Politics is about self interest

I’ve read a lot of history, including American history of the 18th and 19th centuries.  It’s interesting to read about the politics of these periods.  From a distance across generations and centuries, you can see the distinction between the self interested stances people took and the rhetoric that was used to justify those stances.

An example from the 18th century was the controversy about the new federal government assuming the Revolutionary War debt from the states.  Both sides of the controversy had philosophical reasons for their position, such as concern about federal power versus the benefits of establishing faith and credit for the United States.  But in general, the states that favored the idea (called “assumption”) still had a lot of war debt, while the states that were against it had paid most or all of their debt already.

This also holds for what was the most controversial issue in early America: slavery.  People’s stance on this issue seemed to be heavily influenced by the economy of their state.  In northern industrial states, slavery was becoming less economically viable and dying out, and was therefore seen as barbaric.  However, in the largely agricultural southern states, slavery remained a major part of the economic system, and was therefore seen as a vital institution.

It’s much more difficult for us to separate the stories we tell ourselves today from the self interested realities.  This is probably why some political scientists argue that people aren’t motivated by self interest when they vote.  But that idea simply isn’t backed by history or psychology.

In their book, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban argue self interest figures heavily into our political positions.

This isn’t something we generally do consciously.  Citing psychology research that shows we often don’t understand our own motivations, they argue that our unconscious mind settles on stances that reflect our inclusive personal interests, with “inclusive” meaning that it includes the interests of our friends and family.

We tell ourselves a high minded story, one that we consciously believe, but like the public relations spokesperson for a large corporation, our consciousness is often uninformed on the actual reasons why the Board of Directors of our mind adopt a stance.  In other words, our self interested positions feel like the morally right ones to have, and people opposed to our positions seem evil or stupid.

Working from this premise, and using data from the United States GSS (General Social Survey), Weeden and Kurzban proceed to show correlations between political positions and various demographic, lifestyle, and financial income factors.  They also periodically glance at broader international data and, although the specific issues and populations vary, find that the general principle holds.

They identify some broad factors that have large effects on our political positions, including things such as sexual lifestyle, membership in traditionally dominant or subordinate groups (religion, race, sexual orientation, etc), the amount of human capital we have, and financial income.

The first factor, sexual lifestyle, generally affects your attitude on a number of social issues such as abortion, birth control, pornography, and marijuana legalization.  Weeden and Kurzban break people into two broad groups: Ring-bearers and Freewheelers.

Ring-bearers tend to have fewer sexual partners across their life, generally making a commitment to one partner, marrying them, and having a family with a higher number of children.  They often strongly value their commitments (which is why they’re called “Ring-bearers”).  A major concern for Ring-bearers is the possibility of being tempted away from those commitments, having their spouse be tempted away, or their kids being tempted away from leading a similar lifestyle.

This concern often makes them want to reduce the prevalence of lifestyles that lead to such temptation, such as sexual promiscuity.  As a result, Ring-bearers tend to favor policies that make promiscuous lifestyles more costly.  Which is why they’re generally pro-life, oppose birth control and sexual education, and oppose things like marijuana legalization, which is perceived as facilitating promiscuity.

Of course the reasons they put forward for their stances (and consciously believe) don’t reflect this.  For the abortion stance, they’ll often argue that they’re most concerned about protecting unborn children.  But the fact that they’re usually willing to make exceptions in cases of rape or incest, where the woman’s sexual lifestyle usually isn’t a causal factor, shows their true hand.

On the other side are the Freewheelers.  Freewheelers generally lead a more active sexual lifestyle, or aspire to, or want to keep their options open for that lifestyle.  They’re less likely to marry, more likely to divorce if they do, and generally have fewer kids.

Freewheelers generally don’t want their life style options curtailed, and don’t want to experience moral condemnation for it.  This generally makes them pro-choice, in favor of birth control and family planning, and in favor of things like marijuana legalization.

Like Ringbearers, Freewheelers usually don’t admit to themselves that preserving their lifestyle options is the motivating factor for their social stances.  Again, focusing on abortion, Freewheelers usually say and believe that their stance is motivated to protect women’s reproductive freedom.  But the fact that pro-choice people are often comfortable with other laws that restrict personal freedoms, such as seat belt laws or mandatory health insurance, shows that personal freedom isn’t the real issue.

Freewheelers also often don’t have the private support networks that Ringbearers typically enjoy, such as church communities, which Weeden and Kurzban largely characterize as child rearing Ringbearer support groups.  This makes Freewheelers tend to be more supportive of public social safety net programs than Ringbearers.

The next factor is membership in traditionally dominant or subservient groups.  “Groups” here refers to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, immigrant status, etc.  In the US, traditionally dominant groups include whites, Christians, males, heterosexuals, and citizens, while traditionally subservient groups include blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, females, gays, transsexuals, and immigrants.  It’s not necessarily surprising that which group you fall in affects your views on the fairness of group barriers (discrimination) or set-asides (such as affirmative action).

