The Unrepentant Nihilist

The topic of nihilism raises two important questions. “What do we mean by nihilism?” “What are the consequences of nihilism?” (Is it a disease or a cure?)

In her book “The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness” (1992) Karen Carr distinguishes between:

  1. Epistemological nihilism (the denial of the possibility of knowledge)
  2. Alethiological nihilism (the denial of the reality of truth)
  3. Metaphysical or ontological nihilism (the denial of an independently existing world)
  4. Ethical or moral nihilism (the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values)
  5. Existential or axiological nihilism (the feeling that life has no meaning).

Some forms of nihilism imply other forms of nihilism. For example, if one denies the possibility of knowledge or truth then this renders the idea of normative ethics void. On the other hand, one can believe that there is an objective world of which true knowledge is possible but also hold that all moral preferences are subjective and life has no objective meaning. In fact, the desire for knowledge and truth can turn against the idea of an objective morality. As Nietzsche observed: “But among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective–and now the recognition of this inveterate mendaciousness that one despairs of shedding becomes a stimulant.”

The main concern of Carr’s book is whether nihilism is considered a “crisis” with transformative and redemptive powers (as per Nietzsche or Karl Barth) or instead a “rather banal characterization of the human situation” that needs to be welcomed and celebrated as an antidote to dogmatism, a view she associates with the writings of Richard Rorty and contemporary deconstructionists and  anti-foundationalists. Carr herself does not welcome this “joyous affirmation” of nihilism because she believes that such an anti-dogmatic position produces the paradoxical effect of reinforcing “dominant social beliefs and practices of our culture” and the “absolutization of the dominant power structures of the culture to which we belong” because it cannot appeal to any critical (objective) standard outside of itself.

Carr’s position is puzzling for a number of reasons. It is not clear at all that nihilism would have the effect of reinforcing existing power structures. Most power structures and cultural norms are in fact based on residual beliefs about objective morality. It is also not clear why an abandonment of truth would have a reinforcing effect instead of a transformative effect. Carr herself writes that “one is left with simply the blind assertion of one’s private will; if the particular community to which one belongs does not support one’s will, one simply finds (or creates) a community more sympathetic to one’s tastes.” But this scenario of continuous power struggle and creating one’s own communities sounds rather dynamic, not static.

What she really appears to fear is a situation where critical thinking with universalist aspirations is replaced by a more individualist Hobbesian perspective in which “disagreements…deteriorate into contents of power.” A more cynical (or “nihilistic”) observer may point out that this has always been the condition of mankind and that the kind of critical perspectives that she feels are needed have always been rhetorical tools in power struggles and lack credible cognitive merit.

She approvingly quotes Thomas McCarthy who writes that “critical thought becomes aestheticized and privatized, deprived of any political or social implications. There can be no politically relevant critical theory and hence no theoretically-supported critical practice.” But is this a defect or a virtue of nihilism? Is this a disease or a cure? This assessment basically captures a modern, scientific, view of the world where morality and culture are an emergent property of evolution and politics can be best understood in a “contractarian” framework where individual preferences, coordination, and bargaining create moral and cultural conventions, an outlook that might be considered a major improvement over religion, or the vacuous nature of most “critical theory.”

Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness

Even people who are inclined to believe in a universal, objective foundation for morality are sometimes prone to the impression that in certain situations invoking “moral” arguments is rather insincere. For example, moral arguments in favor of (income) equality are often dismissed by libertarian-leaning individuals as just a sanitized expression of resentment and envy by “losers.” But can this argument be generalized? Is moral rhetoric simply a way of pulling someone’s leg, and often employed when faced with a poor bargaining position? In a remarkable experimental philosophy paper, Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness: Experimental Clues for an Ancient Puzzle (1997), Yanis Varoufakis throws some much-needed light on this topic.

A series of elegant games were designed to test the hypothesis that the “strong” would have a tendency to maximize their strategic advantage and the “weak” would have a tendency to choose “quasi-moral acts,” even when this is clearly against their own interests. In all three variants of the game, the cooperative solution was dominated by the solution to “cheat” but, quite remarkably, as the incentive of the “strong” to “cheat” increased, the “weak” displayed even more “cooperating” behavior. In the third version of the game, the tendency of the “weak” to cooperate slightly declined but this was only because the payoff for the “strong” to cheat was decreased (but still a dominating strategy). Since the participants of the game alternated between being “strong” and being “weak,” and long-term reputation effects were ruled out by not allowing the same pair of players to play the game twice in a row, we cannot claim that different kinds of people will play the game differently, or that the cooperative behavior of the “weak” was motivated by reputation effects. And since players varied their strategy depending on whether they were in a strong or weak bargaining position, moral theories that would predict that players in both roles would recognize the value of having a cooperative disposition (a la David Gauthier) can be dismissed, too.

Since it never makes sense in these games to cooperate against an uncooperative opponent, the most credible explanation of the “weak” to often cooperate is that this kind of behavior (or rhetoric) comes with being in an “unfavorable” strategic situation (i.e., one’s “social location.”) As the author of the paper notes, “Many (and on occasion most) of our participants swapped happily their cooperative choices for strategic aggression when they moved from the weaker to the stronger role.”

What to make of these results? For one thing, they could be seen as evidence that “power corrupts” and that the (formerly) “oppressed” will exhibit the same kind of aggressive behavior when they are in a position to become the oppressors. This is a popular view, and it does not seem these experimental results contradict it. This perspective also seems to reinforce political views that aim for the abolition of political power (anarchism) instead of giving all people (as represented by parties or coalitions) equal access to it (democracy). Of course, differences in bargaining power do not disappear in the absence of political power so even in a stateless society we would still expect to see the tendency of those in a strategically “weak” position to moralize. Also, in the real world there will often be “reputation” effects, and we would also expect people with natural (hereditary) advantages to find themselves more often in a stronger bargaining position.

