Monday, December 15, 2008

Something for Egalitarians to Ponder

I am working on a more detailed continuation to my previous post on science and justice, but here I want to highlight the importance of the findings of evolutionary biology for egalitarians.

You may recall this earlier post, where I noted a recent study which suggested that inequality aversion and parochialism (a preference for favouring the members of one's own social group) have the same developmental roots.

Findings like this reveal the danger of political philosophers simply trading in "moral intuitions" rather than developing normative theories informed by empirical findings. Why? Well, suppose it turns out that egalitarian preferences (along with the preference to favour the members of one’s own social group) really are the outcome of adaptations our species have made over millennia, and in conditions very different from those we find ourselves in today. If this were the case (I'm not saying it is, only that we should want to find out the answer to this question) then it would have a profound influence on a normative theory that is based, at bottom, on the appeal to these sentiments. For the sentiments it appeals to might be the wrong ones. That is, ones that will not actually help us do (the most) good in the real world today.

So if we ignore such empirical findings we run the risk of committing a form of "status-quo" intuition bias. In this case, the bias is in favour of a normative ideal that our brain has evolved to favour when the concerns facing our species were very different. Egalitarianism might be a form of cognitive bias (a bias which may or may not do more harm than good... that is an empirical question egalitarians should also want to answer).

If it turned out that this was in fact true, then advancing a theory of justice that is premised on egalitarian preferences would in many ways be analogous to an account of morality premised on religious belief. For many conjecture that the belief in a supernatural deity is also adaptive. Given that philosophers typically see themselves as engaging in a critical examination that has more depth and value than that typical of preaching from the pulpit, then they ought to care about how the human brain is actually hardwired.