But there’s a complicating factor, and that is the amount of human capital you have.  Human capital is the amount of education you’ve attained and/or how good you are at taking tests.  Having high human capital makes you more competitive, reducing the probability that increased competition will negatively affect you.  People with high levels of human capital are more likely to favor a meritocracy.  On the other hand, having low human capital tends to make getting particular jobs or getting into desirable schools more uncertain, so increased competition from any source tends to be against your interests.

For people with high human capital and in a dominant group, group barriers mean little, so people in this category tend to be about evenly split on the fairness of those barriers.  But people with low human capital and in a dominant group tend to be more effected by increased competition when group barriers are reduced, making them more likely to be in favor of retaining those barriers.

People in subservient groups tend to be opposed to any group barriers, or at least barriers affecting their particular group.  People in subservient groups and with high human capital, once barriers have been removed, tend to favor a meritocracy and to be less supportive of specific group set asides.  But people in subservient groups and with low human capital tend to be in favor of the set-asides.

All of which is to say, more educated people tend to be less affected by group dynamics unless they’re being discriminated against, but less educated people are more affected by those dynamics.  Less educated people discriminate more, not because they’re uneducated, but because their interests are more directly impacted by the presence or absence of that discrimination.

And finally, Weeden and Kurzban look at financial income.  It probably won’t surprise anyone that people with higher incomes are less supportive of social safety net programs, which essentially redistribute income from higher income populations to lower income ones, but that people with lower incomes are usually in favor of these programs.

Most people fall in some complex combination of these groups.  Weeden and Kurzban recognize at least 31 unique combinations in the book.  Which particular combination a person is in will define their political perspective.

For example, I’m a Freewheeler (relatively speaking), mostly in dominant groups except in terms of religion, where I’m in a subservient group (a nonbeliever), have moderately high human capital (a Master’s degree), and above average income.  Weeden and Kurzban predict that these factors would tend to make me socially liberal, modestly supportive of social safety nets, opposed to religious discrimination, in favor of meritocracy, and economically centrist.  This isn’t completely on the mark, but it’s uncomfortably close.

But since people fall into all kinds of different combinations, their views often don’t fall cleanly on the conservative-liberal political spectrum.  Why then do politics in the US fall into two major parties?  I covered that in another post last year, but it has to do with the way our government is structured.  The TL;DR is that the checks and balances in our system force broad long lasting coalitions in order to get things done, which tend to coalesce into an in-power coalition and an opposition one.

In other words, the Republican and Democratic parties are not philosophical schools of thought, but messy constantly shifting coalitions of interests.  Republicans are currently a coalition of Ringbearers, traditionally dominant groups, and high income people.  Democrats are a coalition of Freewheelers, traditionally subservient groups, and low income people.  There may be a realignment underway between people with low human capital in dominant groups (white working class) and those with high human capital, but it’s too early to tell yet how durable it will be.

But it’s also worth remembering that 38% of the US population struggles to consistently align with either party.  A low income Freewheeler in traditionally dominant groups, or a high income Ringbearer in a traditionally subservient group, might struggle with the overall platform of either party.

So what does all this mean?  First, there’s a lot of nuance and detail I’m glossing over in this post (which is already too long).

Weeden and Kurzban admit that their framework isn’t fully determinant of people’s positions and doesn’t work for all issues.  For example, they admit that people’s stances on military spending and environmental issues don’t seem to track closely with identifiable interests, except for small slices of the population in closely related industries.

The authors’ final takeaway is pretty dark, that political persuasion is mostly futile.  The best anyone can hope to do is sway people on the margins.  The political operatives are right, electoral victory is all about turning out your own partisans, not convincing people from the other side, at least unless you’re prepared to change your own position to cater to their interests.

My own takeaway is a little less stark.  Yes, the above may be true, but to me, when we understand the real reasons for people’s positions, finding compromise seems more achievable if we’re flexible and creative.  For instance, as a Freewheeler, the idea of content ratings and restricting nightclubs to red light districts suddenly seem like decent compromises, ones that don’t significantly curtail my freedom but assuage Ringholder concerns of being able to keep those influences away from them and their family.

And understanding that the attitude of low human capital Americans toward illegal immigrants is shaped by concern for their own livelihood, rather than just simple bigotry, makes me look at that issue a bit differently.  I still think Trump is a nightmare and his proposed solutions asinine, but this puts his supporters in a new light.  Most politicians tend to be high human capital people and probably fail to adequately grasp the concerns of low human capital voters.  In the age of globalization, should we be surprised that this group has a long simmering anger toward the establishment?

In the end, I think it’s good that we mostly vote our self interest.  We typically understand our own interests, but generally don’t understand the interests of others as well as we might think.  This is probably particularly true when we assume people voting differently than us are acting against their own interests.

Everyone voting their own interests forces at least some portion of the political class to take those interests into account.  And that’s the whole point of democracy.  Admittedly, it’s very hard to remember that when elections don’t go the way you hoped they would.

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28 Responses to Politics is about self interest

  1. paultorek says:

    Well, no. A better approximation is Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. People don’t vote their self-interest, because self-interested people don’t vote. Hell, even the Marxist idea – that people vote their class interests, not their self interest – is closer to the truth.

    Voting is a half hour to an hour or so, with an incredibly tiny chance of putting one of your candidates over the top. Unless you personally have millions of dollars riding on some particular government policy, it’s not worth it, if only the impact on YOU counts in your book. Ditto even if you fudge “self interest” to include friends and family – unless you have many thousands of friends.

