An assessment of the status of climate change modelling as a scientific paradigm (part 1)

These past two weeks have seen an escalation in ecological activism with protesters taking control of the arteries of major cities in the UK, bringing traffic to a standstill, in order to force radical action on the government regarding climate control. While I feel encouraged by young people taking action over an issue they are passionate about and one which they feel will directly impact their own lives, it is not clear that the situation is as apocalyptic as the most dire predictions or that implementation of the most extreme demands would not result in anything less than the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

The science of climate change is fairly simple in its fundamentals, but complex in the processes which make up its phenomenology, imprecise in its predictions given the complexity of the interacting contributory systems and overladen with moral, political and ideological perspectives which make it a contested ground even among developed nations. Even where consensus has been reached on the nature of the problem, in realpolitik there is little incentive to act, as the scale of the changes that might need to be made are unknown and every concession disadvantages the economy under the competitive rules we live by at present.

In this essay I want to explore whether the science of climate change is best understood as a scientific paradigm and the moment we are living through now coincides with what Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1970) referred to as a paradigm shift. This may help to create a neutral space between and make possible a degree of rapprochement between climate change believers and sceptics, if the hypothesis is legitimate, but, more importantly, also suggest what some of the main priorities should be.

The Kuhnian idea of a paradigm

Kuhn was principally an historian of science, and his concept of a paradigm was derived from a fundamental historical truth that things change over time and that prior certainties come, with historical distance, to be seen as erroneous or, at least, limited. This observation could apply to scientific theories as much as political systems and moral beliefs. The paradigm concept was fashioned as a sociological perspective on the development of science, that what constituted science was defined by the activities of the scientific community. At any time, the scientific community is acting largely around a consensus on fundamental scientific truths, beliefs about reality that enable them to carry out the routine work they do, such as experimental research, authoring research papers, teaching, devising new technologies, and so on.

At the fringes, however, there are always questions and anomalies in the data that challenge the prevailing consensus. These can be ignored for the most part or accommodated within the prevailing theories by theoretical ‘fixes’, as the consensus allows ‘normal science’ to continue, the economies to be boosted by new technologies, people to have jobs and more comfortable lives. At a certain point in time, the anomalies will inevitably become too great and the fixes patently unconvincing and the time will be ripe for a new theoretical foundation and new consensus. From the fringes a new theory will emerge that claims to explain the phenomenon better than the existing consensus but based on different assumptions. The new paradigm will be embraced enthusiastically by some and rejected by others, perhaps based on the claim that there is insufficient evidence. Over time, if certain conditions are met, a new generation will come to accept the new paradigm and the believers in the old will die off. In Kuhn’s parlance a scientific revolution will have taken place.

Criticisms have been raised of Kuhn’s work, principally of relativism and of lack of specificity of the concept of the paradigm. On the charge of relativism, there is the obvious criticism that Kuhn’s idea of the definition of science as that activity carried out by the scientific community, would tend to support the charge, as well as involving an obvious tautology. Nevertheless, Kuhn does set out fundamental criteria of rationality as a basis for judging between competing paradigms (Chen, 1997). Pointing out that theories change over time does not automatically qualify as relativism. However, a failure to indicate that theories have improved in terms of the accuracy of predictions or our ability to manipulate nature, might.

Regarding the accuracy and specificity of the term paradigm, it is difficult to judge. The change from the Newtonian concept of gravity to an Einsteinian one is an obviously paradigmatic example of the paradigm, which has fundamentally altered the way that scientists (at least) see the world. Yet relativity is incompatible with quantum physics, so there are two competing paradigms for the overlap between the macrocosmic and microcosmic worlds. So, even this one example demonstrates a problem with the concept: it is one thing to have historical incommensurability between explanations of the same phenomenon, and see a universal paradigm shift, and another to see multiple incommensurabilities between paradigms in narrow areas. Do general relativity and quantum mechanics belong to an as-yet undetermined greater paradigm?

As well as these criticisms, it is also necessary to consider the important contribution of Kuhn’s ideas. Compared with the strict and exclusionary criteria of falsificationism, it allows for the existence of anomaly within the day-to-day operations of the scientific community. Not every fact will fit within an existing paradigm, but for the most part they can be put to one side awaiting explanation within the existing paradigm when new and better data is gathered, or such facts will accumulate, eventually putting pressure on the scientific community to seek a better explanation, while still allowing routine scientific work to continue.

Does climate change modelling constitute a scientific paradigm?

The political and moral posturing around global warming, to say nothing of the preferments and funding within the relevant academic departments and scientific specialisms, make it difficult to separate out the facts from the fictions, credible theories from ideology and justified belief from mere convenience. The problem is compounded – indeed it is rooted in – the complexity of the global system of the climate, something that is still imperfectly understood, comprising not a single, but multiple interlocking systems, including the atmosphere, the oceans, the biosphere and the anthroposphere, the arena of human economic activity. It is almost certainly the case that the regulatory flows and feedbacks within and between these systems are not completely understood and are the subject of ongoing research.

