Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by John E. Fletcher and Anthony B. Stewart.

Supplement to an Addendum

Recently I posted Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III, in which I employed a thought experiment to explore what I call the Marxian Thesis, which is the idea that the intellectual superstructure of a civilization is determined by its economic infrastructure. That post was an addendum on the series of posts investigating the nature of technological civilization, which is, in turn, a device I am using to take technological civilization as a lens with which to focus on civilization simpliciter. This post is a supplement to that addendum, following up on the thought experiment of the addendum with another thought experiment that leads us in a different direction–but still a thought experiment exploring the idea of civilization, and especially the possibility of a scientific study of civilization.

In my Euclid/Darwin swap thought experiment I thought about the possibility of an ancient Darwin introducing natural selection during classical antiquity, but civilization would have to wait for a Victorian Euclid to introduce higher mathematics and axiomatics into history. How different would the history of western civilization be under these circumstances? Wouldn’t a scientific biology have been a much greater benefit to early agricultural civilizations than advanced mathematics? Another kind of thought experiment in historical counterfactuals could derive from swapping existing figures with non-existent figures. This may sound rather curious, but I will try to explain what I mean by this.

In my previous post I noted that Euclid and Darwin both wrote books that defined a discipline. Euclid wrote The Elements while Darwin wrote his Origin of Species. There are other examples of definitive works, for example, Clausewitz’s On War and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. In the present context I want to especially focus on Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, but I suppose I could just as well take Clausewitz as my example: both Smith and Clausewitz represent the application of Enlightenment ideals of scientific knowledge to a particular domain of human experience and activity. For Smith, it was economics; for Clausewitz, it was war.

Adam Smith published his The Wealth of Nations at the high water mark of the Enlightenment. The book was immediately influential, and arguably has only grown in influence since then. Smith’s book effectively created the modern discipline of economics, much as Darwin’s Origins effectively created scientific biology. There were books on economics written before Adam Smith (as there were books about biology written before Darwin), but earlier economics treatises (like earlier biological treatises) did not provide the conceptual framework adequate for the foundation of a discipline on scientific principles. One could say that the financial needs of the industrial revolution meant that someone would inevitably formulate a scientific economics (and this would be evidence for the Marxian Thesis), but we have already seen that this does not always happen. One could equally well claim that the biological needs of agricultural civilization would have inevitably resulted in a scientific biology, but this did not happen.

Suppose that, instead of Adam Smith initiating the development of scientific economics during the Enlightenment, or in addition to this, some other scientific discipline, viz. one not yet in existence today, had its origins during the Enlightenment. So this is my sense of a thought experiment that involves swapping an existing person and text with a non-existent person or text. Suppose we swap Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations with a non-existent founder of a science of civilization and a definitive book that initiated the development of the scientific study of civilization. In this scenario, some author writes a definitive text on a science of civilization in the late 18th century or early 19th century more-or-less single-handedly formulating an adequate conceptual framework for the study of civilization and creating a social science with civilization as its special object of scientific investigation. This text then goes on to be the basis of an ongoing scholarly tradition, so that a science of civilization beginning in the Enlightenment grows into a formal academic discipline with entire departments of universities devoted to its study.

It should be noted that the social sciences during the Enlightenment were far behind the development of the natural sciences, with which latter the scientific revolution began. There was no parallel development of the social sciences (much less a science of civilization) on the order of what was going on in physics, chemistry, biology, and geology at this time. However, this near total absence of an equally well developed social science tradition did not stop Adam Smith from initiating modern economics as a social science discipline. Perhaps economics was the first social science to assume a modern form, and it may be relevant that economics is the most formalized and mathematized of the social sciences today. If we take history to be a social science, then history is certainly far older than economics, but history stagnated from classical antiquity until the modern period, and did not become the basis of a growing social science tradition in the way that economics became something of a template for the social sciences that would follow in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We can even speculate on how a social science of civilization might have come about during the Enlightenment. There was a time in the late 18th century and the early 19th century–the late Enlightenment, when both Adam Smith and Kant were active–when an individual with sufficient resources could have traveled the world almost as extensively as today, if a bit more slowly. This was at the same time when young English noblemen took the “Grand Tour” of Italy (cf. Brian Sewell’s television documentary about the Grand Tour, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour of Italy), traveling through Europe at a time when European societies were strikingly different from each other. This was also an age of gentlemen amateurs, some of whom became great scientists. Given the resources to travel, and a sufficiently robust constitution that would allow for a bit of discomfort, one would have had, at this time, an historically unique opportunity to travel the world and to see profoundly different civilizations little influenced by each other in comparison to the level of cross-cultural influence today.

