July 26, 2013 | 2
We are ill-fated idiots. That’s what some popular and supposedly scientific ideas suggest. The ancient Greek meaning of idiot, along with their myths, can help us avert a modern tragedy of reason. Somehow a sub-natural view of rationality ignores evolutions great gifts to us: our capacities for forethought and cooperation.
The myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, describes human origins. For our ancestors “every act was without knowledge, until Prometheus gave them his illicit gift, which would become their teacher of every art.” The word for “art” in ancient Greek was “techne,” the root of technique & technology. Prometheus, whose name means “fore-thinker,” symbolizes science and foresight.
An un-human “logic” drives the “tragedy of the commons.” Garrett Hardin coined that term for the overexploitation of common resources by “rational beings each…seeking to maximize his gain,” which causes collective disaster by damaging what they depend on. But this is no unavoidable fate. Rather it’s a tragedy of poor thinking by supposedly elite reasoners, blind to simple solutions.
Elinor Olstrom won a Nobel Prize in Economics for researching how groups overcome Hardin’s hard-of-thinking hurdle. But her work isn’t widely known. Before her Nobel, even prominent economists hadn’t heard of her. But we shouldn’t need Nobel laureate to see the obvious. Our survival has long required cooperation. We’ve evolved and developed ways to manage joint resources (e.g. punishing free riders) over about 10,000 generations.
Hardin claimed “no technical solution” existed and that a “fundamental extension in morality” was needed. His framing of the moral as distinct from the rational/technical shows how scientists can misunderstand those words. Morals are simply social coordination rules. They can be rational. Aquinas distinguished natural from supernatural moral virtues. The natural virtues, or skills (taken from Aristotle) included justice, temperance, and prudence and were needed for humans to thrive on earth.
Allowing foreseeably bad outcomes isn’t rational. Yet a supposedly rational economistic “logic” often encourages precisely that. Hardin spoke of a “tragedy of freedom in a commons,” which pinpoints the real issue. It’s not “the commons”, but an unsustainable idea of freedom. No community can allow freedom to create foreseeable collective doom. The fate of this logic is inescapable. Damage what you depend on and you risk perishing. Cultures with self-undermining forms of “rationality” and freedom don’t survive. That’s their common tragedy.
In Plato’s version of the Prometheus myth, “scattered isolated” humans are given “political techne” – the arts needed to create cities. The “pol” in politics is from “polis” meaning city. Without this, humans, self-deficient by nature, couldn’t prosper. The political arts of social coordination prevent us from being idiots. In ancient Greek, “idios” meant “of one’s own or private.” They believed it crazy and irrational to live only for private interests. They had sustainable self-interest rightly understood. We’d be idiots to ignore that we evolved relational rationality and social coordination rules based on justice. We must think better or bitter fates await.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series:
It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors