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Hello, from Illinois, Fellow Inquirers…
Posted: 07 January 2007 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Just thought I’d drop a line, adding my name to the list of the terminally curious!

I hail from northern Illinois, and have been a reader of Skeptical Inquirer, on and off, since I was in high school (1981-1985) (and later on, Skeptic) and have been a casual fan of Joe Nickell and Michael Shermer ever since.

I am a skeptic in all things. This I cannot deny. But, I am also willing to go out on a limb, and guess that many of you here are only skeptical of [i:2f01df14c6]certain[/i:2f01df14c6] things. I know from the podcasts, that you folks challenge the religious, for their lack of a rational and empirical standard that can be applied to their claims about reality. You also challenge the mystical set (the paranormal believers) on the same grounds.

But, why stop with these two groups? Why not apply that rational and empirical razor to other foggy concepts such as the State? I posit that, just as the burden is on the theist to prove the existence of his deity, the burden is also on the statist, to prove the necessity of violence as an operating principle in human interactions. Indeed, if Dawkins is correct, then we are biologically engineered to prefer cooperation and exchange, making such institutions as government not only superfluous, but positively destructive to that end.

So, let’s say we open our minds just one more degree, and start thinking about what it means to be a human, engaging ourselves in a human community, and why, as rationalists, we think we need such things as coercion and intimidation to make our way through life.

Have a good 2007, everyone!
Greg

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Posted: 08 January 2007 01:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Re: Hello, from Illinois, Fellow Inquirers…

[quote author=“gmgauthi”] Indeed, if Dawkins is correct, then we are biologically engineered to prefer cooperation and exchange, making such institutions as government not only superfluous, but positively destructive to that end.

Hello again Greg.

This is not an accurate representation of Dawkins’s views, or indeed anyone’s I am familiar with who works on evolutionary psychology. The paramount necessity for any sort of evolution is competition. One element of competition within groups involves dominance hierarchies, of the sort that we see around us every day: the owning of fancy cars, fancy clothes, living in fancy houses, being the boss rather than a paeon, having power, et cetera.

So, cooperation and exchange are far from the only human drives. (As they are far from the only drives in other animals as well, including the great apes).

The role of government must, in part, be to moderate the force of such hierarchies by—at the very least—instituting a rule of law that offsets the ‘rule of the strong’ or the ‘rule of the jungle’ that would be in effect without it.

You suggest that those of us who believe in a role for the state are not being skeptical enough. Perhaps so. But perhaps also you should be more skeptical of your views about the essential goodness of human nature. Those sorts of beliefs come out of an entirely wrongheaded notion of humanity that sprung from such non-scientific thinkers as Rousseau, whose ideas of the “noble savage” have been thoroughly discredited by modern studies in anthropology and cognitive psychology.

For more on this, see the famous Milgram experiment , and the Stanford prison experiment . Both demonstrate how dominance hierarchies naturally lead to evil behavior in normal humans when unchecked.

Now, in your previous post you did say that voting booths were not going to make corrupt people pure ... that is an excellent point. If you believe that people are, at base, just as corrupt, competitive and dominance-obsessed as they are prone to purity and cooperation, it isn’t at all clear why you would believe that a governing philosophy without a rule of law would be any better than one that has it. Indeed, one would suppose that it would be significantly worse.

BTW, we don’t have to believe that the rule of law always works in order to believe this. We only need to believe that the rule of law works sometimes. The alternative is that it works none of the time.

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Posted: 08 January 2007 07:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Wow, Doug, I often agree with you, but you are dead wrong here.  Neither of the referenced experiments demonstrated a nefarious nature to human beings.  Rather, they showed that humans are social animals willing to follow the direction of those in charge. 

As much harm as religion does, many church-goers contribute a great deal of time and money to helping the disadvantaged.  I suggest that these people give much more than they usually would because their leaders (ministers, priests, etc.) direct them to.

And, competition, while important, is certainly not an unalloyed motivation for all organisms.  Many animals, humans included, are social because it allows them to compete more successfully with outsiders, however, that means that competition within the society must be severely limited and replaced by cooperation and mutual help.

Rather than accepting the nihilistic view that we are all going to hell because of rotten human nature and rotten leaders, I believe we can teach our children to be caring, helpful, cooperative people rather than training them to be avaricious and competititive.  We can choose leaders who direct us toward humanistic goals rather than toward self-centered acquisition at the expense of others.

I don’t think your ad hominum description of “non-scientific” for Rousseau is justified.  Rather, I question the popular interpretation of many modern psychological experiments.

