Jacques Monod’s Ethics of Knowledge

Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod concludes his seminal essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Chance and Necessity (1970), with a chapter of reflections on evolution, the place of man in nature, culture, ideas, and the nature of morality. He writes:

During entire aeons a man’s lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to and outside of which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, was able to survive and defend itself only through its cohesion…This evolution most not only have facilitated acceptance of tribal law, but created the need for mythical  explanation which gave it foundation and sovereignty. We are the descendants of such man. From them we have probably inherited our need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which goads us to search out the meaning of existence. The same disquiet that has created all the myths, all the religions, all the philosophies, and science itself.

He then goes on to explain how religions, philosophical systems, and ideologies (such as Marxism) that see nature or history unfolding according to a higher plan can be traced back to this innate disposition to look for Meaning. And while science, and the associated postulate of objectivity, has gradually replaced those myths and beliefs, most of our contemporary thinking about values still reflects this kind of animism:

No society before ours was ever rent by contradictions so agonizing. In both primitive and classical cultures the animist tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. For the first time in history a civilization is trying to shape itself while clinging desperately to the animist tradition to justify its values, and at the same time abandoning it as the source of knowledge, of truth. For their moral bases the “liberal” societies of the West still teach – or pay lip-service to- a disgusting farrago of of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the “natural” rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism…All the traditional systems have placed ethics and values beyond man’s reach. Values did not belong to him; he belonged to them.

Obviously, this perspective on the futile attempts to ground values in something beyond man (beyond practical reason one might say) raises the question of “who shall decide what is good and evil.” Monod clearly struggles with this question because he does not want to admit that “objective truth and the theory of values constitute eternally separate, mutually impenetrable domains.” His answer, however, may strike contemporary readers as something of a cop-out when he tries that argue that the pursuit of science itself implies an ethical postulate:

True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it cannot be grounded elsewhere than upon a value judgment, or rather upon an axiomatic value. It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at from knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. Thus, assenting to the principle of objectivity one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge. Hence it is from the ethical choice of a primary value that knowledge starts.

This attempt to derive (or distill) universal normative claims from an activity or pursuit itself is not unique in ethics. Some have tried to derive morals and rights from the nature of human agency (Alan Gewirth), the activity of argumentation (Hans-Herman Hoppe) and so forth (one might argue that there are even traces of such an approach in Jasay’s argument for the presumption of liberty). Either such attempts produce trivial conclusions or are stretched beyond credibility to make them do a lot more work than they are capable of, such as deriving specific socio-economic norms concerning welfare rights or absolute property rights. At the end of the day, these writers fail to recognize the fact that morality is an emergent property of social interaction in nature (that is to say, morality is conventional) and attempts to “justify” moral rules is as futile as trying to “justify” the laws of physics (although one might argue that certain “strategic” advantages can accrue to those who are successful in persuading others of such moral “truths”).

Monod’s ‘ethics of knowledge’ is simply “justified” by pragmatic advantages (a similar thing might be said about accepting the principle of causality – as has been proposed by the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach). Such a pragmatic explanation for the pursuit of knowledge (and the emergence of values) places morality in the realm of individual practical reason and evolution, where serious philosophers, economists, and biologist have been making efforts to understand it.

In his introduction to the 1997 Penquin edition of Chance and Necessity, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist John Maynard Smith, briefly alludes to Monod’s rather clumsy (and dated) attempt to link his ethics of knowledge to scientific socialism in the final pages of the book, which only shows how vacuous the ethics of knowledge is for deciding moral and socio-economic questions.

A more specific concern for Monod is the end of natural selection and degeneration in man:

To the extent that selection is still operative in our midst, it does not favor the “survival of the fittest” – that is to say, in more modern terms, the genetic survival of the “fittest” through a more numerous progeny. Intelligence, ambition, courage, and imagination, are still factors in modern societies, to be sure, but of personal, not genetic success, the only kind that matters for evolution. No, the situation is the reverse: statistics, as everybody knows, show a negative correlation between the intelligence quotient (or cultural level) and the average number of children per couple…A dangerous situation, this, which could gradually edge the highest genetic potential toward concentration within an elite, a shrinking elite in relative numbers.

This is not all. Until not so very long ago, even in relatively “advanced” societies, the weeding out of the physically and also mentally least fit was automatic and ruthless. Most of them did not reach the age of puberty. Today many of these genetic cripples live long enough to reproduce. Thanks to the progress of scientific knowledge and the social ethic, the mechanisms which used to protect the species from degeneration (the inevitable result when natural selection is suspended) now functions hardly at all, save where the defect is uncommonly grave.