    People’s self interest certainly influences which ideas and attitudes they’ll accept. Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That’s enough to explain the correlations. But culture, “identity”, and personal experience also influence ideas and attitudes, probably more so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think Weeden or Kurzban would argue that emotion isn’t a major factor. Their point would be about what leads to that emotion. I haven’t read Westen’s book, although I’ve heard the sentiment many times. Too often, it amounts to the idea that people are voting in a way we dislike because they’re just being emotional rather than calm and rational like us.

      That may be a comforting story for the left to tell itself, but I think it’s one actual candidates settle on at their peril. Voter messaging does have to tell a visceral emotional story, but voters won’t find it emotional in the right way if it doesn’t speak to their inclusive interests.

      Voting is indeed a hassle. Undoubtedly that’s why 40% of eligible voters didn’t do it in November, despite it being the most hyped and intense election in decades. In normal presidential election years, it’s at around 45%, and for midterms it’s around 60-70%. So if the point is that many people don’t vote due to short term self interest, then yes, that’s definitely true.

      The people that do vote are simply acting within a longer view of their interests. I live in a deeply red state, but still vote even though I know my vote won’t contribute to the candidate I want to see win. Among other reasons, this time it contributed to Trump losing the popular vote by millions.

      Weeden and Kurzban spend some time justifying their use of inclusive self interest, rather than just individual self interest, referencing Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ to note that most of us aren’t evolutionarily wired to only be concerned with our very narrow individual interest. A narrow definition as a benchmark about whether people are self interested is a false standard.

      On your last paragraph, I agree that the correlations aren’t perfect. If you notice, the word “tends” appears a lot in the post. But on culture and identity, what determines which culture and identity we choose? Showing that a self identified conservative votes for conservative candidates doesn’t really tell us much. Showing why they’re a conservative is what Weeden and Kurzban are going for. And they have a lot of data on their side.

      Liked by 2 people

      • paultorek says:

        The broad sense of “self interest” doesn’t deserve the name, unless you’re applying it to genes, rather than people. Suppose an African American takes a lower-paying job in order to work for racial justice in America. That, like all human behavior, is the result of “selfish genes”, but to call the person or their behavior selfish would be to overstretch the term beyond recognition. Nor can such a broad group of people they help be considered a matter of “inclusive fitness”.

        Most people don’t choose their culture, so much as grow up in it. Identity is also at least partially foisted on us by our experiences. I certainly agree that emotions aren’t irrational or arational, necessarily. People typically have reasons for their emotions. But those reasons need not be selfish in any useful sense.


  2. Michael says:

    Great post, Mike, and one that makes very good sense to me. I’ve long felt that people don’t recognize their own bias, and don’t realize when they’re simply acting out a statement of their needs. I’ve seen this a lot in my own family, where as a result of being a modern concoction of two or three families spliced together, we probably have a good chunk of those 31 categories represented. I wager that’s not entirely uncommon. It makes for an interesting Thanksgiving!

    I’ve long been pained to observe the way these (unconscious?) political stances become the cause of real barriers to thoughtful communication. I take this as a call for mindfulness, for self-reflection and consideration of where other groups are coming from. And I think you’re right: when doing so room opens up for productive compromise.

    I don’t know what category I’m in, but something of a mix I think. I’m pretty ring-bearing on a personal level, at least when it comes to my own relationships, but strongly believe to each his own and think freedom of sexuality and freedom of identity should perhaps be added to the Bill of Rights. It’s really hard to say what we should do, because politics to me is a game of scarcity the way it’s currently played. It is driven at a deep level by the unsettling feeling of ending up on the outside looking-in, of the exertion of power to control an outcome, and of the massing of power to have influence, and I think the authors are right in noting that those who are remote from such an eventuality are probably less concerned by it. And this is reflected in their political outlook.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Michael!

      I know what you mean about families. My own extended family is mostly conservative, but a few of us are rebels, with one cousin being a new ager, his brother a nihilist, and me the skeptic.

      I think mindfulness and self reflection is very good response to this kind of information. Realizing that everyone has reasons for their point of view is important. As a society, we’ve developed a habit of thinking of those who disagree with us as vile or ignorant. Compromise with someone we think of as evil is very difficult, but compromise between two groups with conflicting interests seems like a manageable problem.

      I’m not sure of your category. You seem like someone with a good amount of human capital, so that might be a liberalizing influence. But I probably didn’t emphasize enough in the post that these 31 groups are statistical averages. Probably few individuals in any one group are going to perfectly match their group’s statistical profile. I know I’m much more supportive of safety net programs than mine would indicate.

      Good point on politics and scarcity. No society can do everything. Every one must prioritize. But the act of prioritization is rarely neutral. It wouldn’t be political if there weren’t winners and losers.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I was introduced to this social psychologist named Arlie Rochschild when writing a paper on my cultural anthropology course; she made a similar point in her ethnographic study of Tea Party supporters (I believe the novel is called Strangers in Their Own Land though), that people do not necessarily vote out of economic self-interest. Instead, she remarks that people vote out of emotional self-interest. For example, though many Tea Party supporters may enjoy the rich environment of their states, they may not necessarily vote for people with a strong background in environmental regulations as they would not trust the “Big Government” to support this – or around similar lines. Similarly, people are less likely to vote against their emotional self-interest (i.e. Republican, conservative, libertarian) if they fall under categories such as LGBTQ.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point. There is definitely more to self interest than economic self interest. The question with emotional self interest is, what is behind that emotion?

