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.

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9 responses to “Is Roderick Long Really That Stupid?”

  1. Roderick Tracy Long says :

    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.”

    • thehobbesian says :

      a) I’m not sure how phrasing it in normative terms makes it any better. So instead of saying that the starving man won’t steal to survive, its that he shouldn’t? Now I don’t support theft, but I do think on a certain level people are entitled to survive and should do what they can. Also, Maslow was really making a descriptive claim rather than a normative one, so when you attack that or anything from the behavioral sciences without making that distinction most people are going to assume you aren’t talking about normative ethics but rather descriptive claims. However, it is true that there is an aspect to psychology where normative and descriptive converge, once we accept that people will put physical needs above moral values (depending on those needs of course) it becomes counterintuitive to suggest that people ought to behave in manner inconsistent with what we know about our hard wiring. At that point we must say that if we throw people into concentration camps and prisons, it most likely will bring out the worse in them, and in fact what is morally good is to prevent people from being placed in such de-humanizing situations as it makes it worse for everyone.
      b) I can sympathize with you on that one, and perhaps I should have clarified that you do consider yourself to be a different breed of Austrian/libertarian than the rest. Although I disagree that market anarchy would be the best way to realize the goals of left wing thought, I do commend you for being more sensitive to left wing ideas than others associated with Austrian libertarianism. And because of that I was actually surprised that you would attack Maslow’s hierarchy because it reflects an idea which is so deeply ingrained to the very philosophy of the left: that poverty is not merely financial status but an overall condition of deprivation of needs which can insidiously promote behaviors that feed back into it if no action is taken to correct it.
      c) Actually I have a doctorate level education, but I do have a mean side to me and topics like these can get me fired up.
      d) You got me on that one, one of my good friends from college was named Masland and I had drank a beer or two before writing this. I made sure to correct it.

      • Roderick Tracy Long says :

        I’m not sure how phrasing it in normative terms makes it any better.

        Well, it means your counterexamples aren’t relevant.

        So instead of saying that the starving man won’t steal to survive, its that he shouldn’t?

        Given that I’ve repeatedly gone on record as saying that it’s ok for the starving man to steal, I’m getting mighty sick of having this strawman BS constantly being thrown at me.

        Now I don’t support theft, but I do think on a certain level people are entitled to survive and should do what they can.

        Does that include throwing people out of the lifeboat? or killing them in order to eat them?

        Also, Maslow was really making a descriptive claim rather than a normative one

        Oh, right. The hierarchy of needs reflects our “inner nature,” which is “good or neutral rather than bad,” and we need to “bring it out an encourage it” since if it is “permitted to guide our life, we grow healthy, fruitful, and happy.” Nothing normative there.

        counterintuitive to suggest that people ought to behave in manner inconsistent with what we know about our hard wiring

        I don’t believe in “hard wiring.” If we had “hard wiring” then moral oughts wouldn’t apply to us at all.

      • thehobbesian says :

        Perhaps I am just too much of a Hobbesian. Ultimately I view man as a morally ambiguous creature living in a morally ambiguous universe. That being said, I do believe that within human beings lies a moral desire to see justice and goodness in the world that does go beyond mere personal material wellbeing, which is actually one of my main points in my post about inequity aversion. However, at the same time there are primal urges(or as Hobbes would have said, the “state of nature”), which if brought out in the right way can cause us to act in ways which are very much against our own morality (such as throwing people out of a lifeboat). I still think this can be explained by evolutionary hard-wiring by saying that as group animals, an urge for equity and morality is in fact something which evolved to allow us to live socially and in a group. However, though we have evolved to live socially, we still carry with us the genetic legacy from our more solitary ancestors, and we still have those inner self-centered drives that will want to put our own survival and wellbeing ahead of our moral ideals. Thus, our hard wiring is one which is inherently contradictory, and this of course creates a species which is capable of realizing moral pursuits and a concept of justice, yet at the same time, unable to completely conform to them. And not only are we unable to completely conform to our own moral standards, we are also cognizant of the fact that we are an animal which is unable to live up to its own ideals. As such, we seek moral guidance from ethics, not only to show us a path, but to help us explain and understand ourselves. As for which moral code we ought to live by, well perhaps it should be the one which is the most workable in our real world and is easiest for man to conform to. And given the complexities of our world and the inability of any one ethical system to achieve universal adherence, ethicists still have their work cut out for them. In the meantime, it may be best to avoid those situations which can cause people to listen to their primal urges and ignore their sense of justice.