Occam

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Posted: 08 January 2007 08:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Now wait, I never said that humans had a “nefarious nature”, and I certainly agree that neither experiment showed such a thing. What they showed, as you say, is that “humans are social animals”. Or as I put it, above, “dominance hierarchies naturally lead to evil behavior in normal humans when unchecked”.

Now, perhaps that was ill-phrased, in that clearly I don’t mean to imply that dominance hierachies always lead to evil behavior, only that they can naturally lead to such behavior. By “naturally” I mean that in neither experiment was any untoward pressure put on any of the participants to behave evilly. Indeed, in the (in)famous prison experiment, the experimenters were stunned at what transpired.

The problem with Rousseau (as Pinker describes in thorough detail in his most recent book) is that his belief was that humans were naturally good, and that only complex societies corrupted people into behaving evilly. Stated bluntly, there isn’t a shred of evidence for such beliefs. They are nothing more than romantic nonsense. People can be good and cooperative, they can also be evil and uncooperative. This goes just as much for simple as for complex societies, and for humans generally.

So, it is wrong to say that humans are naturally good. It is also wrong to say that humans are naturally evil. What is right to say is that humans do naturally follow dominance hierarchies, strive for power and prestige, and are (sometimes, under some circumstances) willing to do nasty things in order to achieve them. While a state may cater to this sort of striving, in that the people in power likely achieved it through such competition, it also can work to mitigate the worst sorts of competition, through the rule of law and honest regulation of business.

As has been said before, “Your right to swing your fists around ends at the front of my nose.” But who is to enforce such limitations of rights? Not the powerful. The whole idea of the rule of law is that it exists to mitigate the abilities that the powerful would be able to exercise on their own. Clearly we all agree that laws do not work perfectly, and that powerful and wealthy people can twist the law in ways it was not intended, with good lawyers and political pressure. But it does work sometimes, and the fear and threat remains.

My main point here is to say that we cannot expect that a withering away of the state will somehow magically lead to producing people that are perfectly good and cooperative. And since the law cannot effectively function without some sort of powerful centralized state-like mechanism, it looks for all the world like the withering away of the state would be a huge disaster for all but the most powerful. Indeed, it is the Republican party which, at least in its public rhetoric, wants most to “shrink” the government. (E.g., Grover Norquist’s pledge: “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”, The Nation, 10/12/2004).  And we know it is only the most wealthy and powerful who fund them.

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Posted: 09 January 2007 09:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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My point was that the infant brain is a tabula rasa, and whatever the early environment it’s exposed to determines the person’s moral framework, and whether the person will tend to behave in a socially positive or negative manner.

In addition, most people are conditioned to accept authority and to want to curry favor with that authority.  As such, when they are given directions by the authority (the psychologists running the experiment) to accomplish a certain task, even if not told to use cruel methods to do so, the subjects will first try to do what they were instructed to do without cruelty.  As soon as that doesn’t work, they will put aside their own moral beliefs in favor of satisfying the authority and resort to any method, no matter how vicious, that they think will succeed.

If we are stuck with heirarchical organizational structures, then it’s the responsibility of the leaders to not only define the ends they require, but also the means allowed and those means not to be used to accomplish the goals.

Occam

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Posted: 09 January 2007 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]My point was that the infant brain is a tabula rasa, and whatever the early environment it’s exposed to determines the person’s moral framework, and whether the person will tend to behave in a socially positive or negative manner.

This is precisely the issue that Pinker deals with in his book The Blank Slate. Infant brains are not “tabulae rasae” at all ... very far from it.

[quote author=“Occam”]In addition, most people are conditioned to accept authority and to want to curry favor with that authority.  As such, when they are given directions by the authority (the psychologists running the experiment) to accomplish a certain task, even if not told to use cruel methods to do so, the subjects will first try to do what they were instructed to do without cruelty.  As soon as that doesn’t work, they will put aside their own moral beliefs in favor of satisfying the authority and resort to any method, no matter how vicious, that they think will succeed.

The accepting of authority is not conditioned, it is inborn. (It may be conditioned as well, of course, and we are certainly in agreement that much of how authority manifests itself is partially a matter of learning). What these experiments show is the extent of that acceptance of authority, and the cruel way it may so easily become manifest.

[quote author=“Occam”]If we are stuck with heirarchical organizational structures, then it’s the responsibility of the leaders to not only define the ends they require, but also the means allowed and those means not to be used to accomplish the goals.

