Are people basically good?

Mar 20 JDN 2459659

I recently finished reading Human Kind by Rutger Bregman. His central thesis is a surprisingly controversial one, yet one I largely agree with: People are basically good. Most people, in most circumstances, try to do the right thing.

Neoclassical economists in particular seem utterly scandalized by any such suggestion. No, they insist, people are selfish! They’ll take any opportunity to exploit each other! On this, Bregman is right and the neoclassical economists are wrong.

One of the best parts of the book is Bregman’s tale of several shipwrecked Tongan boys who were stranded on the remote island of ‘Ata, sometimes called “the real Lord of the Flies but with an outcome quite radically different from that of the novel. There were of course conflicts during their long time stranded, but the boys resolved most of these conflicts peacefully, and by the time help came over a year later they were still healthy and harmonious. Bregman himself was involved in the investigative reporting about these events, and his tale of how he came to meet some of the (now elderly) survivors and tell their tale is both enlightening and heartwarming.

Bregman spends a lot of time (perhaps too much time) analyzing classic experiments meant to elucidate human nature. He does a good job of analyzing the Milgram experiment—it’s valid, but it says more about our willingness to serve a cause than our blind obedience to authority. He utterly demolishes the Zimbardo experiment; I knew it was bad, but I hadn’t even realized how utterly worthless that so-called “experiment” actually is. Zimbardo basically paid people to act like abusive prison guards—specifically instructing them how to act!—and then claimed that he had discovered something deep in human nature. Bregman calls it a “hoax”, which might be a bit too strong—but it’s about as accurate as calling it an “experiment”. I think it’s more like a form of performance art.

Bregman’s criticism of Steven Pinker I find much less convincing. He cites a few other studies that purported to show the following: (1) the archaeological record is unreliable in assessing death rates in prehistoric societies (fair enough, but what else do we have?), (2) the high death rates in prehistoric cultures could be from predators such as lions rather than other humans (maybe, but that still means civilization is providing vital security!), (3) the Long Peace could be a statistical artifact because data on wars is so sparse (I find this unlikely, but I admit the Russian invasion of Ukraine does support such a notion), or (4) the Long Peace is the result of nuclear weapons, globalized trade, and/or international institutions rather than a change in overall attitudes toward violence (perfectly reasonable, but I’m not even sure Pinker would disagree).

I appreciate that Bregman does not lend credence to the people who want to use absolute death counts instead of relative death rates, who apparently would rather live in a prehistoric village of 100 people that gets wiped out by a plague (or for that matter on a Mars colony of 100 people who all die of suffocation when the life support fails) rather than remain in a modern city of a million people that has a few dozen murders each year. Zero homicides is better than 40, right? Personally, I care most about the question “How likely am I to die at any given time?”; and for that, relative death rates are the only valid measure. I don’t even see why we should particularly care about homicide versus other causes of death—I don’t see being shot as particularly worse than dying of Alzheimer’s (indeed, quite the contrary, other than the fact that Alzheimer’s is largely limited to old age and shooting isn’t). But all right, if violence is the question, then go ahead and use homicides—but it certainly should be rates and not absolute numbers. A larger human population is not an inherently bad thing.

I even appreciate that Bregman offers a theory (not an especially convincing one, but not an utterly ridiculous one either) of how agriculture and civilization could emerge even if hunter-gatherer life was actually better. It basically involves agriculture being discovered by accident, and then people gradually transitioning to a sedentary mode of life and not realizing their mistake until generations had passed and all the old skills were lost. There are various holes one can poke in this theory (Were the skills really lost? Couldn’t they be recovered from others? Indeed, haven’t people done that, in living memory, by “going native”?), but it’s at least better than simply saying “civilization was a mistake”.

Yet Bregman’s own account, particularly his discussion of how early civilizations all seem to have been slave states, seems to better support what I think is becoming the historical consensus, which is that civilization emerged because a handful of psychopaths gathered armies to conquer and enslave everyone around them. This is bad news for anyone who holds to a naively Whiggish view of history as a continuous march of progress (which I have oft heard accused but rarely heard endorsed), but it’s equally bad news for anyone who believes that all human beings are basically good and we should—or even could—return to a state of blissful anarchism.

