Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek

Here is the sixth chunk of the argument. To return to the fifth chunk, click here. To advance to the seventh chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here. An Addendum to the present chunk, on cultural group selection theory, is posted here.

Nozick’s is a split view. There is the morality of the side constraints, and there is the egoistic morality of the market, and they have essentially nothing to do with each other. From the perspective of either, there is no intrinsic reason to care about the other. A similar critique ultimately applies to Hayek’s otherwise very interesting take on a moral vision for a free society in The Fatal Conceit (1988).

Hayek believes human behavior is structured in three tiers. The lowest tier is instinctual and includes genetically supported behavioral patterns and impulses that evolved over the thousands of years of our hunter-gatherer prehistory. The second tier is that of culture. Cultural customs, traditions, mores, and practices are transmitted through social learning. They evolved through a blind, quasi-Darwinian process of relatively random variation and selection through the success or failure of those who adopt them. They are not the product of reason. Reason itself, which is the third tier, is a late product of this process of cultural evolution. It enables us to consciously and critically evaluate evidence, hypotheses, and proposals. It is the only self-aware capacity of the three, but it is a very weak instrument. It is almost entirely incapable of grasping the reasons or justification or purposes of our actions or of predicting their effects. Hayek believes reason across the board is highly overrated. It serves mostly as a source of post hoc rationalizations of our behavior. One should not trust reason, whether theoretical or practical, very far at all. (The hostility to reason betrayed in this book is stunning. But further discussion of this point is a topic for another time.)

The different tiers are the source of different and sometimes conflicting behavioral imperatives, particularly “moral” imperatives. Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 5. Nozick

Here is the fifth chunk of the argument. To return to the fourth chunk, click here. To advance to the sixth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Resolving the Contradiction

A satisfactory moral vision for a free society cannot be a schizophrenic opposition of moral directives. Yet that’s where we’ve been led by our investigation of the moral implications of the economic theory of the free market. How can these conflicting directives—to constrain our pursuit of our own utility for the sake of the free market as a whole, but also to pursue our own utility egoistically—be reconciled into a consistent moral picture?

To investigate this problem, it will be useful to survey some attempts to provide some sort of morals for the free society.


Nozick (1974) speaks of the moral rules that bring the free market into existence as “side constraints.” The idea is that one maximally pursues one’s own goals in a state of unconcern for the goals others, while at the same time observing a set of extraneous, more or less absolute restrictions on one’s range of action. You pursue your own goals however possible, except that you aren’t allowed to kill or maim anyone, rob people, defraud them, etc. The constraints are called “rights,” and they are conceived as prohibitions on allowed action that stand completely outside the order of ends or utilities. According to Nozick, the source of rights is that “individuals are inviolable” (1974, 31). “Why?” asks the market egoist. “Why should I care about other individuals?” Nozick: “Because Kant.”

So there are rights, which appear as a set of rules separate from the rest of life, and there’s the rest of life, which can supply no intrinsic motivation to respect rights.

This is obviously no solution. It is just a reaffirmation of the very schizophrenia we want to escape. It sets rights and market behavior in opposition, the selfless versus the selfish, with the irony that the selfless observance of rights exists to create the selfish market. It invites people to think of the market as something that does not reward and even punishes rights-respecting behavior, and to think of rights-respecting behavior as something it’s better to get others to do while avoiding for themselves. In addition, it treats rights as the only source of moral constraint on the pursuit of one’s own goals. Now, perhaps the bare observance of rights is enough to secure “liberty.” But we have seen that a perfectly efficient market, which optimizes the outcomes of all, requires the elimination of all transactions costs and therefore requires adherence to mores of behavior, such as candor and fair-mindedness and forgivingness, that go well beyond the bare observance of rights.

Work Cited

  • Nozick, Robert. 1974. <em>Anarchy, State, and Utopia</em>. Basic Books.

Morals and the Free Society: 4. The Moral Contradiction of the Free Society

Here is the fourth chunk of the argument. To return to the third chunk, click here. To advance to the fifth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.

We have arrived at a peculiar situation. For the free market to exist at all requires that people adhere to certain moral principles that constrain their pursuit of their own utility, such as respect for property rights and the principle of noncoercion. And these minimal principles aren’t sufficient for a perfectly efficient free market (one that satisfies the conditions for perfect competition), only for a modestly efficient free market. Of course, no market will exhibit perfect efficiency, but efficiency will improve the more open, honest, probative, loyal, forthcoming, fair-minded, and so forth that people are, again at the expense of their pursuit of their own utility. And this generates the apparent paradox that people must be community-spirited in order to set the stage for them to be selfish!

So, what is the message here? Are people supposed to be egoists or not? In the purely competitive market, people are supposed to follow only one principle: egoistic utility maximization. But for such a market to exist, even approximately, people have to follow certain “moral” principles—principles of good behavior distinct from egoistic utility maximization and that often conflicts with egoistic utility maximization.

To be clear: The problem is not that the free society seems to require two different sorts of moral principles. It’s that the different sorts of moral principles conflict, and no rationale is provided for resolving the conflict. We have seen that the egoistic utility maximizer has no reason to forego his own utility to promote an efficient free market (or any free market) where this can be avoided. On the flip side, it’s at least ironic to insist on “moral” rules to create an egoistic free-for-all. Why should people care about nonegoistic constraints on the pursuit of their own utility if their observance is only in the service of egoism?