      Often the calculation can come down to the question, will it be good or bad for “people like me”? If it’s good for my group, then it will indirectly increase my social standing. If it’s bad, then it will indirectly hurt it. Admittedly, the mix of all of this in any one human being is extremely difficult to untangle. It’s only in looking at large scale populations that the relationships start to become obvious.

      Sometimes the combination of factors in one person can lead to surprising results, such as Caitlyn Jenner being a conservative Republican and (initially) a Trump supporter. People, focusing on her transsexual identity, were shocked, but it makes a little more sense when you remember her sports and business background.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, you do make a good point; that looking large scale populations, relationships between different factors – human capital, ethnicity, and such – do become clear but that the combinations of factors in one person does lead to surprising results. If it weren’t for the latter, I would have to say that discovering this does nothing to alleviate any pessimism because it means we are just conducting cognitive heuristics.
        On the other hand, similar to how former idealists confront tragic truths, it kind of makes you want to re-explore the other side of the political spectrum – to not be a default political orientation by your background – but that may be just me.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Self-Interest and Politics — Shared | Hotel Denouement

  5. Steve Ruis says:

    I am very tired and didn’t read your piece entire, so I am just reacting to the title.

    Consider what economics created when economists decided that economic exchanges were only driven by self interest.

    I am not saying they are not involved, just that complex issues are complex, not simple issues in disguise.

    I will read your piece tomorrow … and apologize if appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely self interest is complex, and I might should have titled this post “Politics is about inclusive self interest”, but it seemed snappier without the “inclusive” part, although that does get mentioned in the post. “Inclusive” in the case includes the interests of our families and friends, as well as “people like us”, which may have indirect effects on our social standing.


  6. Interesting post as always. I’ve actually been reading some political books lately — the latest was “Democracy for Realists”. The argument in that book is that people don’t vote their self interests, but rather engage in identity politics. They spend some time analyzing the different voting models and then debunking them. However, I wonder if the identity model and the self-interest model presented in that book are really at odds? As you stated in one of your responses to a comment, what created those identities in the first place?

    I may need to look up that book.

    As always, thank you for thought-provoking posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks BIAR! I think you’re right that both models are accurate, for what they do.

      But Weeden and Kurzban’s point is that when we’re looking for causal factors, we have to be careful not to find correlations between synonymous notions. The example they use is asking why someone likes going to parties. One response, with probably a 100% correlation, is that they’re an extrovert. That seems like a causal relationship, until we remember that part of the definition of “extrovert” is enjoying social gatherings, like parties. That means what initially appeared to be a causal explanation amounts to: they like going to parties because they like going to parties, which tells us little.

      That’s not to say that tribalism isn’t a factor, but the question is what attracted people to that tribe initially? Usually there are some key factors for that initial attraction. Once they’re in the tribe, they may adopt many of the tribe’s stances on other positions that they otherwise might have been neutral on, at least unless any of those other stances conflict with their own visceral interests.

      ‘Democracy for Realists’ sounds interesting. I may have to check that one out myself. Thanks!


  7. Steve Ruis says:

    Okay, I had a chance to read the full post and, yes, I do believe self-interest is a factor in people’s decisions. I would be shocked to find otherwise. And … (and you knew that was coming, no?) … and the most common element of voting patterns in the country involves people voting against their own economic interests (voting for Republicans, the party of the rich, the party of wage suppression, the party of war). I suggest that people also often vote their bile. I think a great many people voted for Mr. Trump as a poke in the eye of self-righteous liberals who have referred to them as ignorant goobers who do not know their own self-interests. People also vote their religions, which have absolutely nothing to do with their real self-interest and only involve imaginary self-interests. (Voting along religious lines is often a judgment about perceived morals.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for reading it. I know it’s a long post.

      I think my response would be to ask, are you still assuming you know their interests better than they do? Perhaps a better way to look at it, are we (liberals) perhaps assessing what we think their interests should be in terms of our values, but not in terms of theirs? The work of Jonathan Haidt comes to mind here. Their interests may be in terms of values that we and they simply don’t share.

      I just read something where working class whites are turned off by liberal attitudes of trying to make it easy for them to attend college. Their reaction to college as a solution to their problems seems to be, “Don’t force your version of the American dream on us.”


  8. Pingback: Politics is about self interest | Episyllogism

  9. Fizan says:

    Just read the post, Mike. It’s very interesting indeed and I found myself agreeing with most of the groups and their biases especially of the human capital and dominant/ subservient groups.

    I wasn’t able to relate to the Ringbearer one though which is surprising considering I would classify as a Ringbearer. I’m all for pro-choice and marijuana legalization. The reasons are exactly women’s freedom and freedom in general. Perhaps this may reflect that if your choice is not aligned with your groups you might actually be truly motivated by the high minded story of the opposite group?