      • Roderick Tracy Long says :

        Thus, our hard wiring is one which is inherently contradictory, and this of course creates a species which is capable of realizing moral pursuits and a concept of justice, yet at the same time, unable to completely conform to them. And not only are we unable to completely conform to our own moral standards, we are also cognizant of the fact that we are an animal which is unable to live up to its own ideals.

        This sounds more like the Christian concept of original sin than like anything supported by science.

      • thehobbesian says :

        I will admit that there are some similarities there, and indeed the concept of original sin is based somewhat on the reality of man being a morally imperfect creature. However, Christianity believes that there is an objective morality which exists, whereas I retain some Nietzschean-esque skepticism on that front. Though I will say that moral norms are a continuously evolving thing, and many of the norms we held 100 years ago and even 50 years ago have been replaced by new ones. Which to me seems to indicate that concepts of what is morally right are in fact influenced by environmental factors rather than being rooted in any objective sense of morality. Though I suppose one could also say that changes in moral norms are simply evidence of an objective morality that people are slowly awakening to. But I’m not sure if I buy that explanation, I still retain strong physicalist tendencies in regards to morality and see it as ultimately something that is rooted in the brain.

      • thehobbesian says :

        Furthermore, how in the hell could you actually say that my statement has no basis in science? Do you know anything about the science behind cognition? Its quite well known that moral decision making is linked to activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is one of the later acquired parts of the brain. Impulsive, amoral type behavior is quite well linked to activity in our dopaminergic pathways and those rooted in the mesolimbic and more primitive parts of the brain. Phenomena such as cognitive dissonance are quite well documented. The idea that human cognition can carry within it inherent contradictions is certainly well supported by the biological sciences. I sincerely hope that you were just being facetious and rude with that statement and not actually serious. However, given the ignorance with which you approached Maslow I have my doubts.

  2. Roderick Tracy Long says :

    Its quite well known that moral decision making is linked to activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is one of the later acquired parts of the brain. Impulsive, amoral type behavior is quite well linked to activity in our dopaminergic pathways and those rooted in the mesolimbic and more primitive parts of the brain.

    My goodness. Well, given that it remains a matter of philosophical dispute a) which reasoning counts as moral and which as amoral, b) whether emotions play a role in moral reasoning, and c) if so, which emotions and d) what role, the notion that scientists, without bothering to engage any of this literature, can beg all the relevant questions by blithely stipulating certain activities as moral reasoning and then looking for neurophysiological correlates to it is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of announcing that correct economic views are correlated with brain activity A and incorrect ones with brain activity B, while making no effort to show why the economic views stated to be correct are so. It’s just another case of scientists helping themselves to philosophical assumptions without being willing to defend them.

    In any case, even granting the correlation, how would it entail that “we are unable to completely conform to our own moral standards”?

    Phenomena such as cognitive dissonance are quite well documented.

    No doubt. And that would even be relevant if I had denied the existence of cognitive dissonance, which of course I didn’t. What I denied is the claim that we are by nature unable to live up to our moral standards, a claim that (in addition to being logically contradictory, since ought implies can) is not entailed by the existence of cognitive dissonance.

    given the ignorance with which you approached Maslow I have my doubts

    What ignorance? Your original criticism was based on (bizarrely) interpreting my normative claims as positive. Once I corrected your mistake, you retreated to the (likewise bizarre) claim that Maslow’s theories about human psychology were not intended to be normative. To this I responded by citing evidence that Maslow intended them to be normative; you offered no rebuttal. So what is it I’m supposed to be ignorant about?

