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Self-deceptive rationalising moralisers
We game ourselves to better game others
First, a warm welcome to new subscribers from and .
As I discussed in both places, this piece forms part of 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, Arnold Kling has some helpful commentary on essay eight here.
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: We humans are good at moralising our self-interest. Given that conscious deception generates a significant cognitive load—and we are more persuasive if we are ourselves persuaded—self-deception is a key mechanism in both rationalising and moralising.
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My essays are not an attempt to persuade Post-Enlightenment Progressives (the “woke”). As many have pointed out, they’re usually unpersuadable, having built systems with almost perfect epistemic closure. That is, patterns of belief shielded against even the possibility of contrary evidence. Dissent from key claims is taken to be inherently illegitimate: a sign of bigotry or complicity in bigotry. Modern academe has developed into an environment primed for evolving systems of epistemic closure.
The point of these essays is to tell everyone else what’s going on, how, and why.
Without a grasp of social dynamics, it can be much harder to push back against rhetorically powerful, but factually flawed, narratives and analyses grounded in an imagined future. A rhetorically effective analysis of social dynamics—no matter how false or even stupid—will tend to supplant no clear analysis of social dynamics. Much of the way activist scholarship degrades education at universities, and increasingly in schools, is by suppressing alternative explanations of social dynamics.
To understand the dynamics of an evolving faith in the transformational future we also need a level of self-understanding. Starting with the problem of our being far too conscious of being conscious, which I addressed in my previous essay.
We are a highly normative species because we evolved highly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies. Cooperative subsistence strategies because we became tool-making-and-using foragers, not teeth-and-claws foragers. Cooperative reproduction strategies because raising big-brain babies meant highly vulnerable pregnancies and infants. Meanwhile, it took almost 20 years for a forager child to learn to be able to reliably forage as many calories as it consumed.
How long do forager women typically live after menopause? Around 15-20 years. So, long enough for their last child to reach self-sustaining adulthood, or close to it. This may not be an evolutionary coincidence.
Such highly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies selected for mechanisms that facilitate robustly congruent expectations within foraging bands. Shared expectations, shared if-then predictions, allow people to cooperate much more readily.
Norms are if-then injunctions. So, we developed strong normative capacities that leveraged off our emotions to make shared expectations more reliably congruent.
We not only developed conventions (we do something X way because other people do it that way), so descriptive norms. We also developed social norms (you are expected to do X and will likely be sanctioned if you don’t), so normative expectations. Learning and operating these norms interacted with our being a highly imitative species, which makes it easier for conventions to arise.
This means we’ve also had thousands of generations to develop the capacity to game norms in our own self-interest. Especially after we became apex predators, so the biggest danger was from other humans.
Human lineages that could balance cooperative norms and self-care to the point of successful reproduction survived. Those that couldn’t, didn’t.
As our normative capacity enabled far greater levels of cooperation, it is also likely that we are adapted to “commit to” norms depending on the level of threat. So, if external threats are large, convergence to group norms is likely to be stronger. If external threats are small, then self-interested gaming of norms is likely to be more common. Muslim polymath Ibn Khaldun’s analysis of group cohesion as intensifying in harsh or threatening environments, but degrading from peace and sedentary living, fits with this.
The tendency for internal competition to foster more self-interest—but external threat to foster more group-coherence—can be seen in the way that use of introspective vocabulary in literature rises during periods of intellectual ferment but collapses during periods of serious social crisis.
The constant throwing of the genetic dice sexual reproduction generates includes variations in propensities to normative commitment. That includes extreme outliers with little or no capacity for normative commitment, something successful societies develop mechanisms to sort against. This is why so many human societies develop various character tests.
People with weak character are unreliable, while manipulative characters will game established norms. This is especially so if they experience lower cognitive load while being deceptive or—due to their internal emotional dynamics—more reasons to be self-deceptive.
Significant numbers of weak or manipulative characters in positions of responsibility are likely to have a corrosive effect on social cohesion.
