Against Maslow

To say that food and safety are more basic needs than reason and morality is essentially to say: “I am untrustworthy and will stab you in the back when the chips are down.”

I prefer Aristotle:

For every intellect chooses what is best for itself, and the decent man obeys his intellect. Now it is true also, concerning the upright man, that he performs many actions for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary dies for them. For he will discard both wealth and honours and in general the goods people fight over, gaining the fine for himself; for he would prefer a short time of intense pleasure to a long mild one, and a year of fine living to many years of living at random, and a single fine and great action to many slight ones. Now this like as not results for those who die for others; indeed they choose a great fine thing for themselves.

And Cicero:

For a man to take something from his neighbour and to profit by his neighbor’s loss is more contrary to nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect either our person or our property. … If a man wrongs his neighbour to gain some advantage for himself he must either imagine that he is not acting in defiance of nature or he must believe that death, poverty, pain, or even the loss of children, kinsmen, or friends, is more to be shunned than an act of injustice against another. … If he believes that, while such a course should be avoided, the other alternatives are much worse – namely, death, poverty, pain – he is mistaken in thinking that any ills affecting either his person or his property are more serious than those affecting his soul.

And Seneca:

Every living thing has an initial attachment to its own constitution; but a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself not qua living being but qua rational being. For he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.

(Rand, of course, situates herself squarely on both sides of this issue.)

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14 Responses to Against Maslow

  1. JOR June 18, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    Or: how to turn egoism into collectivism (or, rather, make it compatible with every possible system of ethics and thus render it trivial) in one easy step.

    • FakeKraid June 18, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

      Better trivial than trash.

  2. Carl Milsted June 19, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Being true to friends, family, clan, etc. is strongly tied to safety. Having mutual trust societies has been a human survival mode since prehistoric times.

    Giving a damn about children dying of malaria in Africa, however, has nothing to do with personal survival (unless you are in Africa).

    Without having actually read Maslow, I would venture to guess that he is referring to this second sort of morality.

    Another example: taking up a life of crime is dangerous to both life and liberty. On the other hand, stealing via government subsidy, job, special tax break, etc. can be quite compatible with personal safety and material fulfillment. For the libertarian, however, such largesse deprives one of a bit of that top of the pyramid fulfillment.

    Some data points: Northern Virginia is a hotbed of Libertarian Party membership/activity — or at least it was when I lived there. Quite a few Libertarians work for the government or for government contractors. Money and security trump Libertarian principle. Come to think of it, quite a few libertarian academics work for state universities. Even Murray Rothbard worked for the government (UNLV).

    There might be something to that pyramid thingy.

  3. Sheldon Richman June 19, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Nice!

  4. Roderick June 22, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    Re the pingback below, I left the following comment:

    So what have we learned today? The author of this post:

    a) doesn’t understand the difference between normative and descriptive claims, and so thinks that by saying that moral values are more important than physical needs, I am (and Aristotle and Cicero and Seneca are) making a prediction about what people will generally do;

    b) doesn’t understand the difference between left-libertarianism and right-libertarianism, and so thinks I’m dismissing the poor as morally defective, as though I hadn’t written hundreds of pages defending the poor and attacking the rich;

    c) is apparently still in junior high, and so thinks making fun of people’s weight is a telling intellectual move;

    d) doesn’t know how to spell “Maslow.”

  5. Curt Doolittle June 23, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    RL:
    I know that this post is just a bit of humorous venting of exasperation, but, for sake of sanitary public discourse, we should state that Maslow’s describing an ‘is’ for the wide middle of the curve not an ‘ought’ for those of us with aristocratic abilities and values. And that those aristocratic values are further evidence of one’s position on his pyramid, not a refutation of it.

    In the now proverbial choice between rescuing two equidistant people who are drowning, one of which is a family member, we choose the family member. In a hasty choice between life and death, the majority of the distribution on that curve will choose survival rather than cooperation – the behavior of drowning or trampling people a universal demonstration of that fact. Albiet it’s tempered when flight does not cause conflict in limited space – proving that we rapidly regain our morality if at all possible. And when there is a conflict In that choice between life and death, we choose life if we desire it enough to work for it. Not out of moral considerations. In the end analysis, I am also unsure that this forfeiture is not in itself the optimum form of cooperation – without which we might not exist as a species. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So the moral argument is not to rearrange these values, but to ensure that those circumstances where were forfeit our moral relations are minimized.

    So I do not think higher moral standars are a private virtue of personal philosophy but a public virtue of civic preparatory action.

    And this puts the libertarian to a challenge, since he must now work to concentrate civic capital both in the forms of norms and resources, and cannot rely on personal philosophy and personal action alone.

    Thus the libertarian becomes the conservative or forces a contradiction with his stated values.

    Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚
    Curt

    • Roderick June 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

      I have no idea why you refer to “aristocratic ” values. Choosing justice over physical comfort is not exactly something aristocrats are famous for. And the requirements of morality are universal, not a luxury for aristocrats.