    And as far as political suasion I think if the politicians know of the people’s biases they can use that to spin stories that those people will find attractive during campaigns, leading to a greater following and votes (they obviously don’t have to hold up to the promises once in office). I think that’s exactly what Trump did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Fizan. On the Ringbearer group, I didn’t have space to make this clarification in the post (it was already far too long) but every group is a statistical average. In any group, there will be individuals closer and farther from the overall group profile. Most will be near it, but some will vary, particularly if their membership in other groups creates issues they care more about.

      I think you’re right about Trump. I even had a Trump supporter say to me a while back that he knows Trump sucks, but that he was the only candidate talking in terms on his (the supporter’s) needs. I think the rest of the political establishment has to come to terms with the fact that there’s a market for what Trump is selling.

      That doesn’t mean they have to cater to everything in Trump’s platform, but working class people in multiple countries are showing that if society doesn’t figure out how to get them on the globalization ship, they’re prepared to burn that ship down.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes Mike, politics is about self-interest. In fact I consider conscious existence itself to be about self-interest. So if true, then what’s a useful conception of “self-interest”? As you know, I have a theory about this. Furthermore I consider this specific aspect of our nature to encourage us to deny its very existence, thus resulting in nothing short of the softness of our mental and behavioral sciences! (Of course the establishment will instead say that there is a natural softness to these fields due to measurement difficulties, thus absolving them of expected blame— a self serving position which actually justifies my premise.)

    You’re quite aware of the theory that I speak of, but if possible I’d like you to go further. If you would, please tell me why it is that (according to me) my theory encourages us to deny my theory? I consider this to be the crux of the matter…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I have to admit that I don’t know the answer. I do know your theory, but I don’t recall us discussing this particular aspect of it.

      But this reminds me that one of the authors of the book discussed in the post, Robert Kurzban, wrote another one, ‘Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite’, which he discussed in an interview with Julia Galef on a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs-188-robert-kurzban-on-being-strategically-wrong.html

      He gives an answer about people denying reality that I found interesting, and that might resonate with the answer you have in mind. From the transcript:

      The way I think about this is when we talk about self deception, in almost every single case, what we’re really talking about is something like look, this person has this belief which somehow they really shouldn’t have. They should have a belief that they’re more likely to get a broken leg. They should have the belief that they’re a worse driver. They should have whatever belief that’s closer to what the reality is in the world.

      But they don’t have that belief. And then the question is why? And my argument is well, it’s because having the false belief is useful for persuading others about how wonderful you are.

      In that context, yeah, I actually do — and I’m reluctant to say this since we’re taping, but I do actually think that these strategically wrong beliefs are the product of evolved systems that were specifically designed to be wrong in this way that, yeah, is helpful in the long run.

      There are two ways to interpret that, one of which I think is compatible with your model and one may not be. The compatible way is simply that people are mistaken in their beliefs, but that the mistake ends up being adaptive. The one that might be incompatible, because it involves unconscious scheming, is that people unconsciously deceive themselves for strategic value.

      Sorry if this ended up being utterly outside of what you were asking.

      Liked by 1 person

    • No apologies necessary Mike. This actually gives me a taste of the besused superiority that I think my professors felt when they’d ask us students cryptic questions. Here they could feel superior since they had the answers while we did not. But then what gave them the right to feel this way, when they didn’t actually figure anything out themselves? It always grated me how they were simply taught first whatever they were teaching us.

      Regarding the Galef interview of Kurzban, I did have a listen and enjoyed it, but no that wasn’t it. If a bad belief by chance provides someone with a good outcome, that’s just not going to be a very interesting circumstance regarding predictive theory. So that couldn’t be my point. (Perhaps I flatter myself here!) Then regarding your “unconscious” scenario, I do not fear getting into such quasi conscious speculation, so long as we’re clear that this is quite different from the vast supercomputer that I call the non-conscious mind. But as it happens I’m not talking about self deception here at all. A good hint should be that it’s extremely simple, even though I consider it to largely be why there are so many problems in philosophy and mental/behavioral sciences today.

      My theory of course is that feeling good and not feeling bad constitutes the value of anything, and therefore the value of any person. So if this is the case, then why can it be best for a person to instead display altruism?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Eric.

        As an aside, not really about your theory, but I’m starting to think that the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness doesn’t exist, at least in terms of mental processing. More and more, it’s seeming to me that the way to understand it is that all actual cognition is unconscious, with what we call “consciousness” being a secondary representation of the brain back to itself on some of its processing. We never know thoughts in and of themselves, only their introspective representations, just as we never know the outside world directly, only the representations our brains build for it.

        Anyway, on your theory, am I correct in assuming that the answer is we don’t admit because doing so feels bad? And we do altruism because it feels good?

        The term “feel good” is a bit problematic though. I sometimes do things even though it feels bad, but I do it anyway because I anticipate later feeling good because I did it. Maybe this is the hope aspect you discussed before?