The hypothesis underlying the climate change debate consists basically of two linked ideas, that human economic activity since the industrial revolution is the main contributory factor to a global increase in average temperature and that this rise in temperature produces changes in climate patterns, resulting in more thermal burden on plant and animal species, more chaotic, more extreme and less predictable patterns of weather, and terrestrial changes such as the shrinking of the polar icecaps and glaciers, all changes that will in turn impact on human civilisations.

There seems to little contention over whether regional climates are changing, because even the most casual observers have noticed changes in the weather patterns over the last few decades, particularly with less severe winters and higher summer temperatures. What is less clear is whether the planet as a whole is warming, though data from remote regions indicate that changes are taking place there too. For a period, sceptics were able to trumpet the fact that, after decades of temperature increases, there was no net atmospheric warming for about 20 years and proclaim that global warming had ended or even reversed. In fact, data indicates that the warming had switched to the oceans, one of the little-understood complexities of the global energy system.

The most contentious issue, though, is the purported cause of this change, as it is reckoned to be a single vector: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Again, there is little dispute over the basic facts, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (though by no means the most powerful), which functions to retain heat in the atmosphere and slow its radiation into space. Its presence is the reason we are able to live on earth under temperate conditions but its proportion in the atmosphere is increasing, has been increasing since the start of the industrial revolution, and stands at a historic high. Carbon dioxide is produced naturally as a by-product of animal respiration and volcanism, but, significantly, also as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, which we have done in increasing amounts since the industrial revolution.

The supposed anthropogenic causes of global warming driving climate change are where the scientific data become muddied by politics. At an early point, those on the political left and radical environmentalists saw in these hypotheses evidence that man, and specifically, capitalism, was destroying the planet, which gave spurious support to their politics – spurious, because the worst precipitators of ecological disasters have been socialist countries in which the state is all powerful and unresponsive to citizens’ concerns. Nevertheless, the acquisition of global warming as an issue of the left naturally sparked a reaction from the right, which was essentially to carry out a rear-guard action in the form of multiple denials: denial that there was any warming; denial that it was the result of human activity; denial that it mattered anyway, and so on.

Is there any merit to the claims of warming deniers? While not doubting that there are anomalies to be explained, the question itself is indicative that the bigger question, of whether the proposed model of global warming constitutes a scientific paradigm, has been answered in the affirmative. We are already thinking within the paradigm, either in support of it or in opposition to it. Global warming has all the hallmarks of a paradigm: it has absorbed many of the individual scientific disciplines and allowed ‘normal science’ to continue, giving a patina of coherence to their endeavours, even if the science is not settled and anomalies exist. It has created a research frame, in which people are funded and have jobs and proceed to fill in the gaps in a theoretical construct that they have accepted largely on faith, because it offers a plausible explanation for the data available and because it accords with their sense of worth as a moral agent.

Does this mean that global warming is true? As Kuhn pointed out, the lesson of history is that all theories are ultimately shown to be overturned by theories that have more generality and better predictive strengths; that is the strength of the paradigmatic view, in enabling us to separate out the utility value from absolute truth claims. On the first of these points, that of generality, I would say that the climate change model has been successful in proposing a unifying framework for multiple sciences, particularly the climate sciences, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and to some extent ecology, the biological sciences, ethology (animal behaviour), chemistry and the social sciences. Its record on predictions has been less successful, owing to some exaggerated claims, possibly to gain media attention and funding, possibly as a result of partial or faulty models, but the overall claim that human activity has resulted in climatic changes as a result of industrialisation seems to hold up.

(part 2 will consider how climate change scepticism may challenge the idea of the model as a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense)


Xiang Chen (1997). Thomas Kuhn’s Latest Notion of Incommensurability. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1997), pp. 257-273.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. London: The University of Chicago Press.


Nietzsche and Weber: Transcendent Individualism as Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationalisation.



Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.

The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.

I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.

The Transvaluation of European Thought

Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeoise life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.

Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.

Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.

One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.

The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’

The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.

How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.

How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires and inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.

A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.

Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.

Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’

Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.

The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Fuhrer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.

I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.

That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.

The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.

Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which  emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.

The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.

To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.

Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.


  1. I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
  2. The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
  3. Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
  4. It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to an believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.


Selected Bibliography

Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001

Ernst Bertram (2009[1918]). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online):

Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608

Richard Jenkins (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32].

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Legality and Morality: Can Both be Served (and Justice Preserved)?

By Colin Turfus

The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason, David Hume

It is often suggested that obedience to the law is a virtue and by implication that respect for the law is a requirement of morality. But is this necessarily the case? Although this might at first might appear obvious, I would suggest the issue turns out on closer inspection not to be so at all. In the inherited concept of Common Law in the UK, what is required or enforced in law corresponds to established practice in society. So there is a natural coincidence between the requirements of legality and of morality. No problem there.

However, many laws on the statute book were not a consequence of the way ordinary people chose to live their lives or of publicly accepted standards they were expected by their peers to live up to, but rather represented an imposition by the powerful upon the weak. Examples of this were the iniquitous Corn Laws, the permitting of profiteering through the trading of slaves and the denial of full legal personality to women. It took vigorous campaigning over many years for the law to be changed in these areas. Few if any these days would suggest that the people who challenged these laws and sought to have them struck down or modified were not acting virtuously and in accordance with the requirements of morality (although aspects of the former have been reintroduced in the guise of EU agricultural policy and we are at risk of backsliding on the latter as the pressure grows to accept Sharia Law principles in the UK). Of course, that did not prevent those who did campaign against these injustices being characterised by many of their peers as agitators and subversives.

Fast forward to the present and we have what many would see as the 21st century equivalent: the Equality Acts 2006 and 2010 which enshrine rules preventing discrimination in a wide range of areas on the basis of a considerable number of properties such as race, age, belief, sex, etc. Ostensibly this can be viewed as a continuation of the same process of eliminating injustice from society and giving greater rights and protection to the oppressed. But does this characterisation stand up to scrutiny?

In terms of the intent it is hard to argue against such laws, whether from a moral or other perspective. But there is one clear difference here from the cases I mentioned above from the 19th and early 20th centuries: it was very clear in those earlier cases which injustices were being corrected in what situations, whether that be the principle that no human being can be the property of another or that the right to inherit wealth or to vote should not be denied one on the basis of being female. The more problematic aspect of the Equality Acts is hinted at in their name: that intrinsic to the legislation is the idea that everyone is “equal” and should be treated as such in society.

Whereas it is a rather binary thing whether women have voting rights or not, it is not so clear how a society can by legislation be transformed from one where people are not equal (and if they were, what need would there be for legislation?), to one where they are. In the first case, the act of discrimination or denial of rights is clearly defined and its violation easily identifiable: specifically, if or when a women is prevented from casting a vote at a public election. The unequivocal success of the older acts is evidenced in the number of people who have been prosecuted for violations in recent years (none) and, in the case of slavery, the fact no significant new legislation was considered necessary until the enactment of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, nearly two hundred years later.

So, we might ask, does society today embody “equality” as envisaged by the acts? Few would suggest that it does. But, if it does not, who should be prosecuted and/or what remedial action should be taken? Here we start seeing the problematic of the idea of legislating for “equality”. For one, before the ink was even dry on the 2006 act, new protected characteristics were being added. This process was further extended by the 2010 act followed by an amending act in 2011 and another in March of this year (2017) which among other things imposed a duty on public authorities to publish data showing compliance with all provisions and indeed of actions they are taking to enhance compliance. This has given rise to a controversy over the the NHS’s recent edict that doctors should henceforth interrogate all patients about their sexual preferences and record responses in their medical history. It is argued that this is intrusive and an infringement of rights of privacy. But the NHS administration in acting thus is arguably only seeking to comply with the duties imposed by the Equality Acts. Are we as a consequence of all this nearer to an agreed state of equality or is the targeted end-state receding ever further into the distance? Who can say (especially since the NHS is yet to prepare and publish their data; and good luck to the people whose job it is to interpret it!)?

Then we have to start looking at the number of court cases which have been and continue to be engendered by such legislation, many of which have gone all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, often visiting the front pages of the tabloids several times along the way. Numerous alleged violations have been successfully prosecuted. But equally, in many other cases individuals have lost jobs, important privileges and personal reputations without any court case occurring, often to protect the company employing them after allegations have been made, and frequently on the basis of actions taken or comments made entirely outside of any work context. Such may or may not have been the intention of those drafting the legislation, but it has been the result.

The challenging question we then have to ask ourselves in relation not only to Equality law but all law is: does the law as it stands conform to our moral perspective? Should we celebrate each time someone falls foul of its provisions and believe that through this our society has become just a bit more equal, and therefore better? Or is there not need for us to stand back and scrutinise the legislation, whatever its intent, for the outcomes that flow therefrom, and make an independent judgement based not only on the intent but also on the effect? And is there not a case also to challenge even whether the intent is coherently enough defined and/or sufficiently attainable by the proposed legislative means to merit our moral consent in the first place?

But to do this requires an independent moral perspective; and clearly that cannot happen if we conflate legality with morality. Ultimately the latter must be defined by what people, society, believe to be right and wrong. There must be flexibility here as, self-evidently, not everyone has the same perspective. But changing the law to define something to be illegal, does not make it wrong in people’s minds. And while it may force people to behave as if it were, there is no guarantee that people’s perspective will change over time.

The difference, I believe, with the big issues from the past which I discussed previously is that there were independent compelling arguments which people in their conscience found difficult to resist (even though they found themselves harmed economically) and which eventually won the day. The problem with legislation which is not enforcing a binary distinction but rather initiating a process towards an (often ill-defined) end state, is that it is much more difficult, impossible even, to adduce compelling moral arguments in its support.