That a social order should require devotion to principles that sometimes require individuals to restrain their pursuit of their own utility is hardly very surprising or problematic. It’s the mixed message that is the problem. It’s that we demand that people care about the rights of others and simultaneously embrace as their moral vision egoistic utility maximization. On the one hand, we’re supposed to care about community-spirited values; on the other hand, we’re supposed to care only about our own benefit. The problem is to reconcile these two directives.

Morals and the Free Society: 3. Morals That Create the Free Market

Here is the third chunk of the argument. To return to the second chunk, click here. To advance to the fourth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.

Of course, this moral vision of pure egoistic utility maximization applies only within a perfectly free market. This means the free society’s members must abide by the rules whose observance brings the free market into being in the first place. The free market depends on the observance of clearly defined property rights, for example, as well as on the observance of rules against direct coercion. But observing these rules is not always utility maximizing. Notwithstanding the many cogent reasons that have been advanced to show why coercive and rights-violating behavior is often not in the agent’s utility-maximizing self-interest, it seems clear that there are still many situations in which such behavior is utility maximizing. Thus, if the free market is to exist, agents must abide by its rules at the expense of their own utility maximization. And these rules—against fraud, theft, and murder, for example—are clearly moral rules. So the free market requires obedience to a certain set of moral rules—namely, the moral rules that establish the free market—that are distinct and apparently not derivable from the morality of egoistic utility maximization.

Continue reading

Morals and the Free Society: 2. Is the Perfectly Free Market a “Morally Free Zone”?

Here is the second chunk of the argument. To return to the first chunk, click here. To advance to the third chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.

A somewhat different and even stronger version of the claim that a free—or at least ideally free—society does not impose morals is given by David Gauthier in Morals by Agreement (1986, ch. 4). Gauthier goes further than the mere claim of toleration and argues that the free market, wherever it works with perfect efficiency, is a “morally free zone,” meaning that morality is neither needed nor even desirable! In such a social context, instrumental rationality is a sufficient guide to life, and it is the only proper guide: any other principle must only damage people’s lives. Thus, in an ideally free society, morals actually have no place!

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Morals and the Free Society: 1. Intro; Is a Free Society a Paradise of Moral Tolerance?

“Morals and the Free Society” is an essay I’d like to get feedback on. It’s much too long for a single blog post, so I’ll post it in installments every few days. For reference—or if you just can’t wait to read the whole thing in all its glory—the complete essay is posted here. To advance to the second installment, click here.


What is the appropriate place of morals in a free society? By “free society,” I mean a social order that places heavy emphasis on individual liberty; for example, freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion; freedom from coercive state power, as exemplified by unreasonable search and seizure, incarceration without trial, conscription (military or otherwise), etc.; and freedom of commerce, particularly including the protection of property rights. By “morals”—which I shall use interchangeably with “ethics”—I mean fundamental principles for the conduct of life, making no preconceptions about what those principles must be. For instance, even a simple egoistic hedonism is on the table as a possible moral system and conceivably even as the best.

In asking about the appropriate place of morals in a free society, part of what I’m asking is which morals, if any, are encouraged or even required by a free society. Do the political arguments in favor of a free society imply any particular system of morals? Does the operation or the structure or the maintenance of a free society require or imply any particular system of morals? If a free society does not require any particular moral system, does it at least encourage (or inhibit) any? Or are the politics of a free society and morals completely independent? What moral vision, if any, should we associate with a free society?

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Economic Rationality versus Full Rationality

An economist—and perhaps most people—would treat the punishment a criminal justly suffers as the result of his wrongdoing as a bad thing for the criminal. But Plato argues (for example, in the Gorgias) that punishment is good for the criminal because it corrects his unjust ways and makes him a better person. And, assuming for the sake of argument that Plato is right about the effect of punishment, he has a point. But of course, so does the economist. Now, if both are right, it seems to follow that we have two different ways of calculating our good, the one invoked by the economist and the one invoked by Plato. Are there really two distinct ways of calculating our good, or is this a mirage? If there really are two, what distinguishes them and how is each justified?

The two ways might be reconciled if the criminal is merely short sighted and doesn’t realize that he can after all maximize his gains by undergoing punishment. Undergoing punishment would then be like taking medicine to become healthy. Taking medicine is locally a negative event, true enough, but it results in higher global rewards. In another metaphor, punishment is a local minimum that must be traversed to reach a global maximum—a trough one must pass through to reach a higher hill.

But this won’t do. The economist’s view of punishment as negative is not so easily set aside. The economist can easily explain the good of taking medicine: the individual compares the negative degree of the treatment (together with the probability of its effectiveness) with the negative degree of the ailment (together with its probable future course without treatment) and chooses the less negative of the two expected futures. Assuming the medicine would work and is not worse than the ailment, then, taking the medicine is good. But this only works because the ailment is evaluated negatively. And the trouble is that it is hardly clear that the criminal regards his own “ailment”—dishonesty, injustice—as a negative. Or anyway, as sufficiently negative to counterbalance the profits of crime.

