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Sovereign choosers and other self-deceptions of Theory: I
This is the eleventh piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule for Lorenzo’s essays is available here.
Meanwhile, has some provocative comments on Essay 10 over at his place.
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: we are not sovereign choosers able to magic away biological and physical restraints by the sheer power of our choices, and in any case, constraints are not oppression.
Also, apologies from me for delays with the usual publication schedule. First, I went on holiday, then I did some consulting and went to a work conference. Both holiday and conference were plagued by cancelled flights and strike faffle.
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It takes more time and effort to learn to be a functioning human adult than is the case for any other species. Nearly 20 years must pass before a hunter-gatherer child can forage enough calories to sustain itself.
As social complexity increased, so did the number of implications attaching to becoming an adult.
Until, that is, very recently.
As members of kin-groups (“clans”), communities and societies, humans acquire social standing, within the realm of conventions and social norms. Probably starting with the Egyptian concept of maat (righteous order), the notion of moral standing emerged.
Notions of moral standing developed particularly intensely in universalising religions and philosophies. This has proved to be a mixed blessing, as it drove the universalising religions of Islam and Christianity—which banned enslaving fellow believers—to develop discourses systematically denigrating those they did enslave. (The slang in Arabic for a Sub-Saharan African is still abd, slave.) The alleged inferiority of those enslaved justified enslaving fellow children of God.
The particularist Romans never felt the need to do such. Slaves were just losers, regardless of any other characteristics. All the Roman jurists—including some of history’s greatest legal minds—recognised slavery was “unnatural”. That’s why—if you became a freedman and a citizen—congratulations, you’d joined the winners. People would put their status as freedman or woman on their gravestones.
Hence the Romans ran one of the most open slave systems in history, rivalled only by the “slave to lord” structure in various mamluk states.
Conversely, the Christian Antebellum South ran one of the most closed slave systems in history. The combination of Christian and Enlightenment universalism generated systematic denigration of slaves (and ex-slaves) as inherently inferior because of their African descent.
In some societies, the notion of political authority-as-citizen also emerged. Most famously in the city-states of the Classical Mediterranean. Though analogues also developed in non-autocratic polities in other societies, such as in Mesoamerica and the gana-sangha states of Classical India.
The development of liberal thought, and its interaction with the evolution of economics, has led to the development of a conception of individuals as sovereign choosers. A notion that, over time, has displaced standing-as-citizen and increasingly worn away at the distinction between adult and child.
This is especially true within the politics of the transformational future. Children, you see, are much less polluted by the realm-of-sin-that-is-the-past than are their parents. That’s why we pay admiring obeisance to Greta Thunberg. Moreover, the use of the state as an instrument of social change encourages the bureaucratic tendency to hoard authority, which includes undermining or supplanting rival authorities. Like parental authority.
Hence children are now such sovereign choosers, they can choose their own gender. This has the natural implication that they also be sovereign sexual choosers as well.
Grounding politics in an imagined future, from which there is no feedback, creates an inherent tendency to ignore, deny or downplay the constraints of structure. Even structures built into the physical reality of the universe.
More specifically, the notion of humans as sovereign choosers has deep problems. It is humans as Platonic rational-actor blank-slates who are self-created by their choices and/or the social constraints they face.
Constraints that can be—and increasingly are—defined as oppression. They limit us as sovereign choosers. Judgements of oppression are made even easier by using the simplicities of equality of outcome for moral benchmarking. This licenses the blaming of others for doing better.
If you define success as vice, you turn failure into virtue. You end up generating more failure.
Inflated notions of humans as sovereign choosers are moralised via hyper-norms that trump structure and its constraints.
The constraints of reality win in the end, however. While we are very much the blankest slates in the biosphere—hence the need for years of brain development—we are not blank-slate Platonic rational actors.
On the contrary, we are evolved, embodied decision-makers. With our conscious reasoning being only a fraction of our cognition.
Taking that embodied structure seriously means recognising that adulthood requires years of cognitive development. Indeed, many societies require some form of earning adulthood, particularly for males. Menstruation and birth provide women with natural markers of adult status.
We can see the difficulties in the notion of the sovereign chooser in the evolutionary novelty of our industrialised food environment. It enables the systematic gaming of our taste buds and satiety mechanisms. With low-nutrition yet hyper-palatable and energy-dense food encouraging addictive eating patterns.