It is undeniable, however, that “moral rhetoric” is often used by those in power (sometimes even more so), too, instead of just naked appeals to strategic advantage.  In a sense one could argue that in modern societies the division of resources is not exclusively settled by strategic advantage (or strength) but by a combination of strategic self-interest and moral rhetoric. We then would expect political actors that reconcile self-interest (or group interest) with evolved (“hardwired”)  moral outlooks (egalitarianism) to prevail.

Experimental evidence that those in a weak strategic position tend to play the “morality card” does not necessarily imply that the idea of a objective morality is a chimera. Many people still seem to believe that universal normative ethics is possible. On the other hand, a position of moral skepticism or moral nihilism does not mean that morality can be exclusively explained as a (psychological) response to a weak strategic position. In this sense, studies like these cannot provide definitive answers concerning the truth value of normative statements (or the lack thereof) or the evolutionary psychology of  moralizing. Also, the tendency to cooperate is not identical to moral rhetoric (or moral behavior in general) and additional research is needed to further differentiate between the two in the face of strategic weakness.

Our best understanding of moral behavior at this time is that it is an outcome of evolution and specific to species and their life history. In such an evolutionary perspective the question of which moral perspective is “correct” simply does not make sense. As this understanding of morality will come to dominate in society, bargaining will gradually come to replace traditional ethics and moral rhetoric will increasingly be seen as either ignorant or (deliberate) manipulation. Such a development  could be classified as the end of “morality” as we know it, but it can also been as the beginning of an era where modern (secular) humans arrive at a new understanding of what morality means. It is difficult to predict what a society will look like in which “a-moral” humans settle disagreements and conflicts about scarce resources exclusively by strategic interaction and conventions, but some efforts to understand and predict this have been made by writers like David Gauthier, Anthony de Jasay, and James Buchanan (albeit from different perspectives).

David Gauthier revisits Morals by Agreement

“The prohibition on bettering by worsening seems to me to lie at the core of any adequate social morality.” David Gauthier, 2013

In may 2011, the York University in Toronto organized a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of David Gauthier’s Morals by Agreement. Gauthier’s own contribution to the conference, “Twenty-Five On,” was published in the July 2013 issue of Ethics. Since Gauthier has only sporadically published since the start of this millennium, his article provides a valuable resource to understand how Gauthier’s views have changed since the publication of Morals by Agreement.

Gauthier identifies his contractarian approach as an alternative to both “Kantianism or utilitarianism” and contrasts the maximization paradigm of classical game theory with Pareto-optimization:

“Instead of supposing that an action is rational only if it maximizes the agent’s payoff given the actions of the other agents, I am proposing that a set of actions, one for each agent, is fully rational only if it yields a Pareto-optimal outcome….To the maximizer’s charge that it cannot be rational for a person to take less than he can get, the Pareto-optimizer replies that it cannot be rational for each of a group of persons to take less than, acting together, each can get.”

Gauthier’s rational cooperators (the updated version of his “constrained maximizers”) do do not “bargain” and interact on a maximizing basis but seek agreement using the principle of “maximin proportionate gain” (previously called “maximin relative benefit”). Unlike in Morals by Agreement, Gauthier does not really discuss under which conditions these issues are relevant, but perhaps they comes into play in the production of “public goods.” After all, as has been argued by philosophers such as Jan Narveson, without such an argument, Gauthier’s Lockean proviso can do all the important work without having to consider the distribution of goods arising from public action. As Anthony de Jasay has written:

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Interestingly enough, Gauthier has strengthened the role of his revised Lockean proviso:

“The proviso is not the whole of morality or even the last word, but it is, I believe, the first word. It provides a default condition that may be appealed to set a baseline for social interaction.”

It does not seem Gauthier has substantially revised his interpretation of the Lockean proviso. In a nutshell, the proviso forbids bettering oneself at the expense of another person. As such, the proviso can be “sharpened as a weapon of reason against parasitism.” As Gauthier appears to recognize in his discussion of “Robin Hood,” the proviso does not seem to leave much room for coerced income re-distribution where one party is worsened for the benefit of another (provided the proviso was not violated prior to this action). In his final remarks in an online discussion that his paper triggered, he writes:

“Any form of redistribution may involve a proviso violation, and so is prima facie wrong. Whether the violation is actually justified depends on (among other considerations) whether it rectifies an earlier wrong.”

While Gauthier has often followed John Rawls in characterizing society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” he now prefers the phrase “mutual fulfillment” because mutual advantage puts too much emphasis on “competitive or positional orientation” and is too restrictive. This change of wording, however, does not fundamentally change the contractarian framework that Gauthier advocates. In fact, one could argue that the word “contractarianism” suffers from a similar defect in characterizing his approach to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this paper is where Gauthier reflects on the nature of his contractarian enterprise. In Gauthier’s opinion, absent a plausible justification of Kantian and utilitarian approaches, the Hobbesian contractarian approach is the only credible road to construct a modern, rational, approach to morality. As evidenced by his emphasis on the Lockean proviso, Gauthier’s contractarianism is not aimed at conferring legitimacy on whatever outcome results from markets and bargaining because this would privilege conditions that reflect prior violations of the provis. As such, his contractarianism is not an exclusive forward-looking approach using the status quo as a starting point. He writes:

“The key idea is that the best justification we can offer for any expectation or requirement is that it could be agreed to, or follow from what could be agreed to, by the persons subject to it, were they to be choosing, ex ante, together with their fellows, the terms of their (subsequent) cooperation. The hypothetical nature of the justification is clear—if, per impossible, you were to be choosing, together with your fellow humans, the terms on which you would interact with them, then what terms would you accept? Those are the terms of rational acceptance, the terms that you, as a cooperator, have good reason to accept given that others have like reason. “

In reality this requirement can, of course, produce vigorous discussion because it is rather challenging to objectively demonstrate who has unjustly benefited from violations of the proviso/contractarian approach and to what degree. This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that over time groups that were deprived of their liberties have now been granted special privileges by governments to offset such events. It also not clear how the individualist assumption embodied in Gauthier’s contractarianism can be squared with compensating victims (ranging from taxpayers to minority groups) by any other person than the specific individual(s) who engaged in behavior that violated the proviso.