And since Monod seems to categorically rule out gene therapy in germ cells (“the genome’s microscopic proportions today and probably forever rule out manipulation of this sort”), his only hope resides in “deliberate and severe selection.”

Notwithstanding Monod’s unduly pessimistic perspective on human genetic engineering  and the missed opportunity to recognize the evolutionary and conventional nature of morality, Chance and Necessity remains a classic, uncompromising, exposition of modern evolutionary biology and the scientific view of the world that has made this knowledge possible.

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‘Democracy can’t be fixed. It’s inherently broken’

An Interview with ‘Beyond Democracy’ Co-Author Frank Karsten

1. What specifically motivated you to write this book?

As far as Karel, my co-author, and I knew there was no easy to read, structured, and concise book showing the inherent weaknesses and dynamics of democracy from a freedom loving perspective. Of course many libertarians have written on the subject and we are indebted to them, especially Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ‘Democracy, The God that failed’. But Hoppe’s book is a collection of academic essays and touches on things we don’t and vice versa. Our book is for the average person but I also think seasoned libertarians can learn lots from it.

Many people still believe democracy equals freedom. And many libertarians still believe the proper road to more freedom is through the democratic process. Many non-libertarians are convinced democracy needs fixing but find no problem with the fundamental democratic principles themselves. Our book refutes those notions. Democracy is the opposite of freedom, almost inherent to the democratic process is that it tends towards less liberty instead of more, and democracy is not something to be fixed. Democracy is inherently broken, just like socialism. The only way to fix it is to break it up. You couldn’t fix socialism by replacing Lenin for Trotsky or the Russians for Cubans. And you can’t fix democracy by legally restricting payments to presidential candidates, by barring felons from voting, changing the voting age, or replacing Bush Jr. with Obama, et cetera.


Another reason for the book is that writing structures your thoughts and thereby brings you to new ones. While writing we came upon new insights that we of course included in the book. Fifteen years ago I was an ignorant proponent of democracy, ten years ago I thought it had serious drawbacks, and after writing the book I think it’s much worse than that.

To be clear, we don’t want to withhold democracy from people and we don’t begrudge others a democracy. Also, we don’t claim that democracy is worse or better than dictatorship and neither that the problems we describe in the book are exclusive of democracy.

2. The first myth about democracy that you seek to debunk is the idea that voting in an election empowers the individual. But even many libertarians vote. How do you explain this?

There are several reasons I think. First, as a libertarian, you want to advance liberty and voting seems a way to do it. Although I generally consider voting immoral, voting for the least bad option can be a good thing. Note that generally such a vote is rather impossible to cast since many self-declared freedom loving candidates end up robbing you of liberty too when in power. As the late Harry Browne has pointed out, voting for the least bad party can be counterproductive since they know freedom loving people have no other option than to vote for them and therefore these parties have little incentive to improve their political goals towards more liberty.

Secondly, even when your libertarian-leaning candidate seems totally unlikely to rise to power or to have any significant political influence, getting him or her in a parliamentary seat will provide a serious stage to gain media coverage. Ron Paul certainly achieved that and through his candidacies many people were confronted with libertarian ideas, or at least with the term libertarian. I am a great fan of Ron Paul and if I were an American citizen I would probably vote for him, mostly symbolically, but such candidates are extremely rare. But still, spending hours, days or even months  studying politics and finally casting your vote in the voting booth is a big investment for such an astronomically small influence.

Thirdly, many libertarians still see the democratic process as a way to gain more freedom. But this is a fallacy. The democratic process almost inevitably leads to less freedom.

3. You claim that democracy is not politically neutral. What kind of political ideology is embodied in democracy?

It’s clearly collectivism, the idea that we need to decide upon things collectively – note that this could really be anything – and the outcome of these processes need to be followed by everyone, also those who don’t favor it.

In a democracy every voter is inclined to collectivise his personal goals. And politicians want more power and money and collectivisation of society offers that. Civil servants, as the great economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out, tend to vote pro-state and this is a self-reinforcing mechanism. It leads to ever more people being dependent on the State and thereby favorable of it. The same applies to the welfare system into which ever more people are drawn. History has shown this. All democracies suffer from it.