Also, at the heart of politics has always been a tension between equality (emphasised on the left) and freedom (emphasised on the right), which reflects a difference in outlook which is ultimately personal. To favour one over the other in legislation is to politicise the moral realm and potentially to invade the sacred space of individual conscience, which is of course itself protected as a human right.

Colin Turfus has a PhD in applied mathematics and works in risk management. He is co-founder of the website Societal Values.

The rise of populism considered from the perspective of evolutionary constraints on our moral choices

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites (Edmund Burke)

A scholar of impeccable academic credentials once suggested to me that revolutions are spaced about the average lifespan of a human apart, about 70 years. I was sceptical, as this sounded like numerology, but I did some digging and there are indeed some interesting patterns: the French Revolution (1789) to the European uprisings of 1848 is admittedly only 60years, but if the American Revolution (1776) is counted in, that is about 70; from there to the communist revolution in 1917 is roughly 70 years; and from the revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) is about 70 years. Of course these events are selective, and I am not suggesting there is a grand plan. However, they may point to an underlying truth: that real social change occurs in a highly disruptive manner, not as a result of gradual progress, and that this change is generational, as it takes the space of about two generations for the contradictions implicit in any system to become apparent and momentum for a new direction to grow to a critical point.

The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn loaned the term ‘paradigm’ from the obscurity of the social sciences and controversially applied it to revolutionary changes in scientific outlook, in the process reinvigorating the concept, redefining and enlarging it and, admittedly, setting it on course to become the de rigeur cliché for any and all sorts of change; it is surely, though, something that corresponds closely to a paradigm shift that we are living through. We are now, in the West, standing about 70 years on from the end of the second world war, from a time when a transnational consensus was established around such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the beginnings of the EU, the welfare state in Britain, the founding of modern Israel in the Middle East, the demilitarisation of Germany and Japan, the growth of the military-industrial complex in the USA, a period of US economic and political hegemony in general. Within this span many changes have occurred outside the western democratic sphere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a communist nation and then as an economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam as a powerful political idea in the Middle East and beyond, the stirring of real political and economic progress in parts of Africa and in India. In the West itself cracks are beginning to show in many of the post-war settlements and institutions, while there is a pervasive sense of economic stagnation and the loss of international leadership, manifest in the seeming inability to deal with the crisis of migration and endemic war in the Middle East. It is against such a background that we are seeing the arrival of a new kind of politics, anti-establishment and populist in its appeal.

The spectre of populism seems to alight on its most prominent figures, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, focussing on their oddity, unsavoury characteristics or questionable beliefs. Although in the main it seems to be a manifestation of right wing politics, there are also populists on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party. It is interesting to note that a significant number of voters in America switched from Bernie Sanders, an anti-establishment left-winger, to Trump, rather than Clinton, an embodiment of the liberal elite. Populism has perhaps less to do with the particular political flavour than its anti-establishment stance and the identification, even if to some extent a fabrication, of grievance and loss within a significant proportion of the national population, a loss – whether of identity, jobs or prestige – caused by the policies of the liberal establishment, an establishment, moreover, that has profited by and large from these same policies. However, I want to propose a hypothesis that even underlying these more obvious political triggers, there is an actuality – not a perception – of moral decline that should be worrying us far more than it actually is.

Since such a hypothesis is going to enrage some people even before it is explained, let me first set out what I am not saying. I am not saying that people now are worse than they were in the past; human nature does not change much over time; however, the general belief is that we are much better, and this is an illusion. We may kill people less, at least in the developed world, but this is because of advances in wealth, technology, political structure, religious belief and law. We may believe we are more generous, and cite increasing donations to various causes, but altruism is a natural human trait which is found across all cultures and has no correlation with money (although self-congratulation may). In this context, it is worth noting the rise in xenophobic attacks with the EU referendum vote and with Trump’s election, which demonstrates how shallow the shackles of self-restraint are. Or the pervasive maliciousness of the online world which exists outside conventional social restraints

The roots of moral life from an evolutionary perspective lie in our sociality, and the natural institutions that both create and emerge out of that sociality. By this I mean those social bonds that are rooted in our biology: physical survival, protection, reproduction, genetic inheritance and genetic closeness. These are the underlying infrastructure – if one can call it that in want of a better term – of our sociality and the institutions of family and community, such as marriage, parenthood, kinship, friendship and economic occupation (which includes any activity to support the family and have standing in the community, whether that be hunting, farming or banking). There is no human society in which these things have not been fundamental, despite whatever other advances or changes have occurred. Societies have always flourished at a time when these institutions have been strong; and no society historically has flourished when these have been weak, neglected or under attack.

Moreover, in evolutionary terms, beyond our mere physicality we have an ‘excess’ in our neurological constitution (which we variously refer to as mind, soul or spirit) in which we entertain beliefs about the world of our experience. Interpretations of what this means for our self-understanding vary enormously – my own view is that in the primal state this is a survival mechanism – but whatever the ontological reality of our beliefs, they must not fatally undermine our natural sociality; if they do they will be eliminated by natural selection (on this point I am closer to Richard Dawkins than to Julian Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, who believed that we have transcended natural selection). This selective process eventually manifests through the political process, particularly in times of upheaval.

