Rationalism Done Right
Describing a potential list of tenets for "right-wing rationalism"
Richard Hanania joined Brian Chau recently on his podcast From the New World to discuss “How Status Competition Created the Culture War.” The conversation found its way to effective altruism and rationalism. At around 2:18:30, Richard Hanania said he wanted to start calling himself a “right-wing rationalist.” He thinks he has the same methods of reasoning that rationalists use, but he reaches right-wing conclusions. I spend time with effective altruists, read Scott Alexander, and all that, but I also come to some conclusions that most people would regard as right-wing. I think plenty of people in the community do the same, but they aren’t the majority.
I thought it would be interesting to create a list of beliefs for rationalists or effective altruists who lean right. This will be my particular form of “right-wing rationalism,” but I suspect Hanania and others on the right would be rather sympathetic to these views. I would be surprised if someone who self-describes as a “right-wing rationalist” would disagree with a whole lot on the list.
I am also going to lump EA with rationalists somewhat. I was reading an article recently called “Billionaires like Elon Musk want to save civilization by having tons of genetically superior kids. Inside the movement to take 'control of human evolution.'“ that was mainly about the pronatalist and pro-genetic enhancement couple Simone and Malcolm Collins. Several things stood out, but one was Simone Collins describing a faction of effective altruism that could grow following the collapse of FTX:
"This means our faction (more conservative, pronatalist, long-termist-civilization-building-focused, likely to self fund) is now 100X more likely to become a real, dominant faction in the EA space," Simone wrote in a text message on November 12.
This article garnered some concern in the EA forum. A post with 20 karma at the time of writing was published entitled “‘Pronatalists’ may look to co-opt effective altruism or longtermism.” Unsurprisingly, some people weren’t happy with their views. This points to some possible division. Political words like these are vague and going to get pushback, but let me try to lay out a rationalism of the right in a list of ten tenets. Feel free to add or critique in the comments.
Rejection of the Blank Slate: Among the most replicated findings of behavioral genetics is the fact that “all psychological traits show significant and substantial genetic influence” (Plomin et al., 2016). This is such a well-replicated finding that it is often called the first “law” of behavioral genetics. Progressives—and conservatives—often demonstrate a sort of ideologically-motivated selective blank slatism. Many—but not all—progressives at least tacitly assume that intelligence, criminality, and anti-social behavior result mostly or entirely from education and socioeconomic status, but homosexuals and transgendered people are “born that way.” However, right-wing rationalists are not absolute genetic determinists. They understand that “No trait is 100% heritable” (Plomin et al., 2016). Thus, many are willing to discuss the tabooed subjects of the genetics of intelligence and environmental influences on homosexuality (see Caplan, 2022; Francis, 2022).
Cognitive ability, as measured by IQ, has numerous important socioeconomic correlates within countries: Whereas progressives interpret socioeconomic status as the driving force behind differences in educational outcomes and other desirable traits, the right-wing rationalist would interpret causation differently, seeing cognitive ability as the major driving force. Intelligence has many desirable correlates (Branwen, 2013). In a chapter of The Handbook of Intelligence (2015), Tarmo Strenze provides a chapter, “Intelligence and Success,” which provides a table of correlations (r) between cognitive ability and measures of success that have been well established through multiple studies (k) (Strenze, 2015, pp. 406). Some examples are primary education performance (r=.58; k=4) (Poropat, 2009), educational attainment (r=.56; k=59) (Strenze, 2007), job performance (r=.53; 425) (Hunter and Hunter, 1984), income (r=.20; k=31) (Strenze, 2007), recidivism (r=-0.7;k=32) (Gendreau et al., 1996), traffic accident involvement (r=-.12;k=10) (Arthur et al., 1991), and schizophrenia (r=-.26; k=18) (Woodberry et al., 2008). If an outcome is desirable—getting a PhD, making patent-worthy inventions, being an informed voter—IQ typically positively correlates. If an outcome is bad—divorce, chronic welfare dependency, criminal behavior—IQ typically negatively correlates. For more, see “Chapter 9. The Practical Validity of g” of The g Factor (1998) by Arthur Jensen or “Part II: Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior” of The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.