A good way to look at politics is to view politicians and the State as human farmers and citizens as the livestock. The human farmers (i.e. the Republican and Democratic Parties) do indeed have opposing interests but not towards the livestock, as the latter seems to think. They both are in the business of exploiting citizens but disagree strongly on who should collect the billions or trillions in proceeds. Both Republicans and Democrats have greatly expanded taxes, expenditures, debts and government meddling in the lives of companies and individuals while both have regularly claimed to reduce government.

4. You quote the American economist Walter Williams who observed that many people firmly resist democratic decision making in the areas they personally care about. Is advocacy of democracy a mass exercise of hypocrisy?

I do not see it that way, whereby I define hypocrisy as ‘Rules for others, exceptions for myself.’ People have been given the idea that things need to be decided upon democratically, they don’t necessarily agree with the outcome but do agree with the process. And also, many things democratically decided upon seem free because the State will pay for it, and the State raises many taxes stealthily. So people are inclined to let the State run sectors like education, health care, social welfare, et cetera. It’s apparently free and individuals can conveniently delegate their personal responsibility.

Another reason is that people think they will belong to the majority and therefore want to decide democratically on certain matters.

It might not be hypocrisy but more like selfishness. Democracy is a system whereby one can legally exploit others, you just need the majority vote.

But there’s lots of hypocrisy I think when people vote. They vote for stuff like wars or Third World aid, but would never spend a dime on it personally. They are in favor of allowing asylum seekers and vote accordingly but would certainly not like to have them in their own neighbourhood.

5. One of the arguments in favor of democracy is that it permits the “peaceful transfer of political power.” What do you make of this argument?

This is indeed one of the few advantages of democracy, in that way mankind has grown and rulers, like during the Roman empire, are rarely killed anymore during a power change. Also no wars are fought over it. But it is a peaceful transfer of tyranny. Democracy is like a war against the minority, and actually against the people itself since many things happen in a democracy that very few citizens want, but special interest groups do.

The business model we propose in the book, a market for governance, will very likely also result in a peaceful transfer of power, without minorities being oppressed. Corporations normally don’t change power through killing the CEO and some members of the Board of Directors.

6. In your book you also identify the growing centralization of power as problematic. Do you think political democracy and centralization are related?

Yes I do. Like I explained earlier, democracy leads to everyone trying to collectivise personal goals, thereby centralizing power.

In a free market companies have a tendency to form cartels and monopolies since they aim for profit maximization. But this hardly poses a problem since every individual has the right to start competing businesses and challenge the cartels. This essential safety valve lacks in governance, resulting in continuously growing governments.

7. Are you just seeking to change people’s minds or do you think there are successful strategies to limit the power of democratic governments?

Ideas generally come before actions so these have to change first. Von Mises once said that ideas are more powerful than armies and I think truth will always win in the long run, so I am optimistic. But it’s very hard because democracy is the largest faith on earth, only eleven countries in the world do not claim be be democracies, and these ideas are so ingrained in people’s minds, even freedom loving individuals.

I know not of successful strategies for limiting government power except by escaping government through secession or citizens or corporations moving to other countries.


The problems of democracy are inherent. It’s like having dinner with a million people and deciding up front the bill will be split evenly. Everyone has a strong incentive to order more than he would individually, resulting in a huge bill that everyone deplores but no individual could do anything about. Democracy therefore has a very limited self-cleansing capability. Our politicians have a natural short-term outlook since they are only temporarily in office. They will overspend, overtax and overborrow knowing their successors will have to deal with the negative consequences. Besides that, they spend other people’s money anyhow.

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Beyond Democracy

One of the remarkable features of democracy is that no major political ideology is comfortable with it. Modern liberals insist upon a long list of “rights” that limit the scope of democratic decision making. Conservatives have traditionally been wary about excessive involvement of the (uneducated) masses in political decision making. Classical liberals (or libertarians) want to limit the scope of government to such a degree that there is little room left for democratic decision making, if anything at all (in the case of anarcho-capitalism). In fact, classical liberalism can be conceptualized as a rejection of collective non-unanimous decision making. Despite the fact that a rejection of political democracy is implied in a strict interpretation of liberalism, it is only quite recently that a firm rejection of democracy has become an important theme in classical liberal scholarship.

There are at least three reasons for this: (1) the growing recognition that democracy is not politically neutral but, given some realistic assumptions about human nature, will produce a sharp increase in government spending and regulation; (2) the emerging discipline of public choice (the economic study of politics), which is elucidating the microfoundations behind political failure and waste; and (3) the recognition that in a society without government the question of the proper form of government can be sidestepped altogether.

