Emergent Systems and Methodological Individualism, Part II: The Issue of Moral Individualism

Posted on February 24, 2011 by


A great many classical liberals and libertarians are attracted to methodological individualism because it seems compatible with ethical individualism. Here I will argue there is no particular connection in either direction. As an ethical approach to social life, no form of liberal thought has any need for methodological individualism.  By contrast, adopting a position growing from understanding emergent orders provides a far better foundation for social science and policy analysis.

That methodological individualism need not lead to any ethical position at all is easiest to demonstrate, for Thomas Hobbes was perhaps the first rigorous methodological individualist. Yet Hobbes’ concept of a natural right ultimately meant simply that we had the right to do whatever we had the power to do. No one had rights vis-à-vis this Leviathan state nor was the state constrained in its actions. The self-interested argument Hobbes made on its behalf was that no matter how bad the sovereign, the outcome for most would be a regime of social order where most people would gain. All in all this was far preferable to a realm where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes’ position is closer to nihilism than to any other ethical outlook.

But what about from the other end? Does the individual disappear as an ethical unit when we set methodological individualism aside as a foundational methodology? Not at all. Consider the traditional African proverb: “I am because we are.”

“I am” easily recognizes the reality of the “I.” What it denies is that the “I” is fundamentally independent of the “we.” The proverb says the same for the “we.” Without “Is” there is no “we.” We are looking at the same insight Berger and Luckmann described in terms of social analysis: the individual is best conceived as a “moment” in a system of mutual causality rather than existing at the beginning of a linear causal system (methodological individualism) or at its end (collectivism).

At this point I want to make two ethical observations. If Hayek, and many others, are correct in that individuals in our sense emerged from out of a matrix of relationships and rules that preceded individual consciousness, morality is an emergent phenomenon because moral agents are themselves emergent phenomena. Morality arises and maintains itself within and through particular relationships. Here David Hume and Adam Smith shed some important light, arguing that morality arises when a moral sense exists, and that sense is intimately connected with what they called “sympathy,” and what we today would call “empathy.” See especially Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Neuroscientists have recently discovered what they term “mirror neurons” in the brains of some mammals and later, of humans.  These neurons appear connected with the ability of some beings to see others as selves like themselves. In doing so they blur the self/not-self distinction. Those animals possessing mirror neurons have demonstrated the capacity for assisting others of no utility to themselves, resist benefits if they are linked to hurting others, and other behavior that in human beings we would unhesitatingly term “moral.”

This same ability is required for that venerable liberal notion of “rational self-interest.” My future self does not yet exist, and is only a hypothetical construct. For me to take its interests into account when confronted by present temptations requires a kind of empathetic capacity as well, and I suspect mirror neurons will be found to play a role. But so far as I know, that is hypothetical.

Charles Darwin’s argument that morality is the result of evolutionary processes also seems validated. Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierece’s Wild Justice, The Moral Lives of Animals was eye-opening for me.  Morality or the next thing to it is a natural accompaniment of social species with certain mental capacities, and is found in many mammals, at least. Morality emerges from life as we ourselves have emerged from life. There is no need for a transcendental dimension, be it a divnity or the laws of reason, to impose it from without, upon an unruly world of matter and emotion.

Second, while it is individuals who possess these moral capacities, their environment has an important influence on how these capacities are expressed. The “we” is not a moral unit, but it can be a better or worse context within which individuals develop their moral capacities. This perspective is a far very from collectivist morality, but it is also a far cry from the extreme individuality argument that people have no obligations towards others beyond not physically aggressing on them. They have an obligation to at least preserve the ‘we’ that made themselves possible, and one could at least argue a strong responsibility to seek to improve it. That is, individuals who have strongly developed their empathetic capacities will naturally want to improve the circumstances of others within their “we.”

To return to my cultural ecology metaphor, the environment can be good enough for a species to simply survive, or for it to thrive. The same can be true for a culture and the human beings that exist within it. Cultures that do not enable human beings to survive disappear, but that does not come close to arguing they are all equally good, taken-for-granted stages on which self-sufficient individuals live their lives.

My argument does not claim other approaches to understanding morality are faulty. It only claims that we do not need anything beyond the insights arising out of Berger and Luckmann, and encapsulated in that African proverb, to find a foundation for individual morality, and respect for individuals, immanent within the world and arising out of the nature of human life. So in Part II. I have argued that methodological individualism need not lead to any ethical insights at all, it is compatible with Hobbesian nihilism, and that a better explanation for who we are as social beings, developed by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, can lead to such an insight. The fate of methodological individualism as an analytic approach to understanding human beings is entirely separate from individuals’ moral standing towards others.

My final part III. will argue that not only are the two unconnected, in practice methodological individualism encourages deeply flawed ethical reasoning.  An emergent order approach to liberalism enables liberals to address a far wider and deeper range of issues that does one rooted in methodological individualism, and the caricature of individuality that it encourages us to accept as adequate to the job.


(small edits made  2/28/11)