Socially Normative Agency And Rights

Index to posts in this series

Michael Tomasello’s book, The Evolution Of Agency, presents a model of the evolution of agency, not cognition, not emotion, not the physique or eating habits of Homo sapiens. It’s packed with references to academic papers and books, but in the end, it has to be understood as a series of hypotheses generated by Tomasello from his own research, and his extensive study in this area.

Any extension of this model, for example, trying to use it to understand our own culture, is mere speculation until it is tested. That’s true no matter how obvious the extrapolation might seem. With that caveat I’ve been thinking about the implications of this model.


Here’s an example of Tomasello’s understanding of human agency as an individual attribute:

Most of the unique psychological capacities of the human species result, in one way or another, from adaptations geared for participation in either a joint or a collective agency. Through participation in such agencies, humans evolved special skills for (i) mentally coordinating with others in the context of shared activities, leading to perspectival and recursive, and ultimately objective, cognitive representations; and (ii) relating to others cooperatively within those same activities, leading to normative values of the objectively right and wrong ways to do things. Individuals who self-regulate their thoughts and actions using “objective” normative standards are thereby normative agents, very likely characterized by a new form of socially perspectivized consciousness, what we might call self-consciousness. P. 117.

In this picture, we evolved to cooperate. One crucial focus of cooperation is forming a useful picture of reality, one that we can use safely to plan our actions.

Side effects of socially normative agency

Tomasello’s evolutionary history leaves off around perhaps 50,000 or so years ago, when humans lived in small bands, loosely connected in cultural groups. That mode of life continued until about 6,000 years ago, when humans began to live in cities.

In The Dawn Of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow look at this history of our ancestors from a different perspective. I really like two of their ideas.

  • “… As soon as we became humans, we started doing human things.” P. 83.
  • “There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much.” P. 279.

Following these points out, most of the rules of cultural normativity must have seemed critical for survival ti early modern humans, even if the connection didn’t seem obvious to a child or an adolescent, or an outsider. But as the millennia pass, some of the norms might have seemed wrong or unnecessary, and oppressive. The young might have been unwilling to put up with the demands of their elders and especially their parents but lacked the ability to change things.

This is the Wikipedia summary of Sigmund Freud’s book Civilization and Its Discontents:

… Freud theorized the fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual; his theory is grounded in the notion that humans have certain characteristic instincts that are immutable. The primary tension originates from an individual attempting to find instinctive freedom, and civilization’s contrary demand for conformity and repression of instincts. Freud states that when any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it creates a feeling of mild resentment as it clashes with the reality principle.

Primitive instincts—for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification—are harmful to the collective wellbeing of a human community. Laws that prohibit violence, murder, rape and adultery were developed over the course of history as a result of recognition of their harm, implementing severe punishments if their rules are broken. This process, argued Freud, is an inherent quality of civilization that gives rise to perpetual feelings of discontent among individuals, justifying neither the individual nor civilization. Fn omitted.//

We don’t talk about instincts much anymor, and the question of mutability of instincts is open, but I think Freud has a sharp insight here. We all have moments when we feel out of control with rage or grief or hatred or …. We might have fantasies about guillotines for particularly loathsome elites or having sex with a co-worker. But mostly we just get over it and move on.

Tomasello would attribute this to our socially normative agency, and that makes a lot of sense.

Here’s an example used by Tomasello. A hunting party from a band kills an antelope. There are three competing interests. First, the successful hunter needs to eat, and wants to get as much as possible. Second, the hunter has a normative duty to the rest of the hunting party to share. Third, the hunter and the rest of the hunting party have a normative duty to carry the kill back to the rest of the band for disposition as the band decides.

Bands and cultures survive because the hunters bring the food home. But each time, the individuals experience a conflict in that they are unable to satisfy their selfish desires.There must have been cheating. Sometimes an individual or a group must have defected. Defection too has survival value, at times more so than the survival value associated with membership in the band. But that may well have produced an equally unpleasant sensation for many, guilt.

We aren’t so evolved we’ve lost our urge to satisfy our personal desires, or our willingness to satisfy our personal urges if we can or provide for our families even at the expense of the community. Thus the incidence of violence and sexual adventures, and the negative feelings and damage that go with those events.

Rights as limits on the demands of one’s community

In the past several thousand years we humans have lived in large communities, from a few tens of thousands to over a billion. We’ve endured all kinds of governments, from more or less egalitarian consensus-driven groups to totalitarian dystopias. Freud’s insight, and those of Graeber and Wengrow, apply to all of them. There will always be a conflict in the minds of many of us between the demands of society and our personal desires.

The Founders said that the point of government was to protect the rights given to people by the Creator, but they were just as worried about the dangers of government. They said the just powers of the government derived from the consent of the governed, but they were just as worried about the dangers of oppression by the majority. The solution they adopted was government of limited powers and the Bill of Rights.

The hope was to balance the desires of the individual members of society against the need to maintain a community in which everyone can flourish.