Injustice might be a global negative if it results in lost economic opportunities, if it is bad business. In that case, punishment would turn out to be good in economic terms if it shocks the criminal out of his unjust habits or proclivities and converts him to justice. Then punishment would be the trough the criminal passes through to reach the higher hill of justice and its greater profitability. In many cases, this might be correct. But surely not in all. It is naïve to think that justice is always the most profitable course of action, even in the long run. (And by the way, there is not always a long run.) There will always be opportunities to commit injustice with very little risk of detection or punishment, so that the most profitable course of action is to mimic a just person while taking advantage of these opportunities as they arise. An interesting result of game theory is that such opportunities will tend to proliferate as the number of just persons in a society increases. For, the greater the number of just agents, the less is the need for an apparatus of vigilance, wariness, contracts, lawyers, detectives, prosecution, and enforcement. So, since these things are not free, they will atrophy, thus enlarging the opportunities for injustice. Therefore, the more that just behavior prevails in a society, the more injustice is encouraged by utilitarian considerations; i.e., by economic rationality.

The paradigmatic illustration of the economic problem of justice is, of course, the prisoner’s dilemma. In a prisoner’s dilemma, it is good to cooperate if you are with another cooperator—but it is even better to defect. Notice that the paradox of “rational” decision making yielding suboptimal outcomes in the prisoner’s dilemma cannot be resolved by the agents taking a longer or more comprehensive view of their interests. These are specified in the decision table, and as long as the situation is a true prisoner’s dilemma, economic rationality dictates the suboptimal outcome. The only way to reach the mutually optimal outcome is for the agents both to ignore the values specified in the decision table and in effect to value cooperation for its own sake. This fact is sometimes expressed by statements like, “it is rational to be irrational in a prisoner’s dilemma.” This is just to say that the agents could achieve a higher value outcome by not caring about value (and caring about cooperation instead). But such statements are not strictly true. On the one hand, if the agents really care less about the values in the table than about cooperation, then they are not being irrational when they cooperate; they are satisfying their preferences. And such an agent should still remain satisfied even if he is defected on. On the other hand, if the agents’ “irrational” behavior is really rational only because of the higher value outcomes they achieve, then that implies that the values in the table are the most important thing after all. And in that case, cooperating really is irrational. For, if the second agent cooperates, the first agent does better by defecting. And if the second agent defects, the first still does better by defecting. So regardless of what the second agent does, the first gets a higher value outcome by defecting. There is simply no way around this conclusion as long as the decision table values are the ruling consideration.

Both the conventional economic agent who defects in the prisoner’s dilemma and the devoted cooperator could therefore be said to be rationally pursuing their preferences but merely to have different preferences. And we could say that the decision table in the prisoner’s dilemma does not accurately depict the devoted cooperator’s values. Perhaps the devoted cooperator is constitutionally unable to place much value on a good acquired through defection. For such a person, a prisoner’s dilemma decision table could not be constructed. He would be immune to the prisoner’s dilemma! Of course, he might also become the victim of defections. But in accordance with his scale of values, he would still be satisfied with his own course of action. Thus, the conventional economic agent and the devoted cooperator could be made equivalent as regards rationality. Each rationally pursues his values. It’s just that their values are not the same.

I want to resist this line of thought. I think there is a more comprehensive sense of “rational,” in which we can say that the devoted cooperator is more rational than the conventional economic agent in the prisoner’s dilemma, and in which we can agree with Plato that punishment is good for the criminal, at the same time as there is a more limited, economic sense of the term, in which defection is rational in the prisoner’s dilemma and punishment is bad for the criminal.

If the devoted cooperator is “really” rational, more so than the conventional economic agent, how is this so? It can only be because the devoted cooperator pursues his real interests and the economic agent does not. How can we say what these are? In Aristotelian fashion, we must appeal to the total, integrated good functioning of the organism, the human being. This should mean success in getting external rewards, as well as an absence of internal conflict, disruption, and discord. One should be comfortable and pain free in one’s own skin as well as efficacious in external functioning and successful in promoting one’s own existence in one’s environment. One should be well-adjusted both internally and externally.

Are our true interests in this sense better achieved by the devoted cooperator than by the economic agent? Not necessarily, if we restrict our attention to external rewards. True, the devoted cooperator will always outcompete the economic agent in a world where there are other devoted cooperators around and where these can be reliably identified. As long as cooperators can identify each other and exclude conventional economic agents (who will defect whenever possible), cooperators will achieve the higher gains. The trouble is that the conventional economic agents will learn to mimic cooperators and thereby exploit them. And, as argued above, the more cooperators predominate in society, the easier exploitation by the conventional economic agent becomes. Therefore, as far as economic rewards go, it will always be possible for at least some conventional economic agents to hold their own with devoted cooperators. Thus, although economist Robert Frank, in his brilliant Passions within Reason (W. W. Norton, 1988), argued that a disposition to devoted cooperation could evolve in a society by devoted cooperators’ ability to outcompete conventional economic agents, he did not argue that devoted cooperators could succeed to such an extent as to drive conventional economic agents entirely from the field. The predicted outcome is a draw: there will always be some equilibrium consisting of a certain percentage of devoted cooperators and a certain percentage of conventional economic agents.

On the other hand, when it comes to internal success—the personal, psychological, social, “organismic” or holistic well-being of the agent—the devoted cooperator would seem to have a clear advantage. It may be that the conventional economic agent can outcompete the devoted cooperator in the sphere of economic rewards through mimicry, but the internal cost of this strategy is likely to be high if it entails living as a “Talented Mr. Ripley” who constantly deceives others and is conscious of the pain he brings them, whose life is a frenetic balancing act between lies and the truth, who must be constantly vigilant against the intelligence and perceptiveness of others, who lives in constant fear of getting caught, who is socially isolated and never able to really reveal his true self to anyone, and so forth. These are genuine aspects of well-being, but they do not show up—not directly—in the accounting of material rewards.