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      Well yes consciousness surely is just a representation of reality. I don’t know that what I’m conscious of exists, but rather just that my consciousness itself exists. Keep going with that. But also know that from my own models there is only a vast supercomputer that I call “the non-conscious mind”, and a tiny computer that it creates which encompasses all that we idiot humans know of existence (“consciousness”). I avoid the “unconscious” term when I can, since in practice people seem to use it to mean a kind of melding of the two minds, and without even acknowledging the existence of the basic one that creates the other. Thus it can be problematic when I say “not conscious” or “non-conscious”, since the interpretation seems to come back as “quasi conscious” or “unconscious”. To me we must first acknowledge the two basic forms of computer before we get into their melding. So I instead like to use the “subconscious” term for this.

      Regarding your answer, you seem to be saying that we don’t admit our selfishness because this feels bad to us, and that we do do altruism because it feels good to us. Well sure, but given my premise that feeling good and not bad is all that matters to anything, those are simply tautologies. (Flashbacks to pompous professor bemusement, so I do understand! Furthermore I’ll again state that I suspect you to have ten time the mental processing capacity that I do, so I certainly don’t consider myself superior.) A simple scenario may clear this up. From there I should be able to make my point about how this dynamic causes philosophy and our mental/behavioral sciences to remain so soft.

      Let’s say that I am some kind of estate agent and that you are a potential buyer. So then what’s my job? Do I present to you with an accurate representation of reality as I see it, which among other things may be to demonstrate my own need for you to buy from me? Or do I instead use my theory of mind skills to assess whatever it is that you believe and desire, and so play upon those concerns to encourage you to want to buy from me?

      So then let me ask again, why can it be be best for me (as salesman) to display altruism rather than my own desires? (And of course in life we’re all buyers and sellers. But cheers for getting my “hope” dynamic down, which is complemented by “worry”.)

      Mike as you know I’ve been following Massimo Pigliucci for years, but for some reason I’d never delved into his Rationally Speaking podcasts. Then this Kurzban interview got me thinking that “Hey, this Julia Galef is pretty damn sharp!”. So I went back to episode #1 where she even took Massimo to task for his belief that philosophers, with no generally accepted understandings in their field, still provide humanity with associated expertise. (In June I challenged him here as well: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/the-metaphysics-of-constitution-and-bodily-awareness-a-case-of-philosophers-studying-chmess/comment-page-4/#comment-21511)

      I must say that I’m far more impressed with Jason Weeden than Robert Kurzban. It’s kind of like how I liked Jon Mallatt for rolling his eyes on the Ginger Campbell show regarding inside and outside senses. They’re all just senses, though he still had to pacify his partner and go along with that interoception and exteroception business. In life we must make compromises to get what we want, which is actually my point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        I’ve actually become pretty leery of the word “subconscious”. Apparently a lot of people take it as meaning a separate “subterranean” consciousness from the one we experience. Since I never mean that by the term, I’ve decided to stick with conscious and unconscious, or non-conscious. I’m not sure what you mean by “quasi-conscious”.

        For me, the crucial distinction is whether we can introspect it. If we can, then it’s part of consciousness. If we can’t, then it isn’t. The only grey area is maybe stuff that happens within the scope of introspection that we never actually introspect, but my tendency is to include it in consciousness.

        My point on representation isn’t about the outside world, but of our own mind, although the issues are similar. We can never have first hand knowledge of any of our cognition. Our only knowledge of any cognition is through the introspection mechanism, and the accuracy of what we think we know is only as accurate as the introspection mechanism. And introspection evolved to be effective, not necessarily accurate.

        “So then let me ask again, why can it be be best for me (as salesman) to display altruism rather than my own desires?”
        Because it might engender goodwill that might increase long term sales more? Alternatively, the salesman might get benefits unrelated to whatever he’s selling, such as maybe giving samples to a cute coed he might like to date, although I guess he’s still being a salesman in that case, just of a different product.

        I’ve actually been listening to Rationally Speaking for years. It’s been a long time since I listened to that first episode. Yes, Julia is excellent, but I do miss the interplay that her and Massimo used to have, although he sometimes had a tendency to be a bit too bossy.

        I actually found both Weeden and Kurzban impressive. But the Weeden interview is what got me to read their political book, and I have to admit I haven’t bitten yet on Kurzban’s solo book.

        I don’t remember Mallatt taking that stance about exteroception and interoception. In my mind, it’s a useful distinction, although I’m never clear on which side touch is supposed to fall. I think Feinberg and Mallatt treat it as a sense on the border between the two, although I’ve read others who reserve the term interoception for only internal body senses.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mike,
      Here’s how I see mental classifications in general. There is a vast supercomputer that is not conscious in my head, and I call this a “non-conscious mind”. Furthermore this vast computer is so advanced that it creates a separate form of computer that constitutes what I know of existence, and I call this a “conscious mind”. Of course everyone uses the “conscious” term, and at least some scientists today use the “non-conscious” term (not that this term yet has a home at Wikipedia), but I don’t know of anyone other than myself who says that there is a vast non-conscious computer that creates the conscious form of it. Can you or anyone effectively criticize my position here? To this point I’ve neither noticed complaints about it, nor that anyone other than myself plainly states it.