With this in mind, we could even construct an imaginary backstory for our counter-factual author of a counter-factual 18th century treatise on civilization, consisting of the social and cultural equivalent of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, subsequently returning home to reflect upon his experiences. Alternatively, a sedentary scholar (like Kant) might seclude himself in his library with the great travelogues being written about the same time (because travel on a planetary scale was now possible)–I am thinking of the likes of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), James Bruce (1730–1794), Richard Burton (1821-1890), Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), Charles M. Doughty (1843-1926), and others of the time–and draw from these accounts of nearly pristine civilizations the ideas for a scientific account of civilization.

Some world-traveling gentleman amateur would have had the opportunity to witness regional civilizations uncontaminated by all but immediate neighbors, piquing the curiosity of our traveler, much as Darwin’s curiosity was piqued by his naturalist observations made during his time on the Beagle in its expedition around South America. Returning home to ruminate over all he had seen, he begins collecting more information about every known civilization, and eventually sets pen to paper to record his collected observations and the principles employed to unify his observations. Travel and reading would have made possible the study of civilization in an empirical, scientific manner by visiting regional civilizations, observing them, and perhaps even measuring them by whatever means might have been available to social science metrics of the time (perhaps creating these methods, as Galileo created his own methods of quantitative research of physical phenomena).

We tend to think of the 19th century conception of civilization as naïve or worse, but in so far as it was, for those who traveled, informed by direct observations of regional civilizations (more isolated from each other than civilizations are today) it was a more sophisticated understanding based on first-hand knowledge, and before the resistance to comparing and contrasting civilizations that we see today (cf. Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization). In order to identify the common core of civilization one must be willing and able to analyze civilizations, and analyzing civilizations would mean reducing them to their constituent parts and determining the relationship of the parts to the whole. To do this with civilization requires a certain social environment that is not present today. Civilizations as we see them today have been racked on the Procrustean Bed of universalism and can no longer be seen for what they are because of the strong ideological overlay of scholarship.

If the rudiments of a science of civilization had been initially presented by a definitive text of the Enlightenment, or even of the romantic era, and subsequently refined and formalized as economics and biology have been refined and formalized since their inception as modern scientific disciplines, how might the world have been different? Would the history of western civilization have been altered by the self-understanding made possible by a science of civilization? In On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies I discussed how a science of civilization could lead to technologies of civilization, just as biological science has led to biological technologies. With a science of civilization issuing in technologies of civilization, we would be in possession of the means to actively intervene in the process of civilization in order to attain certain ends. One could see in this ability both profound dangers and great opportunities. Existential risks are always the flip side of existential opportunities.

Even though there was this opportunity for the study of civilization when civilizations are largely isolated from each other, it didn’t happen, and so as I have presented it here in this thought experiment this scenario will forever remain a counter-factual unrealized in our history. We could still today begin the scientific study of civilization, but the evidence of isolated and pristine civilizations is being lost by the day, just as the archaeological and the geological record are degraded by the passage of time and further human activity. The earlier a science appears in history, the more it can take advantage of an historical record that is degraded with the passage of time.

One of the essential elements in the development of a civilization is the order in which sciences and technologies appear. We could formulate alternative historical sequences for civilizations in which sciences and technologies appear in a different order than they did in fact in terrestrial history, or alternative historical sequences in which particular sciences or technologies are missing that have been present in human history, or which are present that have been absent in human history. A science of civilization is an example of the latter, so that we can posit a counterfactual civilization in which a science of civilization is robustly present, and whether this science has its origins near the beginning of the history of a civilization (as with higher mathematics) or later in the development of a civilization (as with biology and economics) would also affect the developmental trajectory of a civilization that possessed the knowledge that would be produced by a science of civilization, that the technologies of civilization made possible by that knowledge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Is it possible for human beings to care about the fate of strangers? This is at once a profound philosophical question and an immediately practical question. The most famous response to this question is perhaps that of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII. Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris. Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.

Immanuel Levinas spoke of “the community of those with nothing in common,” in an attempt to get at the human concern for other human beings of whom we know little or nothing. More recently, there is this from Bill Gates:

“When I talk to friends about global health, I often run into a strange paradox. The idea of saving one person’s life is profound and thrilling. But I’ve found that when you talk about saving millions of lives — it sounds almost meaningless. The higher the number, the harder it is to wrap your head around.”