Thus are the patterns of our embodied cognition gamed in ways that are not good for human flourishing. Hence the deteriorating metabolic health of populations fed highly processed food.
Gaming strategies are made all the more effective by a remarkable amount of bad information in the public arena about nutrition and health. Much of this can be traced to the failure of academic medicine, over 160 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, to incorporate the evolutionary lens in analysing human health. A failure made worse by it being hard to do nutrition science well, so it is remarkably easy to do it to an agenda.
Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein summarise this failure:
Combine a tendency to engage only proximate questions, with a bias toward reductionism, and you end up with medicine that has blinders on. The view is narrow. Even the great victories of Western medicine—surgery, antibiotics, and vaccines—have been over-extrapolated, applied in many cases where they shouldn’t be. When all you have is a knife, a pill, and a shot, the whole world looks as though it would benefit from being cut and medicated. (Heying & Weinstein, p.68)
One does not grasp the level of failure of our universities until one grasps the level of failure of the medical faculties therein. Failure that feeds into systematic failures of public health.
Yet again, problems of efficient levels of self-deception matter. The metabolically sicker we get as a population, the more resources go to public health and the more salient health issues become. The metabolically healthier we get as a population, the less resources go to public health and the less salient health issues become.
In such circumstances, given the standard bureaucratic incentives to hoard authority, to increase resources flowing to and through the bureaucracy, and to select for protections from the complexities of competence, the efficient level of self-deception among health bureaucrats tends to be very high.
We are functionally paying public health to preside over an ever-metabolically sicker population (as that increases their authority and resources and does not require altruistic competence). The statistics on obesity and other markers of metabolic (ill)health indicate that they are doing a very good job of what we are functionally paying them to do.
To a large degree, as I’ll be exploring in later essays, the welfare state is a mechanism for colonising social pathologies, including metabolic ill-health.
For the welfare state to work as advertised requires systematic, bureaucratised, altruistic competence, which it regularly does not, nor is likely to, achieve. Particularly given our capacity for moralised self-deception.
Self-deception via the filter of consciousness is how self-interest transmutes into sincerity, often highly moralised sincerity. Typically doing so using a certain image or narrative of oneself. Hence wisdom traditions seek to interrogate and critique one’s self-conception.
Bureaucracy can be an effective way to systematise self-deception. Including from internal processes of selection by approval, encouraging conformity and discouraging inconvenient competence (whether in action or understanding). It also shields bureaucrats from the consequences of their decisions. Hence the consequences of error—whether in terms of accuracy, understanding or human flourishing—are lessened for them, raising the efficient level of self-deception.
As I’ll explore in a later essay, the pandemic policy responses did not make sense if public health was the goal. If, however, hoarding authority and maximising resources to public health, while minimising the complexities of competence, were the functional goals, Covid-19 responses made perfect sense.
And these functional goals became much easier to pursue because of already existing patterns of status-through-opinions and the spread of the Pravda media model.
The interaction of a laptop-class trained (via Pravda-model media) in status games based on required affirmations, not noticings and stigmatisation of wrongful noticing—with public health bureaucracies seeking to hoard authority and maximise the resources flowing through (and to) them, while hiding from the complexities of competence—combined to produce startlingly dysfunctional policy responses.
As insulation from consequences and accurate feedback increase, levels of efficient self-deception in elite social and institutional milieus also rise. Our societies become ever more a civilisation of broken feedbacks. To the extent that our elites have become more cognitively dysfunctional than the general public.
Especially if one is not merely insulated from the consequences of error, but also actively benefits from error.
Choice in context
Work/play/sleep choices are one of many sets of decisions that are managed differently depending on how strong folk’s executive function is. Executive function being:
a constellation of cognitive processes, including sustained attention, response inhibition, working memory and error processing, which allow humans to guide behavior in a goal-directed and adaptive fashion. (Barnes et al.)
This throws up another deep problem with the notion of the sovereign chooser. People’s capacity to manage choice varies significantly, in ways which are socially selected upward, as executive control is almost entirely heritable. This brute reality seriously limits social mobility.
Choice in social milieus where folk typically have good executive control can be very different from that in social milieus where significant numbers of people have weaker executive control.