      Anyway if it’s effective to say that there are simply these two forms of computer in my head, then any useful distinction other than “conscious” and “non-conscious” could only be a melding of the two. Freud must not have had any idea what a “computer” was back when he was developing his theory, though it’s pretty clear that his “unconscious” term, as well as the standard “subconscious” term, were never meant to be all conscious or all not conscious. So today I would have us interpret them as meldings of the two basic forms of computer. They could be considered “quasi-conscious” in the sense of “partly”. Furthermore today I’d actually rather that we stop using the “unconscious” term altogether, given it’s potential to be interpreted as “non-conscious”, or one of the two basic forms of computer. I’d prefer for the “subconscious” term to take the melded role exclusively, though it’s not that big a deal to me. The main thing is that my model itself becomes generally accepted.

      On your introspection test from which to decide what’s conscious and what isn’t, I’m fine with it. I believe that all of the elements of consciousness that I’ve identified in my own model, the three forms of input, the one form of processor, and the one form of output, are introspection privy.

      In the sales scenario, apparently I wasn’t direct enough. The “display altruism” position wasn’t actually meant to provide altruism, but rather to make the potential buyer think that the seller is being altruistic. Perhaps I should have said “fake altruism” or something like that? Anyway it’s my position that the most effective sales people tend to quickly get a sense of what their clients want, and so are able to manipulate them to their own purposes. Given their abilities to make others feel good, I find that these are the sorts of people that tend to be most liked in life in general.

      Let’s try this one final time: Why can it be best for a person to display altruism rather than to actually behave altruistically?

      Mallott let his difference of opinion on the senses be known from around minute 9. I get the sense that this book is essentially Feinberg’s, though perhaps Mallott was brought in to help sell it? Could it be that Feinberg knew that he needed a more likable person, thus demonstrating my position, as well as the position of this post that politics are about self interest? This wouldn’t surprise me at all. And who’s more likeable than Jon Mallott?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric,
        On conscious vs unconscious vs non-conscious vs subconscious, I think we’re talking about three categories of brain processing.
        1. Processing that happens when we are awake and responsive that is within the scope of introspection.
        2. Processing that happens when we are awake and responsive that is NOT within the scope of introspection.
        3. Processing that takes place regardless of whether we are awake and responsive.

        It seems like we’re agreed that 1 is consciousness. We usually refer to 3 as autonomic processes. The question, it seems to me, is what to call 2. I think when we talk about the unconsciousness or non-conscious processes, most people understand we mean 2 rather than 3.

        “but I don’t know of anyone other than myself who says that there is a vast non-conscious computer that creates the conscious form of it. Can you or anyone effectively criticize my position here? ”

        I don’t know of anyone else who phrases it exactly like that, but I perceive there is wide consensus in psychology and neuroscience for something like it. My criticism is that you seem to posit a very sharp divide between conscious and non-conscious processing, referring to them as separate computers. (Although your use of the term quasi-conscious might indicate otherwise?) As we’ve discussed before, I’m not comfortable that it’s that clean.

        We’ve talked before about a concept I think we agree on, the imaginative simulation engine. It seems like your version of consciousness matches this pretty closely. However, my own understanding is that the simulation engine is crucially dependent on information from throughout the neocortex, forming what some neuroscientists call the GNC (general networks of cognition). And I think even most of what happens in the simulation engine falls outside of consciousness. I used to think the dividing line was between the details of the simulations and the results, but now I’m not even sure about that.

        Only some of the results seem to be noticed and modeled by the introspection mechanism. Note that the introspective model is not the original processing, but a simplified streamlined and summarized version, effective perhaps as a feedback mechanism for the simulation engine. We never have direct access to the original processing, so technically all of the simulation engine is outside of consciousness.

        This introspection / metacognition / feedback mechanism by itself seems like definitely a small part of the overall system, but I’m not sure it’s what you necessarily have in mind for the conscious computer. (Although as always I could be mistaken.)

        “Why can it be best for a person to display altruism rather than to actually behave altruistically?”
        My response has to be similar, to make people think well of them, to enhance their reputation, which might be useful to them for a wide variety of purposes, including larger future sales, or other social standing dynamics. But maybe the answer you’re looking for is because it makes the potential customer feel good?

        On Mallatt vs Feinberg, I don’t know. To be honest, I can’t recall much of Mallatt’s personality. I was enthralled at the time with the topic. And I can’t recall if I’ve seen or heard a Feinberg interview. I do know the overall book remains something I’m very impressed with.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Mike,
    First off yes, that’s the answer that I was looking for. We are naturally encouraged to portray ourselves to be altruistic so that we might benefit from what others might give, even though our own happiness should be all that actually matters to us in the end. It is largely because we are naturally encouraged to deny what’s valuable to us, that I consider philosophy and our mental/behavioral sciences to remain so soft. I’ll come back to this later when I have more time, though this is certainly the right sort of post for such speculation. For now I’ll get into the mental terms that we’ve been using.

    You’ve presented the following as a definition for consciousness. “1. Processing that happens when we are awake and responsive that is within the scope of introspection.”