Yet the accounting of material rewards is important on its own. It is the basis of economic science and as such has a considerable measure of predictive success. Nearly all business activity—of banks, shops, factories, you name it—is measured in its terms, which seems right. People engage in economic activity to make money, and firms compete in an economic environment in which their growth and indeed their survival is determined by material outcomes. Again, analyses like Frank’s focus exclusively on material rewards, and they are very valuable. It is important to be able to see the sense in which defection is the rational action in the prisoner’s dilemma and the sense in which punishment is bad for the punished. But these cannot be seen from the standpoint of full rationality, which takes account of internal as well as external rewards. From the standpoint of full rationality, defection in the prisoner’s dilemma is pathological and corrective punishment is beneficial.

The standpoint of exclusively material rewards is important because very often, rightly or wrongly, it is how we actually reason and function. This is why it is predictively so successful. And in many contexts this standpoint is not unreasonable. Consider that ultimately our shaping is by the evolutionary process of natural selection, and natural selection is driven entirely by material outcomes.

Some economists may say that their focus is not on material rewards exclusively, but on “utilities,” which include all forms of preference satisfaction, internal (psychological, etc.) as well as external (material). They may say this, but it isn’t true. Nearly all economic analyses are conducted in terms of money, for example. The fact is that it is material goods that are almost always the exclusive focus of economic analysis. This is just why some of the analyses of Gary Becker, for example, which invoke the utility we place on the welfare of spouses and children, are so extraordinary—because they are so rare. In addition, the internal rewards I am talking about are not a matter of utility or preference satisfaction, but of objective well-being or good functioning, regardless of whether it is recognized or valued by the agent.

It seems, then, that there are grounds for two conceptions of rationality, an economic conception that focuses exclusively on material outcomes, and a full conception that focuses on holistic well-being, including internal as well as external flourishing. Economic rationality may be the more natural of the two. It is certainly more common. It is thought to be hard-headed and no-nonsense. It is the conception according to which defection is rational in the prisoner’s dilemma and punishment is bad for the criminal. Full rationality is the comprehensive conception. It encompasses the material rewards of economic rationality and also the rewards of proper internal functioning. These latter are less easily specifiable or measurable, but they are real and important nevertheless. It is full rationality that enables us to see why it is rational to be a devoted cooperator and why corrective punishment is good for the criminal. Full rationality takes as its standard our complete good, not just material well-being.

Now, a reason this matters for social theory: Libertarianism can be described as the political philosophy that assumes that economic rationality is all there is to rationality. But the above analysis indicates that it isn’t. Economic rationality falls short of full rationality. So the challenge for a post-libertarian political philosophy can be put this way: How to integrate the insights of economic rationality and the importance of individual liberty into a broader conception of the human good.

The Schwartz Theory of Basic Values and Some Implications for Political Philosophy

The study of basic human values by psychologists is not new. Probably the best-known theory of basic values in psychology is Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which dates from the early 1940s. But the psychological study of values has been growing, in both volume and empirical quality of research, and philosophers interested in ethics ought to know something about it.

Unfortunately, growing though it may be, the psychological study of values is nevertheless not in a particularly advanced state of development. Accordingly, there are multiple, conflicting theories of human values (and corresponding virtues) in the psychological literature. A sampling that I spent just a few minutes pulling together is: Braithwaite and Law (1985), Cawley, Martin, and Johnson (2000), Crosby, Bitner, and Gill (1990), Feather and Peay (1975), Hofstede (1980), Maloney and Katz (1976), Peterson and Seligman (2004), Rokeach (1973), Schwartz (1994, 2012), and Wicker et al. (1984). My impression is that on the one hand there is considerable loose agreement in the results of these studies, but on the other hand the agreement is indeed loose, and there are significant differences between theories, especially when it comes to the conceptualization of the results.

I myself am not well enough acquainted with this research to comment on these differences. What I want to do in this post is just describe the one of these theories that seems to me to be the most serious, ambitious, well-developed, and well-supported, namely the “Schwartz theory of basic values,” due to Shalom Schwartz (1994, 2012). At the end I will briefly discuss some implications of Schwartz’s theory for political philosophy.

By “values” we refer to beliefs concerning what situations and actions are desirable. However, values for Schwartz are not attitudes toward particular situations or actions, like having a chicken dinner right now or having $20K in my bank account. He restricts the term “value” to broad motivational goals. Schwartz sees values as stable standards by which we evaluate everything else, including the appropriateness of any norms, attitudes, traits, or virtues that may be suggested to us. It is also characteristic of values that some are more important than others. Multiple values are normally implicated in any proposed action, for better or worse, and the all-things-considered evaluation of an action will depend on the relative importance of the competing values it implicates.

Schwartz reasoned that since values are motivational goals, basic human values might be derived by considering the most basic needs of human beings, which he divides into three fundamental categories: our biological needs as individuals, our need to coordinate our actions with others, and the need of groups to survive and flourish. By considering these needs more or less a priori, Schwartz derived the following set of ten basic values. Each basic value is described in terms of its motivational goal. A set of more specific values that express the basic value is given in parentheses after each description.

