It Goes Deeper than Nature versus Nurture

Jacob Lyles writes:

The right accepts human nature, the left wants to change it.

I think this is a good observation, but it brings to mind a certain distinction which I'd like to make. A person could believe in the blank slate theory and yet be anti-leftist, and a person could believe that nothing is learned and everything is instinctive and be to the left of Karl Marx. And all this while still displaying the essential distinction between left and right that Jacob is touching on.

Nature and nurture are alike, and so they do not themselves distinguish left from anti-left. Evolution is a kind of very slow learning process, so our "nature" is a kind of very long term nurture. In principle, our nature (our genetic makeup) could be changed through genetic engineering, so that, in principle, choosing the genetic makeup of your child could be as central a part of parenting as choosing the right schools and the right lessons.

The fact that nature and nurture are alike and could in the near future as we master genetics become even more alike does not dissolve the difference between left and non-left.

Here's why. Compare the following two ideas:

a) Behavior X is an instinct, and all the government-sponsored reprogramming will not stop people from engaging in Behavior X.

b) Behavior X is learned but the environment will inevitably teach Behavior X - all the government-sponsored social engineering will ultimately prove to be ineffective in creating an environment that teaches anything other than Behavior X.

These two conclusions are very similar in their implications. They both fall squarely on the non-malleability (and therefore anti-leftist) end of the malleability/non-malleability spectrum of opinion. In (a) it is the human who is not malleable and in (b) it is the environment which is not malleable, but both come to the same thing, which is that Behavior X is pretty much unavoidable, regardless of what the government tries.

At the same time, (a) is on the "nature" end of the nature versus nurture spectrum, and (b) is on the "nurture" end.

A similar pairing could be made at the leftist end of the spectrum. Twentieth century leftists thought man could be remade by indoctrination, but twenty-first century leftists may think that man can be remade by genetic manipulation.

Recall the evolutionary theory of natural law. The idea is (approximately) that man's inborn moral instincts are the way they are not merely by accident, but because those moral instincts enhance survival and reproduction. Thus, while a leftist geneticist might create a breed of human with significantly different moral instincts - he might create New Socialist Man in the laboratory - that new breed of human would have to deal with evolutionary pressure - with competition from unmodified humans. Given that our moral instincts are the product of evolution, the way to bet is with the unmodified humans. At least, this is what an anti-leftist might say.

For the most part, those who are at the "nature" end of the nature/nurture spectrum are at the "not malleable" end of the malleable/not-malleable spectrum, and likewise for "nurture" and "malleable". My point here is that there is, at least in principle, a difference between these two spectra, and that the spectrum of opinion on malleability, rather than on nature versus nurture, tracks best with leftism versus non-leftism.

In a nutshell, I might replace the reference to "human nature" in the above quote with a reference to "the nature of humanity and of the world", and further, I might replace the above quoted distinction with the following:

The right considers humans and the world to be less malleable than the left does.

This way of formulating it removes the presumption that the right (or anti-left) is correct, which I think is an improvement, because people sometimes err on the side of believing the current state of affairs reflects a permanent condition. However, insofar as economics pours cold water on the aspirations of leftists (which it very much does), it is not left wing.

(I would like to acknowledge, without going into, another aspect of the statement that "the right accepts human nature, the left wants to change it." Above I have been talking about a disagreement about what is possible. However, as stated, the quote actually refers to a disagreement about what is desirable. That is important also.)

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Constant, I don't have much

Constant,

I don't have much to add at this time other than to say that, as usual, your linguistic precision has added to the discussion. I think you have erected a clearer intellectual structure here than I did.

I don't want you to see zero comments on your post and think it went unappreciated.

Leftists anti nurture also.

Leftists reject the proposition that Behavior X is learned but the environment will inevitably teach Behavior X because they believe that ordinary people learn nothing from the environment.

Supposedly people are taught by school (good) and parents (evil), especially fathers (extremely evil). The common folk do not form conclusions based on personal experience, though of course leftists do. Thus, for example, the fact that taxi drivers are reluctant to pick up young black men could not possibly have anything to do with actual reality.

Three thoughts

Thoughtful. So when the Wall Street Journal's editors fulminate about how marginal tax rates or Sorbanes-Oxley or tort reform will result in massive changes in people's behavior, they're being leftists?

And if a belief in people's maleability determines a person's position on the left/right scale, where would we put Hitler again? With respect to those public policies that made Hitler most noteworthy, he didn't seem to evidence a lot of faith that people could change in ways he regarded as meaningful....