      I’m fascinated by the implicit right-wing bias so many people have, that when I say justice should come before physical comfort, they think this is going to be bad news for the poor. Jesus! It’s the rich that need to tremble at the thought of justice trumping physical comfort.

      I also don’t accept a distinction between “public” and “private” virtues. The personal is the political, and vice versa.

      The last bit about libertarians becoming conservatives escapes me completely. What on earth are you talking about?

      • Lori June 25, 2013 at 3:06 am #

        Seems Doolittle is full of paradoxes. He also speaks of egalitarian aristocracy.

        • Roderick June 25, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

          Well, in fairness, so does Aristotle.

      • Curt Doolittle July 3, 2013 at 8:34 am #

        RL: Fun response. Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry that I made so many leaps. I’ll go the other direction into detail – at some peril… lol

        1) RE: “To say that food and safety are more basic needs than reason and morality is essentially to say: ‘I am untrustworthy and will stab you in the back when the chips are down.”

        a) Well that statement is in colloquial language that is both emotionally loaded and an intentional rhetorical distraction. ๐Ÿ™‚ The praxeological equivalent is:

        “Humans reciprocally observe and adhere to moral rules – almost all of which are prohibitions on involuntary transfer of life, liberty and property – in order to cooperate for mutual benefit – buying options on the future exchange of cooperation. But when faced with life or death situations (‘the chips being down’) we almost always demonstrate behavior that would otherwise be considered immoral. However, I prefer, even in those dire circumstances, to adhere to moral stricture, even at the cost of my hunger, property and life, and to treat all other humans as if they are kin by doing so.”

        b) It certainly seems as though you’re arguing from the top of Maslow’s pyramid, having mastered the philosophy of the top of that pyramid, and then stating that it’s preferential rather than necessary and utilitarian to argue from that position. ๐Ÿ™‚

        c) Regarding Seneca: I don’t think the evidence is currently backing this up. (See Kahneman, Haidt, Caplan, Warren and Kilts et all, Jeffrey Friedman etc.). Rationality is weak and second fiddle. Moral intuition first and foremost. Moral intuition is heavily heritable, and reflects reproductive strategy. People vote their morality, not reason.

        2) “And the requirements of morality are universal.”
        That’s not demonstrably true. Moral statements are a reflection of the size of the economic and reproductive organization (individual, couple, family, extended family, village and tribe). Moral rules are a prescription for prohibiting involuntary transfer in that size of organization. To cast individual rights upon the village’s commons without corporealizing the commons into shares is to force involuntary transfers, even if the long term benefit may be greater – but that is a subjective statement of preference. Just as to cast communal property rights on individual actors in an individualistic economy is to cause involuntary transfers.

        3) RE: Aristocracy – “Aristocratic Egalitarianism” : see Duchesne’s “The Uniqueness Of Western Civilization”. In propertarian terms this would be: Enfranchisement into property rights in exchange for military service and reciprocal respect of property rights. The problem being a permanent shortage of the enfranchised.

        See Gumbutas et all, thru Duchesne. Source of sentiment and culture were the military tactics during the development of domesticated animals (Pastoral phase) – horses and cattle. Chariots, and mobile tactics are superior. Individual action and high trust is needed to use these tactics. (see origins of monotheistic religion in initiatic ritual of warriors). It’s an unforgiving and highly meritocratic form of voluntary cooperation. It’s not as if the greek aristocracy developed their form of reasoning without prior habits to inform them. ๐Ÿ™‚ Debate and therefore reason evolved in the west precisely because of these tactics – and the very high cost of employing them with small numbers.

        3) RE: “Conservative….”.
        a) The term “right”, or “Conservative” is a description of relative position to the status quo, correct? That is an arbitrary definition of a set of norms, preferences, myths and biases. American conservatives retain the aristocratic egalitarian values – they just can’t articulate them in rational terms, so they rely on legal, historical, moral, mythical, and spiritual justification by comparison and allegory – which is an insufficient means of combating postmodern arguments. However, conservatives have been more successful with their moral program than we libertarians have been. (I’ve written about this elsewhere.) Because people act morally according to their intuition, not rationally.

        b) RE: Bias. I don’t understand your statement about implicit right wing bias. Not sure where you’re getting that from. I”m not projecting it. I’m a pretty left libertarian myself – although in ends not means. Unless, what you mean, is that a moral preference is an abstract virtue, rather that in fact produces moral outcomes.

        5) RE: Virtues. Well, yes. That’s tautological. The question is not one of virtues, which are a property of the ethics of character, but one of morals, which are a property of the normative prohibition on anonymous involuntary transfers within any given system of property rights defined as cultural preferences and biases and rules, no matter how crudely articulated.

        The confusion here is between your argument on the distinction between descriptive and normative, and the problem of creating normative property rights – which turns out is quite difficult. Norms can be adopted voluntarily if they are incredibly useful (like when you join another group and those norms are established, or when you imitate the upper class in your society in order to gain status signal advantages), you can train people to hold those values by offering some benefit in exchange (as do religious movements), or you can create formal institutions that indoctrinate them (such as laws and property rights). But they don’t adopt them voluntarily.

