Science on Morality

You have your way.

I have my way.

As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

Nietzsche (i)

These posts are meant to go over the basics of morality in an easy to understand way.  The following is one possible way of how to make sense of morality.  I prefer this way because it makes the most sense out of the most facts and has empirical support.  If you aren’t familiar with this stuff, it may seem like I am peddling my religion.  I am.  But if you like to debate, then this stuff is essential.

Philosophy: “It Should Be”

Normative statements: these are prescriptions on what “should be” and can be social norms

  • Morality: is about what is “right” or “wrong” and what should and ought to be
  • Moral Reasoning: we do this when we reason by using reasons to justify why we are right

We understand morality as being the difference between right and wrong.  This definition is an important one, but it leaves things wide open.  Moral absolutism only exists if we say it does, but this doesn’t mean that moral relativism is inevitable.  I used to listen to Catholic radio, no joke, because I like to dissect arguments; I had such contempt towards their contempt on relativism and still do.

Although I don’t view philosophy as antagonistic to science but rather complementary, moral philosophy is mostly normative, which means that it is a prescription for what is right or wrong.  That is for another post.  This is from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist.  If it doesn’t appeal to you, then you may not be interested in science, which is about what is, not what we want to be.

Science: “What It Is”

Positive Statements: science has the job of describing and not prescribing what is right and wrong

  • Morality: is behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that bind us together and makes us care about the wellbeing of others
    • but in the right circumstance, we show a preference towards the wellbeing of in-group members
  • In-Group: this is a tough one because we can show altruism to strangers; can reciprocal altruism save the day?
  • Reciprocal Altruism: we are “moral accountants” and know what we’ve done for others, expecting others to reciprocate

What does the everyday meaning of morality have anything to do with biology?  There is a connection because our language is a reflection of what we feel and think.  Think about the statement that it is moral to help the weak.  This is a normative statement that makes a prescription on what is right, namely to help the weak.  We use post-hoc reasoning though because we usually feel first.

We feel that we need to care for others and then we seek reasons to justify it.  It usually ends up like, We need to raise the minimum wage because we can’t rely on the free-market.  Notice that our moral reasoning “encodes” or hides our thoughts and feelings.  That is exactly how biology gets connected to moral reasoning.  It must, however, meet the condition of the definition above.

Science on How It Is (iii)

It must meet the condition of the above definition because evolutionary biology only cares about the bottom-line, that is, what helped us in the past to reproduce or survive.  There is a problem though because to an evolutionary biologist the selfish person will always outcompete the altruist in an environment of limited resources.  So it is perplexing how we could have evolved morality.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. [1]

We all know how natural selection works at the level of the individual, but in some cases, it can work at the group-level.  That is, traits that helped the group to survive and reproduce when competing with other groups were more likely to be passed on from one generation to the next.  Without traits that we link to “goodness” (iv), as described below, the world would be “red in tooth and claw”.

The traits that we associate with evil triumph over the traits that we associate with good within groups, and the counterforce provided by between-group selection is not strong enough to save the day. These are “life’s a bitch and then you die” societies. We would not want to live in them. [1]

It should be obvious that “binding” with one another and caring about the “wellbeing of others” benefits the group and helps it to survive and compete against other groups.  This also explains the propensity to favor in-group members.  For those that argue that this reasoning is a priori, I would argue that it was a priori.  There is empirical support for group selection occurring in nature (ii), [1].


i). No, I am not a fan of Nietzsche.  This just fits this post and nothing more.

ii) The top-level organization of group selection is what gives harmony to our species because it suppresses self-interest.

Our moral psychology is the societal equivalent of cancer-suppressing mechanisms in multicellular organisms. The coercive side of morality is required to suppress the potential for disruptive self-seeking behaviors within groups. Once the coercive side is established, then it becomes safe for group members to freely help each other without fear of exploitation [1].

iii) Yes, through the eyes of science, the Nazis in Germany during WWII were behaving morally because they meet the definition of science’s morality.  In-group morality is powerful and makes sense out of a lot of things that we label as “evil”.  But if you understand the difference between a prescription on morality versus a description, then it becomes an utter waste of time to argue over this.  We must create social norms making this immoral.  We should seek to understand how we work, so we know what to prevent.

iv) Then how does group selection work if selfish genes prevail within-group selection?  I will defer to Wilson:

Between-group selection is strong enough to prevail against within-group selection, favoring the traits that we associate with goodness. Many social species are mosaics of both kinds of traits, some maintained in the population by within-group selection, others by between-group selection.

However, the balance between levels of selection is not static but can itself evolve. In rare cases, mechanisms evolve that largely suppress the potential for disruptive forms of selection within groups, making between-group selection the primary evolutionary force for most traits of the species. Then something magical happens: the group evolves to be so cooperative that it is transformed into a higher-level organism in its own right. [1]


[1] Wilson, David Sloan. This View of Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Morality Explained

I decided to take a step back and go over the basics as I was told that I’m too technical.  I suppose that I lack self-awareness and must be self-interested (not funny).  Because I forgot that I’m not writing for me.  I honestly believe that this is a prerequisite to becoming an effective liberal.  If we don’t know this, then we don’t know our own morality and won’t be able to stand our ground.

Self-Interest and Evil

To an anthropologist or biologist, morality is an adaptation or a set of adaptations.  An adaptation is something that helped solve a problem in our past.  The problem always involves one of helping us to survive and reproduce.  We know what an adaptation does but what is it?  An adaptation is a set of behaviors that were useful in helping us cooperate with others.  Bear with me here.

Behaviors are goal-oriented actions that result from us thinking and feeling in certain kinds of ways.  So if we think and feel that something may harm us then we may behave cautiously or fearfully.  But isn’t morality about what is right and wrong and what should be?  It still is.  The rights and wrongs that we set are social norms that help us to protect the wellbeing of others.