Gauthier discusses three different objections to his contractarian approach.

The first is the objection that only actual contracts are binding. Gauthier replies that “actual agreement would not show that the terms agreed to were rational, since it privileges existing circumstances. The contractarian test, in taking the ex ante perspective, removes that privilege.” This perspective may sound overly optimistic because it requires that people who think about ex-ante agreement reach a specific determinate result (see below). In response to Gauthier, however, one could argue that there is an interesting asymmetry here. While the existence of a contract does not necessarily reflect (non-coerced) rational agreement, a person who denies and can demonstrate not having agreed to a certain obligation (as is the case with most government obligations) provides reasonably good evidence that the contractarian test has failed.

A second objection to the contractarian framework is that it is redundant. If it is rational to act in a certain way, than the appeal of a social contract is superfluous. Gauthier answers that this misses the point because individual rational behavior will not tell us what it would be rational to agree under “suitably constrained circumstances.” As with the first objection, it is clear that Gauthier, like Rawls, wants to push the reset button on existing circumstances to allow for a social agreement that does not privilege existing conditions. What is really important for Gauthier is to show that a rejection of existing conditions as a starting point does not follow from an (arbitrary) moral conviction but is required by his contractarian framework, a non-trivial challenge.

The third objection, and in my opinion the strongest, is that an appeal to ex-ante agreement does not yield a sufficiently determined result. One might even go further and argue that the substance of hypothetical agreements cannot be established in a meaningful fashion.

Gauthier disagrees and refers the reader to his paper on “Political Contractarianism,” where he outlines which kind of society would pass the contractarian test. Most readers read some kind of (moderate) libertarianism in his political writings (he also wrote a back cover endorsement of Jan Narveson’s “The Libertarian Idea”) so it would seem that in Gauthier’s view rational agreement produces classical liberalism, perhaps with some allowance for a very limited welfare state based on mutual insurance arguments (Gauthier’s own writings are not particularly clear here).

Gauthier may not sufficiently recognize that his emphasis on voluntary association, the Lockean proviso, and rejection of parasitism puts him at odds with many other philosophers and people. In particular, his position that there is a morally relevant distinction between “harming” and “failing to help” is a core libertarian belief that is not shared by many. When most people think about a (hypothetical) social contract they do not think about the terms of interaction (like Robert Nozick’s side constraints) but about specific conditions they would like society to conform to such as equality of opportunity or equality of income. Absent these conditions, they will “reject’ the society they live in, regardless of whether such conditions can occur without worsening the position of anyone. Similarly, Gauthier’s writings strongly reflect the perspective that non-zero sum interactions between people prevail in markets that pass the contractarian test, a position that does not seem to resonate with many people yet.

Both Gauthier’s approach to morality and his view of society as a cooperative venture for mutual fulfillment is far removed from the democratic “churning society” that we live in today. Gauthier seems to be very much a philosopher of the future, or of a society with people of high intelligence. This would be consistent with Steven Pinker’s perspective, who writes in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that the General Social Survey, which tracks the characteristics of society in the United States, contains hints that “intelligence tracks classical liberalism more closely than left-liberalism” (p. 663).

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Summer 2012 issue of the Independent Review features my review essay (PDF) of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. There can be little doubt that this work constitutes one of the most ambitious and credible contributions to social science to date. Although the review essay was written from a classical liberal perspective, I think that one of the main criticisms of Pinker’s project can be sustained without any kind of “ideological” perspective. In fact, one of the concerns I have about his project is that insufficient attention has been given to providing a neutral definition of violence. Why is this important?

If we would go back in time and challenge some of the violence that was routine in those days inevitable objections would be that these acts of cruelty should not be condemned because they simply involved the execution of God’s will, proper punishment, served “the common good,” etc. One of the themes of Pinker’s book is that we have become less tolerant of these kinds of justification for violence and acts of extreme cruelty. Naturally, this raises the question of whether there are still many acts of violence, cruelty, and punishment that are being rationalized with poor reasoning. In my review I suggest that most of what we consider the normal operation of government, such as collecting taxes and “regulation,” is sustained through violence and threats of violence.

One might object that this perspective reflects a minority position on violence that does not conform to common use of the term violence. I do not believe that this response would be credible because the common opinion is not that government operates without threats of violence (and punishment if one fails to obey) but that in this case the use of force is legitimate and socially sanctioned. In that case, however, Pinker’s project would not be about the decline of violence but the decline in violence not approved by governments. Pinker does not go that far because he does not exclude warfare by democratic governments from his review of violence, but there is something rather arbitrary about what matters to him.

For example, Pinker writes that “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other” but does not give good reason why we should view contemporary states much differently. In fact, one can even argue (as individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner have done) that modern democratic states do not only extort protection money but in turn use this against the victim in the form of “regulation.”

I suspect that what makes Pinker exempt force associated with normal government operations is that the actual use of violence is rather rare. But that is not necessarily because most people prefer paying taxes or complying with regulations but because individual resistance is not rational. As Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay Self-Contradictory Contractarianism (collected in his book Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy, and Order).

If the cost of rebellion is high, if the expected (“risk-adjusted”) value of its success is not very much higher, and if the very possibility of collective action against the sovereign is problematical (at least in normal peacetime conditions), then two plausible conjectures suggest themselves. The equilibrium strategy of the sovereign will be to use its discretionary power to satisfy its preferences, perhaps by exploiting all its subjects in the service of some holistic end, perhaps by exploiting some of them to benefit others. The equilibrium strategy of the subjects will be, not to resist, but to obey, adjust, and profit from the opportunities for parasitic conduct that coalition forming with the sovereign at the expense of the rest of society may offer.

A potential rejoinder to this argument is that the operation of government is necessary to prevent even more violence. Leaving the usual problems with utilitarian arguments like this to the side, such a perspective can at best confer legitimacy to a very minimal form of government and would not exempt most other operations of government. If social order and peaceful commerce can arise without government, there is no reason at all to exempt any operations of government from a critical perspective. Pinker does recognize the existence of anarchist perspectives but his treatment of this topic does not indicate a thorough familiarity with the literature on conflict resolution without the state. This is problematic because reason and commerce (two of Pinker’s drivers of the decline in violence) may be sufficient for a peaceful society. In fact, the advantage of commerce versus government (or ‘democracy’) is that commerce itself is a peaceful activity.