Beyond Democracy: Why democracy does not lead to solidarity, prosperity and liberty but to social conflict, runaway spending and a tyrannical government, a recent publication by Dutch libertarian authors Frank Karsten and Karel Beckman, distinguishes itself  from other recent classical-liberal publications about democracy in that it aims to bring all the major criticism of political democracy together in a well-written, highly quotable little  book. There are a lot of complicated issues in political philosophy and classical liberal scholarship but making the case against political democracy is not one of them. One could argue that many defects of democracy can be attributed to the joint effect of the irrationality of voting and Milton Friedman’s classic observation that spending someone else’s money on someone else is the worst way to make spending decisions. In Beyond Democracy Karsten and Beckman take aim at 13 myths about democracy:

  • Myth 1 – Every vote counts
  • Myth 2 – The people rule in a democracy
  • Myth 3 – The majority is right
  • Myth 4 – Democracy is politically neutral
  • Myth 5 – Democracy leads to prosperity
  • Myth 6 – Democracy is necessary to ensure a fair distribution of wealth and help the poor
  • Myth 7 – Democracy is necessary to live together in harmony
  • Myth 8 – Democracy is indispensable to a sense of community
  • Myth 9 – Democracy equals freedom and tolerance
  • Myth 10 – Democracy promotes peace and helps to fight corruption
  • Myth 11 – People get what they want in a democracy
  • Myth 12 – We are all democrats
  • Myth 13 – There is no (better) alternative

Beyond Democracy is first and foremost a popular work written to educate the reader. There are a number of passages that could be more effective but because they can be restated without substantially modifying the core claims about the flaws of democracy I will confine myself to a number of comments and suggestions for improvement.

Despite the occasional study that purports to claim that high income earners benefit the most from (subsidized) government services, democracy is usually a poor deal for them. They cannot be blamed for wondering if they would have been better off in the “state of nature” instead of submitting to a social “contract” that extracts more money from them than they would ever spend on these services if they were sold on the free market, including protection of their wealth. One of the most misleading ways to look at how the rich fare in a democracy is to look at their tax rates. Warren Buffet’s secretary may pay a higher rate than her employer but Buffet indisputably sends a lot more money to the government. Such a practice would not be possible in a free market because companies that would price their products and services as a percentage of the consumer’s income would quickly lose customers to a competitor.  The outcomes of democracy may be a bad deal for almost everyone, but the one person, one-vote rule renders the wealthiest people defenseless by definition.

Moving to another topic, there is something to the “myth” that democracy fosters peace. Steven Pinker makes a reasonably strong empirical case for this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Of course, since most modern democracies are also connected by trade, it is hard to tell what it is more important; commerce or democracy. Pinker admits that there is one distinct advantage of commerce:

The pacifying effects of commerce…appear to be even more robust than the pacifying effects of democracy. A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable when either member of the pair has a market economy.

One might also add that commerce itself is a peaceful activity, something which cannot be said about the operation of (democratic) government.

In modern democratic countries it can be safely assumed that government will seek to abolish conventional forms of money and establish a fiat currency. Karsten and Beckman’s discussion of this topic is generally sound but suffers somewhat from the Austrian bias to highlight examples of governments causing economic recessions and depressions by increasing the money supply (or manipulating interest rates). But as economists such as Milton Friedman and today’s market monetarists make clear, government can also create problems by not responding to an increased demand for money. In a free market with competing currencies, banks ensure the neutrality of money by bringing the demand and supply for money into equilibrium. Increasing or decreasing the money supply is not wrong as such, but only relative to the demand for money.

Another part of the book that has an Austro-libertarian flavor to it are claims about the (ultimate) unsustainability of the modern welfare state. Many libertarian authors have a tendency to look at the growth of government as a downward spiral, culminating in ‘fascism’, followed by debt-default and collapse. A different perspective, however, is that modern democracies simply stabilize around an equilibrium where around 50% of GDP is being re-distributed and episodes of excessive regulation and taxation are followed by (transient) episodes of some deregulation and small tax decreases (‘neoliberalism’). Absent a cultural change about how people think about the merits of collective choice, a more likely scenario may be Anthony de Jasay’s “churning society” in which income is pushed around in so many ways that most people cannot have the slightest idea whether they are gaining or losing from this wasteful spectacle.

