Re: The Rise of Universalism

This is a response to an article by JayMan: The Rise of Universalism. I am going to critique the ideas he presents in that article. If you don’t read his article first, this won’t make much sense.

I will start with the notion of Universalism. He defines it as follows:

Universalism is, broadly, the belief that all humans deserve the rights and recognition that historically people would only reserve for their own clan, own tribe, or at best, own countrymen.

Let’s analyze this definition. Like all definitions, it depends on other definitions. It depends on the meaning of “rights”, for example. Does Universalism specify what rights people should have? Do those rights come with responsibilities attached? What exactly are these “rights and recognition”?

This is an important point, because a claim of universality for an ideology/religion is not unique. Consider Islam, for example. Islam claims to be a universal religion and way of life. Any human being can be accepted into Islam if he or she accepts the core tenets of Islam. Islam defines an in-group that consists of all Muslims. There is no racial or ethnic requirement to be a Muslim, just an ideological requirement. Islam is not restricted to a clan, tribe, or country. Islam fits JayMan’s definition of “Universalism”.

According to the definition, Universalism extends rights that were historically reserved for the clan, tribe or country. What rights? Did any historical (pre 1800) clan, tribe or country have our modern conception of human rights but only on a smaller scale? No. For example, most pre-modern societies had socially imposed restrictions on sexual behavior that would be considered a horrible infringement on “human rights” by modern standards. Those restrictions were applied to members of the clan, tribe or country. The supposed “Universalists” of the West do not demand that we apply historical NW European moral norms and laws to all of humanity. They demand that we apply a new moral standard, and they often apply that standard selectively to Western societies, ignoring the moral transgressions of other cultures and societies. This is not “Universalism” as defined.

JayMan’s definition of “Universalism” does not fit the popular ideology of the modern West. It is not sufficient to distinguish the modern Western worldview from Islam or Christianity. It doesn’t specify what rights or responsibilities are supposedly universal. It fits Islam better than it fits the popular worldview of the modern West, since Islam does have an imperative to expand a pre-modern system of rights and obligations to all of humanity, albeit by force if necessary.

It could be said that the morality of the modern West is “universal altruism”: that its sole moral obligation is to be nice to all human beings. This does not fit JayMan’s definition, however, although I suspect that is what he meant. It does not fit his definition because altruism was not the sole moral principle of any pre-modern society, whether it was a clan, tribe or country. The modern Western worldview does not expand a pre-modern moral system to a larger circle. It defines a new, simpler morality that eliminates many pre-modern moral values, such as traditional sexual morality.

The ideology of the modern West is better labeled as “Humanism” than “Universalism”. Humanism is a post-Christian belief system that emerged recently in the West. It is not simply an expansion of the “in-group” to include everyone. It is a reduced moral system with a single moral value of altruism. It transfers most practical obligations from individuals to the collective: rights for individuals, responsibilities for society.

Pre-modern and non-Western belief systems are not simply more exclusive versions of Humanism with a veneer of superstition and funny clothes. Take Islam, for example. It has a complex system of rights and obligations, and its core value is not altruism, but submission to God/Islam.

After defining “Universalism”, JayMan goes on to talk about the weirdness of NW Europeans. He mentions the Hajnal Line that divides Europe into regions with historically different marriage practices and fertility levels. This line essentially divides Germanic Europe from non-Germanic Europe. It includes the Germanic-speaking regions and regions that had significant Germanic migration during the Dark Ages, such as Northern France. The Germanic part of Europe had delayed marriage and an increased emphasis on monogamy. The Germans were undeniably weird, going back to ancient times. It is very possible that this weirdness had a genetic basis. Even if it didn’t originally, different sexual practices would create different selective pressures on the genome.

It is also true that modernity originated in the Germanic part of Europe. On the other hand, the modern West has roots that go back to ancient Rome and Greece and even further back. The emphasis on rationality as a source of knowledge and a way to resolve disputes is one of the things that differentiates European civilization from other civilizations. Western rationalism goes back to ancient Greece and Rome at least. I believe that European exceptionalism is not purely Germanic, or NW European, in origin. I think it has deeper roots. However, I do believe that European exceptionalism is partly genetic, and that modernity originated in NW Europe. My main disagreement with JayMan is on what psychological traits were important in creating modernity. I think the most critical trait was rationality. JayMan believes that the key trait was empathy or less “clannishness”.

Although he is not entirely clear on this point, JayMan seems to believe that the success of modernity is due to “reciprocal altruism”. So-called “reciprocal altruism” is not altruism at all, but rather cooperation for mutual benefit. I will use the term “cooperation” to avoid confusion. I agree that modernity was an expansion in the scale of cooperation, although I don’t think that was the only cause of modernity. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that it was the most important factor.

Cooperation is based on trust. To cooperate, each side has to trust that it will receive a benefit from the other side, because cooperation is selfish, not altruistic. The risk of cooperation is that the other side might defect. (The prisoner’s dilemma is the classic thought experiment that illustrates the problem of cooperation.) There are two ways to establish trust and enable cooperation. One is long-term forced association. The other is a third party that enforces cooperation by punishing defection.

In a small society, people interact over and over, and they don’t have much choice of whom to interact with. The outside world is harsh and unfriendly. They cooperate within a small circle. Trust is established by long-term forced association. This doesn’t work for a society larger than about 200 people. Creating a large society, such as a modern country, requires a centralized power structure with a monopoly on force (the state) that imposes cooperation by outlawing and punishing violence and other forms of defection between its members. Every large society (not just modern ones) has mechanisms of social control that impose cooperation between strangers.

JayMan seems to believe that the expansion of cooperation in NW Europe was due to an increase in the level of affective empathy of NW Europeans. There are two problems with this idea. One is that cooperation depends on trust, not empathy. The other is that the historical evidence does not fit that hypothesis very well.