One might further object that there is a difference between war and collecting taxes on the one hand and regulating on the other. In a real showdown between individuals and government officials, however, the priority of government is to prevail using as much force as necessary. As mentioned above, that does generally not require a lot of force because most individuals recognize the futile nature of individual resistance. In fact, it may be the increase of intelligence and individualism that Pinker also discusses in his book that makes more people less inclined to mount heroic but ineffective forms of resistance.

This does not mean that Pinker’s claims are completely arbitrary and dependent on whether one includes normal government operations in his definition of violence. For example, it is indisputable that the nature of violence and the cruelty of punishment has seen substantial changes since the middle ages. Also, in spite of the increase of public force associated with the growth of modern governments, the tolerance of people for violence is still declining. In fact, many public debates concern forms of harm that can hardly be construed as violence (discrimination, ‘hate speech’, insensitivity, poverty, etc.). This phenomenon itself raises a rather interesting question. How can the widespread tolerance of government force co-exist with increasing sensitivities about acts of human behavior that do not even involve physical harm (or threats thereof)?

There are a lot of other interesting topics in Pinker’s book such as his treatment of the sociobiology of violence, morality, and ideology. On the topic of morality he writes:

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is not a treatise on (meta)ethics but Pinker’s evolutionary perspective leaves little room for grandiose moral theories and is more in line with classical liberal views in which morality is an emergent phenomenon that allows for peaceful human interaction, which is evidenced by his observation that “modern morality is “a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games” and that “assumptions of self-interest and sociality combine with reason to lay out a morality in which non-violence is the goal.”

He also observes that “to kill by the millions, you need an ideology.” At the same time he notes that “intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.” He does not discuss the potential tension between his (wholesale) rejection of ideology and his identification with classical liberalism. Perhaps Pinker believes, as does the author of this review, that classical liberalism, conceived in a non-dogmatic fashion, is not so much an ideology but a perspective that starts from the recognition that individuals have different interests and that reason can provide guidance to coordinate these interests to mutual advantage.

15 book recommendations

One of the best ways to communicate the general outlook of a website is to recommend a set of books that embody its perspectives on a variety of topics. Since its inception the outlook of this website has undergone some changes but there are a number of core interests that have remained the same: empiricism, non-cognitivism in ethics, an interest in (Hobbesian) contractarianism, philosophical anarchism, sociobiology, and a critical perspective on (electoral) politics. The following books reflect these topics and can command the recommendation of the writer of this website.

1. Hans Reichenbach – The Rise of Scientific Philosophy

Hans Reichenbach was one of the greatest 20th century empiricist philosophers and his brand of empiricism is distinguished by a greater emphasis on the probabilistic nature of knowledge and pragmatism. A more rigorous statement of his views can be found in his seminal scholarly work Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge.

2. Nassim N. Taleb – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Nassim N. Taleb is mostly known for his writings on Black Swan events, but of broader interest is his general skeptical outlook. In Fooled by Randomness Taleb documents how poorly we are equipped to deal with the probabilistic nature of the world and how our thirst for certainty and our tendency to see patterns everywhere leads us astray.

3. Edward Osborne Wilson – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Edward Osborne Wilson is the godfather of sociobiology and in this work (review here) he aims to bridge the gap between the biological and social sciences and seeks to resuscitate a project held dear by the early logical empiricists; the unification of science. Wilson is not trained in philosophy or philosophy of science but this “disadvantage” is mostly offset by his sane outlook on human nature.

4. Paul H. Rubin – Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom

‘Ought’ implies ‘can’ and Paul Rubin’s excellent book Darwinian Politics treats the topic of what we can reasonably expect in political and economic affairs based on our knowledge of human evolutionary biology.  Humans are poorly equipped to recognize the non-zero sum nature of capitalism and the futile nature of (electoral) politics.

5. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending – The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution

In this book (review here) Gregory Cochran & Henry Harpending drive another nail in the coffin of the idea that modern humans have not undergone meaningful genetic change. There is no reason to expect a “psychic unity of mankind” and social scientists who still embrace such notions do so at the cost of understanding human nature and human biodiversity. Also recommended is Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (review here) who treats the deep history of humanity from a similar perspective.

6. L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

L.A. Rollins’ devastating critique of natural rights exposes the careless reasoning that has been employed by libertarians who argue that people have “rights” prior to any agreement or contract. As such, The Myth of Natural Rights (review here) is a sad reminder of how much time and effort libertarians (and conservatives) have wasted by arguing for nonsensical positions.

7. David Gauthier – Morals By Agreement

In what may constitute the most rigorous work in moral philosophy to date, David Gauthier uses decision- and game theory to develop a Hobbesian account of moral contractarianism. To prevent appeals to intuition and circular reasoning, Gauthier seeks to derive morality from a minimalist (instrumental) conception of rationality and shows how self-interested individuals seeking mutual advantage will accept moral constraints on their conduct.

8. Jan Narveson – The Libertarian Idea

Jan Narveson takes Occam’s razor to David Gauthier’s  moral contractarianism and aims to show that a general agreement to respect each other’s (negative) liberty is the only kind of agreement that can command general endorsement. Such an agreement excludes coercive income redistribution and raises questions about the legitimacy of government itself. This work presents the best introduction to libertarian philosophy that neither pursues natural rights nor utilitarianism.

9. Anthony de Jasay – Against Politics: On Government, Anarchy and Order

Anthony de Jasay is the most important social philosopher of our time and all his writings are highly recommended. Against Politics is a collection of essays on a variety of topics such as political contractarianism, constitutionalism, income redistribution, and the economics of ordered anarchy. One of the great virtues of Jasay’s writings is his ability to reconcile academic rigor and common sense.