The crux of my argument is that the liberal establishment has allowed and even facilitated the erosion of this evolutionary infrastructure of sociality, and that this has had a disproportionate effect on the less well-educated, less mobile and less wealthy sections of society, who in any society constitute the majority. Liberalism has not simply allowed the export of blue collar jobs abroad where labour is cheaper (to be often replaced by jobs that pay insufficiently for a person to buy a home, marry and raise a family), but, more seriously, has persistently undermined the foundations of family and community which enable the emergence of social solidarity. Economic hardship alone, while an important contributing factor, is not sufficient to accomplish this. For the past 50 years the liberal establishment, consisting primarily of academics, the media, and the entertainment industry, has moved forward an agenda of undercutting the foundations of social solidarity: marriage as the unique core of family life, the historical narrative of national identity, and also religion as one of the core facilitators of communal life. This agenda has gradually been institutionalised in education, law and politics. Whatever one’s political views, when teaching children gender fluidity becomes a greater priority than ensuring a sound basic education for all, when celebrating diversity becomes more important than celebrating full employment, we are entitled to wonder whether liberalism has reached its hubristic apotheosis.

As much as I am an advocate of maximising human freedom, freedom comes with its own built in constraints, an internal logic that freedom cannot undermine itself, that is, allow actions that result in its own destruction. These constraints are those determined by our evolutionary heritage and the institutional structures that emerge from them that constitute our social being, referred to above. That people choose not to marry or become parents, or choose not to marry but have children, or choose to divorce, or choose an alternative lifestyle, these are individual choices and rights in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they have social consequences, and if these tendencies become prevalent they have demographic consequences. The influx of immigrants into Europe, for example, is agued by some as a necessity given the population shortfall created by a low native birth rate. This, of course, is not what people want to hear. We have become used to thinking about our sociality in purely individualistic terms, in terms of our freedoms and rights and of the social reality in which we want to live; but just as for all our cleverness and ingenuity we cannot ignore fundamental forces such as gravity, so for all our social experimentation we cannot ignore the evolutionary parameters of our being without consequences.

It is at the interface between individual choice and social necessity that the most interesting political choices are made and the most virulent arguments take place. It is likely that this argument will never be finally settled, as this dynamic of competing views is at the heart of democratic culture and ensures its adaptability to changing circumstances. Excessive liberality is bad for societies, just as excessive authority is, and when pushed to one extreme a counter-force inevitably appears. Populism, therefore, can be seen as a collective, unconscious reaction to the ills that plague modern liberal democracies. If it had not been Trump, Farage or Le Pen, other figures would have arisen with similar grievances and similar policies.

Therefore, to categorically assert that populists represent the doom of democracy is to be entirely enclosed within a dying paradigm and to misunderstand the underlying dynamic of the paradigm shift that they represent. To accuse them of being by definition anti-democratic is to have forgotten that democracy was, in the ancient world, and has been in modernity, a revolutionary force, representing more closely the wishes of the mass of people than any other system of governance that has existed. It is also to be wilfully blind to this system having been gradually hijacked by self-perpetuating elites who have empowered and enriched themselves. As long as people generally felt that they were making progress they were willing to acquiesce to the elites in Washington or in Brussels, but since the financial crisis in particular, and the increasingly widening gap between rich and the poor, or those simply struggling to stay afloat, there has been a growing anger on which populism has capitalised.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of uncertainty and potential for danger in these developments. In a recent article, the author Robert Harris argued that the political situation today resembles that of the 1930s more closely than any time since. I do not think we are even close yet, but the signs should serve as a warning. Berlin in the 1930’s was not only a time of great social unrest, economic turmoil and political agitation, but a byword for moral turpitude. Lest people think that these factors are unconnected, the National Socialists made great play of their intention to clean up Germany morally, which was one factor in their gaining popular support. The present populists are hardly moral paragons and tend to be morally liberal on the whole, but they advance authoritarian policies which could be a step in allowing more extreme policies to follow.

Karl Marx expected the communist revolution to take place in Britain, the most industrially developed country in the nineteenth century; that it did not may be due in part to great reforms in the Victorian era, in particular on the spiritual, educational and economic conditions of the working classes. The populist platform today could be derailed by centrist parties having the courage to undertake reforms of similar magnitude. Having said this, I have no expectation that people today will willingly change their behaviour, as it is human nature to resist difficult choices, moral or otherwise, unless circumstances force our hand. My hope is that our existing institutions are strong enough to withstand the uncertain times into which we are moving and that we may be able in hindsight to view this period in history as a time of readjustment in the balance of freedom and moral obligation within democratic society rather than the beginning of a civilisational holocaust from which we must build anew.


Altruism and the Moral Matrix

This essay, ‘Altruism and the Moral Matrix’ is a contribution by the mathematician Colin Turfus to The Axiological Perspective.