In case the reader had not noticed, the authors end their book by emphasizing that their perspective is informed by libertarianism. I suspect, however, that the strongest arguments against political democracy are not ideological in nature but can simply be derived from decision theory and an evolutionary perspective. A single vote has a negligible effect on the outcome of an election, regardless of whether one is a socialist, liberal, conservative, or a Ron Paul supporter. As the authors write, “voting is the illusion of influence in exchange for the loss of freedom.”

Then why do people vote? The most plausible explanation is that humans have participated for a very long time in small groups where “political” participation did make sense. Whenever we are placed in a situation where we are at the receiving end of a collective decision our first impulse is to participate and not approach the issue from a probabilistic perspective.  The authors propose a “new political ideal” but in future editions of this book they might consider restating their aim as a depoliticized society. One of the “root causes” that makes people support democracy is to expect benefits from classifying an individual problem as a collective choice challenge. For the average person, regardless of political persuasion, this is not an effective way of solving problems, especially when the number of people subject to government keeps increasing by further centralization.

To promote their case against democracy the authors have launched a website at beyonddemocracy.net. Frank Karsten also agreed to an interview for this website.

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A presumption of equality?

In his recent 2011 interview for the Independent Review, Anthony de Jasay writes that he would have liked to write a short book on equalities but he has given up on the idea due to the challenges that his declining eyesight presents for meeting his usual high standards. However, his short contribution to the Václav Klaus festschrift offers some insights on his recent thoughts on equality. The starting point of ‘Ranking Worlds by Words: A Case for Inequality’ is the observation that, unlike pairings such as good and bad, or adequate and inadequate, there is no self-evident argument in favor of the position that equality is better than inequality, and whether we prefer one over the other is context-dependent.

Arguments in favor for ranking equality over inequality include the observation that “God has created all men equal,” “all human beings are worthy of equal respect,” and that “unequal endowments are unfair.” Jasay counters that, as a matter of empirical fact, men are not equal, basic individual introspection reveals that some people are more worthy of respect than others, and that to condemn the distributional consequences of different endowments is itself morally arbitrary and dependent on other assumptions (impartiality, equal respect, etc.) and produces an infinite regress of arguments.

If we judge equality and inequality on their merits it becomes clear that the argument cannot be decided one way or another. Not only do we sometimes value inequality over equality but enforcing equality in one realm of existence implies or produces inequality in other realms. For example, equality before the law can sustain inequality in income. As has been analyzed in great detail in other Jasay articles, any kind of public policy preferences can be stated or re-stated in such a way that it conforms to some kind of equality postulate.

Given this predicament, one may question whether is it possible to argue in favor of a presumption for or against equality, similar to Jasay’s argument favoring the presumption of liberty. Jasay writes that “the burden of proof need not be assigned to one of the parties to the debate. In a draw, neither party could discharge it. Failing conclusive argument that it ought to be changed, the world of the status quo prevails.” But “there is no presumption in favour of continuing the maintenance of equalities by continuous redistribution and the other related measures meant to prevent inequalities from arising again.”

While recognizing the usefulness of Jasay’s argument in favor of the presumption of liberty, one can reasonably wonder what kind of work arguments in favor or against any “presumption” can really do.  As Jasay himself recognizes in this article, “people will readily believe affirmations that favour their interests.” In a sense, Jasay’s arguments against the self-evident nature of equality as a normative ideal are just an extension of his non-cognitivism in ethics. Despite Jasay’s rejection of justificationism in moral and political philosophy, one cannot help suspecting that he may overestimate the importance of political philosophy and “ideas” (as opposed to human nature or bargaining) in shaping society.

Substituting the rational individual for the political philosopher, we can ask ourselves a rather different question; how does equality as a political objective enter a person’s practical reasoning and what does collective choice offer a typical citizen to make the world conform to this preference?

A related issue is the relationship between the pursuit of equality and poverty. In ‘Against Poverty and the Misuse of Language that Helps to Perpetuate it,” published in a recent collection of essays in honor of H.S.H. Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein, Jasay observes that human inequality is not a social construct but a fact of existence. Therefore, attempts to suppress inequality involve costs. Jasay mentions three kinds of costs: enforcement costs (ranging from record-keeping of taxable subjects to tax compliance), foregone capital accumulation due to income redistribution, and worsening of the marginal rate of transformation of effort into net income. This leads Jasay to ask the question whether the poor actually benefit from such redistributive efforts compared to the rise in income that they would enjoy under laissez-faire capitalism.

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