    • thehobbesian says :

      “Well, given that it remains a matter of philosophical dispute a) which reasoning counts as moral and which as amoral, b) whether emotions play a role in moral reasoning, and c) if so, which emotions and d) what role, the notion that scientists, without bothering to engage any of this literature, can beg all the relevant questions by blithely stipulating certain activities as moral reasoning and then looking for neurophysiological correlates to it is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of announcing that correct economic views are correlated with brain activity A and incorrect ones with brain activity B, while making no effort to show why the economic views stated to be correct are so. It’s just another case of scientists helping themselves to philosophical assumptions without being willing to defend them.”

      First of all, I don’t think that you need to be a philosopher to know the generalities of what a moral decision is, it’s as simple as hooking someone up to brain scanning technology and asking them what they think the “right” or “wrong” thing to do for an explicitly moral question and seeing if it correlates with activity in a given region, which, evidence from such studies do suggest that we can identify parts of the brain that are active when people are posed with questions of what is right or wrong. Secondly, I hope that you don’t think that I believe neuroscience can usurp the role of philosophy in all the complexities of ethics. Personally I find people like Sam Harris to be incredibly obnoxious with their “science of morality” business. Obviously the correlation between activity in certain regions of the brain and people making decisions of what is morally right or wrong are not going to tell us whether the answers they give are right ones or wrong ones and I don’t see how it ever possibly could. It just shows that people are making decisions and what parts of the brain they use while making them, and from my understanding, the parts of the brain used in moral decision making are also used for many other kinds of decision making, which further proves your point (which I don’t disagree with) that fully defining these things is probably outside the scope of neuroscience. It’s the job of philosophers to decide why an ethical decision is right or wrong just like it is the job of economists to discern what economic views are correct or incorrect. That being said, the fact that we don’t have the boundaries of what is a moral decision and what isn’t fully settled yet doesn’t mean that we can’t identify things which are clearly within the scope of ethical questions and ones which are clearly outside the scope of any known ethical question.

      “In any case, even granting the correlation, how would it entail that “we are unable to completely conform to our own moral standards”?”

      I’m confused here, do you actually think it is possible for human beings to achieve complete conformity to an ethical guideline? Because I was always under the impression that such beliefs are modernist utopian bull crap. I don’t think you need to be a scientist to realize that humans are capable of making wrong decisions, moral or otherwise. I am unaware of any human, other than the purported attributes of Jesus, who never committed an act which was immoral. The goal of things like laws and ethical rules are not to achieve complete conformity, because even a cursory look at the real world shows that there is no such thing as a rule or law which is never broken. The goal of law is to achieve an effect of promoting a good or minimizing an ill, making complete conformity the measure of success is rather ridiculous.

      I find the notion of a human being having the capacity for perfect moral judgment to be as absurd as the idea of a football coach who never calls a bad play or a stock trader who never makes a bad trade. Human beings, via their physiological endowments, are capable of making decisions. However, these same physiological endowments also seem to make it impossible for humans to come to a correct decision 100% of the time, which is why any football coach, stock trader or ethical being worth his salt relies on a philosophy to guide them through the various scenarios they find themselves in. But even then, humans are still unable to follow their own philosophy 100% of the time, everybody breaks their own rules at times, whether it be through impulsive decisions made in the spur of the moment or a well thought out and deliberate decision to violate a rule. I was under the impression that this fact about humanity was rather self-evident and you didn’t need neuroscience to show it, even though it does match up with what we know about human behavior and neuroscience.

      Your original criticism was based on (bizarrely) interpreting my normative claims as positive. Once I corrected your mistake, you retreated to the (likewise bizarre) claim that Maslow’s theories about human psychology were not intended to be normative. To this I responded by citing evidence that Maslow intended them to be normative; you offered no rebuttal. So what is it I’m supposed to be ignorant about?

      I find it exceedingly strange that you say that ought implies can, but then you turn around and say that it was “bizarre” for me to defend Maslow and critique your post about him on positive terms. If you are saying that the normative aspects of Maslow are inferior to the oughts of Cicero or Aristotle, why would you be so surprised that people reading that would assume that implicit to your normative criticism is the assumption that the oughts you mention are within the realistic attainment. I thought I made my response to your assertion that Maslow meant for his theory to be normative quite clear when I said:

      “it is true that there is an aspect to psychology where normative and descriptive converge, once we accept that people will put physical needs above moral values (depending on those needs of course) it becomes counterintuitive to suggest that people ought to behave in manner inconsistent with what we know about our hard wiring.”