For what it's worth, I suspect people have varied understandings of the term left and right, rendering the terms irreducibly vague in most contexts. When you use the term "leftist" to mean "premised on the idea that people/the world are more maliable than I regard them to be," it might be clearer to use the longer phrase.

Constrained versus unconstrained

So when the Wall Street Journal's editors fulminate about how marginal tax rates or Sorbanes-Oxley or tort reform will result in massive changes in people's behavior, they're being leftists?

No, that is not leftist because it is an example of being aware of the law of unintended consequences, which I've already discussed. As I wrote:

One way this idea manifests itself is that leftists believe that attempts to shape society are likely to be successful. And one aspect of this belief is that leftists greatly downplay the phenomenon known to non-leftists as "the law of unintended consequences." If the unintended consequences are large, then the probability that intention plus effort will produce a result matching the intention is low.

..

And if a belief in people's maleability determines a person's position on the left/right scale, where would we put Hitler again?

Among many other left wing things that Hitler did, as described by Brian Macker, Hitler tried to improve the human race genetically by eliminating Jews (and not just Jews). Hitler was a eugenicist. I didn't intend to discuss him, but inadvertently I discussed him when I wrote:

A similar pairing could be made at the leftist end of the spectrum. Twentieth century leftists thought man could be remade by indoctrination, but twenty-first century leftists may think that man can be remade by genetic manipulation.

When I wrote that I had forgotten the long and sorry history of eugenics, which was a common element of progressivism, which was leftist. Hitler took this up, applying a specific crackpot theory not shared by other progressives (that Jews were among the people who needed to be eliminated from the gene pool). Breeding humanity - culling inferior humans - is slower and lower-tech than genetic manipulation, but it comes to the same thing. So I had thought I was imagining a future leftist armed with future science but in fact, without realizing it, I was talking about past leftists - eugenicists.

When you use the term "leftist" to mean "premised on the idea that people/the world are more maliable than I regard them to be," it might be clearer to use the longer phrase.

Please don't interpret me as merely offering an alternative definition. I am not trying to argue by redefinition of terms, which is boring. I am discussing the internal logic of actually-held political views. This discussion suggests that we might want to reconsider the definitions of our terms so that they do a better job of cutting nature at the seams, but I have already acknowledged the distinction between reality and word usage, where I wrote:

in current usage Hitler is "on the right". It's a matter of usage. This, of course, means that "the right" is not really a kind of ideology but a mere label applied to dissimilar ideologies.

A lot of leftists have succumbed to the temptation to believe that they are more human than their opponents. They believe that they are more compassionate, that they are greater lovers of humanity, that they are in many ways morally superior to their opponents. It is a universal temptation to dehumanize one's opponent but in particular it prevents leftists from seeing the reality of what distinguishes them from their opponents. The Marxists, for example, think of themselves as being on the side of the proletariat (the productive and therefore morally deserving class), and they think of their opponents as being running dogs of the capitalists (the parasitical and therefore morally undeserving class).

This self-image is inconsistent with the mass murder committed by leftists, with the privileges enjoyed by the Soviet communist party, with the fact that left wingers are not especially great contributors to private charity, with the reliable infatuation of the left with dictators such as Castro and Chavez, and with many other observable qualities of the left.

Listen to a leftist talk about a non-leftist with whom they disagree sharply about politics and chances are pretty good that they will accuse their opponent of all manner of evil. These days they are likely to call them racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally deplorable, hateful human beings. I do not say that only leftists view their opponents this way. What I say is that this distorts their own idea of what leftism is. (Nor am I saying that this distorts the self-image only of leftists - I am talking right now about leftists and about the nature of leftism, which is why I am focusing on leftists.)

The hatred of the left for all that is not left wing hides the real characteristics of leftism. The left is, in the left's own eyes, nothing more than that which is good, and the right is nothing more than that which is hateful.

good intentions

The left is, in the left's own eyes, nothing more than that which is good, and the right is nothing more than that which is hateful.

If the world is extremely malleable to political power, then anything undesirable in the world must reflect the wickedness of those in power, who failed to forbid the badness and command the goodness. The fact that leftist wishes things were better proves his moral superiority. And since he intends good things, what in other people would be desire for wealth and power is in him a manifestation of general goodness.

This outlook tends to be associated with extremely poor reality testing.

The purest and most extreme example of this failure was the Khmer Rouge, whose great personal saintliness is shown by their passionate commitment to extremely noble and highly desirable outcomes. Their poor reality testing concealed from them the fact that their actions to achieve these wonderful outcomes had a striking resemblance to snatching the peasant's food and selling it to buy guns and Johnny Walker whisky.