When we feel safe with social norms to protect our wellbeing, then we are more likely to cooperate with one another.  This is why the definition of morality is that it evolved to help solve the problem of cooperation.  What we are doing when making social norms to protect one another, say by coming up with legal and penal institutions, is that we are suppressing the self-interest of others.

How is suppressing the self-interest of others related to keeping us safe?  Ask yourself what is evil?  From a biologist’s perspective, evil is usually an act that harms another person for the benefit of the evil-doer.  So self-interest is related to evil.  That is why liberty, which is like self-interest, is the freedom to do what we want as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the freedom of others.

Self-Interest and Good

Self-interest is not well defined, but we can think of it as anything that benefits us with or without a cost to others.  Adam Smith gave us the belief that benefiting ourselves will help maximize the wellbeing of others by making the proverbial economic pie bigger.  If we act in our self-interest by buying things and specializing in what we do best, then others can benefit from these selfish acts.

But it is absurd to think that acting in our self-interest will always benefit others.  Adam Smith was smart enough to know that not all selfish acts benefit others.  He knew that we need to exercise sympathy for others and set social norms to protect the weak.  This is not how classical economics took it though.  This had consequences and people now believe that life is a competition.

Classical economics perverted Smith’s message in favor of self-interest always creating good outcomes for society at large.  Economics assumes, just like conservativism, that life is always a competitive struggle for survival because their model assumes that we have scarce resources.  But in an age of plenty of resources and innovation, life doesn’t have to always be a competition.

Bullying the Bullies

So if morality is about protecting the wellbeing of others, then it only follows that bullying the bullies is moral.  This may seem like hypocrisy, but morality could careless about hypocrisy.  Hypocrisy is just a word that we use to criticize our opponents.  Morality only cares about protecting the wellbeing of others.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t try to say what we mean and do what we say.

If you want to argue that hypocrisy is immoral on philosophical grounds, then go right ahead.  But biology doesn’t care about philosophy either as it does what worked at some level in our ancestral past.  Anthropologists have argued that egalitarianism can only be achieved by us bullying the bullies.  This is because social hierarchies emerge naturally whenever people form groups.

If you argue that egalitarianism is about equality, then you are correct from a political theory perspective, but what is the mechanism that makes it work?  In short, it is about bullying the bullies to equalize things.  You are only fooling yourself if you think that we can just tell people to not bully and that we are equal.  We naturally compare our weaknesses and strengths to others.

When we compare ourselves to others, and this is not taught but innate, in a way that is favorable, then we tend to feel confident in our social value and are more likely to be the ones that get deferred to and submitted to.  This is the formation of rank and is the basis of social hierarchy.  We can’t stop this as it is too instinctive and natural.  But we do need an equalizing force to regulate it.

Morality Also Bonds

Many will argue, as I do, that true morality is about the well-being of others.  This definition is justified from a biological perspective, which means liberals’ preferences with caring and helping others is scientifically justified as being a moral act.  But we can extend this since morality is not just about the wellbeing of others and is also about behaviors that cause us to bond together.

This is why experts on moral psychology, like Jonathan Haidt, can include multiple moralities in their definition.  Let’s take Haidt’s definition of morality below from “The Righteous Mind”.  He uses the word “interlocking” which means to bond with one another, and he is consistent with our definition of morality which is about regulating the self-interest of others to protect the wellbeing of others.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

This is why he can also include almost, quite frankly, ridiculous moralities that conservatives believe in such as purity and sanctity which involves the chastity of females and the disgust caused by diseased people.  Haidt argues that fear and disgust from things that looked diseased and abnormal helped us to survive and reproduce by causing us to avoid that which could make us ill.

When we all believe that something is bad, then this is a shared belief that helps us to bond.  These beliefs, as Haidt says, are norms, virtues, and practices.  This should all make sense that these things help us to cooperate with one another on some level by also identifying with similarities in others.  The institutional part in the definition is the penal and legal institutions that create norms.

Lakoff vs. Pinker

As intuitive as cognitive linguistics is, which the “strict-father” model relies on, it is not without its critics.  I feel obligated to share its criticisms by other scientists that claim that cognitive linguistics has deviated too far off the path of cognitive science.  Pinker, for example, attacks Lakoff’s approach, that is, approach not substance, to using cognitive linguistics to disparage conservatives.

The problem with this burlesque is not that its targets don’t deserve criticism. It’s that it will backfire with all of its potential audiences. Any of his Lakoff’s allies on the left who think that their opponents are such imbeciles will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. The book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals’ insularity and incomprehension. And the people in the center that he really wants to reach will be turned off by his relentless self-congratulation, his unconcealed condescension, and his shameless caricaturing of beliefs with which they might have a modicum of sympathy.

Pinker above is referring to the book “Whose Freedom” by Lakoff.  But Pinker’s critique seems to be about the strict-father model in general, where the dialogue between Lakoff and Pinker can be found here (not easily).  It’s hard to take this review seriously, but not because it’s mediated by a right-wing blogger, but because of the contempt he shows for Lakoff.  I found two valid criticisms.

Opinion on Pinker

What does Pinker think that a model does as it must be a simplification of reality since it has to remove noise and detail in order to balance its descriptive value with its usability.  I wouldn’t describe Lakoff’s model as a caricature, but if we misapply this and say that this is how a real conservative thinks and feels, then the word caricature would be apt because this model is an ideal, not a reality.

But a model is not supposed to say anything about any one individual as it only characterizes some ideal type.  The questions should be: (see below).  In my view, it does these things.

  • does the model make sense out of how the two modes of thought (worldviews) reason differently,
  • why they may take different stances on the key issues,
  • as well as explain where this reasoning comes from and how it works.