      Your entire interpretation of how normative ethics operate in the social sciences seems to be completely off. Just because scientific evidence indicates some fact about reality does not mean that people like Maslow thought that we should just be excusing bad behavior. To suggest such a thing is to place your head on Hume’s Guillotine. After the horrors of Eugenics and Nazism the majority of individuals in the social sciences have very much taken up the position that descriptive theories are not normative in the sense that we think natural phenomena are inherently “good”, but rather that natural phenomena are inherently true, and rather than simply excusing bad behavior, we should use these discoveries to get a better understanding of it, and in gaining a better understanding of these things we are able to craft normative theories which are functional in their application. For a scientist to make a normative argument which she knows is incompatible with objective reality and would be dysfunctional in practice is the very antithesis of scientific ethics.

      Normativism in the social sciences is based on consequentialist notions laid out be people like Thomas Hobbes when he said that a theory should be able to lay out rational requirements for ‘civil peace and material plenty’ if it is to be given validity. I wouldn’t be running a blog called the Hobbesian if I didn’t agree with that sentiment. Hobbes’ concept of the “state of nature” did not mean that he supported it, or saw it as desirable simply because he thought it was true, but rather the opposite, he saw it as something to be feared, and through an understanding of it humanity could craft better ways to minimize the harm caused by it. And the social sciences feel the same way about Maslow’s hierarchy, I have never heard anyone use Maslow’s hierarchy to say that it means society should embrace or tolerate things like theft or murder(until of course I came across your blog), it is almost universally used instead as justification for the need to create policies which will better promote good behavior and prevent bad behavior! In other words, that civil peace and material plenty which you seem to think are irrelevant. Why you think adherents to Maslow’s hierarchy are making the normative assertion that material wellbeing comes before justice is beyond me, it is quite obvious that they are in fact saying justice is so important that we must engage in policies which will put material reality more in line with a just and better world. And doing so requires an understanding of material reality which enables us to choose the best course of action for attaining that goal. It is a consequentialist approach to ethics which works in an entirely different manner than virtue ethics.

      Now your apparent inability to understand that the ethical implication of models in the social sciences are usually interpreted via a consequentialist approach led you to attack Maslow as either justifying bad behavior or saying that all humans are inherently bad as indicated by the fact that you cited quotes saying things such as:

      “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.”

      Now I’m not sure what you expected people to think a statement like “contrary to nature” means, if not a descriptive fact about human behavior. I can’t think of any definition of the word “nature” that means anything other than something which is rooted in material reality. Maslow is saying that it is not contrary to human nature for someone to do that, and is saying that in a descriptive sense. Now perhaps Cicero didn’t mean nature? Perhaps he merely meant nomos rather than physis? Perhaps it is merely an artifact of translation into English and he really meant something else? I don’t know, I am not an expert on Cicero and you probably know the answer better than I do, but it seems to be that given the context in which it was presented, such a quote implies that you meant it to be interpreted as more about physis than nomos and for you to attack something from the social sciences and cite a quote saying that it is contrary to human nature to steal leads very little room for reasonable people to infer that you mean anything other than “Maslow is wrong about human nature”. I really don’t see how you expected people to not interpret that as being some kind of descriptive assertion on some level. And your failure to make this distinction obvious leads me to believe that you were fine with people interpreting your post either way, and that you were saying that it is ok to reject Maslow and other models from the social sciences outright on both normative and descriptive terms.

      And even if you did mean that purely in a normative sense, your portrayal of Maslow is still quite ignorant as I have already pointed out that the social sciences have long ago moved past the fallacy of an appeal to nature and have accepted the fact that natural truth does not imply that we ought not do anything about it, but rather that we can’t and shouldn’t do anything that we know is bound to fail because of its inconsistency with human nature. To present Maslow’s as some kind of perverse virtue ethics without making any mention of the fact that models from the social sciences are generally interpreted in the context of a consequentialist approach to normative ethics is wholly misleading and disingenuous.

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