Sure ... but it’s not just the responsibility of the leaders. It’s the responsibility of us all, at a very basic level.

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Posted: 09 January 2007 11:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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It seems like we have two underlying issues here: 1. What, if anything, can we say “human nature” is and what does it predispose human beings to do. 2. Given the answer to 1, what is the best form of social organization to maximize human potential and minimize suffering. Of course, both of these have been the subject of lots of research and debate, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answers. But, as usual, I sure have an opinion
wink


Generally, I’m with Doug on this one. I think the key to understanding human nature is to remember we are not as different from other animals as we feel we are. We have evolved with a specific natural history shaping our behavioral, as well as morphological, traits. Now, the exact set of selection pressures involved is not likely to ever be fully elucidated, and the theories that we develop seem to be very influenced but contemporary cultural biases (Man the Hunter, no Woman the Gatherer, no Man the Scavenger, etc). And certainly our particular adaptive strategies involve a great deal more sophisticated cognition than any other species. But in general, we are just another animal, and the fundamental principles that underly behavior in any species still apply to us.

so, I think behaviroal bilogy in general, and human history in particular, shows trends in human behavior which can arguably, if cautiously, be labeled “human nature.” And in these examples, I see a tendancy to focus on immediate and short-term concerns, to see the world from a narrow, self-centered perspective (or at least a set of concentric circles of concern with those nearest one being seen as most important and with interest and concern lessening with each step outward). I also see indivduals often preferring to leave the thinking to the group rather than doing it themselves. Finally, I see fundamental drives of great adaptive significance to all animals (e.g. seek high calorie density foods, produce as many offspring as possible) being extremely difficult to supress for most of us (thus lifestyle diseases and overpopulation), and these keep cropping up no matter how we organize our societies and raise our children.

I believe environment and genes interacts to generate specific behavior patterns, but the older I get, and especially the more I watch my daughter become herself both because of and, to a surprising extent despite, my influence and that of other people, the more important I think the genetic part of the interaction is. And I think most genes and most environments produce behavior more characteristic of Hobbes’ ideas than those of Rousseau.

We aren’t basically bad or good, but we’re basically self-centered, short-sighted, and inclined to serve our needs and those of people close to us first, even if this means doing harm to those weaker than us. Sure, organized governments can be a vehicle for individuals to express these patterns, but I think historically they are much more often a mitigator of our tendancy to exploit each other. Participatory governments with a strong tradition of respect for civil liberty, in particular, seem to make life safer and more free for most people than any other form tried to date. The vision of libertarian anarchy making us all freer, safer, and more prosperous by freing our natural cooperative tendancies from the coercive grip of organized government sounds like dangerously naive wishful thinking to me. There is lots of room to argue about how much and what kind of government, but a quick trip to Somalia, or any of a number of other places where no central authority mitigates our natural tendancy to compete for resources will put the lie to the idea that no government is a good idea.

I hate to alienate the libertarians in the group, since we’re on the same side about lots of things, and we secularists are not numerous enough we can afford to form too many splinter groups. And having married a libertarian, I’m not optimistic about ever changing their minds. But I haver to say loudly and clearly that I’m a “statist,” not out of a lack of skepticism but out of a considered, reasoned and critical examination of the ideas and the supporting evidence.

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Posted: 10 January 2007 06:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Doug, you and I happen to have very different views about this subject.  I feel that psycho- and socio- genetics is almost entirely a pseudoscience.  Intelligent, educated people are accepting it about the same way they did with psychoanalysis* in the thirties. 

I know it’s a big fad now, however, from everything I’ve read, very critically, it’s all fairytales shrouded in scientific terminology - about two steps up from intelligent design or astrology.

I’ll have to see much more scientific double blind testing, replication of results, and clear ability to predict before I accept it.

*See all the wonderfully learned “scientific” books by Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Franz Alexander, Karen Horney, to name just a few.

Occam

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Posted: 11 January 2007 01:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Well, Occam, I certainly agree that a lot of evolutionary psychology is cutting edge, and much of what now passes for knowledge in that area may prove to have been misconstrued or false. But let’s be clear, first of all the roots of the subject are very strong: they are part of evolutionary biology, and in that absolutely no different from doing a study of the evolutionary history of the appendix or liver. The fact that these are parts of the brain rather than the torso is trivial.

Secondly, these studies depend on a confluence of data from many different fields: zoology, ethology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, paleontology, anthropology, etc. So it’s not really like one cadre of people working alone in some backwater.