Bill Gates, opening paragraph of An AIDS Number That’s Almost Too Big to Believe

Gates presents this as a paradox, but in social science it is a well-known and well-studied cognitive bias known as the Identifiable victim effect. One researcher who has studied this cognitive bias is Paul Slovic, whose work was discussed by Sam Harris in the following passage:

“…when human life is threatened, it seems both rational and moral for our concern to increase with the number of lives at stake. And if we think that losing many lives might have some additional negative consequences (like the collapse of civilization), the curve of our concern should grow steeper still. But this is not how we characteristically respond to the suffering of other human beings.”

“Slovic’s experimental work suggests that we intuitively care most about a single, identifiable human life, less about two, and we grow more callous as the body count rises. Slovic believes that this ‘psychic numbing’ explains the widely lamented fact that we are generally more distressed by the suffering of single child (or even a single animal) than by a proper genocide. What Slovic has termed ‘genocide neglect’ — our reliable failure to respond, both practically and emotionally, to the most horrific instances of unnecessary human suffering — represents one of the more perplexing and consequential failures of our moral intuition.”

“Slovic found that when given a chance to donate money in support of needy children, subjects give most generously and feel the greatest empathy when told only about a single child’s suffering. When presented with two needy cases, their compassion wanes. And this diabolical trend continues: the greater the need, the less people are emotionally affected and the less they are inclined to give.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2

Skip down another paragraph and Harris adds this:

“The fact that people seem to be reliably less concerned when faced with an increase in human suffering represents an obvious violation of moral norms. The important point, however, is that we immediately recognize how indefensible this allocation of emotional and material resources is once it is brought to our attention.”

While Harris has not hesitated to court controversy, and speaks the truth plainly enough as he sees it, by failing to place what he characterizes as norms of moral reasoning in an evolutionary context he presents us with a paradox (the above section of the book is subtitled “Moral Paradox”). Really, this kind of cognitive bias only appears paradoxical when compared to a relatively recent conception of morality liberated from parochial in-group concerns.

For our ancestors, focusing on a single individual whose face is known had a high survival value for a small nomadic band, whereas a broadly humanitarian concern for all human beings would have been disastrous in equal measure. Today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization we can afford to love humanity; if our ancestors had loved humanity rather than particular individuals they knew well, they likely would have gone extinct.

Our evolutionary past has ill prepared us for the perplexities of population ethics in which the lives of millions may rest on our decisions. On the other hand, our evolutionary past has well prepared us for small group dynamics in which we immediately recognize everyone in our in-group and with equal immediacy identify anyone who is not part of our in-group and who therefore belongs to an out-group. We continue to behave as though our decisions were confined to a small band of individuals known to us, and the ability of contemporary telecommunications to project particular individuals into our personal lives as though we knew them, as if they were part of our in-group, plays into this cognitive bias.

While the explicit formulation of Identifiable victim effect is recent, the principle has been well known for hundreds of years at least, and has been as compellingly described in historical literature as in recent social science, as, for example, in Adam Smith:

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, chapter 3, paragraph 4

And immediately after Hume made his famous claim that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” he illustrated the claim with an observation similar to Smith’s:

“Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledgeed lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, section 3

Bertrand Russell has well described how the expression of this cognitive bias can take on the conceit of moral superiority in the context of romanticism:

“Cultivated people in eighteenth-century France greatly admired what they called la sensibilité, which meant a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought. The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class. The poor were supposed to possess more virtue than the rich; the sage was thought of as a man who retires from the corruption of courts to enjoy the peaceful pleasures of an unambitious rural existence.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II. From Rousseau to the Present Day, CHAPTER XVIII “The Romantic Movement”

Russell’s account of romanticism provides some of the missing rationalization whereby a cognitive bias clearly at variance with norms of moral reasoning is justified as being the “higher” moral ground. Harris seems to suggest that, as soon as this violation of moral reasoning is pointed out to us, we will change. But we don’t change, for the most part. Our rationalizations change, but our behavior rarely does. And indeed studies of cognitive bias have revealed that even when experimental subjects are informed of cognitive biases that should be obvious ex post facto, most will continue to defend choices that unambiguously reflect cognitive bias.

