"The fact that people are ready to pay for work is no proof of its usefulness. Nothing is too foolish or wicked to claim its price in this world; and many of the most approved occupations will not bear the examination of an unprejudiced mind."
Thursday, May 26, 2022
The Social Nature of Mind
In 1931 Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria traveled to central Asia to study the psychology of the people in that region. His goal was to test a bold hypothesis proposed by his colleague and mentor, Lev Vygotsky.
Though trained as a literary critic, who wrote a dissertation on Hamlet, Vygotsky became one of the giants of developmental psychology, the field that studies how behavior and thinking changes over a life span. It seems fair to say prior to Vygostky that most developmental theories emphasized the idea that the stages of cognitive development are encoded into the child at birth. It was also then common to use analogies from botany to describe child development. The child was seen as a plant unfolding through a prearranged sequence from seed to flower. It was no accident, as Vygotsky wryly noted, that children were sent to a place called kindergarten.
In contrast, Vygotsky embraced a radically different understanding of development. To him, the child’s major task is to become a competent member of society. This meant that the goals of development would be specific to particular cultures and historical contexts. For example, it is now considered important that children in the first years of school learn to read and write. Yet reading and writing are cultural inventions, less than 10,000 years old and the phenomenon of mass literacy arose only with the industrial revolution. In modern societies, the ability to read and write had become important developmental milestones. While some developmental sequences, such as the transition from crawling to walking, may indeed be hard wired into us, others are created by society and, then, transmitted by culture.
Vygotsky and Luria built on this observation. Just as people create and improve physical tools to manipulate the environment and pass this technology onto future generations, they also invent psychological tools. A psychological tool (sometimes called a cognitive tool) can be understood as a technique or strategy that alters human cognition or behavior. Physical tools alter the material environment, psychological tools are cultural inventions that change how we process information or how we behave. For example, the Hindu-Arabic number system is a case of just such a tool. Hindu-Arabic numbers allow us to perform calculations much more efficiently than previous systems of representing quantities. If you doubt this, try doing multiplication with Roman numerals. Reading and writing themselves are cognitive tools - they allow us to create an external form of memory and receive information from distant sources. Cognitive tools shift human consciousness in important ways. In a well-documented example, mass literacy empowered masses of people to directly read and interpret scriptures, with the importance consequence of loosening the authority of priestly mediation.
An inescapable consequence of this view is that different cultures and different socio-economic arrangements encourage different mentalities. This would be particularly true of different historical stages and different levels of social complexity. From Vygostsky’s view we should not expect ancient people to think about the world in the same way as modern people do.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
" I never could believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden"
—Richard Rumbold, last words spoken on the scaffold, quoted by Ernest Crosby
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
"The civilized world has always been divided into slaves and masters, and we differ from the ancient world more in name than in fact. But there is beneath the surface one essential difference. We have accepted principles, religious and political, which are inconsistent with our social and economical order, and which, if they ever prevail, are bound to effect a far-reaching revolution."
Sunday, May 22, 2022
"It is not necessary to go to Monaco in order to have the extreme inequality of human destinies brought up vividly before us. We need only open our eyes. Spend a half day in walking through the slums and factories and fashionable streets of your city, and you will find the same issue joined at home—the same undeserved poverty and excessive toil, the same superabundant wealth, the same gambling, the same casinos (though we may call them speculation and exchanges), the same intolerable ennui, the same suicides. It is a strange way to live, is it not?"
Thursday, May 19, 2022
The altruistic giving of one’s own life poses a problem, why would anyone make this sacrifice? What possible benefit would be derived? It is easy to explain many acts of generosity as some form of selfishness or signaling. The philanthropist is rewarded with testimonial dinners and museum wings bearing the family name. The courageous hero is compensated with our admiration. Even the extreme self-sacrifice of a martyred saint might be explained as quid pro quo for favor in the afterlife.