  1. Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the people with whom one is in frequent personal contact [meaning especially family]. (helpful, honest, forgiving, responsible, true friendship, mature love)
  2. Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature. (broadminded, social justice, equality, world at peace, world of beauty, unity with nature, wisdom, protecting the environment)
  3. Self-Direction: Independent thought and action—choosing, creating, exploring. (creativity, freedom, choosing own goals, curious, independent)
  4. Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self. (social order, family security, national security, clean, reciprocation of favors, healthy, sense of belonging)
  5. Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate expectations or norms. (obedient, self-discipline, politeness, honoring parents and elders)
  6. Hedonism: Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself. (pleasure, enjoying life, self-indulgent)
  7. Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards. (ambitious, successful, capable, influential)
  8. Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides. (respect for tradition, humble, devout, accepting my portion in life)
  9. Stimulation: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life. (a varied life, an exciting life, daring)
  10. Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources. (authority, wealth, social power, social recognition, preserving my public image)

Some of the more specific values may seem a little odd (why is reciprocation of favors an expression of security?), but they have been empirically confirmed to express the basic values they were postulated to express. The sort of empirical testing that Schwartz’s theory has undergone is illustrated by the figure below, which shows the result of a type of multidimensional scaling analysis called Simple Space Analysis.

Schwartz values map big 2

The figure was created as follows. A questionnaire was prepared that asked participants to rate the importance to themselves of each of the specific values in the figure on a 9-point scale ranging from 7 to –1, where 7 indicates supreme importance, 0 indicates no importance, and –1 indicates that the participant regards the item as opposed to his own values. The questionnaire was administered to thousands of participants worldwide. For instance, the study reported in Schwartz (1994) included 97 samples in 44 countries from every inhabited continent, for a total of 25,863 participants. Most of the participants in Schwartz (1994) were evenly split between public school teachers and university students, but about 15% were occupationally heterogeneous adults (or, in the case of two samples, teenagers). The ratings were averaged across all participants and then intercorrelated. A Simple Space Analysis then arranged the average ratings in a 2-dimensional space in the way that best represents their intercorrelations as distances, so that points close together in the space are highly positively correlated and points far from each other are highly negatively correlated. The resulting space was then examined to see if the specific values clustered together in groups corresponding to the 10 basic values. Since they did indeed cluster in the predicted way, partition lines were drawn through the space to mark the basic values.

The fit between theory and data observed in the diagram is impressive. This type of study has been replicated many times in the years since Schwartz first presented his theory. The (1994) study is itself a replication and extension of work first presented in 1992. Other instruments have been used to measure basic values besides direct ratings, and specific values than those presented here have been tested. The spaces produced by Simple Space Analysis have been examined by independent raters looking for clusters that might imply basic values other than Schwartz’s ten. But alternative basic values have failed to emerge.

Note that Schwartz’s strategy of postulating a structure of values derived from basic human motivational goals and then testing it empirically differs from other strategies that have been used, such as the lexical strategy of gathering all the value terms to be found in the dictionary and eliminating redundancies and the cross-classification strategy of gathering lists of basic values from multiple traditions and cultures and looking for commonalities. Cawley et al. (2000) used the lexical strategy, which is also the basis of nearly all work in personality psychology. Peterson and Seligman (2004) exemplify the cross-classification strategy. Each strategy has certain merits, obviously, but the Schwartz approach seems to me to have an advantage in being grounded in the functional role of values as motivational goals rather than in the way people (lexical strategy) or intellectuals (cross-classification strategy) happen to talk. The randomness of the lexical strategy in particular seems unfortunate and may have something to do with why it took so many decades for a dominant theory of personality to finally emerge.

Schwartz originally postulated an 11th basic value, spirituality, encompassing specific values such as a spiritual life, meaning in life, inner harmony, and detachment, but it was dropped from the system due to failure to find cross-cultural validation for it. In other words, it didn’t pass empirical muster as a basic, universal human value. Schwartz (1994) speculates that this may be because spirituality is not clearly related to any of the three fundamental categories of basic human needs identified above. Those categories all depend on human functional needs. It may be that spirituality values are not functionally driven.

Notice that happiness is not represented on Schwartz’s list, either of basic or specific values. This is deliberate. Schwartz sees happiness as the result of attaining one’s values.

Notice also that there are specific values on the chart, such as self-respect and moderation, that are not listed along with any basic value in the basic values list. This is because they are associated with more than one basic value (self-respect with both self-direction and achievement, moderation with both tradition and security). They satisfy elements of the motivational goals of more than one basic value. They therefore tend to sit on the borderline between basic values and to be associated more or less closely with their basic values in different empirical studies.

This brings us to another important part of the Schwartz theory, which is that the basic values do not form a loose and unrelated collection but are systematically connected. The connections are expected and predicted by the theory. They have two sources. First, they result from overlap between motivational goals. For example, in an obvious way both power and achievement involve social superiority and esteem. Achievement and hedonism both involve self-centered satisfaction. Hedonism and stimulation both involve desire for affectively pleasant arousal. And so on. I won’t go through all the pie slices in Schwartz’s diagram, since most of the connections are pretty obvious. (The two papers I’ve cited give all the details for anyone who wants them.) Note that conformity and tradition were originally predicted by the theory to be ordinary adjacent pie slices like the others. But that is not the way things worked out empirically, hence their configuration as a split slice.

Second, the basic human motivational goals represent different and sometimes competing or conflicting interests. Thus, the pursuit of one basic value may often conflict with the pursuit of another. For example, the pursuit of personal power or achievement will conflict with the pursuit of universalist values like equality. People who value both must prioritize and often find separate activities by which to pursue each.

