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Explanation is Not Justification

By Steve Horwitz

The reaction to Sarah’s post on why libertarians don’t seem to put outrage about rape and the institutions that facilitate it and cover it up higher on their priority list triggered a great deal of interesting and disturbing commentary, much of it in the comments on Facebook links to the post.  My own reference on Facebook to the need for male libertarians to speak out on this issue, especially against the “rape culture” that still exists, led to a subset of commenters to do everything from denying that such a culture exists (while simultaneously demonstrating that it does), to accusing me of engaging in moral posturing and “status-seeking,” to suggesting that having forced sex with inebriated women is fine because it’s all about “personal responsibility.”  As icky as all of those are, and as much as I just want to tell the deniers of rape culture that they don’t see it because, in the words of an old commercial, “you’re soaking in it,” they are not what I want to address here.

I will also not address the repeated claim that feminism has nothing to do with libertarianism, which is so ignorant of the history of libertarian ideas, not to mention the variety of feminisms out there, that it reinforces my belief that there is this subset of libertarians who think it’s more important to be anti-left than pro-liberty. Instead I want to talk about something else.

One of the other sub-themes in those responses was for a group of commenters to invoke ideas from evolutionary psychology to criticize the concerns of feminists.  Let me start by saying that I like evolutionary psychology a lot.  It’s a way of understanding behavior that is very congenial to economists, with its emphasis on explaining the functionality of certain behaviors in terms of evolutionary costs and benefits, and its broad spontaneous order orientation.  As an explanation of a variety of human behaviors and attitudes, I think it can be very useful, though one has to watch out for “just so” stories.  However…

There’s a lot of bad evolutionary psychology out there, particularly in the hands of popularizers.  It can easily be turned from an explanation of why we do the things we do into a justification for all kinds of behaviors that we might like to discourage.  As a very simple example, it’s easy enough to provide an evolutionary explanation for why men might like polygyny.  Just because men have evolved to desire a large number partners to spread their genetic material, however, that is not a justification for adopting polygyny as a social institution.  But to read some of the comments about the gender and rape issues, there seems to be a subset of libertarians who think that because we evolved behavior or disposition X, then engaging in that behavior or acting on that disposition is just fine.  (Side note:  I suspect many of these folks are on the paleo diet for similar reasons!)

This sort of position is ironic for libertarians for two reasons.  One, it seems strange at the micro level for people who generally tend to believe people make free choices and should be held responsible for them to argue for a kind of evolutionary determinism.  Whatever our biological and evolutionary dispositions might be, and no matter how deep they are, have we no ability to say “this is not how I think a civilized person behaves?” or “I think it’s good to encourage kids to adopt more flexible gender roles?”  Have we no ability to develop moral rules that put the brakes on our evolved dispositions?  If our evolutionary past gave us reason to believe that violence was successful in the past, that would hardly justify it today.  Yet the way this group of commenters argues seems to accept biology as destiny in a way that I would think most libertarians would reject.

Second, we have a more macro-level example of the same phenomenon.  Hayek argues in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, and even more clearly in The Fatal Conceit, that one reason people are inclined toward socialism and have difficulty accepting the market order and its rules is that we spent a long evolutionary past in small, face-to-face, kin-based groups in which broadly collectivist and altruistic moral rules held and were effective.  That is, we have evolved moral instincts that are disposed to collectivism and socialism.  We evolved in a world where top-down or collectivist distribution of goods according to need was more the norm and could work thanks to the limited size of groups, which allowed for face-to-face, intimate knowledge of others.  For Hayek, the challenge of modernity is learning to live in a world of abstract rules of just conduct that bind us by agreement on means rather than ends.

The fundamental problem of civilization is how to generate social coordination and cooperation in a world of anonymity.  We are not equipped by evolution to do this very easily.  In fact, our dispositions are to resist the constraints on our behavior such a world requires.

As Hayek wrote:

The prevailing moral traditions, much of which still derives from the end-connected tribal society, makes people often regard [the lack of a common concrete purpose] as a moral defect of the Great Society which ought to be remedied.  Yet it was the very restriction of coercion to the observance of the negative rules of just conduct that made possible the integration into a peaceful order of individuals and groups which pursued different ends…Though the conception that a common scale of particular values is a good thing which ought, if necessary, to be enforced, is deeply founded in the history of the human race, its intellectual defence today is based mainly on the erroneous belief that such a common scale of ends is necessary for the integration of the individual activities into an order, and a necessary condition of peace. (LLL II, pp. 110-11)

In other words, the extended order of the Great Society and all the benefits it has brought with it are the product of our learning to put aside our evolved moral dispositions and accept the abstract rules of just conduct of the extended order that enable us to coordinate in anonymity.  Evolutionary psychology might explain why we are attracted to socialism, but it doesn’t justify practicing it.  In fact, the demands of social cooperation are precisely that we push back against our evolved moral instincts and accept restrictions on our conduct that we might not fully understand, but nonetheless produce highly beneficial outcomes.

So, my libertarian devotees of evolutionary psychology, you can’t have it both ways.  If feminism is wrong to think we can and/or should resist the dispositions that evolution has given us, then why is it wrong for defenders of the classical liberal order to think we can and/or should resist those dispositions when it comes to our evolved instincts toward the morality of socialism?  Or put the other way around:  if resisting our evolved moral instincts and obeying the rules of just conduct work to generate a civilized, cooperative economic order, why should gender issues be any different?

That evolution explains why people sometimes engage in certain behavior, especially with respect to gender, does not justify such behaviors.  If we think those behaviors are problematic, the point is to recognize their harm and adopt rules of just conduct that avoid it.  From that angle, the classical liberal case for feminism is just a version of the classical liberal case for the market and the rest of the extended moral order that defines liberalism.

The author is Steve Horwitz. He is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective(Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family. 

The articles originally appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

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