Many problems in the contemporary academy stem from a lack of effective character tests. Moreover, as political conservatism correlates
highly somewhat with the personality trait of conscientiousness, driving out or muting conservatives means wildly disproportionately driving out or muting the conscientious.
This can be expected to lead to falling standards and institutional domination by folk of low conscientiousness—including the lazy, the cowardly and the manipulative. Hence universities being increasingly comprised—with honourable exceptions—of conformist cowards and toxic zealots.
Our gaming of norms can be obscured by the fact that we are far too conscious of being conscious. Indeed, we can better game norms if we are not conscious of doing so, if we do not bear the cognitive load of conscious deception.
We can be much more persuasive to others if we’ve first persuaded ourselves. We can be so much more motivated if we have a heroic narrative of ourselves. Indeed, one of the great attractions of belief in the transformative future is precisely that it provides a grand, even grandiose, personal-and-shared heroic narrative.
There has been evolutionary pressure towards an efficient level of self-deception. That is, the level of self-deception that minimises cognitive load—deliberate deception puts heavy demands on memory and adds an extra layer of cognitive concern—for a given level of effectiveness of persuasion and motivation without generating too high costs (such as from being in error).
Where it’s advantageous to signal one’s aggression explicitly (due to size, strength, intimidation), then the efficient level of self-deception about one’s aggression is going to be low. If it’s important to hide aggressive signalling (for instance, because smaller, physically weaker, have vulnerable children in tow), then the efficient level of (self-)deception about one’s aggression is going to be quite high.
An effective way to obscure the appearance of aggression is by expressing it as moral or social concern, thereby hiding one’s aggression while also making it more persuasive and effective.
A major reason intellectuals have a long history of being full of crap is that they operate in milieus which typically lack character tests and have very poor (or no) reality tests. Error costs are much lower, so the efficient level of self-deception is higher. Sometimes, much higher. Since their aggression is unlikely to be physical, it needs to be persuasive, which also, as we have seen, increases the efficient level of self-deception.
Feminism’s absence of reality tests
These patterns apply particularly strongly to feminism. Feminism functions as the networked social aggression of highly educated/credentialed women.
In 2016, a survey done on behalf of a major women’s advocacy group found that only 9 per cent of British women identified as feminist. It takes high levels of self-deception to achieve such low levels of support among those on whose behalf you claim to speak. And stratospheric levels of self-deception for British feminists to continue to claim to “speak for women” with single-digit levels of identification by British women as feminist.
As an evolved rule of thumb, women tend to be more perceptive about other people’s feelings and emotional dynamics than men. A result of the more interested in people, less interested in things, pattern.
Conversely, they tend to be less perceptive about their own emotions than men, precisely because they are much more likely to be self-deceptive about their aggression. One of the deep problems of feminism is that it tends to encourage women to lean into their worst traits, particularly being self-deceptive about their aggression.
Not by reason alone
Limitations of consciousness also point to the value of experienced intuition. Our cognition is much greater than that which comes through the filter of consciousness. Developing good intuition is a necessary part of any successful life strategy. Excessive rationalism in human affairs is in danger of turning our consciousness filter into a disastrous narrowing of judgement.
Another aspect of being far too conscious of being conscious is that, when analysing the behaviour of others, if you imply a conscious process, including conscious intention, when cognition is not (or mostly not) conscious, you become very unpersuasive to those you are analysing. They can (correctly) say that is not what they consciously intend to be doing. Especially given that consciousness tends to generate a heroic narrative of one’s own actions and intentions.
This in no way justifies various “false consciousness” folk stories present in various political traditions. “False consciousness” myths actively denigrate the consciousness of others as being too deluded or stupid to act in their own interests: look over there, they don’t know their own minds!
This generates a heroic narrative for any elite adopting one. It suggests they’re more cognitively capable and aware while blocking the consideration of awkward alternative explanations. Such as that what they propose is being rationally rejected by the unpersuaded. False consciousness narratives are more likely to be self-deceptive rationalisations than genuine social insights.
