Chocolate and Gold Coins

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Public Policy and Human Nature

At the interesting and under-read blog The Middle Stage, Amit writes about the naturalistic fallacy and its extension to public policy. An example of the naturalistic fallacy would be to say something like: “Such-in-such is unnatural, and therefore wrong.” For example, it is unnatural for six-year-old boys to like broccoli, but there is nothing wrong in offering, and nothing wrong if he accepts (but don’t expect it!).

However, Amit argues that there is no naturalistic fallacy when it comes to public policy. The phrase: “Such-in-such is unnatural, and therefore poor public policy and it's bound to fail” is a perfectly sensible statement. Amit writes:

While human nature should certainly not be the basis of morality, should it play a part in public policy? I believe it should. Instead of Herzog’s test statement, consider the following sentence:

_____________ is unnatural and therefore impractical.

Can the blank here be filled in for the sentence to make sense? I think so. One example: “communal sharing of property”.

Any political system that requires us to behave in a manner contrary to human nature is likely to fail. For example, EO Wilson once said of communism: “great idea, wrong species”. He thought it would have worked for ants, who are wired differently.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is the perfect system for humans because it mirrors the manner of our evolution perfectly. John Maynard Keynes once said of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species that it was “simply Ricardian economics couched in scientific language”, while Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that it was “remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his own English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’, and the Malthusian struggle for existence.” Stephen Jay Gould described natural selection as “essentially Adam Smith's economics read into nature.” (These three quotes are from Matt Ridley's fine book, The Origins of Virtue.)

It's a great essay, read the whole thing.

So if your public policy depends on six-year-olds eating broccoli for success, forget it.

2 Comments:

  • It seems natural for people to want to have sex.

    Yet many want the government to put forth a huge a amount of effort to minimize the sex going on between unmarried people.

    The theory is that the future of society is better off if children have two parents to raise them rather than just a single mother.

    By Blogger Calico Cat, at 8:17 AM  

  • Hi Calico Cat
    I don't think anyone proposed the converse of the naturalist fallacy as a true statement: "such-and-such is natural, and therefore good." Most things that people do that are wrong are very natural.

    Come to think of it, I do remember a child psychologist saying it was absolutely natural that children will be picky eaters when they are young so we shouldn't fret about it. I thought, "what nonsense she is she saying - it is absolutely natural for parents to fret about it."

    A public policy trying to restrict the freedom of people is unlikely to make people happy. Sure, I don't want my son doing things that he shouldn't when he's a teenager, but that's my problem, not the government's.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:17 PM  

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