Now, you may have some problems with the scientific credibility of much of anthropology, for instance ... but developmental and cognitive psychology, as well as some branches of ethology, really are pretty credible. Again, not to deny that this is preliminary work and that much more needs doing, but it isn’t pseudoscience.

So yes, counsel caution with it. But OTOH we are animals, and that includes our brains, so the assumption that we somehow have escaped all the biologically based cognitive wiring that constitutes the brains of our animal cousins is simply not credible. And it is certainly false in the case of language and other sorts of infant behaviors ... demonstrably so.

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Posted: 11 January 2007 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Doug, be careful of the critical thinking fallacy of proof by authority.

One can determine the chemical pathways used by the liver to accomplish its functions.  Tracking behavior to genes is much more problematical.

I agree about language and other basic behaviors, but defining morality, following authority, and many other complex behaviors as genetically determined is extremely questionable, and certainly has not been experimentally demonstrated.  There’s a big difference between contiguity and cause.

To use an analogy, a great many computers perform a set of clear and well defined functions involving financial computations, but to claim that computers are constructed to balance checkbooks is an error.  Only when we modify their programming (environment) by inserting a spreadsheet (or similar) program, can they deal with the checkbooks.

Occam

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Posted: 11 January 2007 06:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]Doug, be careful of the critical thinking fallacy of proof by authority.

Well, when we are dealing with scientific issues, we are forced to rely on authorities. There is no other option.

That said, I wasn’t engaged in proof by authority in my last post. What I said was that the data came from a number of different, unrelated fields of scientific endeavor. That makes it more credible.

[quote author=“Occam”]One can determine the chemical pathways used by the liver to accomplish its functions.  Tracking behavior to genes is much more problematical.

I agree about language and other basic behaviors, but defining morality, following authority, and many other complex behaviors as genetically determined is extremely questionable, and certainly has not been experimentally demonstrated.  There’s a big difference between contiguity and cause.

Sure. It’s a problem Pinker deals with in some detail. However, it is incontrovertible that we find dominance hierarchies in other social animals, and indeed in non-social animals as well: it even extends into the insects. Beetles compete for territory and mates, and will remember which beetles have bested them in recent battles, so as not to repeat them, just to take one example.

Now, we could say that all non-human animals get their notions of dominance hierarchies from learning ... but that would be pretty incredible. I mean, how are females to learn that dominant males make more desirable mates? (In those species in which the female does the choosing). That seems a pretty unlikely story. More likely is that dominance hierarchies are part of a general reproductive strategy, and that the recipe for this strategy is in the genes.

The AI analogies are problematic. They rely at base on rejecting “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, in Dennett’s felicitous phrase. They rely on a view of the human brain as simply a generalized computational device. But we don’t find any other animals with brains that are simply generalized computational devices ... we find that other animals have plenty of quite complex genetically heritable behaviors. For example, only very particular breeds of dogs can be trained to herd sheep on command; indeed, they were selected for doing so.

So the AI analogy really depends on the view that the human brain is somehow radically different from other animal brains. But again, I don’t find that credible. We may be “smarter” in some ways, we certainly have language and all the power of learning and history that that provides, but we are animals, and surely our brains function as animal brains do.

Now, all this isn’t to say that the human brain and other animal brains aren’t in part generalized computational devices. Clearly we have some such abilities, and can be trained to use them. But the human brain is not born as a “tablua rasa” in any robust sense. It is born with all sorts of capabilities, and other capabilities manifest themselves regularly on given developmental schedules. (Sexual desire is one of these, which is not “learned”).

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Posted: 11 January 2007 06:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]To use an analogy, a great many computers perform a set of clear and well defined functions involving financial computations, but to claim that computers are constructed to balance checkbooks is an error.  Only when we modify their programming (environment) by inserting a spreadsheet (or similar) program, can they deal with the checkbooks.

This analogy is wrong, Occam. Computers are designed by a designer. We are designed by natural selection. Computers cannot evolve without our help. Our morality is not defined by our genes, but by a moral radar “designed” by natural selection.

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Posted: 11 January 2007 12:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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First, while we may accept the results of specific experiments as a reasonable authority, I’m sorry but I can’t accept generalized references to various fields of investigation.

And, I realize that I’m demonstrating a supercilious attitude endemic among physical scientists that psychology is just barely out of the pseudoscience domain.  So, Doug, I can’t really accept your premises that developmental and cognitive psychology are all that credible.

Next, I didn’t reject all behavior as being genetically controlled. 