I have personally experienced the attitude described by Russell (despite the fact that I have not lived in eighteenth-century France) more times than I care to recall, though I find myself temperamentally on the side of those formulating well-thought-out schemes for the amelioration of the lot of the destitute as a class, rather than those moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute family. From these personal experiences of mine, anecdotal evidence suggests to me that if you attempt to live by the quasi-utilitarianism advocated by Russell and Harris, others will regard you as cold, unfeeling, and lacking in the milk of human kindness.

The cognitive bias challenge to presumptive norms of moral reasoning is also a profound challenge to existential risk mitigation, since existential risk mitigation deals in the largest numbers of human lives saved, but is a well-thought-out scheme for ameliorating the lot of human beings as a class, and may therefore have little emotional appeal compared to putting an individual’s face on a problem and then broadcasting that face repetitively.

We have all heard that the past is the foreign county, and that they do things differently there. (This line comes from the 1953 novel The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.) We are the past of some future that has yet to occur, and we will in turn be a foreign country to that future. And, by the same token, the future is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. Can we care about these foreigners with their foreign ways? Can we do more than care about them, and actually change our behavior in the present in order to ensure on ongoing future, however foreign that future is from our parochial concerns?

In Bostrom’s paper “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” (Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013) the author gives a lower bound of 1016 potential future lives saved by existential risk mitigation (though he also gives “a lower bound of 1054 human-brain-emulation subjective life-years” as a possibility), but if the “collapse of compassion” is a function of the numbers involved, the higher the numbers we cite for individuals saved as a result of existential risk mitigation, the less will the average individual of today care.

Would it be possible to place an identifiable victim in the future? This is difficult, but we are all familiar with appeals to the world we leave to our children, and these are attempts to connect identifiable victims with actions that may prejudice the ability of human beings in the future to live lives of value commensurate with our own. It would be possible to construct some grand fiction, like Plato’s “noble lie” in order to interest the mass of the public in existential risk mitigation, but this would not be successful unless it became some kind of quasi-religious belief exempted from falsification that becomes the receptacle of our collective hopes. This does not seem very plausible (or sustainable) to me.

Are we left, then, to take the high road? To try to explain in painstaking (and off-putting) detail the violation of moral norms involved in our failure to adequately address existential risks, thereby putting our descendants in mortal danger? Certainly if an attempt to place an identifiable victim in the future is doomed to failure, we have no remaining option but the attempt at a moral intervention and relentless moral education that could transform the moral lives of humanity.

I do not think either of the above approaches to resolving the identifiable victim challenge to existential risk mitigation would be likely to be successful. I can put this more strongly yet: I think both approaches would almost certainly result in a backlash and would therefore be counter-productive to existential risk mitigation efforts. The only way forward that I can see is to present existential risk mitigation under the character of the adventure and exploration made possible by a spacefaring civilization that would, almost as an unintended consequence, secure the redundancy and autonomy of extraterrestrial centers of human civilization.

Human beings (at least as I know them) have a strong distaste for moral lectures and do not care to be told to do anything for their own good, but if you present them with the possibility of adventure and excitement that promises new experiences to every individual and possibly even the prospect of the extraterrestrial equivalent of a buried treasure, or even a pot of gold at the of the rainbow, you might enlist the selfishness and greed of individuals in a great cause on behalf of Earth and all its inhabitants, so that each individual is moved, as it were, by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

12. Developing an Existential Perspective

13. Existential Risk and Identifiable Victims

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Some time ago in Human Nature I discussed concepts of human nature in Thucydides, Sartre, and John Stuart Mill. I find myself returning time and again to the theme of human nature, as, for example, a couple of months ago when I wrote in Philosophy Teaching by Examples, “even when an idea has been as rigorously disproved as it is possible for an idea to be disproved by history, even a disgraced and defeated idea is never put out of historical action entirely if it has some ongoing basis in human nature or in the perennial character of human affairs.”

Practical philosophers — those that Heilbronner famously called The Worldly Philosophers — philosophical historians like Thucydides, and thoughtful men of all times have struggled with the maddeningly elusive nature of human nature, which at times seems so simple and so obvious, while at other times it seems incapable of definition and the very idea an affront to human freedom. In purely philosophical contexts we can do without human nature (as, for example, Sartre’s rejection of the very idea of human nature in his thick ontological treatise Being and Nothingness), but when we turn to the ordinary business of life, and to individuals making history with their peers from the “bottom up” as it were, it is difficult to avoid invoking human nature. However, I have noticed that in my many posts on economics I have not made any systematic attempt to given an explication of human nature in an economic context. And this is exactly what Homo economicus is, or is supposed to be: human nature in an economic context. This is a necessarily abstract perspective, and no one ought to mistake an abstraction for the real thing, except we know that the very idea of Homo economicus gets people rather worked up.