10. Bryan Caplan – The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

In The Myth of the Rational Voter economist Bryan Caplan employs economic reasoning and empirical evidence to explain why democracy leads to poor public policy. The average voter has a strong incentive to be rationally irrational about politics and the economic ignorance of elected politicians is evidence of this. This book provides no less than the microfoundations of political failure. Also recommended is Randall Holcombe’s From Liberty to Democracy: The Transformation of American Government. Holcombe uses a public choice perspective to show how the rise of democracy leads to a decline of liberty.

11. David Friedman – The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to a Radical Capitalism

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is a fine example of modern anarcho-capitalism. This informally written book presents classic economic arguments to argue that the market does not just excel in the production of ordinary consumer goods but that the market should be expected to excel in providing justice, police, and defense as well. David Friedman’s article A Positive Account of Property Rights is highly recommended, too.

12. Edward Stringham (ed.) – Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice

Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice is an ambitious collection of classic articles on anarcho-capitalism, public goods, polycentric law, and criticism of minimal government.

13. Gregory Clark – A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is a Darwinian perspective on the rise of modern capitalism and the persistence of economic inequality between nations. The industrial revolution and rising living standards in the West are not explained by favorable geography or institutions but by natural selection (“survival of the richest”). An interview with Gregory Clark about his work is available here.

14. George A. Selgin – Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy

George Selgin is one of the most interesting economists working in the classical liberal tradition and his small book Less than Zero (PDF) outlines the case for a productivity norm that permits prices to respond to rising productivity or negative supply shocks as a superior alternative to zero-inflation or positive-inflation norms. Selgin’s discussion of  monetary disequilibrium and nominal income targeting has also contributed to the rise of market monetarism. His treatment of free banking can be found in another great work,  The Theory of Free Banking: Money Supply under Competitive Note Issue.

15. Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

One of the most ambitious contributions to social science ever written. Pinker makes a persuasive case that the rise of commerce, classical liberalism, and secular reason have greatly contributed to the decline in violence. Among the weaker points in the book are his treatment of the feasibility of ordered anarchy and his rather blasé attitude towards the violence and coercion that is associated with the normal operation of government. An extensive review essay of this book by this author is available here.

Humans are still evolving

A defining characteristic of ideologies is an implicit or explicit theory of human nature. For example, modern libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard derived bold normative conclusions from the fact that humans are endowed with reason. In such attempts, an abstract theory of human nature is made to do more work than it can possibly do; provide all humans with a set of normative guidelines for social interaction. The failure of such “rationalist” approaches to draw ideological conclusions from human nature does not mean that knowledge about human nature has no role to play in social philosophy or public policy at all. Absent deriving grandiose categorical imperatives, knowledge of human nature can provide us with knowledge about the limits of human malleability or the feasibility of specific public policy proposals. To be able to play this role, however, it needs to satisfy at least two criteria; it needs to be based on experimental evidence and it should be situated in an evolutionary context.

Many writers about human nature are aware of the social sensitivities surrounding this topic. As a consequence, most contemporary books that aim to provide a theory of human nature need to walk a fine line between providing a plausible evidence-based perspective and avoiding presenting an account of human nature with controversial social-political implications. What makes many books about human nature not entirely persuasive is the implicit premise that humans have stopped evolving since our descendents left Africa around 50,000 years ago. Stephen Jay Gould was quite explicit about this when he wrote that “there’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” One problem with these accounts is that genetic evidence keeps accumulating that humans not only kept evolving over the last 50,000 years, but that the pace might even have accelerated after the start of agriculture and modern civilization. Two books about human nature that explicitly depart from the view that humanity has not experienced meaningful genetic change over the last 50,000 years are Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) and Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (2009). Before the Dawn provides a general evolutionary account of human origins and The 10,000 Year Explosion specifically aims to provide theoretical arguments and empirical evidence for recent genetic change and its implications. As such, The 10,000 Year Explosion can be read as a sustained, detailed treatment of one of the themes in Before the Dawn and constitutes a major contribution to the resuscitated field of “biohistory.”

Since both authors reject the theory that 50,000 years is too short for genetic changes to occur, both books discuss emerging evidence that diverging populations responded with different genetic adaptations to the environments they encountered. Nicholas Wade devotes a whole chapter to the view that the concept of race may have been abandoned without good scientific reason and that this concept can do meaningful work in population genetics, history, medicine, and forensic science. Such a perspective makes evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker uncomfortable. In an interview in New Scientist magazine he admits, “People, including me, would rather believe that significant human biological evolution stopped between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, before the races diverged, which would ensure that racial and ethnic groups are biologically equivalent.”

Commenting on Jared Diamond’s (mostly) environmentalist perspective, Wade writes, “If New Guineans adapted genetically by developing the intellectual skills to survive in their particular environment, as Diamond says is the case, why should not other populations have done exactly the same?” Both books argue that this is exactly what has happened, and give a number of examples. In particular, they discuss the hypothesis that the unique history of the Ashkenazi Jews triggered genetic adaptations that make them excel in cognitive tasks. In addition, Cochran and Harpending do not just argue that race is more than skin-deep, but also explain why similar traits can reflect different genetic adaptations. In the closing chapter they write, “If researchers in the human sciences continue to ignore the fact of ongoing natural selection, they will have thrown away the key to many important problems, turning puzzles into mysteries.”

Nicolas Wade also expresses concern over the tendency of many post-war archeologists and anthropologists to play down or even deny the prevalence of warfare (and other cruel practices) in primitive and pre-State societies. This theme has been treated in detail by Robert B. Edgerton in his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, and, more recently, in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Such wishful, or anti-Western, thinking not only obscures the progress that has been made in many modern societies, it also prevents scholars from properly assessing the role that warfare and competition has played in shaping human nature. In fact, in his book The Dawn Warriors: Man’s Evolution Toward Peace, Robert Sidney Bigelow dispels the myth of primitive harmony and proposes that continuous warfare gave rise to increased in-group cooperation and increased brain size.