We consider the origins of altruism in human society, concluding that neither the sorts of view typically put forward by religious believers nor the critiques offered by the New Atheists offer an adequate explanation. We suggest one reason for this is the excessive focus of both sides on the individual rather than the group as the arena where altruism operates. We point to evidence that altruism evolved in a group context but required a “moral matrix” to support it and prevent it from being undermined by the “free rider” problem. We also consider to what degree religion is a necessary condition for the establishment and maintenance of the moral matrix.


One of the greatest debates in philosophy and the social sciences over the last few centuries has been the origins of altruistic behaviour in human beings. This issue can be approached from many perspectives, with the result that polarly opposed opinions not infrequently find themselves being expressed. A central question within this debate is the role played by religion. Religious believers will of course see the hand of God in stimulating our Original Mind through His teachings. But, at the opposite pole, the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, and co.) see religion as one of the biggest barriers preventing human beings from living together in peace and mutual tolerance.

So how can the two sides reach such divergent views on the role of religion in their understanding of the origins of altruism? Can we claim that either side really has a satisfactory explanation of what drives altruistic behaviour and how it can best be cultivated or promoted? While my sympathies tend by habit to be more with the former position – I see how my beliefs and the moral compass implicitly embedded therein propel me to live a life for the sake of others, in particular those who share my beliefs (or some of them) – in relation to the beliefs of certain religious groups such as violent Jihadists, I must confess to feeling more sympathy for Sam Harris’s critique of religious extremism and would have to concede he has a point. And there is the nub of the problem: my spiritual beliefs always cultivate right attitudes and good behaviour, but other people’s are not always so benign…

As with all such big debates, some of which have lumbered on over centuries, this one looks unlikely to be resolved by either side ultimately prevailing over the other. A further dimension needs perhaps to be introduced that can help elucidate the validity of both perspectives while moving the discussion on to a new level.

Weaknesses in Current Explanations

One of the problems for the religious position, or more particularly the Judeo-Christian perspective, is its lack of rigour. The existence of an original mind is postulated (explicitly or implicitly). But this has been polluted by a fallen mind (at some unknown past date), so that in practice we are in a process of evolution towards its liberation. So both the original mind and the fallen mind are at best conceptual tools rather than being empirically observable or concretely defined. For example, if we ask the question whether the original mind will be liberated by creating the right social/spiritual environment or vice versa, this is not answerable in terms of the conceptual framework proposed.

The New Atheists’ position on the other hand is built on the foundation of Darwinism (or more accurately a particular interpretation thereof popularised principally by Stephen J. Gould (1980) and Richard Dawkins (1976, 2006) about 30 years ago). It is their view that human nature has evolved from animal behaviour through a process of natural selection operating on individuals at the genetic level. They explicitly exclude the possibility pointed to by Darwin (and accepted within at least part of the biological community until the 1970’s) of “group selection” whereby some groups might prosper at the expense of others on account of some genetically encoded propensity shared by individuals in the group. An argument commonly used against this possibility in the case of the evolution of altruism is the so-called “free rider” problem, first identified by Darwin himself. It states that if a genetically based behaviour evolves amongst some individuals in a group which assists the group but is not directly in the interests of the individual, there will be an advantage for those in the group who do not practise it. The prospering of the non-practising individuals at the expense of those practising the group-serving behaviour will then serve to suppress the spread of the genetic modification throughout the group.

Dawkins (1976) argues for two possible origins of altruism in human beings, both of which he sees as compatible with the selfish gene concept he promotes. One is kin selection where, for example a mother nurtures her child. But in this case she is securing the future of her own genes, so the phenomenon must be expected to remain tied to that context, except insofar as it misfires and a mother feels maternal instincts for other children, or perhaps infant animals. The second example is so-called reciprocal altruism where individuals in a community develop cooperative behaviour to their mutual benefit. But it is arguable whether this is genuine altruism given that it is defined to be conditional on a benefit returning to the initial benefactor.

On the back of such thinking, biological orthodoxy has tended to argue for the last 30 years or so against the existence of genuinely selfless altruism as an intrinsic human behaviour, i.e. one with a genetic/biological foundation. Rather evidence of altruistic behaviour is viewed either as a failure correctly to perceive the hidden benefit conferred on the individual, or as a learned behaviour. The latter may be reciprocal altruism operating at a cultural rather than, or in addition to, a genetic level (nature and/or nurture); or it may be prescribed by moral agents (such as religions) on behalf of “society” or the group against the immediate interests of the individual. Dawkins coined the word “memes” to describe such learned behaviours, the behavioural equivalent of genes. It is perhaps not surprising that biologists have on this basis been in general hostile to religion and have been more on the liberal than on the conservative wing politically.

But, whatever one makes of such arguments, it hardly constitutes an “explanation” of altruism in human beings to suggest it is self-delusion or, at best, a false consciousness.

A More Empirical Approach?

So we have the Judeo-Christian viewpoint on the one hand asserting axiomatically that altruism is an intrinsic human propensity because it is part of the divine nature with which we are all supposed to be endowed. On the other side, the hard-line Darwinians remain sceptical about the idea that human beings are intrinsically altruistic, on the basis that the free rider problem would have prevented altruism from evolving at a genetic level.