Cognitive ability, as measured by IQ, has numerous important socioeconomic correlates between countries: Nations with higher IQ are more economically productive. This relationship is primarily causal in the direction of higher IQ leading to better outcomes. I am unfamiliar with this area, but this is an essential point for many. Some research in this area includes Kirkegaard (2014) analyzing the relationship between a socioeconomic factor and cognitive ability, Francis and Kirkegaard (2022) on national intelligence and economic growth, and Garett Jones’ Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own (2015).
Within developed nations, we cannot substantially permanently change cognitive ability for the better: Interventions that boost IQ tend to fade out until the control group and the treatment group is once again indistinguishable (Protzko, 2015). It is not impossible to change IQ within developed countries, but these sorts of interventions are better thought of as preventing deprivations, perhaps most notably iodine deficiency and brain injury. While some have found that education increases IQ, this is likely “hollow” in the sense that the gains are not on the thing we care about the most, the g factor. Tests of cognitive ability rely on a wide range of cognitively demanding tests that are used to measure a latent factor for general cognitive ability. They inadvertently also measure other abilities like memory of vocabulary, for example. You can school a child and dramatically boost their vocabulary, thus increasing their measured IQ without increasing all the other abilities. This is a sort of “teaching to the test.” If schooling genuinely boosted general cognitive ability, we would see this reflected in all g-loaded items, but we do not (Lasker & Kirkegaard, 2022). Many likely do not agree with me on this specific point, but the ineffectiveness of schooling makes me much more sympathetic to child labor and ending most compulsory schooling (Parrhesia, 2022).
Inequality of educational outcomes within developed countries is primarily driven by genetic differences: Since cognitive ability plays an importnt role for educational performance and cognitive ability is highly heritable, genetic differences will play an important role in educational outcomes. The more equal the environment, the more genetic differences will play a role. Cognitive ability is normally distributed, so you will always have children who are at the bottom of the class. Some children will always read at a fourth-grade level. Not every child can be gifted and effective schools can’t make every child academically proficient (Warne, 2020, pp. 159-175). This is largely the topic of Freddie DeBoer’s book The Cult of Smart (2020). He wrote more about the ineffectiveness of interventions in creating equality in his article “Education Doesn’t Work.”
Since genetic differences—especially in genes associated with IQ—play an important causal role in socio-economic outcomes, we have to treat genetic changes—dysgenics and eugenics—seriously: The idea of discussing “eugenics” and “dysgenics” is extraordinarily repugnant for most on the left and the non-rationalist right. I think it is potentially wise to avoid using the term eugenics as it is reminiscent of Nazi atrocities. Still, I do not think it is incorrect to use the term as it accurately describes the practice of trying to improve genes. For more on the ethics and semantic debate, see “Can ‘eugenics’ be defended?” and “Harmless Eugenics.” Accepting that some genes are good and some bad does not mean we must commit atrocities to get the good ones. If we get away from semantics and try to decouple, we will see that eugenic practices are often moral. There are already eugenic practices that almost everyone accepts, such as banning brother-sister marriage. I am most enthusiastic about the potential of genetic enhancement technology like polygenic embryo screening, iterated embryo selection, cloning, and gene editing, which merely facilitate the creation of healthy and happy people. The consequences of this technology will transform the world for the better (Parrhesia, 2022). It is imperative that we protect this technology from being banned.