Lakoff did not do a good job at talking about the model’s limitations as well as not clarifying the level of explanation that this is supposed to be at.  This is confusing since most models describe the worldviews in terms of evolved adaptations and personality differences, and Lakoff’s model is at the top level since language is the outcome of our intuition and feelings, as it encodes them.

We can’t use this model to say this is how a real conservative would reason and behave because reality is complicated and there is even evidence that we are bi-conceptualizers in that we can switch between the worldviews or modes of thoughts.  We can only say that there is an increased probability that conservatives will endorse and use this mode of reasoning more often than a liberal would.

Defining the Conflict 

Pinker’s criticisms on the discipline don’t seem to hold much water since Lakoff defends his use of the science quite well.  The only criticism that has any merit is Lakoff’s recommendation on how liberals need to approach politics.  He suggests that liberals need to stop focusing on the “facts” since politics is mostly identity-based.  Instead, liberals need to engage in more metaphorical thought, as conservatives do, which would evoke our tribal instincts.  Below, Lakoff describes how Pinker’s views on cognitive science differ.

Pinker, a respected professor at Harvard, has been the most articulate spokesman for the old theory.  In language, it is Noam Chomsky’s claim that language consists in (as Pinker puts it) “an autonomous module of syntactic rules.”   What this means is that language is claimed to be just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience, cultural or personal.

Pinker is part of the old school of cognitive science that believes that language is a matter of symbolic manipulation in a highly modular mind, while cognitive linguistics is a branch of, so they claim, the new way of thinking on the mind.  It is new in that it detracts from the school of “Western Philosophy”, requiring that thought is not mind alone but bodily instead.  This idea that thought and reason are bodily allows us to do away with the once contrasting ideas of perception versus conception, and much else.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms.

Invalid Criticisms by Pinker?

(be nice to get expert opinions)

Criticism #1:

Pinker represents the research results on conceptual metaphor as follows: “Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors …” I have actually argued the opposite.

Pinker misrepresents what Lakoff has always said.  If you read his material, it is clear that facts matter and that literal thought is a part of how we reason although to a lesser extent.  Lakoff also states that the mechanisms that we reason with, namely image-schemas, conceptual frames, and prototype structures, are not metaphorical at all although metaphorical thought relies on them.

Criticism #2:

Having claimed falsely that I believe that all thought is metaphorical, Pinker then chides me by taking the position I have actually advocated: “Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly.” Just as I have not only said, but have argued empirically.

Pinker even gets the research in his own field of psychology wrong. “Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.” But experiments show exactly the opposite.

By Pinker not getting the empirical evidence behind understanding metaphors right, Lakoff claims that he misunderstands the “most basic result in contemporary metaphor research: Metaphor is a matter of thought, not just language.”  Lakoff then goes on to explain how thought uses metaphor and how it relies on getting the facts about framing correctly.

The same words can be instances of different conceptual metaphors. To take a familiar example: It’s all downhill from here can mean either (1) things will get progressively worse, based on the Good Is Up, Bad Is Down metaphor; or (2) things will be easier from now on, based on the metaphor in which Action is Understood as Motion (as in things are moving right along) and Easy Action is understood in terms of easy (i.e., downhill) motion. 

This example shows that facts, represented as words, matter in that facts must be paired with the correct frame in order to make sense out of the facts.  So if we use the wrong frame, for example, “Good is Up, Bad is Down metaphor”, then we won’t be able to understand if someone is using the “Action is understood as Motion and Easy Action in terms of motion metaphor” frame.

Criticism #3:

That is what “reframing” is about — correcting framing that distorts truths and finding framing that allows truth to be seen.But Pinker claims that I say the opposite, that rather than being a realist, he says I am a cognitive relativist: “All this belies Lakoff’s cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality. It undermines his tips in the political arena as well.   Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and not to pay attention to polls. Instead, they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ heads. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda…”

But this is a misrepresentation as well, as Lakoff clarifies below.

Here is what I actually say about spin and propaganda (Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 100-101): “Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it–that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good. Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control. The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”

Criticism #4

Pinker: One of the findings of cognitive science that is most important for politics is that frames are mental structures that can be either associated with words (the surface frames) or that structure higher-level organizations of knowledge.

This is about how mental structures are stored in the mind.

Lakoff: Surface frames are associated with phrases like “war on terror” that both activate and depend critically on deep frames. These are the most basic frames that constitute a moral worldview or a political philosophy. Deep frames define one’s overall “common sense.”  Without deep frames there is nothing for surface frames to hang onto. Slogans do not make sense without the appropriate deep frames in place.” (p. 29) The same basic point is made in my other books applying cognitive science to politics. Again, Pinker claims that I say the opposite.

Pinker: Cognitive science has not shown that people absorb frames through sheer repetition. On the contrary, information is retained when it fits into a person’s greater understanding of the subject matter.” But that is exactly what I said! The deep frames characterize the “greater understanding of the subject matter;” the surface frames can be “retained” only when they fit the deep frames. 

Valid Criticisms by Pinker?

(be nice to get expert opinions)

Criticism #1

Pinker: thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly. It must use a more basic currency that captures the abstract concepts shared by the metaphor and its topic–progress toward a shared goal in the case of journeys and relationships, conflict in the case of argument and war–while sloughing off the irrelevant bits.

Mediator: This is an old criticism of conceptual metaphor theory, first voiced (as far as I know) by Greg Murphy in his 1996 paper “On Metaphoric Representation.” There Murphy argues that we need an independent (i.e., non-metaphorical) representation of a concept in order to know which other concepts we can map it to metaphorically, and once we’ve mapped it, what information from the other concepts are relevant for the structuring of the first concept.