To make progress in this stand-off we might do well to take a wider perspective, looking in particular at the working and evolution of both the human mind and human society, and indeed their mutual interaction. We are all aware that our basic biological instincts are to advance our own interests as we perceive or feel them. We learn from a young age of the need to resist and control such urges as part of a socialisation process.

Whether an atheist or a religious believer, every parent knows that children have to be taught to behave with consideration for others and do not do so naturally. Why do they usually conform? Well, in the first instance there is the fact that they can: children are born in general with an innate ability to empathise, and develop fairly naturally the capacity to envisage how other people will respond to certain behaviours of theirs. What takes effort to develop is the will to direct their own behaviour in line with other people’s desires rather than their own. This usually occurs by harnessing their will to receive approval from their parents or others around them.

From this observation, two further questions arise:
• Is this approval-seeking itself an innate or a learned behaviour?
And further:
• Is the development of altruism tied to this approval-seeking or is there an independent altruistic tendency that operates independently of any approval-seeking mechanism?

These questions take us into the realm of evolutionary psychology and the closely related field of sociobiology. Although the former was for a long time marginalised by evolutionary biologists, it is I believe now starting to become mainstream, if not in the estimation of the wider biologist community, then at least in the opinion of psychologists. We note in this regard that Dawkins (2006) in his more recent writing evinces support for some of the work of evolutionary psychologists, albeit its critique of religion.

I shall not attempt here to do justice to the arguments and supporting studies and evidence presented by evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists in relation to the above questions. Rather I refer the reader to Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) recent account of these issues. In Haidt’s estimation, the answer to the first of these questions is more clear-cut than the other. But a lot can nonetheless be said in relation to both and Haidt gives his conclusions in the third part of his book under the head “Morality Binds and Blinds”.

On the first issue, it seems obvious that approval-seeking is common across many species, not just humans. One only needs to think about mating processes. And if a behaviour supports a mating process, it is a prime candidate for genetic selection. The evidence suggests that approval-seeking is hard-wired not only into our genes but also into our brains. One of the main functions of speech from its inception appears to have been to express disapproval. Gossiping ensured that any transgressions by an individual against the interests and expectations of the community would be sure to become public knowledge, to the significant disadvantage of the transgressor.

This would be expected naturally to lead to a situation where advantage could accrue to individuals manifesting “altruistic” behaviour. But, the question must then be asked whether the altruism induced in this way is transferable to relationships with those outside the community whose approval is sought? As Hayek (1988) argued in his classic defence of free market principles, although it is possible for altruism to transcend the bounds of the community in which it was forged, it is no simple matter for this to happen. The constraints we learn within our community to impose on our behaviour and perception (what Haidt refers to as moral matrices), rather than being an assistance, are frequently an impediment to integration with other communities:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.

So, according to Hayek, when in our behaviour we seek the approval of our community, this is likely to lead us into greater conflict rather than concord vis à vis other communities. The behaviours we learn which enable us to transcend our family or community loyalties are what he terms “morality”. So for Hayek, morality is by definition a learned behaviour, imbibed through a combination of imitation and schooling. Altruism beyond the community to which we have natural loyalty cannot in his understanding be construed as having a genetic basis.

Hayek’s answer to our second question would therefore appear to be no: altruism is only hard-wired insofar as approval-seeking is hard-wired in our instinctive behaviour. The hard-line Darwinian purists would happily concur with such a conclusion.

Groupishness in Human Beings

Haidt (2012) evinces support for Hayek’s general view of morality. But consideration of more recent evidence surveyed from the perspective of evolutionary psychology lead him to a conclusion which diverges subtly from Hayek’s. He points out evidence of what appears to be an innate propensity in human beings for “groupish” behaviour. By this he means the immersion of oneself in a group identity and/or behaviour (a comparison is made with that of bees or ants). This is not frequently manifested, but is triggered from time to time by certain events which can cause an altered brain state to occur. Extending the analogy with bees, he refers to these triggers as “the hive switch,” summarising his thesis in the aphorism that “human nature is 90% chimp and 10% bee”.

Examples of groupish behaviour which he enumerates are:
• Strong nationalist sentiment induced by a perceived hostility or threat, e.g. 9/11
• Fraternities and sororities at US universities underpinned by induction rituals
• Chanting at football games (US or UK version)
• Evangelical worship services
• Rites of passage involving ritual dances and chanting
• Hallucinogenic drug-taking, often as a religious practice or at a rave
• Camaraderie in war

This tendency he identifies as a driver for genuinely altruistic behaviour. Thus, his claim is that groupishness is not just a behaviour which results in the individual receiving the approbation of the group, resulting in an advantage for the individual which is favoured by natural selection. If this were the case, the appearance of good behaviour would be enough to secure the advantage which would favour selection. But the activation of the hive switch is not something that can be faked. Groups of individuals together enter into altered mental states, the reality of which can be detected and measured by neurological research techniques.