That humans in general do not entirely (consciously) know their own minds—that wisdom traditions are correct in saying that self-understanding is hard—is a truth that applies to everyone.
Including adherents of overt rationalism.
Moreover, their rationalism is likely to make them less self-aware, not more. In particular, it is more likely to generate a heroic internal narrative (which is is often part of the appeal). Indeed, evidence suggests that the more educated are more prone to moralise and rationalise their beliefs when required to sustain an internal narrative against the evidence.
We really are good at rationalising and moralising our self-interest and doing so self-deceptively, so imposing less cognitive load on ourselves.
Complexity selects for moralising discourses
Social norms, norms you are expected to follow and where you’re likely to be sanctioned if you don’t, require a certain density of informed connection between people to work effectively.
As the number of people we interact with about whom we have minimal information multiplies, social norms (doing as others expect or likely suffer sanctions) provide less robust mechanisms for social congruence in expectations. Greater social complexity due to increased population density and social differentiation—and so more potential conflicts and social friction—call for mechanisms that can scale up more reliably.
Moral norms are norms that are presumptively adhered to even if social sanctions are not reinforcing them. Thus, moral norms can cover the feedback-weak gaps as low-information interactions with others multiply.
Explicitly moralising discourses evolved much more recently than our normative capacity, although they built on capacities and patterns that manifest in very young children. Remember, for norms to be usefully gamed, they have to matter.
Studies comparing the behaviour of young human children with young chimpanzees show we are a deeply normative species, particularly oriented towards collaborative norms. Something very much not true of our Pan troglodytes chimpanzee cousins, who are much more rigorously Homo economicus in their behaviour. Chimpanzees are better at game theory games than humans are.
It’s likely that we are unusually low in reactive aggression (we are the least reactively aggressive of all primates), so more able to be highly normative, because human beta males systematically combined, generation after generation, to kill off the alpha males.
Homo sapiens: the ape that murdered its way into niceness. The human condition in a nutshell.
Moralising discourse evolved with the development of moralising religions and philosophies. Moral norms enable more effective social cohesion from shared if-then injunctions. Like coins, they reduce transaction friction across low-information interactions.
Hence, as social complexity increased, there was increased social selection for mechanisms, for religions and philosophies, that promote moral norms. Unlike social norms, moral norms are not based on sanctioned normative expectations, so can operate in situations with limited social feedback, and be applied both within, and to, existing structures and social patterns.
Hence coins, moralising philosophies, and moralising religions often turn up in human societies at the same time. They are all transaction-friction-reducing solutions to multiplying low-information interactions due to increasing social complexity.
Religion as selection advantage
Religious people are often more reliable coordinators among themselves, which gives them a selection advantage. Religion and wisdom traditions both provide ways to manage self-consciousness and to deal with the problems of being self-conscious. Awareness of our own death, for example.
Religion can also provides motivating concerns (such as a sense of sin, fears, and hopes for salvation) that increase in-group coordination by giving more authority to shared norms. Religions provide narratives and taboos that may be literally false while being metaphorically true (i.e., acting as though they’re true gives adherents a selection advantage).
With their mobilising moral norms, religions make expectations more robustly congruent at scale. Hence the evidence that increased social complexity gave rise to moralising religions and philosophies.
In recent times, hyper-norms have developed. These are norms that trump all other considerations, even practicality or the basic structure of things.
It is a mistake to presume that if something is morally arbitrary it is therefore illegitimate. Something can be morally arbitrary but structurally necessary. If, however, norms trump structure, then giving weight to such structural necessity—like much other reasoning—is ruled out, considered illegitimate.
Policy motivated by hyper-norms is therefore likely to be highly dysfunctional. This has been on obvious display in various progressive-run US cities. But libertarians—as they also discount or deny structural factors—are also prone to advocating disastrous policies based on hyper-normative hostility to the morally arbitrary but structurally required or functional.