This is a valid point as to where do we get the knowledge to map a metaphor from one domain to the other, or even where do we know where to start the metaphor.  For example, how do we know that up is good and down is bad such that we can conclude that “doing evil is falling”?  I would imagine that cognitive linguistics has addressed this, but I have not read enough material to have seen it.  And even if we don’t know the answer just yet, I don’t think this is fatal to metaphor theory, in which Lakoff uses.

Criticism #2

Pinker: Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.

Mediator: Lakoff says, not so, and for the first time, cites actual research by someone other than himself. The problem is, the research he cites doesn’t actually say anything about Pinker’s claim. Raymond Gibbs’ books a.) are out of date and b.) don’t really present any empirical work on dead metaphors, and Boroditsky’s work (which I’ve discussed before) a.) doesn’t license conclusions about conceptual metaphors, and b.) concerns only one fairly unique and highly abstract domain, time. Actual work on metaphor in general has, in fact, shown that conventional metaphors (often called dead metaphors) are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically, just as Pinker says.

This criticism would make the criticism above an invalid one because this blogger is claiming that Lakoff is wrong.  I don’t have the time to investigate, but it is important to at least observe that a common criticism of cognitive linguistics is that it lacks empirical support.  Also, I know that experts will interpret the evidence in a way that fits their theory, so who is right here?


[1] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group.

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[3] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Lakoff, George. The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! . Chelsea Green Publishing.

[5] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[6] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[7] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[8] Tuschman, Avi. Our Political Nature. Prometheus.

Driving Right-Winged Logic

When we break down the logic of conservativism, we will then be able to understand it.  Believe it or not, there is nothing irrational about it, but this doesn’t mean that we need to support it.  What drives its logic is its adherence to a “strict-father” morality and its reliance on folk behaviorism.  Before describing how the model works, we will look at the assumptions that drive its logic.

It is not irrational if we believe that its assumptions are true, but it is dangerous if taken literally to those that are unable to meet its standards since social hierarchy and meritocracy are moral and necessary parts of the system.  In fact, competition, which is the means to hierarchy, is such an essential and inseparable piece of conservative morality that without it it would become incoherent.

Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.  It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world. [2]

This worldview is one mode of thought that is common throughout all cultures although perhaps not in the same exact configuration – a configuration that “appeals to the worst of human instincts, leading people to stereotype, demonize, and punish the Other. [2].”  I am in agreement with Lakoff here, but if I am to be at all honest, then I must admit to using this “hawkish” type of reasoning myself.

If he has not worked hard enough, he is slothful and hence morally weak.  If he is not talented enough, then he ranks lower than others in the natural order…The rich (who are talented enough and who have worked hard enough to become rich) deserve their wealth and the poor (either through lack of industry or talent) deserve their poverty. [2]

Assumptions on Human Behavior

Conservatives’ logic relies on folk behaviorism, which is a model of human behavior that explains learning in terms of rewards and punishments.  Since we do respond to incentives, trade-offs, and consequences, then folk behaviorism seems to be true, but life isn’t all about carrots and sticks as much else can motivate us.  It is, however, an essential piece for making their reasoning work.

People, left to their own devices, tend simply to satisfy their desires.  But, people will make themselves do things they don’t want to do to get rewards; they will refrain from doing things they do want to do to avoid punishment. [2]

Behaviorism as a model for how we learn has largely been replaced by cognitive science as an explanatory tool [6].  And it can’t be true in the absolute sense since it requires that punishment and rewards have absolute meanings, but they don’t since conceptual categories, which rewards and punishments are, are considered to be “fuzzy”, “radial” and vary in the prototype that is used.

Not only can’t we unequivocally define what reward and punishment are for everyone, but we don’t always act according to what the rational actor model predicts, which is not in some objectively defined way that is always in our best interests.  What interferes with us maximizing our rewards and minimizing our punishment is that our reasoning varies over time, situation, and with the individual.

Often, the source of that failure is due to the fact that people use other forms of reasoning that get in the way of a reward-punishment form of “rationality”—prototype-based reasoning, alternate framings, worldview differences—which affect how categories of people and events are understood and even affect judgments of simple probability.

There exists an additional, hidden, assumption that “life is a struggle for survival, and therefore “survival in the world is a matter of competing successfully”. [2].  This means that the world is difficult and that we must become self-disciplined through rewards and punishments which builds character.  We already know, however, from this post that we are making life a struggle for survival.

The Conservative Morality

    1. This contributes a great deal—the strict dichotomy between
    2. good and evil, the internal evils, asceticism, and the immorality of moral weakness.
    1. This contributes notions of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of moral authority, and
    2. transfers the resentment toward meddling parents into resentment against the meddling of other authority figures.
    1. This legitimizes certain traditional hierarchical power relations and, together with Moral Strength,
    2. makes it seem reasonable to think that the rich are either morally or naturally superior to the poor.
    1. This provides a spatial logic of the danger of deviance.
    1. This contributes the idea that there exists an essence called “character,”
    2. that it can be determined by significant past actions, and that it is a reliable indicator of future actions.
    1. This makes moral unity and uniformity a virtue
    2. and suggests the imminent and serious danger of any sign of moral nonunity and nonuniformity. 
    1. This associates our visceral reactions of disgust
    2. and our logic of the corruption of pure substances with the idea that morality must be unified and uniform.
    1. This adds the logic of disease to the logic of immorality
    2. and contributes the idea that contact with immoral people is dangerous 
    3. because the immorality might spread in a rapid and uncontrollable way like an epidemic.
    1. This adds the idea that seeking one’s self-interest is a moral activity
    2. and interfering with the seeking of self-interest is immoral.
    3. The application of this metaphor is limited by its role in the system.
    1. The role of this metaphor in the system is to specify when helping people is moral.