The suggestion is therefore that genuine altruism is an innate propensity, but is conditional in two ways. First it requires the hive switch to be activated at some level for it to kick in. And second, it is expressed in a limited manner towards an “in-group” of other hive members, often but not necessarily at the expense of those perceived not to be members. We can see how this leads to the phenomenon mentioned above whereby religious adherents are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of their own religion and fellow-religionists, but will often be extremely uncharitable and even violent to those who neither share their faith nor conform in their behaviour to the constraints of their moral matrix.
The interesting question to ask ourselves is whether the benefits of the first outweigh the costs of the social turmoil engendered by the second. There is a strong argument to be made (Haidt makes it) that the foremost position of religion as a strong moral force at the centre of almost every thriving society is not a coincidence, an argument we ignore at our peril. (The recent economic decline in W. Europe is I think well correlated with the decline of the influence of religion.) Yet mainstream liberal opinion in both US and W. Europe tends to be scathing of religion and sees it as a necessary part of their agenda to reduce the power of religion to influence the public moral agenda. At the same time, conservative political opinion tends at best to be conditional in its support for sectarian moral agendas.

Moral Capital

If we take the above viewpoint of Haidt (who incidentally counts himself an atheist and a liberal), we must view the deficit in the respect in the US and W. Europe for the beneficial influences religion has brought to our societies as a problem to be addressed. The consequence of this failure is twofold. The first is what Hayek (1988) calls the fatal conceit. This is an inability to recognise the truth of the claim first made by David Hume that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason,” resulting in a mistaken belief that we can build the morality of our choice into our society through the deliberate design of our laws and institutions.

The second consequence is the diminution of moral capital which Haidt defines as

…the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Here we confront the paradox that it is typically in membership of a group that we give expression to our altruistic nature. So, by curbing the influence of “parochial” religion we curtail the supply of moral capital. Further, it has been observed that within communities, the degree of sacrifice individuals are willing to make for the community is related to the extent to which the group sacralises certain goals or ends. Such is not restricted to religious sacralisation but includes such causes as tackling climate change, protecting endangered species (and foxes), and promoting minority rights.

But there is a problem in that sacralising is by its definition beyond rationalisation. There will always be those who do not see the sacred objects or objectives as such and seek to use rational arguments to desacralise them. It would appear that in the western world over the last 50 years we have frequently succumbed to such arguments and seen our stock of moral capital decline substantially. We seek to rebuild this stock with exhortations to be good citizens and to commit ourselves to the building of the multi-cultural society. But if the willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause is born out of group membership, moral capital is inevitably diminished, not increased, by an attempt to break down divisions, especially if this involves losing part of our identity, such as our pride in (and knowledge of) our national history.

It should be added that the western world has been particularly vulnerable to such decline in its moral capital because of the excessive focus on the rational individual at the centre of its theorising about morals, rights, economics, politics, etc. Furthermore, religions in the Western world too have tended to be focused on the behaviour and status of the individual rather than on groups like the family, or on relationships. This is in sharp contrast with the oriental tradition of Confucianism. Members of oriental societies will of course look at society very differently and are much more likely to see families, groups and relationships, rather than atomic individuals. They are therefore more likely to take steps to protect families and groups, even where this is at the expense of compromising individual rights or freedoms. I am not here suggesting that oriental societies are therefore a better model; only that they illustrate a weakness in western societies.

The Way Forward?

So what can we learn from the above? Well, one immediate conclusion is that we should seek to use the language of relationships and groups more in discussing moral issues in the public arena.

Secondly, we should be more willing to recognise the value of sacralisation in communities as a good in itself insofar as it is typically the wellspring of altruistic behaviour. Of course, if what is sacralised is a behaviour or end which is of itself clearly harmful to society, such as the promotion of race hatred resulting in violence, that should be discouraged. But there is a difference, say, between homophobia and a choice made in conscience to value heterosexual relationships differently from homosexual. Alongside sacralisation, Haidt recognises loyalty and respect for authority as values which are equally ignored by liberal advocates. We should find the language to speak out for all three as supporting the moral capital of our society, without which it could not exist.

Thirdly, rather than trying to undermine the groups which induce in their members a willingness to sacrifice for the group, it would be more fruitful to seek to enlarge the sphere of the concern. While the innate mechanism for learning altruistic behaviour is demonstrably group-centric, that does not mean that altruistic behaviour and compassion, once learned, cannot be extended to a wider group, as Jesus elucidated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.


Dawkins, Richard (1976) “The Selfish Gene” (1st edition)
Dawkins, Richard (2006) “The God Delusion”
Gould, Stephen J. (1980) “The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History”
Haidt, Jonathan (2012) “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” (see also references therein). Part I of the book is summarised in the opening of his RI lecture available at For an overview of part II of his book, see his TED lecture on For part III, see his TED lecture on and his RSA lecture on
Hayek, Friedrich A. (1988) “The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism”.