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Human Nature and Political Philosophy

As many have pointed out, the radical progressive version of social justice has all the hallmarks of a religion.

Human Nature and Political Philosophy
A meeting of the Athenian Council, 594 B.C. 

1. The constraints of human nature

If chimpanzees thought about political philosophy, the schemes they advanced would be very different from those advocated by Plato or Hobbes or Jefferson. Chimpanzees are our closest cousins—we are genetically quite similar—and yet chimpanzee nature is different from human nature. Thus, if chimpanzees were to think about promoting the welfare of their social groups, they would think differently than we do. Most of us understand this, at least intuitively, but some of the smartest people seem to forget about the importance of human nature when thinking about how best to organize our political institutions.

No specific political ideology follows ineluctably from an understanding of human nature, of course. But such an understanding can tell us what not to try, and it can give us a sense of how people will behave under alternative political institutions with different incentives.

To say that a reasonable political theory should be compatible with human nature doesn’t mean we should treat human nature as fixed. Our brains are flexible, shaped by evolution to absorb new kinds of knowledge. Learning a language and living in a culture in which we have access to math and science and movies and literature allows us to think in radically different ways than we would if we were raised in a jungle, or in Europe 5,000 years ago.

Our political environment can create the conditions for certain kinds of thoughts and actions to materialize. Rates of violence can be changed with effective law enforcement, the enforcement of private property rights, and a culture that emphasizes peaceful exchange rather than violent competition.

But our brains are also prepared to respond to stimuli in particular ways. We can’t teach people to care more about strangers than they do about friends and family. Our brains may be flexible but, like bungee cords, the demands made on them by political institutions can eventually lead them to recoil and snap back. The tragic results of an unconstrained view of human nature can range from vexing bureaucracies and inefficient agencies to tyranny and genocide.

Contrary to Rousseau, Marx, and many modern progressives, institutions cannot fundamentally change people’s underlying propensities—they cannot turn apes into angels. None of this is new, but, like other timeless truths, it’s worth highlighting.

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2. Incentives and outcomes

Economists are fond of saying that incentives matter. As obvious as it is, this simple insight is often ignored by utopian visionaries.

Consider a recent example. In the spring of 2020, the American media reported on a series of cases in which white cops allegedly targeted black men because of their race. While many of the cases were ambiguous—it was unclear if race motivated any of the incidents, let alone all of them—much of the media on the Left framed the issue as an epidemic of racist police attacking blacks without justification. The selective and biased reporting of the incidents led to violent protests across the USA, followed by activists calling to defund the police. Policymakers in some of America’s biggest cities heeded the call.

Despite the dubious origins of the BLM movement’s core claims, the effects of its demands to “defund the police”—along with mass retirements by demoralized police officers—have been devastating. Violent crime has soared in precisely the areas in which police budgets were cut, and in which police were discouraged from using force in dealing with suspected criminals. While some journalists have denied these effects, or have argued that correlation doesn’t prove causation, the pattern is clear, and the hypothesis that less policing increases incentives to commit crimes is plausible. In other words, simplistic as it may seem, reductions in proactive policing seem to increase crime.

Most people are not inclined to rob liquor stores or murder their neighbors when the police aren’t looking. But aggression and self-control are unevenly distributed in the population. Among those who are bothered less by the thought of using force and fraud to achieve their goals, a small reduction in the chance that they’ll be caught and punished can lead to a big increase in their willingness to commit crime. Incentives matter: they shape human behavior by constraining the options people consider viable, given their goals and propensities.

3. Varieties of equality

Variation is the fuel that powers the engine of evolution. Even animals in the same family are different from each other. Some cheetahs are faster than others; some turtles are better swimmers than others; some people are more cooperative than others. Natural selection shapes future traits by “favoring” some variants over others. Thus, inequality, in the sense of difference, is built into the fabric of the biological world. It is natural and inescapable. And yet people in modern liberal democracies are often tempted to deny this when thinking about how resources should be allocated, or how institutions should work.

They deny this because they care about inequality and consider unfair hierarchies objectionable. Our claim is not that people should not worry about inequality; it is that they should think more clearly about it. For example, here are a few simple versions of equality as a moral ideal:

Equality under the law

Equality of opportunity

Equality of outcome

To discuss equality productively, we need to be aware of these distinctions. Equality of outcome is vastly different from equality under the law. And when Jefferson penned the immortal lines in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” he did not mean that they are literally the same or that they deserve equal outcomes. Unless we attend to these differences in meaning, we risk sliding illegitimately from one claim about equality to another.

Biological inequality is clearly compatible with certain kinds of moral and political equality. For example, we might think citizens of a country should be treated as equals under the law in the sense that they have an equal right to a fair hearing when they are accused of committing a crime. This form of equality is perfectly consistent with physical and psychological inequality, as well as income and status inequality.

There is no moral reason a great athlete or scientist should receive a different kind of criminal hearing or face a different evidentiary standard than a plumber or an electrician. In fact, in the West, most people now fervently believe that there is a strong moral reason that a great athlete and a clumsy janitor should receive the same kind of hearing and face the same evidentiary standards. We can prize cognitive and physical diversity while also insisting on equality under the law.

Equality of opportunity is a stronger principle than equality under the law. It stems from our recognition that, for reasons outside of their control, some people start off with undeserved advantages over others. Some people are born to parents who are wealthy and well-connected, or who pass along traits like intelligence and conscientiousness, which make it easier to navigate the world. As John Rawls puts it, many of these advantages “seem arbitrary from a moral point of view.” Of course, this doesn’t mean the state has the right to use its coercive power to try to erase natural advantages.