[1] Graham, George, “Behaviorism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[2] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[3] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[4] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. Behaviorism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:59, December 17, 2020, from

Schematic of Reason

[This is my interpretation of the work of George Lakoff from UC Berkeley and Hugo Mercier from the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris.]

To understand an ideology we need to break down its mode of thought.  This mode of thought is not formal logic but rather a series of metaphors that have a central theme that is adhered to that gives it its coherence.  Mechanistically, we all reason the same, by way of intuitive inference, but we do vary in the preference and priority that we give to certain types of reasoning.

The mode of thought that an ideology engages in can be broken down and understood with the help of cognitive linguistics, which is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding human language and cognition.  This post will look at the mechanics behind real reason and claims that reason is mostly post-hoc and metaphorical.  In the end, we will introduce the ideology of conservatism.

Post-Hoc Reasoning

We reason by seeking reasons to justify our beliefs and actions in order to persuade others [10].  This is known as a post-hoc rationalization, which means that we have an intuition first and then support it with reasons.  There exist two kinds of reasoning which is either an explanation or argument but both have a similar structure and only vary in how they relate to their reasons.

We may, for example, feel that it is unfair to let the free-market determine the minimum wage, and then we seek reasons to justify government interference in the market.  In the process of doing so, we are making claims on what is right and wrong, which makes this kind of reasoning a form of moral reasoning.  In fact, most reasoning is a kind of moral reasoning.

  • intuition: feeling a sense of compassion for those that struggle when earning substandard wages
  • justification: Government must establish a minimum wage because we can’t rely on the imperfect market.
  • covertness: Notice that the real reason, which is having compassion, is left out because it is considered irrational.

Conceptual Categories

To understand the mechanism of reason, we have to turn to cognitive science which says that we only understand things in light of what we already know.  In order to do this, our mind creates conceptual categories that are nothing more than metaphors.  These categories have inferential capacity in that they allow us to draw inferences that aid in our understanding of our reality [7].

Primary metaphors are cross-domain mappings, pings, from a source domain (the sensorimotor domain) to a target domain (the domain of subjective experience), preserving inference and sometimes preserving lexical representation. [7]

The quote above is saying that we have a rudimentary intuition about something in the physical domain and then map it to a higher domain with our language.  Take for example the metaphor of “going over your head”, which is a physical experience that is mapped to the target of “failing to understand” something.  Our language is replete with examples of us understanding our reality in this way.

Conservativism as Metaphor

The style of reasoning that conservativism uses is similar to the style we use towards raising a family.  Not surprisingly, conservativism resembles a strict-father upbringing while liberalism resembles a nurturant-parent upbringing.  We can think of each style of raising families as a unique mode of thought that consists of various complex metaphors that have different priorities.

The theme of ‘strict-family’ for conservatives is what drives its logic by prioritizing the various metaphorical concepts.  For example, conservatives place moral strength, which addresses self-discipline and success, at the highest priority, while morality as nurturance is at the lowest priority.  We will explain the details of George Lakoff’s model of conservativism below in the next post.

  1. MORAL STRENGTH: This defines self-discipline as characterized by the family model and extends it to morality.
  2. MORAL AUTHORITY: This builds on parental authority in the central model and extends it to morality generally.
  3. MORAL ORDER: This legitimizes the Strict Father’s authority, and defines what counts as “natural” and hence legitimate.
  4. MORAL BOUNDARIES: This allows us to apply spatial reasoning to moral structures.
  5. MORAL ESSENCE: This spells out an important part of what is meant by “character” in the family model.
  6. MORAL WHOLENESS: This provides a way to conceptualize the importance of unity, sameness, and stability of morality.
  7. MORAL PURITY: This provides us with a way to conceptualize immorality as portrayed in the family model.
  8. MORAL HEALTH: This allows us to conceptualize the effects of immorality as portrayed in the family model.
  9. MORAL SELF-INTEREST: This provides the crucial link between self-discipline and self-reliance in the family model.
  10. MORALITY AS NURTURANCE: This links nurturance in the family model to helping others in society in general.


[1] Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins e-books.

[2] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

[3] Burton, Robert Alan. On Being Certain. St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

[4] Damasio, Antonio R.. Descartes’ Error. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[7] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[8] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[10] Mercier, Hugo. The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press.

[11] Smith, Justin E. H.. Irrationality. Princeton University Press.

Surviving Libertarianism

I once asked a libertarian his thoughts on what we should do with those that are unable to be productive in our economic system, and he uttered, without hesitation, natural selection.  This response no doubt aroused anger in me, but I too have shared similar sentiments.  When we are thriving and committed to self-interest, then empathy is an empty word until we need it from others.

The libertarian’s comment, however, was a curious one since this system has not worked in his favor, and I would not say that he was thriving but rather surviving. I would like to explore the topic of how anyone, including myself, could be attracted to the ugly in libertarianism by looking at our personality differences and the logic that we use.  Here though I want to talk about social Darwinism.

Artificial Selection 

My understanding of evolutionary theory is that it is about change over time that results in life adapting to its environment.  The idea of “survival of the fittest” is a term coined not by Darwin but by a political theorist named Herbert Spencer.  When seeing how it has been metaphorized, however, I think there is little room to doubt that libertarians are using this because it fits their personality.

Darwinianism was misleadingly metaphorized in terms of “competition,” a competitive struggle for scarce resources in which only the strong and cunning emerge victorious, garnering the goods necessary for life and happiness. [6]

Libertarians, however, are conflating natural with artificial selection.  The mechanism that explains our adaptations is natural selection, which means that some individuals possessed traits that others didn’t that allowed them to reproduce and survive more successfully.  It is artificial selection when we construct our system based on self-interest at the exclusion of other adaptations.