Thus, Schwartz’s ten basic values form a continuous, closed circle. Basic values that are adjacent in the circle have overlapping motivational goals and are mutually supporting, whereas basic values on opposite sides of the circle have competing goals and are mutually opposed. Moreover, the circle has a 2-dimensional opponent structure. One dimension contrasts basic values of self-enhancement (achievement and power) with basic values of self-transcendence (universalism and benevolence). The other contrasts basic values of openness to change (self-direction and stimulation) with basic values of conservation (conformity, tradition, and security). Note that hedonism is positively associated with both self-enhancement and openness to change. The diagram below is a schematic version of the one above that makes explicit the two opponent dimensions and the circular structure of adjacency between the basic values.

Schwartz circular model of basic values color

The 2-dimensional opponent structure of the circle is yet another prediction of the theory. So it is additional confirmation of the theory that the predicted dimensions show up in the diagram produced by the Simple Space Analysis and that a 2-dimensional SSA does the best job of modeling the data. (At least, I assume Schwartz tried SSA models with more than two dimensions. He does not explicitly say.)

Note that openness to change and self-enhancement both focus on the personal side of life, while conservation and self-transcendence focus the interests of others and one’s relation to society. So the left side of the diagram represents values with a personal focus and the right side represents values with a social focus. Again, conservation and self-enhancement both express anxiety-driven motivations, to secure oneself against loss, gain power to overcome threats, maintain the current order, and so on. By contrast, openness to change and self-transcendence both express anxiety-free motivations of growth and expansion. So the top of the diagram represents anxiety-free values, and the bottom represents anxiety-based values.

There is one final aspect of the theory that should be mentioned. Although values obviously differ widely in importance between individuals, Schwartz found, remarkably, that when individual ratings of basic values are averaged over all the members of a society, the priority order that results is more or less the same in all societies. The basic values were listed above in their order of cross-cultural priority (highest listed first): benevolence, universalism, self-direction, security, conformity, hedonism, achievement, tradition, stimulation, and power. That is, in most societies benevolence is the most prized basic value, and power is the least. The ranking is curious, and I would be inclined to pay it little attention if it weren’t strongly supported empirically. It is striking that only one personal value (self-direction) is in the top half of the order. This may reflect a universal tendency for socialization processes to emphasize pro-social values. Schwartz (2012) spends some time speculating about why the values are ranked the way they are. For instance, he takes the primacy of benevolence to reflect the central role of the family in a person’s cooperative relations, social connections, and development of all further values. Recall that in Schwartz’s system, benevolence is based on local, personal relationships—this is the key point of difference between benevolence and universality. Thus benevolence ranks highest, and is higher than universality despite universality’s plausible claim to be the pro-social value par excellence, because local and family relations are fundamental and generally trump relations with strangers and out-group members.

To summarize, the Schwartz theory of basic values seeks to identify a core set of basic human values grounded in the motivational goals inherent in (1) our individual, biological needs, (2) our need for smooth coordination and cooperation with others, and (3) the need of groups of people to survive and grow as groups. The system of 10 basic values derived from these goals forms a continuum arranged in a closed circle as in the above diagrams. The space within the circle contains specific values that express various aspects of the basic values that subsume them. Proximity in the space indicates closeness of values in terms of their motivational goals. Proximity to the perimeter indicates strength of commitment to the relevant basic value. Moreover, the basic values themselves are subsumed by four master values arranged on two opponent dimensions: self-enhancement vs. self-transcendence and openness to change vs. conservation. Because of the opponent structure of the dimensions, values on opposite sides of the center of the space will tend to compete with each other for priority. The theory claims that the set of ten basic values and their structural relations are universal. That is, although individuals may differ in their particular value priorities, the basic values and their structural relations are common coin among all humanity in all cultures. The theory has not only intuitive and theoretical plausibility but a very impressive record of empirical support gathered in dozens of studies using multiple measures and employing tens of thousands of participants worldwide.

I promised to conclude by saying something about the implications of all this for political philosophy. Political philosophy commonly arranges political views along a dimension with endpoints designated “left” and “right,” where the defining feature of this dimension is an opponent contrast between equality on the left and hierarchy on the right. If you read a thinker like Allan Bloom, for example, you will get this stark opposition repeatedly (see for instance Bloom 1987). And this dimension admittedly does a powerful job of organizing diverse political positions and explaining many of their similarities and differences. It illuminates many of the differences between American liberals and conservatives, for example, as well as the many social movements in favor of democracy, income equality, racial equality, sexual equality, etc. that became ascendant in the West in the later 18th century and have intensified and spread across the world ever since. But it is irksome to libertarians, who are inclined to think that it treats as primary an issue—equality vs. hierarchy—that does not deserve that status. Libertarians would prefer to focus on an alternative issue, which might be captured by a dimension with endpoints designated “freedom” and “slavery,” or perhaps “individualism” and “collectivism.”

