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Intuition, egoism, etc.

Below I’m posting a conversation that took place over email in response to session 2. Please feel free to add more and continue the discussion.


From Ed:

I must admit that by the time Darcia, Robert and James had made their first round of comments on last Friday’s topic, I was somewhat confused. I can’t even remember what I was trying to say in response. My guess is that I was/am not alone in that state.

Here’s what I wish I’d said:

“Let’s suppose that human egoistic/selfish/anti-social personalities vary along a continuum, with total inability to control egoistic impulses at the left end and various degrees of an ability to postpone immediate satisfaction of such impulses in the service of a larger egoistic purposes along the line to the right end.

Leftist egoists don’t obtain high school diplomas and many are convicted of felonies. Rightist egoists often make lists of the 20 wealthiest persons in the United States.

Perhaps altruistic/collaborative/pro-social personalities vary in the same way.

Let’s make the huge assumption that we can partition the relevant continua from left to right into subsets so that in each token of a subset type the typical moral trait supervenes on the same type of neural circuitry. I.e., everyone with exactly that type of egoism/altruism has exactly that same type of neural circuitry (micro-wiring plus neurotransmitters).

Evidence (?!): the type of neural circuitry upon which extreme leftist egoism supervenes is caused by pathological parenting in more than 50% of the cases.

Hypothesis: Geoffrey Canada’s “baby colleges” for expectant parents in Harlem will prove to be a necessary element in a successful strategy for increasing the numbers of those students who will succeed in high school and college. (See, Paul Tough, “Whatever It Takes, the quest to change Harlem and America,” Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

I want to propose that the way to avoid the naturalistic fallacy while practicing evolutionary ethics is to trim one’s sails; i.e., to settle for projects likely to reduce leftist egoism in the world, and leave egoism, per se, whatever that might be, to the philosophers.” : ) ???

If that’s not any better, please let me know. : ) !!!

Best wishes,

Ed Manier

8 Responses to “Intuition, egoism, etc.”

  1. Darcia says:

    Hi, Ed,

    I guess I don’t know what you mean by leftist and rightist egoism, or a right to left continuum. I don’t think anyone is totally right or left in political attitudes but is a mix of views.

    The financial success of some suboptimal personalities have to do with a lot of luck and social support at the right times, enough so that the personality is not disorganized, but is emotionally deficient (right brain underdevelopment) leading to an emphasis on left brain functioning (dissociation). This is what we emphasize in our culture now so more and more people are emotionally deficient (see Allan Schore’s work).

    The lack of success of other suboptimal personalities likely has to do with a variety of factors that add up to lots of bad luck (fewer protective factors which include IQ, a caring relationship with an adult, charm and good looks, etc.), including lack of support during critical periods, leading to a more disorganized personality and a reliance on the primitive survival mechanisms (often called “reptilian”) which can lead to unpredictability, aggression and explosiveness (externalizing) or withdrawal (internalizing); both induce a lack of trust from others.

    People with more adverse child experiences have more physical and mental health problems, more social adjustment problems (which means they are necessarily more self-focused as studies with diabetics have shown, meaning less prosociality). They also die on average 20 years younger (Vincent Felitti & Robert Anda’s work). The number of single-person households is rising in many Western countries. These and other facts are signs to me that our abandonment of our ancestral parenting practices (most are over 30 million years old) are having a a negative effect on human emotional and eco-intelligence, behavior and even adaptation.


  2. Jim says:

    Hi All,

    Since I am primarily responsible for introducing the egoist trope into our discussion, let me indicate my reason for doing so. I am interested in whether we can put forward a defensible morality, like someone might put forward a defensible physics. To do that, it seems to me that we would need an answer to egoists of all kinds, who in their lives simply reject the other-regarding demands that I think a defensible morality would place on us. Accordingly, if egoism cannot be answered, there would be no defensible morality.

    Now I recognize that a defensible morality is also under attack from psychologists like Haudt, and for our next meeting, Greene, who see morality (or a good part of it) as driven by our emotions in a way that cannot be given a rational justification.

    So as I see it, we are in serious need of a defense of morality on both these fronts.



  3. Ed says:

    ‘right’ and ‘left’ were totally arbitrary, referring only to the sides of a page, nothing political

    My own three decades long adventures in the literature of basic neuroscience have made me less confident of the literature on the triune brain and hemispheric asymmetry, strictly from “bottom-up” perspective.

    The basic point of my comment is that you and Jim may be talking past each other. I offer a first draft of a crude mediation: since philosophers concerned about the “naturalistic fallacy” will usually agree that moral traits supervene on non-moral traits, clinical psychologists can avoid philosophical allegations that they (the clinical psychologists) are making category mistakes by confining their discourse to the non-moral realm. That will legitimate all the talk about neuroscience, evolution, and parenting anyone could want.

    But I’m afraid I fall into the camp that is also suspicious of generalizations about the “environment of evolutionary adaptation.” But that’s a topic for a different inter-disciplinary seminar.

    As philosophers often say, “I have no idea….” what it would be like to defend an ethical position in the way one might defend string theory.

    In any case, showing how that might be done is a task, I think, several orders of magnitude more difficult than anything that might be done in an inter-disciplinary seminar still testing its sea legs.



  4. Jim says:


    Take a look at my paper. The idea is to start with a normative principle (but not an obviously moral one) that every discussant accepts (no “is”to “ought” here and so no naturalist fallacy) and then to derive everything from that common normative ground.



  5. Darcia says:

    There is a terrific recent book on right and left brain (hundreds of pages about what we know today) and also applied to western civilization. It’s called The Master and His Emmissary by Ian McGilchrist. I’d recommend it.


  6. Ed Manier says:

    Having read Jim’s paper once, I surmise that the undisputed principle in question is avoidance of the informal fallacy of begging the question — including one’s conclusion among one’s premises. Am I right about that?

    But Jim’s premises also include assumptions that the moral preferences of rich and poor can be given separate rank orderings, and that such rankings are mutually intelligible and morally binding to the extent that it is clear to both that the the highest priorities of the poor trump the lowest priorities of the rich. Am I right about that?

    Lazarus’ survival v. the pyramids?

    How does that not beg the question?

  7. Ed Manier says:


    I’ve thought about your comment and read your paper.

    “The idea is to start with a normative principle (but not an obviously moral one) that every discussant accepts (no “is”to “ought” here and so no naturalist fallacy) and then to derive everything from that common normative ground.”

    Your comment accurately describes what you do in the paper, but it doesn’t resemble the practice of any experimental science with which I’m familiar.

    Am I mistaken? There seem to be no references to experiment or to real experience in your paper.


  8. James says:

    I don’t think you are following my argument closely enough. You come at it with respect to the conflict between rich and poor. Fine. I assume then that you accept the first part of the argument against egoism and that we are imagining the rich and poor to be arguing within morality. It is here that I assume that we are using a libertarian morality, one that the rich usually feel very comfortable with. Using that morality, I expose a conflict between the liberty of the rich and the liberty of the poor that needs resolving within morality. I claim that the only way to resolve this conflict that both sides can reasonably accept (and libertarians are committed to just such a resolution) would favor the liberty of the poor enough to provide a right to welfare. So what is the reasonable argument that the poor should accept that would not have that conclusion?

    Also take a look at my posted e-mail to Greene especially the second part which highlights just the kind of discussion that is relevant to his position.