or later the reputation of such people for taking others into account in their behaviour is likely to suffer and with it would suffer their ability to gain the cooperation, let alone the friendship and love of others.


But isn't this a morality? Some would call principles of rational choice that constrain an individual's behaviour in order to gain the co-operation of others, "moral" principles. David Gauthier has explicitly argued this in his groundbreaking book Morals by Agreement. However, Gauthier also says (in a somewhat later essay called "Why Contractarianism?") that


Deliberative justification [grounding constraints on behaviour on rational choice principles] does not refute morality. Indeed, it does not offer morality the courtesy of a refutation. It ignores morality, and seemingly replaces it.


I would prefer to say, as a moral sceptic, and in the spirit of David Gauthier's remark, that I reject Morality (with a big M), but still accept morality (with a small m). Another way to put it is that I reject Morality, but accept an improved version of it stripped of its objective pretentions, a morality version 2.0.


The history and standing of moral skepticism

Just as history is written by the winners, so too is moral philosophy written largely by the believers. Although moral skepticism has been a theoretical presence in Western philosophy for as long as anyone can discern, the position has nearly always been presented by its opponents. Callicles was probably a historical figure, and Thrasymachus certainly was, but it is unlikely that the lines that Plato placed in their mouths are remotely close to a sympathetic transcript of anything they ever asserted; their role in the dialogue is to fall silent as Socrates bullies his way to inevitable victory. This pattern repeats through the centuries: Moral skepticism is wheeled on to the stage for the sole purpose of the audience witnessing its crushing defeat. However, unlike the explanation for the paucity of historians from losing sides, the absence of the skeptic’s voice from the dialectic of moral philosophy is not due to his having been defeated (either militarily or intellectually). Indeed, the very fact that moral skepticism needs to be countered again and again – centuries of novel stratagems and ingenious arguments – indicates a foe that cannot be defeated easily, implying that there must exist significant considerations in its favor. The real explanation for the dearth of real-life moral skeptics plying their wares in the philosophical marketplace may be nothing more insidious than a natural process of self-filtration: Those who are drawn to moral philosophy sufficiently to publish works on the topic are more likely than not to be antecedently hostile towards moral skepticism. By analogy, consider theology. One need not believe in God in order to be a capable theologian, but how many atheistic theologians does one really expect to find in the profession? The average atheist, as a matter of contingent fact, simply has little interest in the practice. Similarly, perhaps, the average moral skeptic tends to expend her intellectual energies elsewhere. We suspect that moral skepticism enjoys a higher proportion of support among philosophers in general than it does among moral philosophers in particular.


So begins the introductory chapter by the editors of the recent anthology A World Without Values, edited by Richard Joyce and Simon Kirchin. The volume is a tribute to the late John L. Mackie who formulated the quintessential modern statement of moral skepticism in his excellent Ethics - Inventing Right and Wrong published in 1978.


Moral skepticism (aka subjectivism) is the view that there are no objective values and no moral demands built into the nature of things. Mackie argues that values are "not part of the fabric of the world" and further that no substantial moral conclusions or serious constraints on moral views can be derived from logic or moral language alone. Because of this, morality is not something we can discover but something that we have to "invent". But we don’t just create morality out of thin air or in whatever way we want. Rather, we create it in response to a fairly determinate social problem that arises from contingent but persistent features of the human condition and the nature of our environment. Morality is a device for overcoming interpersonal conflicts and for making possible mutually beneficial co-operation. We can learn something about the general form and content of a realistic and practical morality by asking what such a device has to be like to fulfil this function in the best way.


Other statements of moral skepticism include Richard Garner's Beyond Morality and Richard Joyce's own The Myth of Morality and The Evolution of Morality (my review here). In the latter book, Joyce argues for moral scepticism by an "evolutionary debunking argument". Briefly, since we can explain why we all have moral beliefs and why we all make moral judgements without assuming that any such belief or judgment is true, we lack justification for our moral beliefs.


Pascal Boyer on the relation between religion and politics

The fact that religious groups are so involved in political intrigue and manage to find a political niche in most places with centralized authority is very familiar to all of us, so familiar indeed that we may forget that it is a special characteristic of such groups. For instance, castes of craftsmen also try to garner some political support and lend their weight to various political factions, but they are not usually as important as groups of religious scholars. This is not because the goods and services provided by craftsmen are less indispensable or important. In fact the reason may be exactly the opposite. Since the services of literate religious groups are dispensable, the religious schools that do not yield some measure of political leverage are very likely to end up as marginal sects, a process that has happened repeatedly in history.


This, according to the story offered by Pascal Boyer in chapter 8 of his book Religion Explained, is one of the reasons why religious castes or guilds very often try to gain maximal political influence (and why some of them are successful). Even though priests and other religious specialists "are not necessarily central to large-scale political organization [...] the ones that do not manage to garner some political leverage fall by the wayside".


Boyer emphasises the "elusive nature" of the services that organized groups of religious specialists provide, and that any such group always finds itself in a precarious position due to the constant competition with other such groups as well as with "local witch-doctors, healers, shamans, holy men, and knowledgeable elders [...] who can always claim that they too offer some interaction with supernatural agents or protection against misfortune." 