For instance, economists generally fail to fully grapple with structural issues pertinent to migration, but libertarian economists fail to do so even more. Reacting against the morally arbitrary nature of borders, they are often advocate structurally disastrous policies (such as open borders).
Hyper-norms do not emerge from difficulty dealing with the structure of things (as conventions and social norms do), or coordinating social interaction with minimal information (as moral norms do). Instead, they come from coordinating status, social leverage and cognitive identity in prosperity-and-technology-cocooned societies flooded with information.
As social niches insulated from consequences of error multiply, so does the level of efficient self-deception. With those most insulated from the consequences of error having the highest levels of efficient self-deception. We are increasingly creating situations where our elites are more cognitively dysfunctional—due to higher levels of efficient self-deception—than the general public.
Hyper-norms delegitimise the use of information to contradict them (so are information-trumping norms able to filter a flood of information) and use minimal-information markers (e.g., what words people use) to differentiate between individuals. They appeal in social milieus where physical constraints are low but cognitive feedbacks are strong. They foster the generation of pseudo-realities propped up by pseudo-knowledge.
The hyper-moralising of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”)—based on hyper-norms that reject the constraints of biology, accuracy, or consistency—are a mechanism for economising on information. Faced with a flood of information, seeking a status of righteous knowing—a series of hyper-normative linguistic taboos, approved, even required, affirmations, required not noticings, and stigmatising of wrongful noticings—they economise on information while providing a mutually-supporting sense of righteous status.
Hyper-norms gravitate towards equality, as equality provides simplifying protections against the burdens of complexity. Particularly the most simplistic version of equality—equality of outcomes.
Any difference between groups or individuals can thus be hyper-normed against. Even better, those who do better can be blamed for the fact that they are doing better.
Moreover, the complexity of human interactions, of human differences—that actions have consequences—all mean that equality of outcomes can never be achieved. Equality of opportunity is hard enough.
As equality of outcome can never be inherent in any social order, it can only be achieved via massive (power) inequality. But it can be imagined as achievable in the phantasm future, and so generate endless moral authority, endless heroic self-imagination, endless seeking of the power to achieve it.
Hyper-norms produce a sense of righteous status uninhibited by the structure of things. A status reinforced by treating those who disagree with a righteous anger and contempt. An approach to politics that, since norms trump structure, sees constraints as a sign of oppression (including biological restraints), so finds oppression everywhere.
The elevation of righteous, self-justifying intention over constraints not only produces intense censoriousness—only agreement with the intention is properly moral—it also sabotages public debate more broadly.
The acceptance of constraints means the acceptance of the reality of trade-offs. Denying constraints in the name of righteous intent essentially sacralises discourse, as it de-legitimises even consideration of trade-offs.
The sacred is that thing against which trade-offs are rejected, or strongly resisted, while the profane is that for which trade-offs are just fine. The preservation of hyper-norms of righteous intent means rejection of the profane in the form of wrestling with trade-offs. Unfortunately, such wrestling is precisely what effective public policy requires.
All of which can make contemporary progressives at times ludicrously easy to manipulate. Just tap into their networked, mutually-signalling, status strategies of “this is what the smart and good believe”, and you are away. You can get them to affirm that the surgical and hormonal sterilising and mutilation of minors is cutting-edge moral concern, that being a woman is defined by stereotypes and that plant food is best for the primate species (us) that is way more physiologically adapted to consuming animal food than are other primates.
We are back to supporting The Current Thing and the herding behaviour of Non Player Characters (NPCs).
We are very good at rationalising and moralising our self-interest. Given that conscious deception generates a significant cognitive load—and we are more persuasive if we are ourselves persuaded—self-deception is a key mechanism in rationalising and moralising. The efficient level of self-deception is higher the lower the costs of error (to individuals) about reality and themselves are and the larger the benefits (for instance, socially advantageous signalling) of such errors.
The next essay looks at the attractions of conspiracism. Including its connection to distrust.
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