Is Roderick Long Really That Stupid?
Libertarian philosopher Roderick Long had a recent blog post entitled Against Maslow where he attacked Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He started off by saying “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.”” He then went on to quote Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero basically saying that it is not natural for man to profit from his neighbor’s loss because then he would feel bad about himself.
Now I can understand not taking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs literally, obviously there are individual differences and one can certainly take issue with the order in which he takes them. But I still believe that the overall message of Maslow’s needs rings true, which is that individual moral and altruistic behavior can be amplified or repressed depending on the person’s basic needs (food, shelter, friendship, etc.) being met. If you deprive a person of some of their basic needs, we should expect to see more anti-social behavior, if you make sure that an individual is provided with those means, we should expect to see more pro-social behavior.
However Long seems to think that this isn’t the case, that morals and reason come first and foremost, that a starving man would not rob from his neighbor to fill his belly and would rather starve to death because stealing would be immoral and the pain of guilt would be worse than death. That view is absurd and utterly ignorant of just about everything we know from behavioral sciences, history and our own personal life experiences.
In battles individuals acting in their self preservation are capable of great cruelties, in situations of starvation like the siege of Leningrad people regularly stole, hoarded and even killed others to cannibalize on them. In prisons individuals display distinctly more anti-social behavior than on the outside (and its not just because they are anti-social to begin with, even “normal” people can engage in it in such environments). The famous Stanford prison study took student test subjects and put them in a prison environment, with some being guards and some being prisoners. The study had to be cut short because within a few short days riots by the prisoners and abuse by the guards occurred- and keep in mind these were NORMAL people from the outside put into this experiment.
There are countless other studies which overwhelmingly indicate that human altruism and morality is profoundly influenced by the environment which we find ourselves in. Starvation and desperation can bring out the worst in people. Deprivation and depravation can cause people to wildly violate previously held moral beliefs. Human morality is directly tied to our survival situation.
Now Roderick Long doesn’t look like he’s ever experienced true starvation (though he must be hungry a lot). I doubt he’s ever experienced true desperation before. Thankfully I, like most people in the developed world have never had to experience it either. However unlike Roderick Long I am educated in the social sciences and am very familiar with what we know about human behavior. And that is to say that a person’s conception of what is morally acceptable or not is directly tied to their current situation and what needs are being met and which ones aren’t. What Roderick Long is saying however is that all people are inherently moral no matter what, and that if they do bad things they are simply bad people, but most people are good. This is especially telling given that he advocates policies which would in all likelihood place certain individuals in desperate situations. He seems to completely ignore the social/behavioral aspects of these things and how anti-social behavior in poor communities actually acts to increase the costs of living for those individuals. Instead Long like many libertarians could be quick to dismiss those who are impoverished as morally defective, using higher rates of dysfunctional behavior as evidence of that. In reality it is the other way around, by being subject to deprivation, the rates of anti-social and dysfunctional behavior rise, thereby creating a feedback loop that can be nearly impossible to escape from. It is important that people understand the social sciences because they reveal the truths of human behavior to us. Charlatans like Roderick Long are either completely ignorant of the social sciences or are in complete denial of them to the degree that it amounts to delusional thinking. The scary part is that these people actually put themselves out to be legitimate academics whose policy recommendations are based on science. Nothing could be further from the truth.