For a time, they failed to notice that these wonderful outcomes were not in fact being achieved. When they eventually realized that Cambodia had fallen a fair bit short of the Utopia of their dreams, they concluded that the problem must be that someone was deliberately choosing to cause these bad outcomes, and so set to work purging themselves and general population of these evil people that had caused such evil outcomes, demonstrating the passionate sincerity of their wonderfully good intentions by torturing to death their friends and associates who had caused such woefully bad outcomes.

Three thoughts redux

So when the Wall Street Journal's editors fulminate about how marginal tax rates or Sarbanes-Oxley or tort reform will result in massive changes in people's behavior, they're being leftists?

No, that is not leftist because it is an example of being aware of the law of unintended consequences....

Ah. So if someone proposes a government policy to modify people’s behavior, that’s leftist. If someone declares that this government policy will in fact modify people’s behavior, but just not in the manner the proposer anticipated, that’s not leftist.

But by this standard the term “leftist” starts to look like an attribute of any proposal to modify people’s behavior. An argument to modify people's behavior by lowering marginal tax rates would be leftist. An argument to modify people's behavior by criminalizing theft, trespass and murder would be leftist. To the extent that Nancy Polosi pointed out that these policies could have unintended consequences – being enforced disproportionately against people in lower socioeconomic groups, for example – her objections would not, by definition, be leftist. Right? Er, correct?

As far as I can tell, humans aren’t omniscient. Anyone who makes a proposal – including a proposal to refrain from acting – can and generally will fail to anticipate at least some of the consequences of that proposal. I have difficulty seeing how this failure of omniscience can be attributed peculiarly to the left – unless “the left” is defined to include everyone who makes a proposal.

And if a belief in people's maleability determines a person's position on the left/right scale, where would we put Hitler again?

Hitler was a eugenicist.... I had forgotten the long and sorry history of eugenics, which was a common element of progressivism, which was leftist. Hitler took this up, applying a specific crackpot theory not shared by other progressives (that Jews were among the people who needed to be eliminated from the gene pool).

Right. Hitler adopted a crackpot theory not embraced by other progressives. One that abandoned the idea that Jews (and others) were malleable. And therefore...?

("A witch! A witch...!")

A lot of leftists have succumbed to the temptation to believe that they are more human than their opponents. They believe that they are more compassionate, that they are greater lovers of humanity, that they are in many ways morally superior to their opponents. It is a universal temptation to dehumanize one's opponent but in particular it prevents leftists from seeing the reality of what distinguishes them from their opponents....

Ok, I’m persuaded of this. Yet given that this is a “universal temptation,” I’m again having difficulty seeing how this is somehow more true of people on the left – unless, again, you define “the left” to include everyone who makes a proposal.

More on constraints

Ah. So if someone proposes a government policy to modify people’s behavior, that’s leftist.

It might or might not be. The degree to which it reveals a constrained or an unconstrained vision will depend on the vision that it is based on.

If someone declares that this government policy will in fact modify people’s behavior, but just not in the manner the proposer anticipated, that’s not leftist.

The speaker would be describing a constraint, and therefore would demonstrate a vision that is constrained in at least one way. However, the important question is how constrained the vision is as a whole. The existence of a specific constraint does not tell us how constrained the vision is as a whole. By the way, there's a difference between unintended and unanticipated, and it's an important difference. The law of unintended consequences concerns unintended, not necessarily unanticipated, consequences. Omniscience is a cure for unanticipated consequences but is not a cure for unintended consequences. Thus your following paragraph is a complete misfire, i.e.:

As far as I can tell, humans aren’t omniscient. Anyone who makes a proposal – including a proposal to refrain from acting – can and generally will fail to anticipate at least some of the consequences of that proposal. I have difficulty seeing how this failure of omniscience can be attributed peculiarly to the left – unless “the left” is defined to include everyone who makes a proposal.

That applies to unanticipated, not unintended, consequences.

But by this standard the term “leftist” starts to look like an attribute of any proposal to modify people’s behavior.

It is an attribute of a vision. A single proposal does not by itself tell us very much about the vision.

An argument to modify people's behavior by lowering marginal tax rates would be leftist. An argument to modify people's behavior by criminalizing theft, trespass and murder would be leftist.

These are specific proposals, not visions. They both, in fact, describe the following constraints:

1) A government cannot raise taxes without discouraging the activity being taxed.

2) A government cannot reduce the probability and severity of punishment for crime without encouraging criminal activity.

Since they describe constraints, they demonstrate that the speaker's vision is constrained in at least those ways.