        Moreover the idea that we’re going to get a majority of people to hold libertarian values, even property rights, seems pretty contrary to the evidence. Property rights that we have today have ancient roots and were the product of accident (such as the church outlawing cousin marriage and granting women property rights in order to accumulate property at a discount.) And prior to the church, the right granted to peers in the aristocracy in exchange for service – enfranchisement meant property rights.

        6) RE: “What are you talking about?” Your post is an appeal for selecting a particular preference from among preferences. ๐Ÿ™‚ Where those preferences are constituted in (what you perceive) is a voluntarily adopted personal philosophy. But, not enough people will select voluntary norms that respect property. Because it’s not in their reproductive interest. And the voting data illustrates clearly that people vote their reproductive strategy. So, I’m saying that character (virtues, personal philosophy) are not sufficient for the development of the norms of private property and high-trust that makes private property as an informal institution with formal institutions supporting it, possible. To achieve those objectives one must create institutions that instill the norms of property, since people clearly demonstrate different preferences from those you appeal to.

        So if you want to be able to possess and practice aristocratic (pyramid-peak) values, and a personal philosophy, you must either start a religion, or create formal institutions that mandate those values.

        And that’s what conservatives want to do. ๐Ÿ™‚ The conservative vision of man is more accurate than the anarchic vision of man. They just speak in nonsense allegory all the time because they don’t know better. ๐Ÿ™‚

        So my post was a tongue in cheek tease. ๐Ÿ™‚

        That is what I was talking about. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Affection.
        Curt

        • Roderick July 3, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

          Well that statement is in colloquial language that is both emotionally loaded and an intentional rhetorical distraction.

          As an Aristotelean, I think emotions play a role in cognition and so are not necessarily a distraction from it.

          The praxeological equivalent is:

          Well, your proffered praxeological equivalent is neither praxeological nor an equivalent. Not praxeological, because it incorporates debatable empirical claims, plus a claim about the speaker’s preferences. And not equivalent, because … it incorporates debatable empirical claims, plus a claim about the speaker’s preferences.

          Re the latter point: “X is good” does not mean “I prefer X.” If it did, then moral disagreement would be impossible (the Frege-Geach point).

          stating that itโ€™s preferential rather than necessary and utilitarian to argue from that position.

          I’m not sure what that means.

          Regarding Seneca: I donโ€™t think the evidence is currently backing this up. (See Kahneman, Haidt, Caplan, Warren and Kilts et all, Jeffrey Friedman etc.).

          I don’t see how empirical evidence about human behaviour is relevant to assessing Seneca’s conceptual point.

          โ€œAnd the requirements of morality are universal.โ€

          Thatโ€™s not demonstrably true. Moral statements are a reflection of the size of the economic and reproductive organization (individual, couple, family, extended family, village and tribe).

          My claim was about the requirements of morality, not about moral statements. Of course moral statements reflect various local and contingent social factors. Statements about whether the earth is round or flat also reflect various local and contingent social factors; but that doesn’t mean that whether the earth is actually round or flat depends on local and contingent social factors.

          Itโ€™s not as if the greek aristocracy developed their form of reasoning without prior habits to inform them

          The Greek method of reasoning appears to have emerged from the need to defend positions in the jury courts and the popular assembly, both democratic institutions that emerged through the middle-class revolt against the warrior aristocracy.

          The question is not one of virtues, which are a property of the ethics of character, but one of morals, which are a property of the normative prohibition on anonymous involuntary transfers within any given system of property rights

          Well, that’s not what most people mean by “moral,” and it’s certainly not what we virtue ethicists mean by it.

          So, Iโ€™m saying that character (virtues, personal philosophy) are not sufficient for the development of the norms of private property and high-trust that makes private property as an informal institution with formal institutions supporting it, possible. To achieve those objectives one must create institutions that instill the norms of property, since people clearly demonstrate different preferences from those you appeal to.

          If what you’re saying is that the stability of libertarian norm cannot depend solely on everyone being virtuous, I agree. That’s one flaw of the ancients — they confused the best reason to be just with an account of what must be done to ensure justice in society, and so developed morally paternalistic systems of politics. The insight of the moderns (and of the sophists among the ancients) was that institutional incentives can secure just behaviour even among the unvirtuous (though, like the sophists, they tended to let this insight infect their views on the first question).

          So if you want to be able to possess and practice aristocratic (pyramid-peak) values, and a personal philosophy, you must either start a religion, or create formal institutions that mandate those values.

          I can’t see that that follows. a) One of the central insights of modern liberalism is that markets themselves create the relevant incentives. b) Beyond that, one can successfully propagate values via persuasion, in ways that fall short of either converting people to the right philosophy or making everyone morally virtuous. Generic universalism, specific pluralism.

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