The Economy of the Planet of the Apes

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I saw this vandalized movie poster the other day, and I tried to be funny on Twitter (something about anti-consumerist primates, about Caesar not wanting his struggle to be commodified by the movie industry).

But this got me thinking. Assuming that the apes do take over our planet, what kind of economy are they likely to create? I’m not happy with the movie answers to this question. The movies – both the original sixties movies and the new rebooted series – depict an unconvincing economic image of ape ascendance. In both movie series the apes become clever enough to acquire human knowledge and to potentially adopt human practices and institutions, including the human economy. But they don’t.

In the rebooted series the apes seem not particularly interested in becoming the new humans, perhaps understandably. They’ve returned to the woods near San Francisco in the second movie, and they’re clearly not going to just continue the human economy based on capitalist production and trade. They seem clever enough to do this, but they either lack the will or the incentives to use their new intelligence to acquire the knowledge, the science, the technology, the institutions and the behaviors necessary to recreate a capitalist economy. In the original movies, the apes have created a primitive, pre-industrial caste-like system based on human slavery.

Either scenario seems unlikely. After all, if the apes have human level intelligence, why not use it in a better way? In the rebooted series the apes seem to have no desire to use their new knowledge and improve their economy. Pre-ascendance, apes had (or should I say “have”) no significant agriculture or other types of economic production, no surplus to trade, and no means of exchange. They were (“are”) essentially hunter-gatherers. Why put up with all the risks inherent in keeping such a fragile economic model if you’ve recently gained enough units of intelligence sufficient to improve it? The apes in the rebooted series resist the temptation of retribution (apart from some skirmishes – these are action-movies after all). They’re not interested in subjugating the humans and creating a human-slave economy as they do in the older movies. They want to stay in the forest and keep the humans out. They want to remain essentially ape-like in their behavior, if not their knowledge.

This extreme case of status quo bias seems an unlikely course of action after a major and sudden shift in levels of intelligence. And the actions of the apes in the original series are just as hard to understand. They have human-like intelligence and yet they decide that they want a vindictive system of pre-industrial slavery. Good for the storylines of the movies, but bad for long-term viability and productivity. And hard to understand given the fact that we are led to assume that they should know better.

There’s an article here starting from Austrian economics to make the not entirely convincing point that apes can be both highly intelligent and still remain hunter-gatherers. The argument goes like this: apes, even or especially intelligent ones, must remain hunter-gatherers for some time because sudden agriculturalization or industrialization of their economy would likely turn out to be immensely harmful and even disastrous in the short term. Everyone would starve. You need capital, time and sufficient stocks of supplies to create the institutions necessary for industrialization. I’m not convinced. If the apes do take over, they can also take over the stocks, tools and other forms of capital created by humans. They don’t have to industrialize from scratch.

If neither the movies nor Austrian economics help us to flesh out the unlikely future economy in a world ruled by apes, can we perhaps turn to primatology? We do know a lot about current ape behavior. Assuming that this behavior doesn’t entirely go away with intelligence enhancement, what can it tell us? One of the things we know, such as primates’ fondness of reciprocity and sharing, their inequity aversion and use of altruistic punishment would suggest a mixed economy with a strong welfare state, or even communism. Other things, however, such as the often strong competitive forces at play in primate groups, would suggest a very unencumbered free market economy. (There have been successful efforts to introduce currency into monkey economies). But then again, maybe the original movies were correct: strong primate group hierarchy points to more traditional economic models. So it would seem that our future of ape dominance is up for grabs. Maybe we will indeed be reduced to human slaves in a strictly hierarchical pre-industrial society. Or maybe the apes will join the WTO.

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There Is No Morality, and That’s a Good Thing

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Moral philosophy is an infamous mess. However, this mess, which moral philosophers have inadvertently foisted upon us, may in the end do us a favor: by trying in vain to come up with a coherent and convincing system of morality moral philosophers may have shown that there isn’t in fact something called morality.

But let’s take a few steps back first. Why is moral philosophy a mess? After 2000+ years of trying, not even the brightest minds have produced a morality that’s the least bit convincing. There isn’t even a shred of promise that something convincing is somewhere around some distant corner. For example, your theory might require a bit of rethinking if it states that to act morally you have to

  • Tell an inquiring murderer the whereabouts of your targeted friend
  • Engage in infanticide
  • Prefer a society with billions of people living only a marginally worthwhile life to a small society of very happy people
  • Harvest the organs of a perfectly healthy individual in order to save 5 very ill and possible terminal patients
  • Be as greedy as you can be so as to make tons of money that you can then donate to some hypothetical other people who I suppose shouldn’t follow the rule to be greedy
  • Engage in mutually advantageous exploitation
  • Etc.