Indeed, this is where Bregman’s view and mine part ways. We both agree that most people are mostly good most of the time. He even acknowledges that about 2% of people are psychopaths, which is a very plausible figure. (The figures I find most credible are about 1% of women and about 4% of men, which averages out to 2.5%. The prevalence you get also depends on how severely lacking in empathy someone needs to be in order to qualify. I’ve seen figures as low as 1% and as high as 4%.) What he fails to see is how that 2% of people can have large effects on society, wildly disproportionate to their number.

Consider the few dozen murders that are committed in any given city of a million people each year. Who is committing those murders? By and large, psychopaths. That’s more true of premeditated murder than of crimes of passion, but even the latter are far more likely to be committed by psychopaths than the general population.

Or consider those early civilizations that were nearly all authoritarian slave-states. What kind of person tends to govern an authoritarian slave-state? A psychopath. Sure, probably not every Roman emperor was a psychopath—but I’m quite certain that Commodus and Caligula were, and I suspect that Augustus and several others were as well. And the ones who don’t seem like psychopaths (like Marcus Aurelius) still seem like narcissists. Indeed, I’m not sure it’s possible to be an authoritarian emperor and not be at least a narcissist; should an ordinary person somehow find themselves in the role, I think they’d immediately set out to delegate authority and improve civil liberties.

This suggests that civilization was not so much a mistake as it was a crime—civilization was inflicted upon us by psychopaths and their greed for wealth and power. Like I said, not great for a “march of progress” view of history. Yet a lot has changed in the last few thousand years, and life in the 21st century at least seems overall pretty good—and almost certainly better than life on the African savannah 50,000 years ago.

In essence, what I think happened was we invented a technology to turn the tables of civilization, use the same tools psychopaths had used to oppress us as a means to contain them. This technology was called democracy. The institutions of democracy allowed us to convert government from a means by which psychopaths oppress and extract wealth from the populace to a means by which the populace could prevent psychopaths from committing wanton acts of violence.

Is it perfect? Certainly not. Indeed, there are many governments today that much better fit the “psychopath oppressing people” model (e.g. Russia, China, North Korea), and even in First World democracies there are substantial abuses of power and violations of human rights. In fact, psychopaths are overrepresented among the police and also among politicians. Perhaps there are superior modes of governance yet to be found that would further reduce the power psychopaths have and thereby make life better for everyone else.

Yet it remains clear that democracy is better than anarchy. This is not so much because anarchy results in everyone behaving badly and causes immediate chaos (as many people seem to erroneously believe), but because it results in enough people behaving badly to be a problem—and because some of those people are psychopaths who will take advantage of power vacuum to seize control for themselves.

Yes, most people are basically good. But enough people aren’t that it’s a problem.

Bregman seems to think that simply outnumbering the psychopaths is enough to keep them under control, but history clearly shows that it isn’t. We need institutions of governance to protect us. And for the most part, First World democracies do a fairly good job of that.

Indeed, I think Bregman’s perspective may be a bit clouded by being Dutch, as the Netherlands has one of the highest rates of trust in the world. Nearly 90% of people in the Netherlands trust their neighbors. Even the US has high levels of trust by world standards, at about 84%; a more typical country is India or Mexico at 64%, and the least-trusting countries are places like Gabon with 31% or Benin with a dismal 23%. Trust in government varies widely, from an astonishing 94% in Norway (then again, have you seen Norway? Their government is doing a bang-up job!) to 79% in the Netherlands, to closer to 50% in most countries (in this the US is more typical), all the way down to 23% in Nigeria (which seems equally justified). Some mysteries remain, like why more people trust the government in Russia than in Namibia. (Maybe people in Namibia are just more willing to speak their minds? They’re certainly much freer to do so.)

In other words, Dutch people are basically good. Not that the Netherlands has no psychopaths; surely they have a few just like everyone else. But they have strong, effective democratic institutions that provide both liberty and security for the vast majority of the population. And with the psychopaths under control, everyone else can feel free to trust each other and cooperate, even in the absence of obvious government support. It’s precisely because the government of the Netherlands is so unusually effective that someone living there can come to believe that government is unnecessary.