4. Costs of coercion

Coercion has costs. Forcing Eve to benefit Adam reduces Eve’s freedom to spend her money as she wishes, and it might reduce Adam’s motivation to develop his skills and look for a better job. Aggressive redistributions of resources can affect individual prosperity and national productivity by altering incentives to work and invest. But sometimes these costs are worth paying, especially if we wish to increase opportunities for relatively poor children to make the best use of their talents, even if their parents can’t afford to help them do so.

It is worth pointing out, however, that equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve. We can move in the direction of equalizing opportunities with carefully crafted redistributive policies. But even egalitarians who understand human nature, such as the behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, know that we cannot truly equalize opportunities because people are born with unequal traits that are at least partially caused by different outcomes in a “genetic lottery.” We can make society open to talent, but we cannot distribute talent equally.

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Some redistributive taxation is compatible with respecting the dignity of all people. But each move in the direction of equalizing resources or opportunities will have diminishing marginal returns. Initially, the recipients of redistributive policies gain a lot and the wealthiest citizens may barely notice their reduction in income. The first hamburger a starving person eats is delicious. The 20th hamburger less so. The first bundle of cash the government taxes from the rich won’t change their lives much. But when redistributive schemes become too aggressive, the highest earners will spend less time working on their laptops in the office and more time working on their tan at the beach.

This is not an ideological claim. Indeed, leisure is good, and there’s more to life than economic productivity. We are simply emphasizing that people respond to incentives, and that however benign they may begin, aggressive attempts to equalize resources or opportunities have predictable costs. Those who promote redistributive policies because the outcomes of the genetic lottery are random and unearned need to grapple with these costs honestly and directly.

Other, more elaborate versions of equality seem incompatible with human nature. They are either impossible to achieve or would be undesirable to try to achieve given the costs of the required coercion. As Kurt Vonnegut recognized, even if we were to equalize material resources, we’d still be left with unequal genetic endowments. We would need a ministry of handicaps to make beautiful people bland and sharp people dull.

Equality of outcome is only desirable under narrow circumstances, for example when a group of kids finds a $10 bill on an empty beach and decides to use it to buy Big Macs for all of them. As David Hume argued, even if a government were to achieve equality of resources at a moment in time, “men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality.” Enforcing such equality over time would, Hume thinks, “reduce society to the most extreme indigence.” That is, equality of outcome would only be momentary because once unequal humans freely traded and bartered with each other, resources would, once again, become unequally allocated. The only way to prevent this inequality would be constant and costly coercion that would leave people equal in anger and immiseration.

5. Private benefits and social costs

Why, then, would anyone endorse a principle that seems so strongly to contradict human nature? If enforced equality of outcome (or “equity”) would destroy the main reasons we have political institutions, such as protecting individual liberty and promoting social welfare, why would any rational person endorse it? For some people, part of the answer may have to do with motivated reasoning: the kind of extreme egalitarianism embodied in “equity” may be so appealing to moral fundamentalists that they ignore the predictable consequences of enforced equity. For others, such as politicians and corporate executives, publicly endorsing a principle like “equity” may signal their virtue—their symbolic commitment to the poor—even if it is insincere.

Paradoxically, it is perfectly consistent with human nature to publicly endorse principles that are inconsistent with human nature if by doing so the individual benefits exceed the individual costs. Wearing a tee shirt with Fidel Castro’s face on it is cheap, and in a culture that is obsessed with equity, it may gain us praise. Moving to Cuba after Castro’s revolution is expensive, which is why few proponents of communism in affluent countries actually move to places like Cuba or Venezuela.

Screaming from the rooftops that “equity” is a dangerous fantasy that would harm everyone has less expressive resonance than declaring our fealty to equal outcomes, at least in our current culture. In the realm of politics, many people engage in expressive behavior like moral grandstanding because, as individuals, they do not bear the costs of promoting misguided beliefs about public policy, even if all of us would suffer the costs if those policies were implemented.

If a professor says that she does not believe in anthropogenic global warming, then she might be shunned by most of her colleagues (a cost) but feted by rightwing media (a benefit). Often, these costs and benefits are more consequential to an individual than are the costs and benefits of the long-term social effects of his or her public proclamations, which are generally quite small. The effect of a single vote, for example, is often meagre, but the effect of a public statement about whom one voted for can be large. For instance, a professor at an elite university who wore a MAGA hat would likely pay a large social cost.

As many have pointed out, the radical progressive version of social justice has all the hallmarks of a religion. To the extent that we are religious creatures, it makes perfect sense that in a society dominated by a religion that elevates “equity” as the sole virtue of institutions, individuals would publicly endorse and sometimes sincerely support equity. And this is true even if the actual implementation of equity would destroy the society that incentivizes each of its members to support it. Laws and institutions are, after all, emergent orders: no single person controls them and they are path dependent in ways that make them hard to understand or predict.

Understanding human nature and social incentives can help explain political pathologies. But it can also help us fix them. Moral reflection and social science can help us consider which moral principles and political institutions are compatible with our nature, and which are likely to push most of us up rather than pull most of us down. Ultimately a political vision that is not constrained by human nature is like an architectural vision that is not constrained by physics: the results might make for good fiction, but they can be tragic in the real world.

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