For example, our moral emotions that involve sympathy and empathy evolved to assist with cooperation.  These have a tendency of being looked at as weaknesses within our system since this leads to dependency or even solidarity.  But if we disparage adaptations involved in cooperating, then it is no longer “natural” since we are being influenced by the social norms that we have created.

So-Called Experts

I took a random sample from a search on “capitalism and evolution” and had no difficulty in finding so-called experts on the idea that capitalism is a form of natural selection, but no serious evolutionary biologist believes this.  Below this individual claims that it is moral to weed out the weak and that laziness is a choice, where the former idea is callous and the latter one borders on absurd.

Having gov’t provided safety nets means that even the most destructive, racist, lazy people will receive help automatically. They should face the consequences of their life choices…It may seem harsh to want only the “fit” to survive. I think ignorance, laziness and various other irresponsible attributes/behaviours should die a painful death.

I don’t think that he is irrational because his logic works for his worldview, nor do I think that he is not smart but rather has personality characteristics and past experiences that make him attracted to the idea of “survival of the fittest”.  He seems uninformed on human nature and biology though and should probably stick with teaching Math at his highschool.

Evolution’s Direction

Just because we construct an economic system in which we have to compete to make a living, one in which self-interest triumphs and sympathy is akin to weakness, this does not mean that life is a competitive struggle for survival.  Evolution has no direction, and we have every right to use our moral emotions just as much as our self-interest.  That is, the following is not a law of nature.

The normative implication is that the social order, in every domain, is naturally and optimally governed by principles of competitive self-interest and that anything that interferes with that is unnatural and immoral.  [6]

On the other hand, if our guiding principle in our lives is based on maximizing self-efficacy and self-interest, then life will be a competitive struggle for survival.  If we put productivity and innovation on the higher moral ground at the cost of the well-being of those that can’t keep up, then we are seriously fooling ourselves into believing that we are building a better society.

That said, there are parallels between natural selection and our competitive behavior within free-markets; in fact, natural selection may track economic behavior better than the “invisible hand” [4].  But this explains it at the behavioral level, and we can’t assume that all behaviors are adaptive.  If we want to go further, then we must appeal to evolutionary psychology, in which I am on the fence.


[1] Coyne, Jerry A.. Why Evolution Is True. Penguin Publishing Group.

[2] Frank, Robert H. The Darwin Economy. Princeton University Press.

[3] Frank, Robert H. The Darwin Economy – Why Smith’s Invisible Hand Breaks Down.

[4] Frank, Robert H. The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?

[5] Gittins, Ross. Darwinian model of economics flawed for firms.

[6] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[7] Meyer, Christopher, and Kirby, Julia.  Runaway Capitalism.  Harvard Business Review.

[8] Ridley, Matt. What Charles Darwin Owes Adam Smith.  Learn Liberty.

[9] Vugt, Van Mark.  Why the Invisible Hand from Biology is Better Than the Invisible Hand from Economics.

[10] Wilson, David Sloan. This View of Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Triabalism Is Rational

I started writing for freethought blogs because I thought that my use of reason made me special, and I identified with those that had disdain for God.  I wanted to share this by way of science, but I did not have a real purpose.  Were these the real reasons for binding?  After researching rationality and self-interest, I realized that my self-interest was behind it all, but I needed to justify it first.

I was reluctant to embrace all of the blog’s principles, namely “an appreciation of human diversity and equality” because I didn’t “get it” until I experienced subordination first-hand.  Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist who studies social hierarchies, articulates what this purpose may be.  I first reasoned that tribalism (i) was divisive and irrational, and I now reason that it is rational and just.

…egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.  My thesis is that they must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal. [2]

Reasons for Tribalism

I was self-righteous and naive because of rationality and so reason itself was a roadblock for me to want to be political.  Rationality, at least my rationality, was that if we are ideologues and don’t use critical thinking skills to look at each issue and stay clear of our biases and in-groups, then we will never build a juster society.  But I was mistaken, in a big way.

We are not rational, and passion guides our moral reasoning – that is, what we decide to be right or wrong is anchored in our feelings and directs us.  And morality evolved to suppress self-interest in one another to allow for cooperation to take place, see below.  That is its function, and this is not a philosophical position but rather a scientific fact.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and innate tedencies that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. [5]

Our culture sets standards that must be met in order to advance in the hierarchy.  But some based on biology or bad luck will not be able to achieve the status they want and become subordinated.  So the anthropologist above is saying that biology justifies everything that liberals use to become more equal, e.g., economic equality, affirmative action, gender equality, and so forth.

The idea of people living morally as political equals is a beautiful one, but in an important sense it seems to go against human nature—a nature that leads, quite naturally, to interpersonal domination and to the formation of social dominance hierarchies, with alpha individuals presiding over them. [2]

We Were Egalitarian

But before twelve thousand years ago, humans basically were egalitarian (Knauft 1991). They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. [2]

I don’t get the impression that all evolutionary biologists believe that we lived as egalitarian tribes for most (95%) of our existence since they have a Hobbesian view of what it means to be human – that is, morality is but a thin veneer that keeps our savage-like self-interest in line.  But anthropologists certainly have a lot of evidence and reasoning to show that we did.

Far from being admired as “clever opportunists,” selfish individuals looking to exploit the generosity of other foragers are viewed as pitiful and potentially dangerous, likely to be nudged off the nearest cliff. Such an individual would be lucky to survive for long in a real-world foraging society, much less flourish. [12]

But egalitarianism is not what we think it is.  Yes, it says that in some respects people are thought to be equal and should have equal opportunities (not outcomes).  But this is a normative statement and by no means is what we actually observe.  On the other hand, real egalitarianism is about domination and that is what freethought blogs does very effectively that I used to be against.