Previously in On the Very Idea of a “Reason of Humanity” and Amending Self-Interest and Addendum to “Technical Ecstasy” I wrote about the economic abstraction of homo economicus. The very idea of of homo economicus seems to provoke those who have taken a set against economic reductionism, or, if you will, the economic interpretation of history. Like invoking the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, one can expect a predictable reaction against invoking homo economicus.

A strong formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is simply identical with homo economicus. To say that human nature is nothing but those properties ascribed to homo economicus — a self-interested maximizer of surplus value — is clearly a form of economic reductionism. A weak formulation of homo economicus would be the claim that human nature is sometimes identical with homo economicus. It is difficult to imagine a rational way to reject this weak thesis.

The weak formulation of the thesis of Homo economicus is consistent with weak formulations of radically different conceptions of human nature, because if human nature can embody a given character at one moment while embodying a distinct character at another moment, there is no reason that episodes of self-interest can be interspersed with episodes of altruism. Thus the weak formulation of homo economicus is simply the claim that human beings are sometimes selfish, and this is obviously true. Therefore it would be more interesting to consider the luke-warm formulation of homo economicus, which would be that human nature is mostly identical to homo economicus, which is to say that homo economicus describes the rule, and, while acknowledging exceptions to the rule, also acknowledges that exceptions are sufficiently rare to be exceptions.

But this discussion already assumes too much, as though we already know what human nature is, what what homo economicus is. We do not know, and we must go much deeper into the structure of civilization as well as into the life of the individual in order to make sense of the forces that shape civilizations and individuals alike. In the spirit of integral ecology we can exapt the biological ideas of ontogeny and phylogeny for the explication of socio-economic categories. Ontogeny gives us the life of the individual, while phylogeny gives us the structure of the civilization in which the individual emerges, and, as is to be expected, the two do not exist in isolation, but each shapes the other.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I attempted to demonstrate the interplay of the ontogeny and phylogeny of human nature in terms of the development of the individual within particular historical circumstances. The theses I formulated there can be summarized thus:

Human nature is a function of the human condition.
The human condition is a function of the longue durée.
Therefore, human nature is a function of the longue durée.
The longue durée endures, but is not permanent.
Therefore, human nature endures, but is not permanent.
Human nature, as a function of the longue durée, reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

While integral history is the ultimate framework in which human experience (and therefore human nature) can be set, the paradigms of integral history — the pre-human, the nomadic, the agricultural, and the industrial, to date — are the most powerful and pervasive forces shaping human nature at any one moment of history, there are other powerful and pervasive forces that expressed differently and emerge differently in history.

From these two classes of structural forces that shape individuals and their histories — the three historical paradigms of social organization and the four conceptions of history — there follows a typology of twelve possibilities. For example, within the paradigms of integral history, there are conceptions of the nature of human-being-in-the-world based on our presumed agency (or lack therefore) which I called conceptions of history. Conceptions of history represent perennial expressions of human self-understanding, and they also represent the longue durée to an even greater degree than the paradigms of integral history, because the perennial possibilities of self-understanding of our place in nature transcend the paradigms of integral history. There are cataclysmic, naturalistic, political, and eschatological conceptions of human agency alike in nomadic, agricultural, and industrialized societies.

Both the economic institutions of civilizational paradigms — i.e., how the greater part of the people of any era of history make a life for themselves, whether by hunting and gathering, or by farming, or by industrial labor — and the self-understanding of one’s place in the world, which means one’s self-understanding of one’s place within the civilizational paradigm of one’s time, are forces of the longue durée that shape lives, and in shaping individual lives, also shape entire societies.

This much is obvious. What is less obvious and more interesting is how these classes of structural forces manifest themselves in history. Historical paradigms of social organization are primarily phylogenetic forces, whereas conceptions of history are primarily ontogenic forces. Individuals, whether by choice or by temperament, have an understanding of their place in the world, which is a conception of whatever agency they possess or fail to possess, and they bring this understanding to the life that they make for themselves within the paradigm of socio-economic organization, which is a function not of the individual and individual development but rather of community and social development.