To the extent that Nancy Polosi pointed out that these policies could have unintended consequences – being enforced disproportionately against people in lower socioeconomic groups, for example – her objections would not, by definition, be leftist.

Depending on what it is precisely that Pelosi believes, that may be a constraint. But still, overall, my expectation is that Pelosi does not see as many and as deep and unsurmountable constraints on government ability to improve society as, say, Fred Thompson does.

In particular, we might ask, does Pelosi believe that government activity generally harms the poor? Does she believe, for example, that public schooling harms the poor? If she believes that, then why isn't she for radically reducing the scope of government, so as to help the poor? But if she does not believe that, then we can reasonably question whether her notion of government's capacity to do good is really all that constrained after all.

Three dog night

I sense we're reaching diminishing marginal returns on this discussion.

This tread began from Jacob Lyles's remark that "The right accepts human nature, the left wants to change it." Constant focuses on the idea of mutability as the relevant variable. I think it would be interesting to compare the benefits and shortcomings of societies with relatively more and less expansive views of human mutability. But I wonder that this analysis isn’t burdened more than it is benefitted by being linked to the term “left” (or “right”). Rather than demonstrating anything especially interesting about the left and the right, we seem to be in the process of re-defining the term “left” to mean “people who have a relatively expansive view of the mutability of human behavior.”

For example, I sense that most groups that could be called “fundamentalist” believe in changing people to conform to the code of behavior from some real or imagined past. Many religious fundamentalists believe in a world with much less sex, imagining that people lived this way in the past. Yet I can’t think of many circumstances in which I would facilitate people’s understanding by using the term “leftist” to refer to such a fundamentalist movement.

Perhaps “ambitious” is a better term than “leftist?” Sometimes the discussion has hinted that we’re discussing not merely ambitious visions, but too ambitious visions. Yet by what authority would any of us claim to say which visions are too ambitious? No doubt many people have regarded the idea of electing a black man President of the US as too ambitious. This vision surely depended upon a belief that the voting behavior of a lot of people could be changed. And no doubt many people argued that it was human nature for people to vote for someone of their own ethnic group, and that the activists who didn’t recognize this fact were ignoring deep and unsurmountable constraints. One man’s “human nature” and “unsurmountable constraint” is another man’s old wives’ tale.

Not really

Rather than demonstrating anything especially interesting about the left and the right, we seem to be in the process of re-defining the term “left” to mean “people who have a relatively expansive view of the mutability of human behavior.”

No. I am making a claim, not offering a definition.

No doubt many people have regarded the idea of electing a black man President of the US as too ambitious. This vision surely depended upon a belief that the voting behavior of a lot of people could be changed.

This is not necessarily an example of malleability. As I pointed out:

the vision of society as non-malleable is not necessarily a vision of society as not subject to spontaneous change. It is a vision of society as not subject to deliberate change (such as by a political elite). Like the weather - it changes, but it is hard to influence.

..

And no doubt many people argued that it was human nature for people to vote for someone of their own ethnic group, and that the activists who didn’t recognize this fact were ignoring deep and unsurmountable constraints.

I have never heard anyone argue that. Nor, apparently, have you, since you write "no doubt". You are making things up - setting up straw men.

For example, I sense that

For example, I sense that most groups that could be called “fundamentalist” believe in changing people to conform to the code of behavior from some real or imagined past. Many religious fundamentalists believe in a world with much less sex, imagining that people lived this way in the past.

To be honest, contraception has probably greatly increased the amount of sex being had. (Which is a Good Thing)

Three dog mid-morning

No doubt many people have regarded the idea of electing a black man President of the US as too ambitious. This vision surely depended upon a belief that the voting behavior of a lot of people could be changed.

This is not necessarily an example of malleability. As I pointed out:

the vision of society as non-malleable is not necessarily a vision of society as not subject to spontaneous change. It is a vision of society as not subject to deliberate change (such as by a political elite). Like the weather - it changes, but it is hard to influence.

Well, let’s work with these examples.

The statement “it changes – but it is hard to influence” seems a bit mystical. Indeed, it seems a bit anti-libertarian in that it would appear to deny the efficacy of individual human action. Thus in 1789 I understand that it would have been very unlikely for a black man to be elected president of the US. I understand ensuing events changed those odds. I seem to recall a war, and a movement or two, and some legislation, and even a political campaign. Yet in my understanding, these events did not simply “happen.” Specific individuals took specific steps to make them happen. Do you have a different understanding?