In short, Bregman is right that we should have donation boxes—and a lot of people seem to miss that (especially economists!). But he seems to forget that we need to keep them locked.

The Cognitive Science of Morality Part II: Molly Crockett

JDN 2457140 EDT 20:16.

This weekend has been very busy for me, so this post is going to be shorter than most—which is probably a good thing anyway, since my posts tend to run a bit long.

In an earlier post I discussed the Weinberg Cognitive Science Conference and my favorite speaker in the lineup, Joshua Greene. After a brief interlude from Capybara Day, it’s now time to talk about my second-favorite speaker, Molly Crockett. (Is it just me, or does the name “Molly” somehow seem incongruous with a person of such prestige?)

Molly Crockett is a neuroeconomist, though you’d never hear her say that. She doesn’t think of herself as an economist at all, but purely as a neuroscientist. I suspect this is because when she hears the word “economist” she thinks of only mainstream neoclassical economists, and she doesn’t want to be associated with such things.

Still, what she studies is clearly neuroeconomics—I in fact first learned of her work by reading the textbook Neuroeconomics, though I really got interested in her work after watching her TED Talk. It’s one of the better TED talks (they put out so many of them now that the quality is mixed at best); she talks about news reporting on neuroscience, how it is invariably ridiculous and sensationalist. This is particularly frustrating because of how amazing and important neuroscience actually is.

I could almost forgive the sensationalism if they were talking about something that’s actually fantastically boring, like, say, tax codes, or financial regulations. Of course, even then there is the Oliver Effect: You can hide a lot of evil by putting it in something boring. But Dodd-Frank is 2300 pages long; I read an earlier draft that was only (“only”) 600 pages, and it literally contained a three-page section explaining how to define the word “bank”. (Assuming direct proportionality, I would infer that there is now a twelve-page section defining the word “bank”. Hopefully not?) It doesn’t get a whole lot more snoozeworthy than that. So if you must be a bit sensationalist in order to get people to see why eliminating margin requirements and the swaps pushout rule are terrible, terrible ideas, so be it.

But neuroscience is not boring, and so sensationalism only means that news outlets are making up exciting things that aren’t true instead of saying the actually true things that are incredibly exciting.

Here, let me express without sensationalism what Molly Crockett does for a living: Molly Crockett experimentally determines how psychoactive drugs modulate moral judgments. The effects she observes are small, but they are real; and since these experiments are done using small doses for a short period of time, if these effects scale up they could be profound. This is the basic research component—when it comes to technological fruition it will be literally A Clockwork Orange. But it may be A Clockwork Orange in the best possible way: It could be, at last, a medical cure for psychopathy, a pill to make us not just happier or healthier, but better. We are not there yet by any means, but this is clearly the first step: Molly Crockett is to A Clockwork Orange roughly as Michael Faraday is to the Internet.

In one of the experiments she talked about at the conference, Crockett found that serotonin reuptake inhibitors enhance harm aversion. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are very commonly used drugs—you are likely familiar with one called Prozac. So basically what this study means is that Prozac makes people more averse to causing pain in themselves or others. It doesn’t necessarily make them more altruistic, let alone more ethical; but it does make them more averse to causing pain. (To see the difference, imagine a 19th-century field surgeon dealing with a wounded soldier; there is no anesthetic, but an amputation must be made. Sometimes being ethical requires causing pain.)

The experiment is actually what Crockett calls “the honest Milgram Experiment“; under Milgram, the experimenters told their subjects they would be causing shocks, but no actual shocks were administered. Under Crockett, the shocks are absolutely 100% real (though they are restricted to a much lower voltage of course). People are given competing offers that contain an amount of money and a number of shocks to be delivered, either to you or to the other subject. They decide how much it’s worth to them to bear the shocks—or to make someone else bear them. It’s a classic willingness-to-pay paradigm, applied to the Milgram Experiment.

What Crockett found did not surprise me, nor do I expect it will surprise you if you imagine yourself in the same place; but it would totally knock the socks off of any neoclassical economist. People are much more willing to bear shocks for money than they are to give shocks for money. They are what Crockett terms hyper-altruistic; I would say that they are exhibiting an apparent solidarity coefficient greater than 1. They seem to be valuing others more than they value themselves.