JayMan himself points out that “reciprocal altruism” (cooperation) depends on trust. When I work for money or buy food at the grocery store, I am cooperating with others. I don’t have to empathize with them to do so. If anything, a modern society affords fewer opportunities for interactions based on empathy. Modern societies are organized around ideas, such as money and laws, not around personal relationships. They depend very little on empathy, and very much on trust. I have to trust that my employer will pay me, that the bank will not steal my money, and that the grocery store will not sell me tainted food. I trust those institutions and the people within them mainly because I trust the government to enforce the law. I trust the overall power structure of my society to impose cooperation on the public. That is what allows me to trust strangers, not an expanded circle of empathy.

The idea that NW Europeans have greater affective empathy, as individuals, is highly dubious when you consider all the behavior of NW Europeans over the past 500 years, not just some cherry-picked examples. NW Europe was the scene of some of the bloodiest wars in history, including the wars of religion and the two world wars of the 20th Century. It is true that certain public expressions of empathy have become fashionable in recent times, but there is a better explanation for that: status signaling and prosperity.

Altruism is a luxury, and the prosperity of modern societies has enabled both real altruism (usually in the form of government charity) and fake altruism (usually in the form of status-signaling by individuals). Individuals compete for moral status by adopting altruistic poses in public. They profess great concern for others, especially for stereotypical victims. They buy “ethical water” to avoid the shame of buying water in a bottle. Most of the professed altruism in the modern worldview is a hypocritical pretense. It becomes a reality only (ironically) via a tragedy of the commons, in which people vote for governments to do things that they would never do themselves. (See Pathological Altruism.) The huge difference between professed altruistic moral beliefs and selfish individual behavior suggests that the altruistic morality of the modern West does not come from people actually caring about one another.

One of the flaws in JayMan’s thinking is the confusion of cooperation with altruism. This error is not unique to JayMan. It is a common error in biological theorizing about society. Cooperation is not altruism. So-called “reciprocal altruism” is, by definition, selfish, and thus not altruistic. There is no need to empathize positively with someone in order to cooperate with them. You just have to trust them to reciprocate. Society is based on cooperation, not altruism. Even small societies (clans, tribes) are based on cooperation, not altruism.

JayMan believes that NW Europeans were less “clannish” than other people, and perhaps that is true. Let’s take a moment to think about what clannishness is. A society is not a family, but a family can be like a society on a small scale. For example, parents impose non-violence on siblings. Forced association over a long period of time creates cooperation and trust within families (usually). So, a family or an extended family can operate like a small society. There are usually benefits to cooperating on larger scales, but cooperation on a large scale is harder to create, and it requires a stable power structure. In the absence of a reliable government, people will rely on smaller-scale networks of cooperation, such as clans or gangs. (The former are kinship-based, the latter are not.)

I doubt that clannishness is a trait that can be tweaked genetically by itself. More generally, I don’t think “clannishness” is a meaningful psychological trait. It is probably true that some people have a greater preference for social organization based on personal relationships and emotions rather than abstract ideas such as money and laws, but I doubt that there are genes for “clannishness” in the narrow sense of a preference for kinship-based societies.

An individual’s preference for social inclusivity/exclusivity probably depends on two things: his capacity for abstract thought and his social conditions. A greater capacity for abstract thought allows a person to organize socially using abstract ideas, such as laws and money, instead of relying on emotions and personal relationships (the ancestral primate form of social organization). Social conditions determine the costs and benefits of inclusivity versus exclusivity. Cooperation on a large scale is only beneficial if there exists a social order that prevents defection. Otherwise cooperation with strangers is unprofitable due to the prisoner’s dilemma.

For greater social inclusivity to evolve, it would have to confer a reproductive advantage. It would have to lower child mortality or give men a better chance of mating. (Unless it was a side-effect of some other trait, such as increased rationality, that confers an advantage for other reasons.) Greater social inclusivity would only confer a reproductive advantage if there already existed a large-scale social order that imposed cooperation on the population, and if reproductive success was tied to one’s ability to cooperate with others. Whether cooperation with strangers is possible and reproductively useful depends on the social environment. Thus, the biological evolution of greater social inclusivity cannot explain an expansion of cooperation, as the expanded potential for cooperation would have to exist first.

A general error of thought that pervades the HBD sphere and most biological theorizing about society is the failure to distinguish society as a separate level of order with its own forms and dynamics. Society cannot be descriptively reduced to biology. It cannot be understood in biological terms. There are no genes for society or culture. Of course, society and culture causally depend on biology, but they are other kinds of emergent order that require their own theories. Society and culture supervene on biology, in the same way that biology supervenes on physics. They are causally constrained by it but cannot be descriptively reduced to it. Society cannot be simply explained by “social behavior” genes. It is another level of order that requires its own theory.

To recap my criticisms:

  • Many ideologies are universalist, in the sense of claiming to apply to all human beings. For example, Islam fits JayMan’s definition of “Universalism”.
  • The ideology of the modern West is not simply the extension of pre-modern morality to a larger moral circle. It is a simpler moral system with a core moral value of altruism and almost no practical obligations for individuals. It does not fit JayMan’s definition of “Universalism”.
  • JayMan explains an expansion of so-called “reciprocal altruism” as due to an expansion of empathy, even though reciprocal altruism does not require empathy. It is cooperation for mutual benefit, and it requires trust (the expectation of reciprocity), not empathy or affection.
  • The evidence of history does not show greater empathy in NW Europeans. The real and professed altruism of modern societies is better explained as a virtue-signaling competition enabled by prosperity.
  • A genetic tendency to be less “clannish” (more socially inclusive) could not have evolved until there was a social environment that made it beneficial to cooperate on a larger scale.