Forager, Farmer Morals

Looking for insight into farmer-era world views, I just read the 1931 novel The Good Earth, about Chinese farmers. It is of course more a morality tale than a documentary, and the main character soon gets rich, and is then no longer a representative farmer. But the story illustrates differences between farmer vs. forager style morality.

Foragers live in close egalitarian bands, with behavior well adapted to their environment. So forager morality issues are mostly about well-adapted personal behavior in conflict with group interests. Foragers sin by bragging, not sharing, being violent against associates, etc.

Farmer morality, in contrast, is much more about conflicts within people than within groups. Farmers sin by being lazy, wanting overly fancy foods, taking drugs, having sex with prostitutes, wanting status markers that cost too much in the long run, etc. Farmers need to resist internal temptations to do things that might make sense for foragers, but which can ruin farmers. These can also ruin one’s family and friends, so farmer sins also have shades of selfishness.

Of course farmers also care about bragging, violence, etc. In some sense farmers have more morality – more and stronger rules, to fight against stronger natural inclinations. So farming culture introduced religion and stronger social pressures to enforce their rules, to keep farmers from relapsing into foragers.

This helps me make sense of Jonathan Haight’s observations that liberals, who I’ve called forager-like, rely on fewer moral principles than conservatives, who I’ve called farmer-like:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/cheating and Liberty/oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all six foundations, including Loyatly/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. (more)

I’ve suggested that as we’ve become richer, we’ve become more forager-like. If our descendants get poor again, they’ll probably need stronger social norms again, to get them to resist temptations to act like foragers and do what is functional in their world. Their morality would probably rely on a wider more-conservative-like range of moral feelings.

In the em scenario I’ve been discussing here, sex would be unimportant except as a possible way to waste too much time. So em morality would be pretty liberal on sex. But money, work, and reputation would be important – ems would probably have pretty conservative attitudes on keeping their word, doing their job, obeying their boss, and not stealing. When mind theft or virus corruption are big risks, they’d also probably have strong purity feelings about avoiding acts that could risk such harms. And they’d probably feel strong clan loyalty, even beyond what farmers feel, to the clan of copies of the same original human.

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  • Rob

    Farmers need to resist internal temptations to do things that might make sense for foragers, but which can ruin farmers.

    What are some of the things here that you have in mind?

  • KPres

    The forager/farmer moral structure you describe is just a historical artifact, not to mention a false dichotomy, and there’s little value in applying it to future scenarios. We adapt to serve our self-interest within our given circumstances, period, and our strategy of moral attack is an outgrowth of the same. Since it’s incredibly unlikely that any imaginable future will resemble either of the previous era’s, why approach the problem this way? The two concepts are far too confining.

  • Jason

    “… except as a possible way to waste too much time. … And they’d probably feel strong clan loyalty, even beyond what farmers feel, to the clan of copies of the same original human.”

    One possible (frightening) interpretation of these facts is that ems could use their spare time to conduct constant war between clans. This would mitigate the large em population and limited resources per capita (providing motivation). There is the conservative/farmer pro-war stance (not implying just or unjust here) leaning in this direction as well.

    • Robin Hanson

      It takes a lot more than loyalty to create war.

      • Jason

        To create world wars with large institutions, yes, it’d probably take more (although I don’t know of any evidence that says so).

        But to create small-scale clan warfare all you’d need is a disagreement and a sense of honor.

  • Thursday

    Except, unlike modern liberals, foragers are highly religious or at least supernaturalistic and, while farmers may have selected even more strongly for them, the three conservative moral foundations almost certainly evolved while we were foragers.

    • Robin Hanson

      The capacities were certainly evolved long ago. I’m saying that farmers amplified their use relative to foragers.

  • V

    Comments seem not to appear.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Whether ems would have “liberal” attitudes about “sex” might depend on the prevalent IP laws. I am using the quotation marks to hint that ems are likely to diverge from humans psychologically at an astounding (to us) rate, and what would pass of sex among them could be quite different than what it is among humans. Human sex evolved as a way of assuring access to the most useful available genetic information encoded in other individuals, under conditions (constant but variable survival threats such as parasites) which strongly favored such exchange. If ems have strong IP laws regarding parts of their minds, and a need to exchange structural information, they will have something analogous to human sex, with limited access to or by specific individuals. If IP protection turns out not be favored by the evolution of the legal system, they may have exchanges more similar to bacterial conjugation or DNA uptake, a kind of more or less random take up and incorporation of snippets of other ems’ minds. Whether the term “liberal” would have a recognizable analogue I find hard to predict.

    • Robin Hanson

      I usually focus on an early em era when such mixing of mind parts is infeasible. I suspect a lot will happen in that era.

  • Mark M

    Em loyalty to their Em-clone clan seems less likely to me than Em jealousy and competition. Unless their survival depends on it.

    Maybe it’s just me.

    Em morality and attitudes towards sex will mirror that of the original human.

    • William B Swift

      Loyalty within an em-clone clan may depend a great deal on how difficult it is to transfer information between members. If it is much easier between members of a clone compared to outside the clone, it would likely make for very strong loyalty.

  • Dave

    The forager/ farmer concept is like the Village People with only only two of them left.What happened to the Indian chief and the policeman?

    Ems are like John Madden Football 500 years from now.

  • Campbell

    It’s Haidt.

  • Bobby

    What is “em”? 

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