As cynical as these explanations sound, they probably do explain some of the motivation for seemingly unselfish acts, but do they explain all such behavior? What about the kidney donor who gives up that organ without fanfare? Or those who, risking grave danger, helped Jews escape the Nazis?
Biologists have longed puzzled over how natural selection could have produced human altruism. And many have come to accept the idea that altruism is really covert selfishness, reflecting the genetic selfishness of kin favoritism and the benefits of reciprocity.
Along a similar line, many economists posit that humans are self-regarding actors, bent on maximizing their individual utility.
Both models do capture some aspects of human behavior and we would be mistaken to dismiss them out of hand. But do they explain all human behaviors?
The economists and biologists should not be faulted for their reductionism. Indeed, since it is more parsimonious, a reductionist explanation is to be preferred, but only if it can account for all the known data. And this is the rub, human hyper-sociality cannot be explained without reference to humans as cultural and historical beings. This means that some aspects of human behavior can only be understood as caused by our membership in a human community.
Henry George, in a book published after his death, described people as members of “a larger entity, which has a life and character of its own, and continues its existence while its components change, just as the life and characteristics of our bodily frame continue, though the atoms of which it is composed are constantly passing away from it and as constantly being replaced.” George viewed human cooperation as an outgrowth of our participation in that larger entity.
But viewing altruism as an emergent property of culture is precisely what many biologists and economists object to. Biologist Robert Trivers explicitly rejected this approach, writing “sociology and anthropology seemed to claim that the larger unit was the key to understanding the smaller one. Societies, groups, species - all evolved mechanisms by which individuals are merely unconscious tools in their larger designs. In the extreme position, the larger groups were imagined to have cohesiveness and interconnectedness associated with individual organisms.”
It is my contention that George was right and Trivers mistaken. Human altruism cannot be understood without reference to history, culture, systems of production and exchange, and psychology. Of course, our capacity for culture is the product of the same evolutionary forces that forged our bodies and physiology, but once created, human culture acts like the super-organism described by George. It is cumulative and follows its own evolutionary dynamics and path. It creates the possibility of human history beyond natural history.
That is the central argument of this paper - our altruism, while built on a biological substrate of reciprocal cooperation and empathy, is a product of human cultural and psychological evolution. It is has a history. It has a future. When we recognize this reality we have grounds for rejecting the pessimism that some have deduced from the fact of our evolutionary origins.
For example, science writer Matt Ridley tells us that while our selfish genes might allow for some limited forms of altruism, we must accept “that universal benevolence is impossibly Utopian, that the fungus of selfishness will be ready to strike at the heartwood of any harmonious whole. It will lead us to suspect self-interest to be the cause of endless mutinies.”
But Henry George had a response to Matt Ridleys of his day: “Lying beneath all such theories is the selfishness that would resist any inquiry into the titles to the wealth which greed has gathered, and the difficulty and indisposition on the part of the comfortable classes of realizing the existence of any other world than that seen through their own eyes.”
Monday, May 16, 2022
If you have ever taken an Econ 101 class at University, you were probably taught that minimum wage laws have the undesirable effect of increasing unemployment. The logic is straightforward, if you increase the price of anything the demand for it goes down. Your wage is just the price of labor and if the government sets it artificially high employers will find ways to hire fewer workers.
But remember something else your economics professor probably told you once, but then ignored for the rest of the semester. The magic workings of the market hold only under certain unrealistic assumptions, such as perfect competition.
In fact, our economy is highly monopolized and the buyers of labor power, i.e. employers, have greater bargaining power than workers. This means that, in the US, in most cases, wages are held artificially low.
"The fact that people are ready to pay for work is no proof of its usefulness. Nothing is too foolish or wicked to claim its price in ...
The Earth For All Veganism - Esperanto - Cooperation The purpose of my blog is to promote a set of ideas that I believe would help make the...
Here is a highly interesting and provocative paper by Steven R. Smith . One its real contribution is his attempt to model moral progress b...