Human nature as embodied in the individual person has all the instability of individual temperament: it varies from individual to individual, and so the individual may embody a conception of human nature at odds with his time. As And, moreover, as individual variation is the basis of natural selection — without which there would be no evolution, therefore no human beings, therefore no human nature — it is to be expected that embodied human nature varies across individuals. What aspects of variable human temperament are actualized by or stifled by the socio-economic context in which the individual emerges is another matter. While the individual varies, the social context in which the individual makes his life and livelihood, imposes a socio-economic unity even upon diverse temperaments.

These individual and social forces, ontogenic and phylogenetic forces, develop in parallel in a relationship of coevolution. A particular sense of human agency will foster the development of a particular socio-economic paradigm, while a particular paradigm of socio-economic organization will foster a particular sense of human agency among the members of a society so organized. There can be exceptions to each — societies that fail to respond to the sense of agency entertained by its members, and individuals who fail to conform in their sense of agency with the society of which they are a member — which are not counter-examples to the rule in the sense of denying the existence of the rule.

The fortunes of industrialized civilization rise of fall on the strength of the economy, in all its complexity, reaching from the daily transactions of the individual person to the highest dealings of the councils of state. The centrality of the economy to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization means that homo economicus is made central to the mature institutions of industrialized civilization, and this pervasive economic pressure shapes individuals who live within these circumstances. Under the industrial paradigm, then, homo economicus becomes human nature, because human nature is a function of the longue durée that reflects the paradigm of integral history within which it takes shape.

Ontogeny — the development of the individual’s sense of agency — and phylogeny — the development of socio-economic institutions by which individuals within a society live — are simply the individual and his circumstances, each of which embody a certain conception of human nature, and even of homo economicus (since economic man must differ from one economic system to another). The dialectic of the individual in society seeks a resolution between the individual’s development of a human nature, in the sense of his or her agency, and society’s development of human nature, in the sense of established ways of life. This resolution is often attended by conflict, as matters of such import are rarely settled peacefully. The individual may fight against an imposed way of life, and a society will fight to make the individual conform to its way of life. This conflict can be destructive, or it can be the source of creative tension.

In what Joseph Campbell called the Economic Interpretation of History, homo economicus is the central agent. An alternative formulation to this would be to say that all agents are ultimately reducible to homo economicus. This is a particularly telling formulation, since it puts us in mind of the passage from Thucydides that I have quoted in several posts (Relative Poverty, among them), such that:

War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.

It is not only war, but any hardship that takes away the easy supply of daily wants, that brings men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. War can be a rough master, to be sure, but the economy itself can prove a rough master, or a natural disaster, or any other interruption in the human condition. Hardship is also a source of conflict, and it too can be destructive or a source of creative tension.

As civilization matures and becomes more comprehensive, more pervasive, more all-encompassing, interruptions to the easy supply of daily wants become all the more noticeable, partly because daily wants have escalated in industrialized civilization many orders of magnitude beyond the minimal needs of life, and partly because the interruptions because less frequent and therefore more unusual. Such a mature civilization, to the degree that it regiments life, which increases over time as institutions mature, forecloses on possibilities for its members. This means not only conflict, but an increasing tension which can spur greater destructiveness or greater creative tension. Mature civilizations that survive the destructive forces created by regimentation in conflict with individual freedom and possibility, give rise to the great monuments of higher civilization. This comes about through escalating creative tension.

Our industrialized civilization today has clearly embodied profound conflicts between individuals in their societies as well as between societies. In the twentieth century it become a real possibility that civilization could commit suicide. While we have thus far avoided civilizational suicide, we have not avoided destructive conflict. It could be argued that, in the twentieth century, social tensions were primarily resolved through destructive release of tension, which would account for the world wars over the past hundred years, as well as the failure of industrialized civilization to yet attain to the achievements of higher civilization. However, it could also be argued that the unique place of homo economicus within the industrial paradigm militates against the emergence of higher civilization.

Can a civilizational paradigm that makes economic activity central, and therefore places homo economicus at the center of its conception of life, transcend these imperatives and achieve greatness in other areas of endeavor? I would argue that it is indeed possible, but not yet actual. The great civilizations of the agricultural paradigm placed the warrior at their center, and made warfare the central activity, and yet from this violent context the great achievements of classical civilization emerged. For this to occur within the industrial paradigm may require the axialization of the industrial paradigm, and this is still come centuries in the future.

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I realize, of course, that I have not done justice to my topic — the relation of human nature to homo economicus — but hopefully I have at least begun a sketch of how the two are interrelated. Improved formulations can only follow from further meditation on this difficult and large question.

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