I believe that animal brains have developed first as pattern recognition devices then as internal communication devices.  As such, animals are extremely capable of conditioned reflexes.  I believe many of the examples you gave, Doug, could quite easily be explained as just that, rather than by assuming specific genetic programming.

The property that makes human brains unique is our lack of instinctive (genetically programmed) behavior in most of our activities.  We handle all the sciences, all the engineering, all the politics, and all the metaphysics (as silly as they may be) easily with our cognitive machinery, even though none of them was “designed” into our genes by natural selection.

Sorry, George, but my analogy didn’t depend on who or what did the designing.  We agree that moral beliefs are not defined by our genes, however, I can’t accept a moral radar that sounds even more metaphysical, although you gave the disclaimer that it was “designed” by natural selection.

Occam
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Posted: 11 January 2007 01:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”][quote author=“Occam”]If we are stuck with heirarchical organizational structures, then it’s the responsibility of the leaders to not only define the ends they require, but also the means allowed and those means not to be used to accomplish the goals.Sure ... but it’s not just the responsibility of the leaders. It’s the responsibility of us all, at a very basic level.

This gets to the heart of what I’m trying to understand, I think.

That human beings desire social connections, seek to satisfy their self-interest naturally through freely accepted obligations, and are naturally inclined to “follow” those in “leadership” positions, then why should we believe we need to intimidate our fellow man into said behaviors, and why should leaders require the use of force to insure that order?

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Posted: 11 January 2007 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]I can’t really accept your premises that developmental and cognitive psychology are all that credible.

[quote author=“Occam”]The property that makes human brains unique is our lack of instinctive (genetically programmed) behavior in most of our activities.  We handle all the sciences, all the engineering, all the politics, and all the metaphysics (as silly as they may be) easily with our cognitive machinery,

Occam, apologies if I’m misunderstanding something here, but could you clarify these two statements for me? They seem contradictory, by my understanding of what you’re saying.

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Posted: 11 January 2007 02:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Re: Hello, from Illinois, Fellow Inquirers…

[quote author=“dougsmith”]The role of government must, in part, be to moderate the force of such hierarchies by—at the very least—instituting a rule of law that offsets the ‘rule of the strong’ or the ‘rule of the jungle’ that would be in effect without it.

This seems confusing to me. Could you help clarify for me, how an institution like government, which is predicated on the threat of force, can act as a “moderating influence” on a group of beings that you also seem to imply are naturally inclined to violent domination of one another - particularly, when that institution is populated by the same sort of beings?

[quote author=“dougsmith”]You suggest that those of us who believe in a role for the state are not being skeptical enough. Perhaps so. But perhaps also you should be more skeptical of your views about the essential goodness of human nature. Those sorts of beliefs come out of an entirely wrongheaded notion of humanity that sprung from such non-scientific thinkers as Rousseau, whose ideas of the “noble savage” have been thoroughly discredited by modern studies in anthropology and cognitive psychology.

Actually, my intent was not to imply either a “good” or an “evil” nature, in the sense that Rousseau used it. Apologies if I was unclear about that. What I’m trying to figure out, is what exactly is the “natural state” of a human being? And, extending from that, what sort of organizational principle could we institute, that would best reflect that natural tendency? Of course, my questions do imply that I don’t think the current situation is the best reflection of that “natural state”, but I have to be totally honest, and admit now, that I’m not quite sure what that “natural state” is.


[quote author=“dougsmith”]For more on this, see the famous Milgram experiment , and the Stanford prison experiment . Both demonstrate how dominance hierarchies naturally lead to evil behavior in normal humans when unchecked.

If a given behavior is “natural”, how can we call it “evil”? What’s more, if “dominance hierarchies” (I presume this means hierarchies predicated on the use of, or threat of, violent aggression, to organize a given social group) leads to “evil” behavior, then how do you justify the presence of the world’s largest “dominance hierarchy” - namely, the state?

[quote author=“dougsmith”]Now, in your previous post you did say that voting booths were not going to make corrupt people pure ... that is an excellent point. If you believe that people are, at base, just as corrupt, competitive and dominance-obsessed as they are prone to purity and cooperation, it isn’t at all clear why you would believe that a governing philosophy without a rule of law would be any better than one that has it. Indeed, one would suppose that it would be significantly worse.

Is it possible to architect a “rule of law” that is predicated on anything other than the use of, or threat of, violent aggression, or force? For instance, could we not construct a society, in which the “rule of law” was based on our intellectual capacity for negotiation and mutual benefit? Or, would you say that only the threat of harm is capable of insuring conformity from the members of the group?

Thanks!

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