Normally I’d say that this makes no sense at all—why would you value some random stranger more than yourself? Equally perhaps, and obviously only a psychopath would value them not at all; but more? And there’s no way you can actually live this way in your daily life; you’d give away all your possessions and perhaps even starve yourself to death. (I guess maybe Jesus lived that way.) But Crockett came up with a model that explains it pretty well: We are morally risk-averse. If we knew we were dealing with someone very strong who had no trouble dealing with shocks, we’d be willing to shock them a fairly large amount. But we might actually be dealing with someone very vulnerable who would suffer greatly; and we don’t want to take that chance.

I think there’s some truth to that. But her model leaves something else out that I think is quite important: We are also averse to unfairness. We don’t like the idea of raising one person while lowering another. (Obviously not so averse as to never do it—we do it all the time—but without a compelling reason we consider it morally unjustified.) So if the two subjects are in roughly the same condition (being two undergrads at Oxford, they probably are), then helping one while hurting the other is likely to create inequality where none previously existed. But if you hurt yourself in order to help yourself, no such inequality is created; all you do is raise yourself up, provided that you do believe that the money is good enough to be worth the shocks. It’s actually quite Rawslian; lifting one person up while not affecting the other is exactly the sort of inequality you’re allowed to create according to the Difference Principle.

There’s also the fact that the subjects can’t communicate; I think if I could make a deal to share the money afterward, I’d feel better about shocking someone more in order to get us both more money. So perhaps with communication people would actually be willing to shock others more. (And the sensation headline would of course be: “Talking makes people hurt each other.”)

But all of these ideas are things that could be tested in future experiments! And maybe I’ll do those experiments someday, or Crockett, or one of her students. And with clever experimental paradigms we might find out all sorts of things about how the human mind works, how moral intuitions are structured, and ultimately how chemical interventions can actually change human moral behavior. The potential for both good and evil is so huge, it’s both wondrous and terrifying—but can you deny that it is exciting?

And that’s not even getting into the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science, which undermines all concepts of afterlife and theistic religion. I already talked about it before—as the sort of thing that I sort of wish I could say when I introduce myself as a cognitive scientist—but I think it bears repeating.

As Patricia Churchland said on the Colbert Report: Colbert asked, “Are you saying I have no soul?” and she answered, “Yes.” I actually prefer Daniel Dennett’s formulation: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”

We don’t have a magical, supernatural soul (whatever that means); we don’t have an immortal soul that will rise into Heaven or be reincarnated in someone else. But we do have something worth preserving: We have minds that are capable of consciousness. We love and hate, exalt and suffer, remember and imagine, understand and wonder. And yes, we are born and we die. Once the unique electrochemical pattern that defines your consciousness is sufficiently degraded, you are gone. Nothing remains of what you were—except perhaps the memories of others, or things you have created. But even this legacy is unlikely to last forever. One day it is likely that all of us—and everything we know, and everything we have built, from the Great Pyramids to Hamlet to Beethoven’s Ninth to Principia Mathematica to the US Interstate Highway System—will be gone. I don’t have any consolation to offer you on that point; I can’t promise you that anything will survive a thousand years, much less a million. There is a chance—even a chance that at some point in the distant future, whatever humanity has become will find a way to reverse the entropic decay of the universe itself—but nothing remotely like a guarantee. In all probability you, and I, and all of this will be gone someday, and that is absolutely terrifying.

But it is also undeniably true. The fundamental link between the mind and the brain is one of the basic facts of cognitive science; indeed I like to call it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science. We know specifically which kinds of brain damage will make you unable to form memories, comprehend language, speak language (a totally different area), see, hear, smell, feel anger, integrate emotions with logic… do I need to go on? Everything that you are is done by your brain—because you are your brain.

Now why can’t the science journalists write about that? Instead we get “The Simple Trick That Can Boost Your Confidence Immediately” and “When it Comes to Picking Art, Men & Women Just Don’t See Eye to Eye.” HuffPo is particularly awful of course; the New York Times is better, but still hardly as good as one might like. They keep trying to find ways to make it exciting—but so rarely seem to grasp how exciting it already is.