If natural selection is still at work in humans, an obvious question is where we are heading, or could be heading, if we allow for the possibility that humans may soon have real control over their genetic destiny. This topic is treated in a very interesting manner in the last chapter of Before the Dawn. Nicholas Wade discusses the current trend that the rich and more intelligent tend to have fewer children but without reaching a firm conclusion whether this will produce natural selection to act against genes that promote intelligence. Even if such a scenario would occur it might be offset by new technologies that allow genetic human enhancement. Such developments could even produce new post-human species who are not capable of breeding with modern humans. “Our previous reaction to kindred species was to exterminate them, but we have mellowed a lot in the last 50,000 years,” writes Wade. Whether un-enhanced humans will survive in the long run is an open question.

An extensive 5-part interview with Gregory Cochran is available here:
Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Survival of the Unfittest

Reading the book today, Survival of the Unfittest (1927) by Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, it has all the elements that ensured its descent into completely obscurity: concerns about human degeneration, advocacy of eugenics, and classical liberal views on state and political economy.

Authors such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, who posit that survival of the fittest is an immutable law of nature, are challenged to explain how natural selection can give rise to degeneracy, or, as he also calls it, the “survival of the unfittest.” Armstrong answers that:

To say…that Natural Selection is no longer operative in man is nonsense, because natural law is immutable. But any given law may produce different results to-day from those of yesterday when new factors arise to complicate matters. Thus, if we make unfitness in any way more advantageous for procreation than fitness, this will tend to make Natural Selection cause the survival of the unfittest instead of the fittest.

In his chapter on “Humanitarian Legislation” he identifies socialist public policies as producing a reproductive advantage to the “unfit:”

By heavy taxation we penalize success; by the dole, the Poor Law and public and private charity in a hundred forms we encourage the weak, the defective, the shiftless and the unsuccessful, not only to continue in their present condition, but to breed freely. We even give them extra help for every child they produce, and although the amount given may be insufficient to keep that child in comfort, yet to the improvident and the selfish it acts as a real incentive, for it is certainly made to yield, in many cases, extra comforts for the parents, even if the child goes hungry in consequence.

Armstrong rejects the argument that social legislation is required “by the demands of morality:”

To force everybody to do what you think is moral is not to make men moral. A good action must be voluntary; therefore let any man whose Christianity may move him that way save his poorer brother. But you cannot in the name of morality force anyone to do so.

In the same way, if thrift is a virtue it cannot be compulsory. By forcing people to insure you cannot teach them thrift or make them thrifty. In fact, you kill thrift as a virtue.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to substantiating that welfare- and unemployment benefits, instead of reducing poverty and misery, instead increase it. To make his argument  he relies on “logical inquiry by the inductive and deductive methods:” statistics and economic reasoning. In particular, Armstrong is greatly concerned by the existence of unemployment benefits without an obligation to engage in productive work. As a consequence, the incentive to find work is reduced and productivity declines, which further impoverishes the nation. As far as involuntary unemployment and the “inability” to work is concerned, the author remarks that “trade union rules..are far oftener responsible for such “inability” than is anything else. Then, again, the inability to work does not, unfortunately, bring with it inability to procreate…”

In today’s terminology, the author is very much a “supply-sider” who thinks that all obstacles to create wealth should be eliminated and that productivity, not re-distribution of income, is the real source of prosperity. He also anticipates the rise of a class of welfare and tax recipients.

In every part of the country, especially the great towns, there has now grown up a new and dangerous class, a mass of humanity dependent on the payer of rates and taxes. Before the change, a man had no right to vote, that is to take part in the government of others, unless he were at last independent and able to support himself. Now he helps to govern those who maintain him. This great host of paupers and semi-paupers is already organized in the Socialist interest and has become a factor which can decide elections.

Naturally, as many 19th century classical liberals, Armstrong was strongly opposed to the idea that everyone has the right to vote:

I see no reason why the vote should be called a right. It used to be said, “No vote, no taxation.” Is it not equally just to cry, “No taxation, no vote?”

He has little patience for democracy and politicians:

God save us from the politicians! Perhaps some of the nations of Southern Europe are wiser than we in their generation. They have abolished the politicians – and democracy.

In his chapter on “Government” he describes the transformation of liberalism as it unfolded in Europe and the United States:

Since the true definition of liberty is the power to do anything that in no way causes suffering to others (future generations being included in the term “others”), the proper function of legislation in a free country is to determine what specific acts do cause suffering, and prevent them. The further we get away from this, in legislation, the worse we fare. When Liberalism, leaning more and more towards Socialism, begins to regulate our lives by legislation that has since become oppressive, the excuse was that laissez-faire involved the oppresssion of  one class by another. Under this pretext it abandoned the great principle of individual liberty that had been its main characteristic up to that time. But having once abandoned this principle, “Liberal” statesmen began to indulge in a great deal of lawmaking that interfered with the individual without having anything to do with the prevention of oppression. Thus began the new tyranny.

Under democratic government, each party, when in power, considers itself under the obligation to invent new laws, often under the pleasing name of “social reform,” with a main view to adulating the mass of voters. These enactments interfere more and more with the order of our lives, and oblige all to subscribe to the pet theories of idealists, or the latest scheme elaborated for winning the applause of the mob, cheating it into the belief than an open sesame has been found to the earthly paradise.

Trade unions, too, add ever to the number of rules and regulations that restrict liberty. The leaders, being often ignorant of the first principles of economic science, everybody is ordered to kow-tow to rules of behaviour based upon the most mischievous fallacies, such as those which purposely limit output, and those which prevent men from passing one district or one trade to another, when the needs of industry so demands.

Thus is democracy proving itself more fatally despotic than any autocracy. No emperor ever thought of reversing the process of evolution; but democracy, with its chance majorities, obtained by rhetoric of self-seeking demagogues, may succeed in doing so; not be superseding natural law, but by using it in ignorance for suicidal purposes – playing with forces it does not understand.

