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Capitalism v Socialism = Aristotle v Plato, or, A Struggle Between Cognitive Styles

Theories of economics seem to be but offshoots of the two dominant cognitive styles of human thought, the intellectual roots of which trace all the way back to Plato and Aristotle and echo still in today’s ideological struggles. These two styles of thought seem universal and timeless, and therefore seem to be candidates for primary “evolved psychological mechanisms” of morality and ideology that are separate from moral foundations.

In general terms:

Style 1 – Platonic Idealism:  Life as it SHOULD be in the abstract.  The notion that a “new man” can be created by top-down control of society through the coercive power of the state, and that man’s first allegiance should be to the collective (i.e., the “general will”)  has been around since, and traces its intellectual roots all the way back to, Plato, and is manifested in thinking like that of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Style 2 – Aristotelian Empiricism: Life as it IS in the real word.  The notion of Aristotle’s empiricism – in layman’s terms, “it is what it is” –  and that man’s first allegiance is, in reality, to himself, as manifested in the ideas of people like David Hume and Adam Smith.

The discriminating factor between the two dominant styles of thought seems to be epistemic certainty (or arrogance?) versus epistemic humility.   All the world’s ideologies, past and present, seems to pivot on that basic dichotomy.  I’d even go so far as to argue that in the chicken and egg discussion about style of thought vs. the slider settings of moral matrices the former determines the latter.  Epistemic arrogance leads almost inevitably to a “care” based ideology, and epistemic humility leads to a morality of balance among all the foundations.

Epistemic certainty, in turn, seems to result from what I call the cognitive bias of conscious awareness, which is sort of a “not invented here” syndrome in which we have a near overwhelming tendency to prefer our own self-generated thoughts and ideas of which we alone are consciously aware to any and all thoughts and ideas generated from outside of our own conscious awareness. 

The process of learning is that of assimilating thoughts and ideas generated outside of our “selves” into our “selves.” 

It seems to me that this bias for conscious awareness is a precursor to the rationalist delusion. Rationalism itself would not be possible unless what I call the consciousness delusion, or the awareness delusion, were already firmly in place.  The rationalist delusion is based in the awareness delusion. This bias is not the same thing, in my view, as confirmation bias or naïve realism or reason based choice or of circling the wagons around sacred values.  It is, rather, a basic cognitive bias of human reason itself that seems to precede those others.

Stepping back from The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman and summarizing the overall impression it leaves, one observes that we humans seem to have an almost obsessive compulsive insatiable NEED to come up with a single unifying social theory of everything, which in turn necessarily includes the foundational concept that there is, in fact, a single “right” answer to every problem or paradox, which itself seems to follow from the awareness delusion, epistemic arrogance, and the rationalist delusion.

All of human intellectual and ideological history seems to be long sequence of attempts to reconcile the idealism of the first style with the empiricism of the second.  Even your précis of “Three Stories About Capitalism” seems to be just that.

And here’s the kicker:  The Righteous Mind, Predisposed, The Blank Slate, Thinking Fast And Slow, etc.,  – social science in general, really – suggest that the awareness delusion is just that; a delusion, an unquestioning faith in something that has no basis in fact.  Cognitive Style #1, Plato’s idealism, is itself a literal impossibility that is denied and defied by the fundamental facts of basic human nature.

Paradoxically, left to its own devices, the Aristotelian style and the principles and virtues that follow from it seem to do a better job of achieving the ideals and virtues of the Platonic style than does the Platonic style itself.

Below in italics are the final few paragraphs of Chapter 21 (about David Hume and Adam Smith) and the heading of Chapter 22 ( about Rousseau) of “The Cave and the Light.” 

Today we tend to think of Wealth of Nations as a work on economics. It is in fact a treatise on the history of civil society and on the driving principles that give commercial society its dynamism and affluence. People usually identify that driving engine as the division of labor. In truth, the division itself springs from Hume’s power of self-interest, the desire of some (but not everyone) to so dramatically improve their lives materially that they focus entirely on that skill or trade that brings the greatest return. This in turn generates a surplus so abundant, so far in excess of that possible in other previous stages of society, that these entrepreneurs enrich not only themselves, but the rest of society—even the politicians and intellectuals who scorn the business class on whom their own prosperity ultimately rests.

Smith tells us not everyone can be Steve Jobs or Dave Thomas or Richard Branson. But under capitalism, not everyone has to. A handful of such persons will be sufficient, provided their creativity and egos are given plenty of room, which is precisely what the free marketplace does.

Smith had to agree with Hume: commerce and self-interest feed on each other. The more freedom we give to both, as happened in western Europe after the Middle Ages, the faster society grows and improves. Free markets free men’s minds, their bodies (Smith delighted in pointing out that slavery was not only unjust but less profitable than free labor), and their individual spirits, even as they fill their pocketbooks with the fruits of natural liberty unleashed.

“All systems of preference or of restraint, therefore, being completely taken away,” Smith wrote, “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way.” The result is “so great a quantity of everything is produced, that there is enough to gratify the slothful and oppressive profusion of the great, and at the same time abundantly to supply the wants” of even the poorest and most despised member of society, to a degree that would boggle the minds of even the rulers of a barbarous society. 39

Smith recognized that not everything would be sunny in a society geared around the unleashing of self-interest and economic growth, what we call capitalism. Some people would inevitably be left out of society’s benefits—not its material ones (what welfare recipient doesn’t own both a TV and a cell phone?), but its cultural ones, as the grind of making a living deprives them of leisure and opportunity for enrichment of the spirit. Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation,” Smith wrote, deserved “the most serious attention of the government.” 40

Hume, too, worried that commercial society’s increasing reliance on the need for credit, coupled with a mounting national debt, would require massive tax hikes that might eventually consume everything in sight. “Either the nation must destroy public credit,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “or public credit must destroy the nation.” And as Scotsmen who could remember when armed Highlanders had roamed the streets of Edinburgh, Smith and Hume sensed the fragility of civilization in the face of barbarism, in ways some of their successors and admirers did and do not. Still, on the whole there was every reason to be hopeful. Commercial society would grow, and social and political institutions would grow with them. The system of modern liberty unleashed by capitalism would succeed in freeing men from tyranny, just as it freed them from material want. The American Revolution and then the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (ironically, the same year Smith’s Wealth of Nations appeared), which Smith and Hume both applauded, d seemed to prove their point. Everywhere, it seemed, the empirical hopeful spirit of Aristotle’s Enlightenment was winning out. Yet at that same moment, the new disciples of Plato were plotting their revenge.

Chapter 22

You must make your choice between the individual and the citizen, you cannot be both. —Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762

O Liberty, what crimes are commited in your name! —Madame Roland, 1793



  1. Pingback: The Ideological Divide Isn’t Really About Ideology | The Independent Whig - October 16, 2016

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