Note: This blog post explains one cause of society’s basic disagreements. It is not intended to denigrate anyone on either side of the argument. It’s obvious which side I favor, but I’ve done my best to be fair.
There’s a joke about economists. It illustrates a fundamental cause of our moral, social, and political disagreements:
If you show economists that an idea works in practice, then they object: “Yes, but does it work in theory?”
In other words, economists tend to be so fond of their theories that they care more about the theories than about the reality they’re supposed to describe.
Economic models usually assume that people are rational decision-makers who try to get the most material benefit at the least cost.
In other words, “economic people” are more like disembodied minds than flesh-and-blood human beings. They don’t have irrational impulses or group loyalties. They just crunch the numbers and maximize their profit.
But as we’ve heard lately about Covid-19, models are only as good as their assumptions and their data. If those are false or incomplete, then models give us the wrong answers.
That’s why economics is a lot like psychoanalysis: it’s much better at explaining what did happen than at predicting what will happen. Economic models focus on the rational mind but they ignore the rest of human nature. They are incomplete.
Our moral, social, and political disagreements stem partly from the same dichotomy:
- Is human nature mental or physical? (Does it have to be one or the other?)
- Are we limitless minds untethered to physical reality, capable of doing or being anything we want?
- Or are we biological creatures with limited minds, able to do a lot but still limited by physical reality?
If you look past all the slogans, ideologies, and tribal rationalizations, that’s the basic difference between our two ways of seeing the world.
What caused the difference?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a “hierarchy of needs” that human beings must satisfy (see the graphic).
At the bottom are things that we need in order to survive: food, safety, belonging, and position in the social order. Those are essential. If we don’t get those things, then we can’t live at all. Higher needs never become an issue.
At the top are things that we need in order to fulfill our human potential: to understand the world, to appreciate beauty, to exercise our abilities, and to perceive the majesty of creation. It’s here that our imagination seems able to break free of the bonds of reality.
Throughout history, human life has been a struggle to survive. In many parts of the world, it still is. People didn’t have enough to eat. They were ravaged by diseases far worse than Covid-19. Families had a lot of children because so few of the children lived to adulthood. As much as they could, people had to base their worldview on facts, not on aspirations. In order to have any chance of survival, they had to deal with the world as it was, not as they wished it to be.
But now, in prosperous countries, that’s less true. Most people never go hungry. If they’re sick, they can take a pill and usually get better. They’re almost never in physical danger. All their lives, they never lacked any essential needs of survival, so they take them for granted. They don’t even notice them. So at a gut level, they don’t quite believe that physical reality is important.
On the other hand, common sense is based on millennia of human history. It knows we can achieve great heights of spirituality. But it also knows that we must be alive to do it — in other words, essential needs come first. Satisfying those needs requires accepting reality as it is. Our wishes and aspirations must be consistent with it. We can’t ignore the bottom part of the pyramid.
Common sense is the worldview of ordinary people. They think that a man in a dress is a man in a dress. A blonde WASP isn’t an American Indian. And a software engineer isn’t a dragon: if he thinks that he is, then he’s mentally ill.
The only people who believe otherwise are those who have never had to worry about physical reality. Well paid, well protected, they live in a world of ideas and imagination: their own personal “Twilight Zone.”
Never hungry, never seriously ill, never in actual danger, they focus only on wishes and aspirations. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve never lost anything by doing it. If anyone says things they don’t like, the offender can be de-platformed and silenced. If someone thinks he’s a dragon, then who are they to say he’s not?
Both sides are right, and both are wrong. Yes, we are more than just physical beings. Our minds and creativity can soar beyond the clouds. But that doesn’t mean we’re just mental beings who can create reality on the fly to suit our whims. As individuals and societies, we need to respect both sides of our nature. If we don’t, we risk smashing Maslow’s pyramid into a pile of rubble.
Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”