Armstrong devotes a whole chapter to spelling out his views on morality. He rejects the idea that a literal reading of the Bible should be the source of morality. “Fortunately, in our own times, this attitude is more characteristic of farmers in Tennessee than of educated Englishmen.” Similarly, he rejects the idea that the State or conventions provide us with an unambiguous set of moral rules. His own answer, however, may leave many people equally puzzled when he suggests that nature should be the source of morality as it seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering and “the happiness of all.” Armstrong’s emphasis on nature as the basis of morality seems to partly be motivated by his aim of criticizing a number of practices such as the unfair treatment of unwed mothers, puritanism, monogamy, and hunting for sport. Whereas some of his ideas on equality and political economy may be construed as “reactionary,” on many life-style issues and Christian fundamentalism, he is clearly in the progressive camp.

Although Armstrong is very concerned about a scenario where “the more intelligent and efficient…become relatively sterile, while the shiftless, decadent classes breed like prolific animals,” his case for eugenics does not depend on the presence of dysgenics:

It should be said at once that the need for eugenic reform in no way depends upon where the truth lies in the controversy about degeneration. Whether we are deteriorating or not we need this reform, for it is just as desirable to progress more rapidly if we are moving slowly as it is to stop degeneration if it is going on.

Like modern-day transhumanists, Armstrong seeks to accelerate human evolution so that we may one day even “conquer Death, and eventually Time and Space.” As to the question, how Eugenic Reform can be accomplished, he advocates abolishing public policies that discourage those with undesirable traits to procreate. He rejects involuntary euthanasia, is agnostic about segregation, and endorses sterilization for the “grossly unfit.” But because he believes that politicians have little interest in the long-term fate of humanity, he devotes a significant portion of the book to the idea of establishing voluntary communities that seek the accelerated progress of humanity.

Amusingly, while Armstrong believes that the “undegenerated Englishman…has no moral or intellectual superior among the world’s people…perhaps he is a trifle more inclined towards hypocrisy, intolerance and obstinacy than most progressive races.” Another defect of the English are the physical characteristics of the English. In particular, the typical English women with their “large feet, masculine stride and flat or angular form.”  Not to speak of the poor eyesight and poor teeth of the English:

How much pain, how much ill-health, and how much physical ugliness are due to bad teeth! The breath becomes offensive and the digestive and other organs seriously damaged. Even the heart itself is affected by abscesses due to caries. No defect, in fact, is more far-reaching in its effects upon other organs. Yet here in England of ours, even our children, a few years after receiving their second teeth, are already nearly all of them suffering from this grave trouble. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly hereditary. The truth is, in fact, little short of this: As a race we are in serious danger of losing our teeth altogether.

Charles Wicksteed Armstrong does not expect that the benefits from eugenics will result from exclusive selective breeding within one country and he actively advocates efforts to select for the most desirable traits of different populations, such as the Mediterranean people.

Armstrong himself may have been blessed with “longevity genes” because in 1961 the Eugenics Society congratulated Mr. Armstrong on achieving his ninetieth year. His old age allowed him to witness both the birth but also the decline of the eugenics movement. A casual search on the internet reveals little information on the life and ideas of Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, despite the renewed interest in the history of eugenics. His concerns and his constructive solutions, on the other hand, have not disappeared.

Discussions about decline today are mostly confined to cultural decline, although Prof. Richard Lynn has published books on both Dysgenics and Eugenics with similar concerns as Armstrong. The word “eugenics” has gone mostly out of favor with those in favor of human genetic enhancement, but contemporary transhumanism can be said to carry forward the legacy of liberal eugenics, but with a stronger emphasis on individual choice. A good example of a recent argument in favor of human genetic enhancement is Gregory Stock’s book Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future. Even the interest in overcoming death has it contemporary counterparts with publication of books about the Scientific Conquest of Death.

The social cage

With all the current interest in the paleolithic lifestyle and the paleo-diet it is not surprising that some people will wonder what kind of social-political environment is most suited for hunter-gatherer descendants. One attempt to answer this question is provided in Alexandra Maryanski and Jonathan H. Turner’s The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. They write:

For individualistic primates, whose most “natural” state is hunting and gathering, state power and crushing stratification are hardly compatible with humans’ basic genetic tendencies. Hence, it is not surprising that, when possible, members of agrarian systems have traditionally revolted, migrated, and otherwise sought to escape the sociocultural cage of state power.

According to the authors, individualist (post) industrial society is more compatible with our inherited psychology and offers a prospect to escape from “the social cage” of the agrarian societies. They do not necessarily idealize modern (post) industrial societies, and even seem somewhat confused about “exploitation” in early industrial societies, but claim that, broadly speaking, the transition from an agrarian (aristocratic) to an industrial organization of society returns humans to conditions that are more line with the environment of hunter-gatherers.

In the final chapter they address the question why such an encouraging development is rarely recognized and appreciated by scholars and thinkers, and identify two major  reasons: (1) the collectivist bias of sociologists and intellectuals, and (2) the neglect of the biological basis of human conduct in sociology:

..modernists and post-modernists often appear to believe that humans are a monkey, requiring embeddedness in tightly woven social structures. They are not: humans are an evolved ape, a primate that has little trouble with weak tie relations, loose and fluid communities, mobility, and fluctuating social structures.

The authors are not blind to the emergence of new forms of social bondage and note correctly that modern democracies tend to produce big governments as a result of pressure group politics and the expansion of “rights.” To this one could also add that some of these developments (such as the demand for equality and income redistribution) are the consequences of people not biologically equipped to recognize the new non-zero sum nature of modern capitalism, a perspective that is worked out in great detail in Paul H. Rubin’s excellent book, Darwinian Politics.

One major weakness of this book is that it invariably talks about “humanity” as a homogenous concept and does not treat the topic of human biodiversity at all. One of the most robust observations of daily life is that the desire for freedom from bondage and aversion to state interference varies greatly within groups of people and between groups of people. The framework that is adapted in this book does not allow for a systematic treatment of this issue. As such, the book fails to explain the increasing polarization of human society into those who support the existing size of government (and benefit from it) and those who resist government control and seek to escape it.