I suggest that the Schwartz theory of basic values can help us to understand this conflict between the libertarian way of analyzing political systems and the standard one. The suggestion, of course, is that the two political dimensions, equality vs. hierarchy and freedom vs. slavery, correspond to the Schwartz dimensions of self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement and openness to change vs. conservation. Concerning the dimension favored by standard political philosophy, equality is the nonpareil specific value of universalism (this is indicated by its position in the first diagram above), and in general the specific values that are grouped under universalism and benevolence (social justice, protect environment, world peace, forgiveness, broadminded, helpful) are suggestive of equalitarian politics. On the other side, the values of power and achievement, which cannot be equal (that is the point of valuing them) suggest a politics of rank. As for the dimension beloved of libertarians, freedom and independence are the premier specific values of self-direction, a basic value whose congruence with a politics of individual liberty couldn’t be more obvious. Other specific values grouped under self-direction and stimulation are among the most celebrated by libertarians: creativity, curious, choosing own goals, varied life, daring, exciting life. At the other end of this dimension, the conservation values of tradition, conformity, and security embody just the sort comfortable obedience and passivity that aligns with a politics that preaches the supremacy of group interests. The person who is at home in this region of the value space values obedience, the sense of belonging, health, social order, humility, self-discipline, moderation, security, and—most strongly, to judge from its position in the diagram—“accepting my portion in life.” Clearly, these are values that encourage political positions that promise safety and good order in the bosom of the group and maintenance of traditions.

Some implications of this analysis are the following. First, libertarians are right to complain that the freedom vs. slavery political dimension is at least as important as the equality vs. hierarchy dimension and that the freedom vs. slavery dimension has been wrongly neglected or ignored by standard political philosophy.

Second, it would be a good idea for partisans of either dimension to drop the habit of reductionism with regard to the other. That is, recognize the other dimension. Both dimensions are real and both are about equally important and illuminating, so do not treat your favored dimension as the only one that really matters.  Furthermore, stop trying to paint all your opponents with a single brush dipped in the color of the opposite end to yours of your favored dimension. The other dimension may be at least as great a source of disagreement. For example, just because someone does not place the same value on freedom that you do does not necessarily mean that his main political impulses are collectivistic. Those who emphasize equality, for example, often do so in part because they see it as essential to individual autonomy. (I believe this was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s motivation.) They see any sort of draconian collectivistic consequences of the push for equality as incidental and avoidable. Whereas I think a typical libertarian view is to see emphasis on equality as mere cover for a deeper, collectivistic impulse. But that is quite wrong in many cases, if the present analysis is correct.

Third, no political philosophy that wants to have a chance of adequacy can afford to embrace one side of either dimension to the complete exclusion of the other. Equalitarians must make room for the inescapable values of self-enhancement (for details, see “Harrison Bergeron”), and libertarians must make room for the equally inescapable values of security and social order. (And don’t anybody comment to tell me about “spontaneous order.” I know all about it. The point is that not all desirable social order is spontaneous.)

Fourth and last, we should expect there to be no such thing as a pure libertarian or equalitarian (or conservative). Libertarianism stakes out a position on only one dimension. Every libertarian must be expected to have some orientation with respect to the other dimension as well, and so be either a “conservatarian” or “liberaltarian.”And of course, notoriously, this is exactly what we find. The same will be true of liberals and conservatives. Some should really care about freedom, others not. Since the two dimensions seem to be largely orthogonal, extreme devotion to one end of either dimension, freedom vs. slavery, equality vs. hierarchy, should be no help whatever in predicting what a person’s position will be with respect to the other dimension. We must take both dimensions with equal seriousness.



  • Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schuster.
  • Braithwaite, V. A. and H. G. Law. 1985. “Structure of Human Values: Testing the Adequacy of the Rokeach Value Survey.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49: 250–263.
  • Cawley, M. J., J. E. Martin, and J. A. Johnson. 2000. “A Virtues Approach to Personality.” Personality and Individual Differences, 28: 997–1013.
  • Crosby, L. A., M. J. Bitner, and J. D. Gill. 1990. Organizational Structure of Values. Journal of Business Research, 20: 123–134.
  • Feather, N. T. and E. R. Peay. 1975. The Structure of Terminal and Instrumental Values: Dimensions and Clusters. Australian Journal of Psychology, 27: 151–164.
  • Hofstede, G. 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage.
  • Maloney, J. and G. M. Katz. 1976. “Value Structures and Orientations to Social Institutions.” Journal of Psychology, 93: 203–211.
  • Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press.
  • Rokeach, M. 1973. The Nature of Human Values. Free Press.
  • Schwartz, Shalom H. 1994. “Are There Universal Aspects in the Structure and Contents of Human Values?Journal of Social Issues, 50: 19–45.
  • ———. 2012. “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).
  • Wicker, F. W., F. B. Lambert, F. C. Richardson, and J. Kahler. 1984. “Categorical Goal Hierarchies and Classification of Human Motives.” Journal of Personality, 53: 285-305.

Happy 2015, and some odds and ends

Happy 2015. As is probably obvious, I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging for the past few weeks, but I’m back now, with blogging on the brain. I have yet to complete December’s series on the psychiatric medications symposium at Felician, so I’m hoping to do that over the next few weeks. I never quite finished last July’s envisioned series on “honking go at a dangerous intersection,” so hopefully I’ll get to that as well. I have plenty more to say about emergencies as I finish a paper on that, and about egoism and virtue ethics as I finish a paper on that. I’m in the midst of revamping three courses–Ethics, Aesthetics, and International Relations–so I’ll be road-testing some of that material here. And I’m supervising two senior theses this spring on closely related topics–Hobbesian egoism and BDSM–so I’ll be musing about that, too. But for now, just some odds and ends.

(1) Best argument against libertarianism. I think of myself as a kind of fellow-traveler of libertarianism, but I’m decidedly not a libertarian myself, whether of the left-libertarian or BHL variety, or of any other kind. Over at BHL, Kevin Vallier asks readers for what they regard as “the best argument against libertarianism,” listing two himself, and promising to offer five more in the future. I won’t reproduce it here, but argument (2) on his list is what he calls “non-moralized notions of coercion.”

