A Darwinian education

Reuters reports on Mr Obama's speech:

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The economy cannot sustain "21st century markets with 20th century regulations," Obama told reporters after the meeting with lawmakers.

"If we once again guide the market's invisible hand with a higher principle, our markets will recover, our economy will once again thrive and America will once again lead the world in this new century as it did in the last," he said.

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Adam Smith believed that the market's invisible hand ought to be guided by individuals acting out of enlightened self-interest. Everyone is better off if everyone acts in self-interest (the parable of the butcher, the baker, etc); as an ethics professor, Smith implied that everyone acted in self-interest to benefit the community. He did not mean that when everyone acted in self-interest without regard for the community, society would still somehow benefit.

Mr Obama's "higher principle" is Smith and his liberal contemporaries' "enlightened self-interest."

Darwin, in his essay The Moral Sense of Man and the Lower Animals, distinguished between two types of instinct: "higher" and "lower". Over the course of his essay, Darwin empirically demonstrates the existence of two distinct types of morality that are instinctive in both animals and mankind: the kind of instinct that leads animals to care for their fellow species, and the kind of instinct that leads animals to care for themselves possibly at the expense of their fellow species.

Darwin wrote that, "man can generally and readily distinguish between the higher and lower moral rules. The higher are founded on the social instincts, and relate to the welfare of others. They are supported by the approbation of our fellow men and by reason. The lower rules...relate chiefly to self."

Unenlightened self-interest is founded on man's lower instincts; enlightened self-interest, on the higher instincts. Darwin empirically found that the more capable of intelligent thought an animal, the more the animal responded to his higher moral instinct, not his lower. He wrote: "as man gradually advanced in intellectual power, and was enable to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he acquired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions; as he regarded more and more, not only the welfare, but the happiness of his fellow men; as from habit, following on beneficial experience, instruction, and example, his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races...so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher."

Darwin has proposed that as education hones the mind, so too will we come to tie our self-interest to the collective interest of our group. Through education and sheer pragmatism ("following on beneficial experience [and] instruction"), man will come to identify self-interest with the collective self-interest of his community. Enlightened self-interest relies heavily upon the cultivation of the mind so that man can "trace the more remote consequences of his actions." In other words, man will see that an action taken in the interest of the community will, in the long run, be more beneficial to the man than if he had acted selfishly.

Take a practical example. If I choose to study alone and not help my classmate study for the same test, I act selfishly and may perhaps score higher on the test than he does; in the short-run, I get the grade. A more nuanced thinker would tie self-interest to group-interest: if I study with him and we both become more competitive, we force each other to work harder, more efficiently, and be more innovative. Stifling competition in the short-run benefits me, but "the more remote consequences of [my] actions" outweigh the short-term gain of a good grade. The long run benefit is a more powerful mind honed by competition.

Or even more practically: in the short-run, factories that strip resources without conservation efforts benefit from their profits. In the long run, if they "trace the more remote consequences" of their actions, they will realize that they have deprived themselves of their livelihood, deprived others of their livelihood, and thus made everyone less competitive, and therefore remove the potential for competition to improve their minds.

Education that trains the mind in long-run strategic thinking, among other goals, lead man to tie his self-interest to the interests of his group.

Darwin's ideas apply beyond a closed, domestic economy; they apply to a globalized economy too. "As man advances in civilization," Darwin wrote, "and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only the artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies from extending to the men of all nations and races."

In a globalized world where "small tribes are united into larger communities", Darwin suggests that highly educated men will not fail to respond to their instinct to tie their self-interest to the interests of the group. Darwin suggests that man's instinct coupled with his reason will lead to man identifying himself with the broadest group possible: humanity.

Enlightened self-interest finds its roots in man's instincts; so too does the unenlightened variety. To promote the "higher principle" he speaks of, Mr Obama must use education to train men to react to their instinctive desire to tie self-interest to group-interest. In doing so, Mr Obama will make America more competitive, and will have truly sought out "change".

Ambitious and idealistic, perhaps, but Darwin's theory is well supported by evidence and is certainly something the United States ought to strive for.

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Comments

Or even more practically: in the short-run, factories that strip resources without conservation efforts benefit from their profits. In the long run, if they "trace the more remote consequences" of their actions, they will realize that they have deprived themselves of their livelihood, deprived others of their livelihood, and thus made everyone less competitive, and therefore remove the potential for competition to improve their minds.

Two issues came to mind with this quote. The first is that whilst individuals might engage in enlightened self-interest (and there's certainly lot of examples that they don't) a greater issue is whether the management of (say) a factory can engage in it. As Lukes' pointed out in his classic criticism of methodological individualism the collective behaviour of institutionalised individuals is very different to that where the individuals has their own internal moral code.

As institutions lack a moral code, they will tend to engage in systematic imperatives instead; under capitalism this is primarily profit. Whilst some will diversify to ensure long-term market penetration (e.g., BP moving into the solar industry) stronger economic incentive structures need to be established. My next contribution will discuss a set of summary principles for environmental economics.

Lev, I look forward to that set of principles. It would answer this:

http://free-exchange.livejournal.com/50755.html