Friday, July 03, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 17

Politics of Human Nature 2: Residues. In my posts on Pareto I have introduced the concept of residue, which is the stable or common element in social conduct corresponding to some fairly permanent human impulse or sentiment. Pareto lists six types (or “classes”) of residues, but I will confine the analysis in this post to only two of them: (1) Instinct for combinations; and (2) Group-persistences.

James Burnham in his book The Machiavellians summarizes these two residues as follows:

Instinct for combinations. This is the tendency which leads human beings to combine or manipulate various elements taken arbitrarily from experience. Many magical practices are a result of its operation: the manipulations to control weather and disease, to bring good luck, the supposed efficacy assigned to certain numbers … and so on. Supposed connections are established between certain events, formulas, prayers, or words, and good or bad luck, happiness or terror or sorrow. At a complex level it is this residue that leads restless individuals to large-scale financial manipulations, merging and combining and re-combining of various economic enterprises, efforts to entangle and disentangle political units, to make and remake empires.

[These residues] also impel men to “system-making”—that is, to elaborate logical or rather pseudo-logical combinations of ideas and mental elements in general, to theologies and metaphysics and ideologies of all sorts. Thus it is this class of residue that chiefly accounts for “derivations,” expressing man’s need to make his own behavior seem rational.

Group-Persistences. When once any combination has been formed, forces come into play to keep that combination sustained and persisting. These are, one might say, “conservative” forces, present among animals as well as human beings, and sometimes referred to as “social inertia.” They express themselves, for instance, in the powerful feeling that the family or the tribe or the city or the nation is a permanent and objective entity. So strong are they that the dead and the not-yet-living are included in the supposedly persisting unit, and we thus have all the many forms of ancestor-worship, belief in immortality, and social provisions made for a posterity that will not exist until all living persons are long dead. “Family pride,” “class solidarity,” patriotism, religious zeal are all quite direct modes of these residues.

They account also for the feeling that “property” becomes a permanent part of a man’s being, so much so that certain objects are even placed with the dead body in the grave, or for the “love of the native soil.” In another direction, they give persisting life to abstractions and personifications. Gods and heroes and Platonic Forms and “natural law” and “progress” and “the state” and “the moral will” and many other creatures of the dynamic human imagination [such as Rand’s “logic”] are endowed with substance and enduring reality.

These [group-persistence] residues, as Pareto describes them, are usually accompanied by a willingness to use force in order to maintain the solidity and persistence of the entities in question—to “save the nation,” or the “true faith,” for example. [209-211]

It is important to keep in mind a few caveats when dealing with these two classes of residues. First, they neither apply to everyone nor explain everything people do. They are, however, important in understanding certain social phenomenon, particularly the tendency in society for ingenuity and innovation to conflict with faith and force. And second, these residues apply in varying degrees to different people. While most human beings manifest these two classes of residues in some degree, the tendency is for individuals to manifest more of one than the other. And finally, a word of warning: one should not get caught up with the phrases Pareto sometimes uses to identify these residues. When Pareto calls “Class 1” residues the “instinct for combination,” he is not introducing any kind of theory of instincts. He is merely noting that very many human beings throughout history behave as if there were such an instinct. Pareto is not terribly interested in the cause or origin of the conduct: only with the conduct itself.

There is one psychological assumption, however, that Pareto does make about his residues: namely, that they have a non-rational origin. Residues are ultimately the manifestations in conduct of motives, and all motives, as I explained in my last post, are and must be non-rational in origin. This does not mean that residues can’t motivate rational activity. The combination-instinct residue helps motivate scientific activity and business enterprise, both of which Pareto would regard as rational. But it also motivates alchemy, astrology, magic, and “metaphysics,” all of which Pareto would classify as non-rational.

The most important clash between Pareto’s theory of residues and Rand’s vision of human nature arises from the notion that these residues have alternating strengths and weaknesses that make them better fit for dealing with certain types of problems rather than others. Individuals, for example, who are strong in combination-instinct residue tend to be good at using their wits and are thus better fit in dealing with problems requiring intelligence. Individuals strong in the group-persistence residue tend to be good at using force and thus are better fit in dealing with problems requiring violence.

Rand, when inventing her heroes, ignored this notion that there trade-offs between various traits of character. She gave her heroes every trait that she admired regardless of whether they went well together or not. Thus her heroes are not only immensely intelligent, but, when called upon, they are courageous and (or so we would assume) good at applying force (one them, after all, is a pirate). Thus, her heroes can handle any situation, because they can always draw upon the requisite characteristic.

In the real world, however, it is rare for individuals to be good at everything. Just as there exists a division of labor in society, there exists a division of talents and capabilities. To reach distinction in the use of one’s wits, one must devote most of one’s time to cultivating one’s practical intelligence and judgment. To reach, on the other hand, distinction in applying force, one must devote most of one’s time cultivating one’s talents in developing skills appropriate for intimidation and violence. Now individuals will tend to cultivate their innate strengths, so that if an individual is born with a high IQ, he will tend to favor intellectual skills at the expense of athletic or military endeavors, while those who are innately athletic and courageous will tend to develop such skills related to bullying, intimidation, fighting, sports, etc. Individuals tend to develop those innate abilities and talents by which they can distinguish themselves among their peers and thus enhance their status.

The division of talents and capabilities plays an important role in the determination of the social order. A society requires a ruling elite that can draw upon a wide array of skills and abilities. Unfortunately, the tendency in societies is for elites to become increasingly dominated by the skill sets associated with either the instinct for combinations or group-persistence residues, rather than the skill sets for both.

1 comment:

Xtra Laj said...

I'll have to think through the empirical validity of this theory of "instincts for combinations" and "group persistences", but on the tendency of human beings to build their talents at the expense of other facets of their personalities, I think that is true unless you take an extreme view of human potential (which in some ways, Rand often took).

It's odd how Rand's favored characters never exhibit weaknesses (except maybe the women around men, though this is not the kind of weakness I'm speaking of) and she considers this realistic in her own way.

It's also interesting that Rand never really gives much respect to family bonds - her depiction of the Rearden family stands out. She always placed her vision of human nature over what most human beings actually behaved like, and if she ever wanted to consider what most human beings actually behaved like, it was more to morally denigrate it, than to analyze it as some form of evolved decision making.