However, “rethinking” won’t do the job. Moral philosophy has been “rethinking” for ages, and the only thing to show for it are increasingly exotic and outrageous moral systems that refute one another and that can never and shouldn’t ever be the guide to anyone’s daily actions. You have very imaginative constructs like negative utilitarianism or esoteric consequentialism that have had about as much traction as a spider in a bathtub. Or you have hybrid systems such as rule utilitarianism, threshold deontology or luck egalitarianism that look like desperate attempts to bridge contradicting theories and offer a unified and irrefutable system without the unsavory parts of its components. Qua traction they aren’t any better.

Of course, it’s not because a theory lacks traction that it isn’t correct. Lots of unpopular things are correct. But the general persuasional failure of moral philosophy does indicate a deeper level of failure. Maybe moral philosophy fails because it tries to find a good explanation of something that doesn’t exist. And maybe it makes the same mistake as theories about the Martian canals, Aether or other Phlogistons. (Some ominous parallels perhaps to theories about free will or the Mind).

But if there is no morality, then how do we explain the sense of morality? It’s quite common for people to have a sense of right and wrong, to have a distaste of doing wrong, to oppose wrong when they see it done, to avoid harming others etc. The failure of moral philosophy to come with a good system doesn’t change this fact and doesn’t undo the reality of this moral sense. But if it’s true that there is no morality then this moral sense is an illusion, right? Not necessarily. Moral intuitions such as “do no harm” and “do unto others as you’d have done to you” are not necessarily proof of the existence of something called “morality”. These intuitions are perhaps based on mere self-interest rather than being the result of a moral system. We follow these intuitions in our daily actions not because a system of morality (or a God for that matter) demands this of us, but because doing so furthers our interests.

For example, we have an interest in a prosperous life, but in order to have a prosperous life, we need bakers, butchers, shopkeepers and the like to be able to prosper as well. We need peace, but peace is a public good: if we have it, others have it as well, and the only way to have it for ourselves is to try to give it to others. Reciprocity also explains the intuitions against harming others. If we refrain from harming others we may expect others to reciprocate, for different reasons: those others have no reason to retaliate; they make the same calculation as we do; and there is habit-formation in rule respecting behavior. There is a whole field of game theory that is based on similar assumptions. And the scientific inquiry into human evolution also gives support, as it seems that a lot of morality has an evolutionary basis.

So we end up with “values” that are really self-interested rules which happen, by chance alone, to benefit others. And which, because of these benefits, appear to be morally inspired, altruistic and benevolent. This appearance in turn has produced a whole field of philosophy that, in my mind, mistakes the appearance for the underlying reality.

PS: how do human rights fit into this? If I were famous I would be famous for my interest in and promotion of human rights. Isn’t that a moral stance? Aren’t human rights based on a moral theory? Or aren’t they a moral theory themselves, equivalent to utilitarianism and such? Not in my understanding of human rights. Of course, if you believe that human rights are divine commands or a tool to enforce a consequentialist or deontological morality, then the possible non-existence of morality undercuts the system of human rights. But in my view human rights are tools to promote interests. (I have an older post here explaining my interest-based approach to human rights. And another one here about selfish reasons to respect human rights. A more concrete example is this post about the attractiveness of religious liberty to those who hate it, namely those of us who are most ardently religious. There is also a subset of human rights violations that is relevant in this context, namely boomerang human rights violations).

The absence of a link between human rights and morality also explains

More about human rights and morality here.

I found Trump’s long lost sister on the train 

7th Treatise On The Nature of Meaning and Beauty in the World

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No more than a shadow in a mirror; a mirror which is in fact no more than a mere window; a window which is just a collection of moving atoms; atoms which are themselves no more than moving particles. The mere shadow itself was only a photon variation. There’s nothing redeeming about it all. “But look at the beauty of the thing throwing the shadow!” She may be beautiful, this strange illusion of solidity, but it’s only illusion that gives it beauty. Only illusion gives meaning and that’s all that meaning is. We have nothing else. Mock these trivial lines as much as you please, but you’re not mocking me. You’re objecting to pixels and particles.

Nothing to Tell, But Something to Show

Sorry for the prolonged silence, but nothing interesting and novel enough to say. Hence, in lieu of thoughts, some images. I still have this picture book to “sell” (it’s for free actually):

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Available here:

http://www.blurb.com/ebooks/reader.html?e=389677

and here:

https://itunes.apple.com/be/book/portraits-and-profiles/id645974194?mt=11

An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.