True, weather is hard to influence – based on what we know today. Does the fact that we can’t change the weather using today’s technology therefore lead you to conclude that this is just a manifestation of “weather nature,” and all future efforts to develop technologies to influence the weather face “unsurmountable constraints”? Perhaps so, but I have insufficient basis upon which to reach that conclusion. After all, it is reputedly the case (no, I offer no citations in support of this straw man) that some people regarded the idea of human flight as contrary to human nature. And indeed efforts to enable humans to fly using heavier-than-air crafts resulted in an unbroken string of failures – until they didn’t.

Bottom line: Yes, much harm – and very dramatic harm – has resulted from social movements premised on the idea that social change was possible. But yes also, much harm – albeit perhaps less dramatic harm – has resulted from centuries of feudalism/racism/caste systems/sexism premised on the idea that social change was impossible. I see in both systems people who have denigrate the humanity of those holding contrary views. Thus, I don’t necessarily disagree with many of the arguments that have been advanced here, but I do question the merits of any conclusions that are based on only half the evidence.

I share Constant’s view that leftists would be wise to exercise humility regarding their world views. I just wonder if there isn’t a nugget of wisdom in there for us all.

The statement “it changes

The statement “it changes – but it is hard to influence” seems a bit mystical.

It's not really mystical, it's just a matter of distinguishing between concepts, for example between the intended and the unintended.

Indeed, it seems a bit anti-libertarian in that it would appear to deny the efficacy of individual human action.

What it denies is the super-efficacy of the action of the planners; meanwhile it acknowledges the efficacy of the action of everyone else. It is not anti-libertarian - quite the opposite. It is anti-totalitarian. It denies the notion that the planners are puppeteers and everyone else is their puppet. It denies the efficacy of puppeteering, and it does this by affirming the efficacy of the individual human action of the intended puppets of the would-be puppeteers.

In the rest of your comment you are arguing for the unconstrained vision. I am not here primarily interested in arguing about whether the constrained or the unconstrained vision is the correct one, so I'll refrain from responding to this point. For now.

Double Hheader: Constrained vs. Un! Planners vs. All Comers!

1. Constrained vs. unconstrained distinction

I encourage people to subject their ideas to testing. But the fact that I might label an idea “human nature” or “constraints” should not excuse that idea from being subject to testing.

In other words, while I don’t encourage anyone to ignore limitations, I similarly don’t encourage people to accept all claims of limitations at face value. It may well be true to say that gravity constrains the ability of objects heavier than air to fly. It may even be true to say that flying is contrary to human nature. But neither statement supports the conclusion that humans can’t fly in heavier-than-air planes.

2. “Planners” vs. “everyone else” distinction

Some people are concerned that greenhouse gasses will cause great harm. They propose all manner of policies to reduce greenhouse gasses. Some of these advocates seem deeply committed to their policy prescriptions, and don’t seem to appreciate the high degree of doubt in their forecasts or the high degree certainty regarding the costs. That is, they fail to understand certain constraints. That may be a formula for disaster. I feel justified in a bit of scepticism.

So far, so good. End of the story?

But what degree of scepticism should I feel towards the LACK of planning engaged in by the great majority of people who make no efforts to calculate the risks and costs of maintaining the status quo? Because no planning is occurring on this side of the equation, clearly such people are innocent of grandiose assumption and concomitant errors – except perhaps for tacit ones. Am I therefore justified in assuming that these people live in a world without constraints, and that there can be no unforeseen consequences arising from their actions (or inactions)?

I can appreciate the merit or lack of merit of any proposal only relative to some alternative. I may find interest in a critical analysis of a proposal, but unless I have the same critical analysis of the alternatives, I gain little guidance, only propaganda.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no useful distinctions between planners and everyone else. Yet I suspect those distinctions can be overstated.

I'm having trouble

I'm having trouble discerning a germane argument. I think you may need to work a little harder on connecting your thoughts to the arguments you're responding to.

Appologies

Ok, ok. To be sure, I'm responding to arguments that I anticipate that Constant will make. Which doesn't make for easy reading. And isn't really very respectful to Constant. My appologies all.

Why would I do this? Because 1) I'm plowed under with work and am therefore desparate to procrastinate and 2) Constant's remarks are so damned thought-provoking -- much more thought-provoking than my actual work.

But enough. Feel free to ignore any of my stuff that doesn't fit. I'll try actually waiting to learn people's thoughts before responding to them. And if people prefer to move on to other topics, well, that's fine too.

God, I typed out a long

God, I typed out a long response and it's not here. All amidst the Math work I'm buried in.

Hmmm wonder how that happened?

Preview vs. Post

You probably hit "preview comment" thinking it was "post comment". I've done that a few times.