Equality Is a Fight

My thesis, however, is that egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings. [2]

This is a very intuitive thesis and is something that we all have experienced through the emotions of envy and resentment when we are not included in certain groups or are treated unfairly.  It is so obvious that we have to be reminded of its truth.  The problem is that conservatives and libertarians will immediately say that we are not playing fair.

The argument here is that egalitarian societies constitute a very special type of hierarchy, one in which the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs. [2]

We must keep power in check so that the “strong” won’t weed out the “weak” as this anonymous conservative says below.  This conservative’s reasoning embellishes the folk idea that life is a competitive struggle for survival, while conveniently – since well-positioned people have little use for empathy – ignoring the role of compassion and altruism because he can.

The least immoral path is to honor each man’s freedom, limit governmental intervention, and let each man bear the burden of responsibility for himself.   Combined with personal charity, awarded by the productive to those who they feel are worthy, such a scheme would produce society where everyone was committed to the success of our nation, and sloth was unrewarded, beyond a bare subsistence level of support to those who are worthy in some regard.


(i) Tribalism is defined here as the antagonistic nature of inter-group behavior between the major ideologies of conservatism and liberalism.  Bi-partisanship is largely a myth because these two world-views don’t reason the same about morality and will always be in conflict.


[1] Anonymous. The Evolutionary Psychology Behind Politics. Federalist Publications.

[2] Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University

[3] Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[4] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Kling, Arnold. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. Cato Institute.

[7] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[8] Lakoff, George. The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! . Chelsea Green Publishing.

[9] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[10] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[11] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[12] Ryan, Christopher. Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster.

[13] Tuschman, Avi. Our Political Nature. Prometheus.

[14] Waal, Frans de. The Age of Empathy. Random House LLC

[15] Westen, Drew. The Political Brain. PublicAffairs.


Reasoning with Homo Economicus

The worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists). [5, 9]

Beliefs exist because of a need to feel certain and to influence others [5]. The drive for truth can be there, but falling prey to self-righteousness is too easy.  From Plato to Descartes, rationalism promised a superior morality because reason was thought to be free of emotion, pure and transcendent, and separated us from animals.  But rationalists were wrong on all accounts.

Passion Drives Reason

Given Hume’s concerns on the limits of reasoning, he believed that philosophers who tried to reason their way to moral truth without looking at human nature were no better than theologians looking for moral truth in texts. [5]

David Hume knocked down the idol of rationalism with his insight that passion is the driving force behind reason.  In fact, it was insightful enough to get the attention of the rationalist philosopher Kant, who said “Hume woke me from my intellectual stupor”.  Hume was saying that our reasoning is a post hoc rationalization – that is, we make an intuition first and then we justify it.

We may, for example, feel compassion towards those who work for minimum wage but then justify our intuition with a reason such as it being exploitation.  But this flies right in the face of the rational actor model because if our reasoning is anchored in emotion that gives it its direction, then rationality, which is to be emotionless, is not a good description of what it is to be human.

 The rational actor model does not define real rationality. It does not characterize the way people really think, though it is sometimes used as an ideal for how people should think.  [7]

Morality of Self-Interest

Rationality almost always has a moral dimension.  The idea that human rationality is purely mechanical, disengaged, and separable from moral issues is a myth, a myth that is harmful when we live our lives according to it. [7]

The link between rationality and morality may not be obvious, but once we remember that morality is about what we see to be right or wrong and good or bad, all based on some standard, then it shows itself.  Morality, moreover, is usually present when we reason since we justify our reasoning with reasons, and justification itself is an act of determining what is right or wrong.

Think about how much of our reasoning is about morality: it’s better to be strong than to be weak, better to be in control than out of control or dominated by others [7].  What all moral reasoning has in common is that it is about our well-being.  But it is also about others’ well-being, and a consensus that says that we should avoid and prevent harm to others serves our interests too.

That is, morality evolved to put limits on self-interest, and its effects are felt when we realize that many will not have our best interests in mind.  But the folk theory of the “invisible hand” says that self-interest creates wealth for all, so let us equate wealth with well-being and, wallah, we have the pursuit of self-interest as being a moral act that would make us irrational to not follow.

For those who believe in the morality of self-interest, it can never be a moral criticism that one is trying to maximize one’s self-interest, as long as one is not interfering with anyone else’s self-interest.  [7]

Related Posts

Conception of Homo Economicus“: rational man was conceived by way of deductive reasoning and a few “self-evident” truths.

Destruction of Homo Economicus“: rationality from the Enlightenment leads to self-interest and there is no universal reason.

“Reasoning with Homo Economicus: rationality is a form of self-righteousness and passions are what drives reason.

“Resurrection of Homo Economicus: the “invisible hand” promises wealth creation but costs go beyond typical externalities.


[1] Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins e-books.

[2] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

[3] Burton, Robert Alan. On Being Certain. St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

[4] Damasio, Antonio R.. Descartes’ Error. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[7] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[8] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Mercier, Hugo. The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press.

[10] Smith, Justin E. H.. Irrationality. Princeton University Press.

Reasons to Revere Reason

I came across this uplifting speech by Steven Pinker while researching the Enlightenment; however, I was really motivated to find evidence that “reason” was driven by passion and used to manipulate, deceive, justify self-interest, and help foster positive delusions about ourselves.  I found all of that but also found Pinker’s speech which shows that reason can be driven for good.

Pinker’s answer to the student’s question below will resonate if we have an appreciation for the beauty of life and a respect for human dignity.  Perhaps this can remind us of the importance of gratitude and empathy because self-righteousness and cynicism can be seductive.  Yes, I am aware of Steven Pinker’s controversial opinions, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The student asks Steven Pinker: “Why should I live?”