The difficult training and special knowledge make sense and can subsist only if there is some guarantee that people will actually need the special services. At the same time the services in question are very easily replaced, or so it would seem. Perceiving all this and reacting to it appropriately does not mean that you have expert knowledge of political economy. In all such groups, people have a precise though intuitive grasp of their group's position in the market. It does not require much sophistication to realize that your position as a priest or religious scholar is potentially threatened by the alternatives offered by shamans and local healers.


One obvious way to secure their precarious position in the market for religious services is to enter into an "unholy alliance" (my words, not Boyer's) with the political elite. But in order for the political elite to want to bestow special privileges (a monopoly in provision of religious services), they will of course demand something in return: namely, a divine sanction of political authority. It is "largely correct", Boyer writes, "to construe religion as the ally of the oppressors, as an institution that invariably supports centralized political power and offers supernatural justifications for the established order". But this is so, not because religion necessarily supports political authority, but rather because "many successful religious guilds were successful precisely because they adopted this strategy". This creates a selection pressure in favour of religious groups that are pro-authority.  


While centralized political power can be maintained without religion, and religion would exist without centralized political power, there is room for a mutually beneficial alliance between political and religious elites. But note that there need be no element of conspiracy involved. None of the parties (neither the religious leaders, the political leaders, nor the subjects of political power) need be aware of the underlying logic just described. Indeed, they might all wholeheartedly believe in the (dominant) religious doctrine in question. 


Boyer further argues that political and economic factors have not only shaped the way religious guilds organize themselves, but also deeply influenced the very heart of religious doctrine! He notes that it is commonly assumed that "doctrine comes first, and its implementation leads to particular economic and political behaviour". But this assumption is misguided, Boyer argues. Indeed, some crucial aspects of religious doctrine "make sense only if we understand what the market for religious services is like, what kind of commodity religious knowledge and ritual constitute." The standard view, often put forth by religious institutions themselves, is that there are institutions because there is a distinctive "faith" expressed as a doctrine. "To diffuse that unique doctrine and organize activities connected with it, a special organization was then founded, with the result that ritual is standardized." But, Boyer argues, "there is every reason to think that the evolution of religious institutions is more or less the opposite of this standard picture. Doctrines are the way they are because of the organization of religious institutions, not the other way around." Major changes in religion itself are thus consequences of the fact that religious specialists are associated in state-wide groups rather than recruited locally on the basis of personal qualities. The insistence on abstract gods rather than local "ancestors", and an emphasis on "a general and abstract notion of salvation conditioned by moral behavior" (as can be found in most written religious doctrines) are examples of such consequences. Also, "in order to offer a unique set of religious services and a stable one from one religious specialist to the next, a guild requires a description of what it offers." This can help explain why religious texts have become so important in major religions. 


However, when religious scholars attempt to create coherent religious doctrines, they often spawn "abstruse and paradoxical theology"; literate versions of the supernatural concepts that do not connect with any of the "supernatural templates" in our evolved human psychology, and that do not activate the right "inference systems" in our minds. The divorce from common human supernatural templates and inference systems (which are major components of Boyer's analysis of the psychology of religion) is one major reason why such scholarly theological systems are often either ignored or blithely distorted by most congregations. "However great the control religious guilds can obtain through political means and a large diffusion of their doctrines, there always seem to be some nonstandard beliefs and practices left 'sticking out'", Boyer notes. People always seem to add to or distort the official theological doctrine.


This process of addition, re-creation and modification of concepts is constant and in all likelihood destined to go on as long as there are organized groups of literate religious scholars. People may well resort to the services of various literate guilds and even identify themselves as followers of that guild, but this does not mean that their supernatural concepts are really organized by the messages delivered by these specialists. Actual religious concepts always seem to stick out, as it were, to distort the official message or to add all sorts of officially incorrect interpretations. This is in fact inevitable, because the official messages themselves must be understood by people; which means that they must produce inferences to make them coherent or relevant; which in turn implies that their mental constructions must complete, often in divergent ways, messages that are by nature fragmentary, in this as in other domains of cultural constructions.


Literate religious guilds "tend to downplay intuition, divination, personal inspiration, orally transmitted lore and 'essential' persons because all these naturally fall outside the guild's control". But various "imagistic" practices persist and challenge the stability of the official services:


Revelation, trance and other forms of enthusiastic ritual are all difficult to codify and control, which is why they are viewed by religious institutions with considerable suspicion. Also, such rituals offer great scope for enterprising individuals to set up their own particular cult in competition with the guild. Finally, the services of the guild are made stable and distinctive by the systematic use of written manuals and codified messages. But what makes the guild's brand recognizable - an intrinsically positive effect - also makes its rituals entirely predictable. This, then, is the real tragedy of the theologian: not just that people, because they have real minds rather than literal memories, will always be theologically incorrect, will always add to the message and distort it, but also that the only way to make the message immune to such adulteration renders it tedious, thereby fueling imagistic dissent and threatening the position of the theologian's guild.


It is interesting to speculate about how religion would change in the absence of political authority. We already see in the modern western world a rise in so-called "personal religion". Is this a direct result of the weakening of political control over the religious domain? Would religion change further if society became more libertarian? Would large-scale religious organizations (like the Catholic Church) be able to survive under a libertarian order? Would atheism win the day in a libertarian society, or would people return to worship local spirits, ancestors, etc.?