Rejection of “the orthodoxy”: Rationalists of the right should reject what Charles Murray calls the sameness premise (a core doctrine of the orthodoxy)—“In a properly run society, people of all human groupings will have similar life outcomes.” It is exceedingly unlikely that all human groupings, no matter how defined, would be precisely genetically the same in their average skill sets and propensities for certain behaviors. Since basically all real-world variables are correlated, the null hypothesis of exactly zero effect of genes between groups can be presumed false with almost absolute certainty prior to any experimental evidence. A rationalist should have an extraordinarily strong prior of inegalitarianism. However, most on the left take the socially accepted hypothesis of human equality and demand that it be refuted with an extraordinary abundance of evidence—even more than non-controversial hypotheses because it is morally distasteful. Furthermore, if the people who provide the evidence have other unsavory views, are not affiliated with academic institutions, associate with bad people, receive funding from bad organizations, or seem motivated by their political beliefs, their evidence can be largely dismissed. Whereas journals like Nature Human Behavior can explicitly state they will only publish articles that fit their egalitarian ideology (Parrhesia, 2022). There is also much in the way of evidence against the orthodoxy. A recent book on the topic is Charles Murray’s Human Diversity (2020).
Markets are good: Capitalism is preferable to socialism and communism. Markets will produce inequalities because they reward economic productivity, and not all people will be equally productive. While it may not be just in a cosmic sense for a CEO to make significantly more than the average employee, incentivizing maximally efficient behavior from a CEO is worthwhile. Rationalists of the right are more sympathetic to expanding markets. For example, I suspect most support organ markets, whereas non-rationalists on the right find these sorts of markets intuitively immoral.
We are in an evolutionary mismatch: Since we recognize we are not blank slates, we should also recognize that our brains evolved to be adaptive to specific environments. The present environment is very different from our ancestors, and it may make us happier to embrace more traditional lifestyles. On the rationalist right, there is more skepticism around the practicality and utility of polyamory, promiscuity, substance use, and atheism. There is more sympathy for Christianity, having children, and the genders adopting their respective gender roles. The right also seems to like older and more traditional aesthetics in architecture, artwork, clothing, etc.
Suppressing the above information is more harmful than helpful, and we should face reality. Many people believe that the above information is correct but that we should not talk about these sorts of things because it would be for the worse. I suspect a decent number of rationalists fall in this camp. I don’t think I consider those to be on the right necessarily. You must find them worthwhile to mention or at least let them inform other aspects of your worldview rather than just trying to suppress them in your mind. Other than this tenet, the most vital dividing point may be regarding “the orthodoxy.” Freddie deBoer and Kathryn Paige Harden embrace many points on this list yet harshly criticize those who reject the orthodoxy. Whether you like it or not, admitting that you do not believe all human groupings are the same across all traits that matter in detail will often get you called “far-right,” among other unpleasant names.
If I only had one word to describe my political thinking, it would be libertarian. I have other beliefs, like enthusiasm for immigration, which would not be appreciated by most on the right. The exact words don’t matter so much, and it’s best not to get too hung up on what we call ourselves. Political ideologues will use derogatory terms for their outgroup liberally and euphemisms for their own side. But we can’t abandon any political descriptors, so I think it is best to state things very clearly from the inception of an idea. If you are a rationalist with this set of beliefs, I would call you a right hereditarian rationalist (RHR). I would be interested to see a list of tenets for Richard Hanania’s “Hananian right-wing rationalism,” the Collin’s pro-natalist conservative faction, or other rationalists of the right and where they disagree with this list.
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I don’t consider myself of the right, but I agree with all ten tenets. Indeed, I would love to see a genuine attempt at refuting any of them.
This feels...off. Maybe I don't get the core audience you're appealing to.
But when I contrast it to another "manifesto" I'm struck by the difference in priority. Comparing them, it's clear where one focuses on friends and relationships where your proposed core tenants are... correctly modeling human intelligence? Not specifically making one common mainstream mistake. I mean, I don't think the author I linked would disagree with 80% of what you've written here, and I don't think you'd disagree with what he wrote, but these generate very different outcomes.
I get old rationalism's core appeal: you're irrational, here's how to train yourself to be more rational. I get EA's core appeal: better charity saves more lives. I get the AI alignment thing: save the world. I'm not sure what this is, who this appeals to, unless you're full bore pro-eugenics.
Which...could actually be quite appealing. A basic pitch of "Actually, most of our social issues are caused by underlying genetic issues, therefore we should fix those" is actually kind of appealing but I'd want to be very explicit about that.