The student’s ingenious tone made it clear that she was neither suicidal nor sarcastic but genuinely curious about how to find meaning and purpose if traditional religious beliefs about an immortal soul are undermined by our best science.

In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you. And there are so many reasons to live!

As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy—the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness—and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.

And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress. [1]


[1] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now. Penguin Publishing Group.

Destruction of Homo Economicus

Homo economicus is from rational choice theory (i) that says humans maximize their self-interest in a consistent and rational way, much like how software solves an optimization problem.  To be sure, this model does not map well to how a real mind works.  In fact, look at how a cognitive scientist discusses how reasoning does not resemble anything like that of an algorithm.

We’ve learned a centuries old theory of rationality that says that thought is conscious (when it is mostly unconscious), that it works by logic (it actually works by embodied primitives, frames, conceptual metaphor, and integration), that all people have the same logic (which is supposed to be what makes us rational animals). [7]

Here I would like to ridicule the idea of homo economicus being an accurate characterization of how we make decisions because it is not only wrong from a neuroscience point of view (ii), but it also elevates rationality.  And a worldview that embodies rationality, with roots going back to Descartes, leads to championing the idea of self-interest by way of logical necessity (iii).

It is often seen as natural for people to act so as to maximize their self-interest (or profit) and unnatural for them not to. Those who profit most are therefore seen as doing what comes naturally, and those who profit much less are seen as irrational, unnatural, lesser beings who don’t deserve much no matter how hard they work. [9]

Presumption of Reason 

The Enlightenment advocated reason and empiricism as a way to obtain objective truth about our world and gave us arguments to challenge any authority that used dogma to their advantage.  It also applied empiricism to achieve economic progress to improve upon our welfare as well as gave rise to humanism which is the idea that humans have value and agency not to be trodden upon.

The Enlightenment also thought that reason is what makes us human and rational, but they framed everything in terms of logic.  As a result, “reason” is thought of as a faculty that gives “truth” in accordance with the rules of logic.  There is, however, no universal reason or logic.  To be sure, the reason I mean here is the kind made from our minds that is unrelated to logic in a program.

The view on reason is that it is conscious, universal, logical, unemotional, and value-neutral.  But it is not any of those things, and believing so is irrational.  For example, when others argue against us, we think they must be either mistaken (in need of the facts), irrational (needing a lesson in logic), or immoral (need to feel how we do) [7].  Worldviews must have their own logic then (v).

 If the people are made aware of the facts and figures, they should naturally reason to the right conclusion. Voters should vote their interests; they should calculate which policies and programs are in their best interests, and vote for the candidates who advocate those policies and programs.  But people aren’t rational, so this doesn’t happen. [9]

Rationality of Self-Interest

Yet versions of the rational actor model (i) have contributed to the arms race (via game theory (iv) and Mutually Assured Destruction) and global warming (via the externalization of pollution costs). It is that form of “rationality” that has most threatened our ability to survive and thrive.

The rational actor model (i) is in line with the eighteenth-century-view of mind which saw reason as primarily serving to achieve personal goals. Therefore it was seen as irrational to be against your self-interest.  If our culture expects us to behave in ways that serve our interests, then how do we know how much of our selfish behavior is influenced by biology or from social norms?

From the selfish gene perspective, the rational actor of course makes sense.  But this mode of thought is so engrained – the narrative of the rational actor – that altruism was called reciprocal-altruism.  Whether or not evolutionists are correct (they probably are), is not the point but speculation as to how metaphors and language construct our realities and guide theory is.

Although there is considerable literature documenting biological altruism, the most popular evolutionary account of altruism as a form of self-interest is reciprocal altruism—the trading of favors: it is in my interest to serve your interests in a society where that is the norm.

The “invisible hand” made seeking a profit into a moral act since it maximizes the profit for all (vi).  We find this attractive – that is, making the proverbial pie bigger – because it reduces the guilt we feel from being selfish.  But this is a good thing because it says that we have empathy and that there is more to human nature than self-interest.


i) Rational choice theory is synonymous with the rational actor model.

ii) Rational choice theory does find application to many optimizing problems.  But it has been used incorrectly by ideologues to explain how we make decisions and reason.

iii) If we adopt a worldview that uses the rational actor model, then we get trapped in narratives that place emphasis on self-interest.

iv) When there is more than one actor, limited resources, competition for benefits, and strategies for acting given the actions and strategies of others, then we are in the realm of game theory.

v) Disagreement happens because different worldviews have their own logic and rationality.  This means that objective truth has a frame of reference.

vi) It doesn’t matter what Adam Smith said only how it is remembered in simple and absolute terms and by way of metaphor.

Related Posts

Conception of Homo Economicus“: rational man was conceived by way of deductive reasoning and a few “self-evident” truths.

Destruction of Homo Economicus“: rationality from the Enlightenment leads to self-interest and there is no universal reason.

“Reasoning with Homo Economicus: teaching the self-righteous human self-awareness and that passions drive reason.

“Resurrection of Homo Economicus: the “invisible hand” promises wealth creation but costs go beyond typical externalities.


[1] Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins e-books.

[2] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

[3] Damasio, Antonio R.. Descartes’ Error. Penguin Publishing Group.

[4] Foster, Peter. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism . Pleasaunce Press.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Kennedy, Gavin. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 239–263.

[7] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics . University of Chicago Press.

[8] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[9] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[10] Madrick, Jeff. Seven Bad Ideas. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[11] Mercier, Hugo. The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press.

[12] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now. Penguin Publishing Group.

[13] Smith, Justin E. H.. Irrationality. Princeton University Press.

[14] Wikipedia on Rational Choice Theory.