    There are some differences between this definition and my own however. From my definition consciousness does also occur outside of wakefulness. The dreams we have as we sleep are one example. Then beyond sleep there are all sorts of metal states in which consciousness gets skewed, but exists nonetheless. Alcohol changes things, as does cocaine. I’ve invented a term called “sub-conscious” to reference degraded conscious states, spoken with a slight pause (not to be conflated with the “subconscious” term that we’ve also been discussing). As I define the term, full sedation is required (at least) to eliminate consciousness.

    Then there is the question of whether or not consciousness must be introspectable. Well from my model… sort of. I do consider all aspects of my consciousness to concern things that I could theoretically ponder, should I have the faculties to do so. Note that experiences like dreams can be tough to consider. Instead of relying upon introspection however I simply reference the three forms of input, the single form of processor, and the single form of output to define where consciousness does and does not exist.

    Next was “2. Processing that happens when we are awake and responsive that is NOT within the scope of introspection.”

    So here you’re using the wakefulness concept again, and now to represent the “unconscious” that can’t be introspected. But then I believe that Freud wanted a term that didn’t simply concern wakefulness, and so I believe that people in general include dreaming and such to be associated with the “unconscious.” Anyway here people seem to mean a melding of the two basic computers that I propose (not that people other than me cleanly acknowledge the existence of the two). So the unconscious can be seen as partly conscious or quasi-conscious, though I’d prefer that we use “subconscious” so as not to be confused with the non-conscious computer.

    Finally there is “3. Processing that takes place regardless of whether we are awake and responsive.”, and you call this “autonomic processes”. This seems closest to my “non-conscious mind” term, as long as it’s algorithmic rather than mechanical, as well as excludes the conscious form of computer that it creates. As I define the term I’m using a “non-conscious mind” to write you this response right now (made by Motorola, actually). This sort of computer simply takes inputs and processes them algorithmically for outputs, though they have no purpose in the sense that nothing can be good or bad for them. Their existence is personally inconsequential.

    Anyway given the mess we have today, it’s understandable to me why it would be hard for you to trust a “clean” system like mine. But then what’s wrong with it? I theorize a normal computer for which existence was personally inconsequential, though I suspect that it had limitations given that it couldn’t be programmed well enough for open environments. So a second computer evolved on top of the first to solve this inadequacy. This one had to personally decide things given that existence could be good and bad for it. With these two forms of computer the only thing that should otherwise exist is a “quasi” melding of the two.

    It sounds like we’re in agreement that the conscious is dependent upon the non-conscious. I used to say that conscious processing should be less than 1% of the non-conscious processing, but that seems too high. I recently switched to a less than one thousandth of a percent figure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      Good point about dreams. My strong tendency is to include them in consciousness since we can obviously introspect them (at least sometimes, retrospectively, to some limited degree). Or maybe they fit into the quasi-conscious category. I can’t recall reading anyone who explicitly relegated dreams to the unconscious. (Admittedly, I’ve never actually read Freud.) It implies that any classification schemes we come up with (like my awake and responsive one) are going to be artificial to at least some extent.

      On whether consciousness has to be introspectable, I’ve been struggling with this question for the last several months. A lot of literature (including F&M) talks in terms of primary, sensory, or phenomenal consciousness as though it is independent of introspection. But we know that people can process sensory information without being conscious of it. Which makes me wonder, if there’s no inner eye watching it, does it make sense to talk about inner experience? And is sensory and action processing without that inner quality what we mean when we use the phrase “subjective experience”?

      “Anyway given the mess we have today, it’s understandable to me why it would be hard for you to trust a “clean” system like mine. But then what’s wrong with it?”

      This comes back to those conversations we’ve had in other venues about being too divorced from empirical data. My issue with it is that I don’t know that it’s validated by the evidence from psychology and neuroscience. I know you don’t hold psychology in much regard, but I wonder how you account for neuroscience like Roger Perry’s split-brain patient experiments, which seem to show that consciousness is not in control.

      And like I’ve said before, even if we equate consciousness with imaginative simulations, the prefrontal regions which coordinate the simulations depend on and interact heavily with the regions involved in various forms of perception, which exist throughout parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes. Indeed, the meat of the simulations can be said to span large portions of the neocortex. I’m not sure where we could coherently draw the border.

      For example, if I look up from my desk and see the bookshelf in the corner of my office, the conscious experience of my seeing the bookshelf, of its grey color and overall shape, of the books on the shelves, is crucially dependent on interaction with the posterior temporal lobe. Remove the posterior temporal lobe, and you remove my ability to perceive visual concepts such as the bookshelf. I don’t think the temporal lobe is itself conscious. Yet the information it provides is crucial for my conscious visual experience of it.

      And if we do take psychological studies into account, like the ones the thesis of Weeden and Kurzban’s book are based on, then a substantial portion of those simulations appear to be unconscious (or sub-conscious, or however we choose to label it). How else can our minds form political stance strategies that we’re not conscious of?

      All of which keeps bringing me back to the introspection standard, with all its potential consequences.

      “I recently switched to a less than one thousandth of a percent figure.”

      That’s a pretty low number. I wonder if you mean it literally? If so, it would mean that, of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain, less than a million are involved in consciousness. Perhaps, but that doesn’t leave much substrate for anything more complex than what happens in a bee’s nervous system. In my conception, it would only leave space for the very core nexus of the information flows.


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