Vallier’s argument (2) corresponds in a rough way to my own argument against libertarianism, but I’d put the point somewhat differently than he does. As I see it, moralized conceptions of freedom are the only defensible ones out there. Moralized conceptions of freedom, in turn, entail moralized conceptions of coercion. But moralized conceptions of both freedom and coercion are more complicated than libertarians (or Objectivists) seem to realize. They’re more complicated to explicate, more complicated to justify, and have more messy and complex practical implications than polemical advocates of “the free market” seem to grasp. They don’t lead in any straightforward way (or in some cases lead at all) to the policy implications favored by free market think-tanks like, say, the Cato Institute. More fundamentally, I think they lead to a different set of normative priorities than those that occupy the thinking of most libertarians. But unpacking the preceding set of thoughts is a complex task for another day.

Anyway, here’s my contribution to the BHL discussion (the linked article is behind the paywall of Cambridge Journals Online):

The best argument against libertarianism is (2), and the best version of (2) that I’ve seen is David Kelley’s “Life, Liberty, and Property,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol 1 (1984). I think it’s a shame that Kelley’s article has only been cited 14 times in more than three decades. It ought to be much more widely known and discussed. It deals with the views of Nozick, Mack, and Steiner, and in doing so, anticipates many ideas now associated with BHL, decades before BHL came into existence.

Kelley’s argument is too complex to summarize here; I’ll just say that I highly recommend the article. As I write, the discussion at BHL has gotten up to 168 comments, but as usual with BHL’s combox, much of the commentary consists of pointless thread-hijackings. I’d be interested to hear what PoT readers think, whether about Vallier’s question, Kelley’s arguments, or anything related.

(2) Murty Classical Library OnlineThe New York Times reports that Harvard University Press has just initiated a series, the Murty Classical Library Online, devoted to classical Indian literature. Its

first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, [and] will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.

The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.

That may not mean much to most people, but I personally find it difficult to contain my elation at the news. My own desire for the consumption of Urdu literature far outstrips my capacity to read it, to say nothing of my desire to read, say, Persian, Hindi, or Sanskrit literature. I suspect that there are many other people in my position, whether of South Asian background or otherwise. Happily, I suspect that many more people will now come to find themselves in that position, and will have the Murty Classical Library to “blame” for it.

The creation of the Murty library has in effect opened up a new world for many of us, and in reflecting on that fact, I couldn’t help comparing it favorably with the preposterous techno-fantasies valorized by people like Elon Musk, of colonizing new worlds on other planets, like Mars. The truth is that we have yet to discover the riches of the world we currently inhabit: in that respect, it’s telling that the Murty initiative is being conceived as a century-long project; it’ll take a century just to translate and digitize India’s literature (if “digitization” remains the relevant term for whatever technology exists in 2115). Who knows how long it will take to absorb and understand it? (Incidentally, it’s also telling that the Indian government was willing to spend $74 million to send a spaceship to Mars but couldn’t spare $5 million to digitize and publish the riches of its own national literature.) The series has been endowed by Rohan Murty, “son of the Indian technology billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy.” Love it or hate it, I think one has to chalk this particular success up to capitalism and the institution of inheritance. There’s also a strange but delicious irony in the fact that we owe the existence of this series to the civilization that gave us Macaulay’s Minute.

(3) From Walden to Wild. Kate Herrick and I happened to see the film “Wild” on New Year’s Day, which I highly recommend to all and sundry. The film is based on the recent book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, and Kate (who’s reading the book) tells me that the film is essentially faithful to it.

Three interrelated thoughts occurred to me while watching it. One was that the profundity of the film was of a sort that one rarely–if ever–finds in the professional academic literature on moral philosophy. The second was that I couldn’t help thinking that the film was, in a weird way, a twenty-first century version of Thoreau’s Walden. And the third was how unlike the professional philosophical literature Walden is.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. …To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worth of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Talk about New Year’s Resolutions. That’s from “Where I Lived, What I Lived For” in Walden. I don’t mean this as an accusation, only as a musing: in reading Thoreau today for the first time in years, I found myself wondering why it is that the professional literature spends so much more energy discussing Hume’s worry that the sun may not come up tomorrow, than on Thoreau’s insistence that it will.

(4) Rock or Bust. Despite my animosity for Ambien, I wouldn’t go as far as Thoreau. As denizens of the twenty-first century, we all know that we can no longer do without mechanical aids, whether to keep ourselves awake or put ourselves to sleep. If you need a mechanical aid of the first variety, my suggestion is to go out and get AC/DC’s new album, “Rock or Bust.” In my opinion, it’s a worthy successor to “Back In Black,” and a fitting capstone to their illustrious career.

In three decades of listening to, playing, and having arguments about them, I’ve heard all the “sophisticated” sub-musicological criticisms of AC/DC: “it all sounds the same”; every song is in the key of A major; every riff is based on “A,” “D,” and “G”; every solo is a variation on the A major pentatonic scale; the bass guitar just pumps out a steady stream of eighth notes (mostly A’s); the drumming sounds like a drum machine hooked up to a metronome set at 120; the vocals are indistinguishable from screaming; the lyrics are juvenile. But all those criticisms just raise the obvious question: how can something so (putatively) stupid sound so fucking good? I don’t know. I just know that it does.

Anyway, welcome to 2015, everyone. Turn the amps up high. Rock or bust.