The slow cultural suicide of Europe

The Dutch ex-politician and intellectual Frits Bolkestein, no stranger to defying political taboos, published a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal called “How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization.” He is not the first person to wonder how Europe lost confidence in its own civilization (“the noble Western traditions of self-assessment and self-criticism have often degraded into sentimental self-flagellation”) but then he draws attention to the possibility that one of the sources of this phenomenon may be found in Christianity itself:

“Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

Instead of suggesting that Europeans can prevent their “slow cultural suicide” by finding inspiration in Christianity, he advocates to “take pride in our classical values.” It is not every day that one can reject both multiculturalism and Christianity, quote Friedrich Nietzsche, and get published in one of America’s biggest newspapers.

What is not sufficiently made clear in Bolkestein’s article is that “our current masochism” is something that only really resonates with politicians, progressive intellectuals and conformist hipsters. It is not something that has caught on with the majority of the European people. As a matter of fact, multiculturalism needs continuous reinforcement and support by the State to sustain itself.

The philosopher Michael Levin has suggested that multiculturalism is not popular despite the fact that it contradicts common sense and empirical observation but because of it:

The theme uniting the tenets of conventional liberal wisdom is that they all run exactly counter to experience; I think they are arrived at from experience, via the assumption that experience always misleads.

Levin thinks that the common observation in science that things are often not what they appear is responsible for the tendency of progressives to embrace ideas that are the opposite what common sense would dictate.

Another explanation is that progressives prefer “unconstrained” visions of society. Thomas Sowell identifies the unconstrained vision as one that does not accept any limits to human malleability or the ability of experts to improve on “chaotic” decentralized processes such as free markets. Progressives are therefore quite hostile to claims that human nature or economic incentives are guaranteed to defeat their objectives.  Despite all the logical and empirical arguments against it, the progressive vision of man is one of a human being endowed with “free will” unconstrained by evolutionary traits.

The quest for a European political union and a single currency can be seen as the culmination of this view of society exacerbated by profound guilt over Nazism. As Simon Kuper wrote in a recent article in the Financial Times:

…there was never much economic logic behind the euro – certainly not a euro that includes everyone from Germany to Greece. Economics wasn’t what the currency was about. Rather, the euro is a war baby. It was created because Europe was struggling to get over the second world war…The general thinking was that a common currency would “bind in” a new Germany and somehow prevent Hitlerism…much of European life then was built on memories of war. Hardly any Europeans would vote for anti-immigrant parties, because look what Hitler had done…The European Central Bank, too, was a war baby. It inherited the Bundesbank’s obsession with inflation, traceable to the trauma of German hyperinflation of the 1920s that had helped create Nazism.

The advocates of an “integrated” Europe were not just content with abolishing nationalism and expressions of ethnic identity in their member countries, but also aimed to eliminate the recurrence of such ethnic politics by celebrating the changing ethnic composition of these nations. The ideology of multiculturalism was supposed to reconcile citizens with these events by presenting the demise of a dominant culture as a benefit.

One of the reasons why modern Western governments have become increasingly authoritarian again (suppression of free speech and free association) is because this project goes so firmly against what we understand about human nature and history that only coercion can secure its implementation – and even that may be temporary. Ironically, the consequences now seem to undermine the welfare state consensus in Europe (including Scandinavia) and trigger a renaissance of identity politics.

In hindsight it is striking how the objective of denazification was conceived as a defense of the welfare state and increased centralization; the socialism of the National Socialists was never identified as a great concern, nor the micro-management of people’s thinking, feeling, and behavior which has remained a constant elements of modern politics.

What became of the degenerate?

In 1956, Richard D. Walter wrote a peculiar article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences called What Became of the Degenerate? A Brief History of a Concept, in which he reviews the use of the term degenerate as a biological and social concept. Most of the literature on this topic was produced in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the field of sociology the topic of social degeneration was treated by Max Nordau in his famous book Entartung [Degeneration] (1892). Naturally, when this term is used in a social context there is room for vigorous debate. Nicholas Murray Butler, who wrote an introduction to a book called Regeneration, a reply to Max Nordau (1896), considered Nordau himself “an abnormality and a pathological type.”

The subject of degeneration was also important to the early 20th century eugenicists in books such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong’s The Survival of the Unfittest (1929).

Walter concludes that “though the original concepts of Morel, Lombroso, and Nordau have become obsolete, the phenomena that degeneracy attempted to explain are still of great current interest and far from completely understood. In today’s concepts of the etiology of psychiatric disease, the old dichotomy of nurture versus nature still appears under more subtle terms, though today’s emphasis is upon nurture. This also applies to the subject of criminology, as well as the larger areas termed race and culture.”

In a 1902 textbook of zoology the authors can still write on the topic of human degeneration:

Human degeneration. It is not proposed in these  pages to discuss the application of the laws of animal life  to man. But each and every one extends upward, and can  be traced in the relation of men and society. Thus, among  men as among animals, self-dependence favors complexity  of power. Dependence, parasitism, quiescence favor degeneration. Degeneration means loss of complexity, the  narrowing of the range of powers and capabilities. It is  not necessarily a phase of disease or the precursor of death.  But as intellectual and moral excellence are matters associated with high development in man, dependence is unfavorable to them.

Degeneration has been called animal pauperism. Pauperism in all its forms, whether due to idleness, pampering,  or misery, is human degeneration. It has been shown that  a large part of the criminality and pauperism among men  is hereditary, due to the survival of the tendency toward  living at the expense of others. The tendency to live without self-activity passes from generation to generation.  Beggary is more profitable than unskilled and inefficient  labor, and our ways of careless charity tend to propagate  the beggar. That form of charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful is an incentive toward degeneration. Withdrawal from the competition of life, withdrawal  from self-helpful activity, aided by the voluntary or involuntary assistance of others these factors bring about degeneration. The same results follow in all ages and with all races, with the lower animals as with men.

One can only wonder what the authors would  think about contemporary society in light of such phenomena as the “withdrawal from the competition of life” and “charity which does not render  its recipient self-helpful.”