One of the fundamental problems of progressive public policy is its inherent tendency to see social goodies as things that are/can be/should be handed out by some central authority. This persistently results in policy failures as it substitutes, or even undermines, what is actually effective.
What is effective is adopting successful life strategies.
One of the deep divides in politics is between those who see things in terms of power, powerlessness and constraint-as-oppression and those who see themselves as having agency and a desire to preserve that which enables and protects agency.
The emphasis among the masculine “right” on physical health, martial arts and personal capacity represents a celebration of that sense of agency. The spiralling mental ill-health among progressives, particularly progressive women, represents the costs of a sense of powerlessness in the face of demonised constraints.
The uplift of the descendants of American slaves worked much better when modelling successful (middle-class) life strategies was the dominant social program. In other words, cultivating a positive sense of agency. Something that major African-American intellectuals—from Booker T Washington to W.E.B Dubois and Martin Luther King—advocated.
When the progressive approach of “politically handing out the social goodies” (relying on bureaucracies treated as if they were systematically altruistically competent) became dominant, various indicators of social progress among the descendants of American slaves either stalled or cratered.
One of the ways the welfare state atomises society is that it undermines the communitarian order that provides structure for human flourishing, replacing it with disconnected clients of bureaucratic largesse. The elevation of people as sovereign choosers aids this, for it strips people of their social context and treats them as being without innate differences in their management of choice.
While revealed preferences (what we do) are always subject to the constraints we face, they are typically a better indicator of our preferences than our stated (expressed) preferences, due to our propensity for self-justificatory narratives. Even more so, given that a certain amount of self-deception makes us more persuasive (to ourselves and others), reducing the cognitive load (e.g. demands on memory) from deliberate self-deception.
We have been a normative species for thousands of generations. Part of the value of having a self-aware consciousness with mostly unconscious cognition is precisely to persuasively rationalise, motivate and moralise one’s self-interest.
So it’s hardly surprising we are good at self-deceptively gaming the normative in our own self-interest. We have had thousands of generations to evolve and hone the capacity. It’s also not surprising that foraging societies put considerable effort (up to, and including, killing) into maintaining norms.
Ideas have to resonate in order to replicate, so ideas that allow us to moralise, motivate and coordinate our self-interest can have a great deal of power. Indeed, the more grandiose the moralising, the more effective the potential self-deception, and the motivating coordination, is likely to be.
All of which make it more important, not less, that we have the social space to argue out what is accurate and what is not, and what the consequences of actions and ideas are.
Unsurprisingly, we tend to be better reasoners when we do it in company: particularly those with divergent viewpoints. Echo chambers are not good discovery or proposition-testing mechanisms but can be very conducive to raising levels of self-deception.
The next essay looks at Economics as an example of the corruptions of Theory.
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Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Joana Araujo, Jianwen Cai and June Stevens, ‘Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016,’ Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, Volume 17, Number 1, 2019, 46–52.
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Laura E. Engelhardt, Daniel A. Briley, Frank D. Mann, K. Paige Harden Tucker-Drob, ‘Genes Unite Executive Functions in Childhood,’ Psychological Science, 2015 August, 26(8), 1151–1163.
Hillard Kaplan, Jane Lancaster & Arthur Robson, ‘Embodied Capital and the Evolutionary Economics of the Human Life Span’, in Carey, James R. and Shripad Tuljapurkar (eds.), Life Span: Evolutionary, Ecological, and Demographic Perspectives, Supplement to Population and Development Review, vol. 29, 2003. New York: Population Council, 152-182.
David C. Lahtia, Bret S. Weinstein, ‘The better angels of our nature: group stability and the evolution of moral tension,’ Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 2005, 47–63.
Dariush Mozaffarian, ‘Obesity—an unexplained epidemic,’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2022;115:1445–1450.
Steven E. Nissen, ‘U.S. Dietary Guidelines: An Evidence-Free Zone,’ Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 164, No. 8, 19 April 2016, 558-559.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Jordan E. Theriault, Liane Young, Lisa Feldman Barrett, ‘The sense of should: A biologically-based framework for modeling social pressure’, Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 36, March 2021, 100-136.
Jessica C. Thompson, Susana Carvalho, Curtis W. Marean, and Zeresenay Alemseged, ‘Origins of the Human Predatory Pattern: The Transition to Large-Animal Exploitation by Early Hominins,’ Current Anthropology, Volume 60, Number 1, February 2019.