The idea, in other words, is that rights set the boundaries of the demands society can make on us. those limits


1. I like Tomasello’s suggestion that one feature of shared agennce is the construction of a onsensus picture of the reality confronting the group, so that sensible shared decisions can be made. This was doable 10,000 years ago, but in our radically different world it’s hard. We’ve replace full consensus with majority rule

2. We should think about their impact of rights on our society as a whole, more than the feelings of the individuals claiming rights. Let’s take guns as an example. What kind of society do gun rights advocate think we should have? Should people with the history of Zackey Rahimi be allowed to have guns? Should this decision be made by 5 unaccountable unconstrained members of SCOTUS?  Or should the majority decide based on their understanding of the nature of a good society?

Rights Without Reason

Posts in this series.

Free Will, Agency, And Evolution
Goal Directed Agency And Intentional Agency
Great Apes AS Rational Agents 
Socially Normative Agency
Socially Normative Agency And Rights
Coming To Grips With Free Will


Social media is full of right-wingers bleating about the infringement of their rights. Sometimes it’s gun nuts blathering about their rights to own every gun. Sometimes it’s some dude whining about being slammed for exercising his free speech right to spew his racist opinions. These blowhards say that no limitation on their rights is permitted, whether it’s criminal penalties, civil damages, or public insults.

Perhaps these oppressed people get their idea about rights from the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….

But, of course, the Declaration doesn’t confer any rights. Maybe they think the right to mouth off and the right to strut around with guns are God-given. That would explain why they are offended when they encounter consequences for their behavior.

Perhaps they believe these rights spring from the first two Constitutional amendments. But SCOTUS says otherwise in US v. Cruikshank (1875).

The right of the people peaceably to assemble for lawful purposes existed long before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. In fact, it is, and always has been, one of the attributes of citizenship under a free government. It ‘derives its source,’ to use the language of Chief Justice Marshall, in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 211, ‘from those laws whose authority is acknowledged by civilized man throughout the world.’ It is found wherever civilization exists. It was not, therefore, a right granted to the people by the Constitution.

The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.


The second and tenth counts are equally defective. The right there specified is that of ‘bearing arms for a lawful purpose.’ This is not a right granted by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court says that neither the right of free association nor the right to keep and bear arms are granted by the Constitution. By that logic, neither is the right of free speech. The cases applying these amendments to the states under the 14th Amendment do not reject this reasoning.

It seems that our rights depend on the interpretation by five members of SCOTUS of a word like “republicerad”, or of whatever they think they know about our tangled history. If so, there is no way to explain anything about our rights. That’s especially true of this version of SCOTUS, which doesn’t even pretend to care about precedent, and invents rules to suit its preferred policy outcomes.

Preliminary Ideas

I’m going to read and write more about our rights. For starters, here are some thoughts. It will be interesting to see how these thoughts hold up against other people’s ideas.

1. Every idea people have about everything was invented by a human being. This is a point made by the early Pragmatist William James; see the last part of this post. This is the second in a three part series on Pragmatism, the other two are here and here. They lay out the basic ideas that help me to understand our world. For those interested in how this philosophy works in our time, take a look at Philosophy And Social Hope by Richard Rorty, a collection of essays by the late Pragmatist.

2. One problem with our Bill of Rights is that the language is unhelpful. Many of them are couched in the negative, leaving open the nature of the positive right. Others use imprecise language, such as “cruel and unusual”. From the beginning these amendments were seen as limits on the national government. When the Supreme Court began to implement the Reconstruction Amendments, it imposed the language in the Bill of Rights limiting the national government on the states. The result was the eradication of the power of the states to participate in the regulation of these rights. This was a major change in our federalism. And we were left with the vague language, now subject only to the interpretation of SCOTUS. Constitutionalizing these ill-defined rights leads to inflexibility in thinking about their content.

3. What exactly do we mean by “rights”? As a starting place, and in keeping with what I take to be the position of First Amendment absolutists and the gun nuts, we mean that no one is allowed to interfere with some action taken by another. For example, the right to own a gun means no one can interfere with anyone else’s right to buy and own a gun, including violent criminals and domestic abusers. The right to free speech means no one can interfere with the right of anti-abortion fanatics to scream outside my neighborhood abortion clinic.

4. Rights are inherently social, not individual. Every right requires a concomitant imposition on everyone else. The existence of rights limits the way our society can regulate itself. For example, anti-vaxxers may make religious liberty claims, while others point out that refusal to get vaccines threatens their children. If the anti-vaxxers prevail, we are all exposed to greater risk of illness and death.

This implies that rights should have a political aspect. Our current system is heavily biased towards a legalistic approach, empowering courts, especially SCOTUS, with undue power. It also focuses on the claims of individuals and ignores the impact on society and the claims of people not in the litigation. Dobbs is a good example: the plaintiff was the state government, and the defendant was an abortion clinic. What about pregnant women? What about their families? What about he impact on society? Alito and four other self-righteous rulers don’t care.

New Series

My next book will be The Evolution Of Agency by Michael Tomasello. I think it indirectly supplies a more useful approach to thinking about social relations, and thus rights. It’s short, and easy reading (mostly).

In this post I discuss the Epistemic Regime as described by Jonathan Rauch, in his book The Constitution Of Knowledge. The Epistemic Regime is the way we arrive at truth in the Pragmatic sense. I think it’s good background for some of Tomasello’s ideas about our species.

I’d like to follow that with books or papers about the theory of rights in the US. I don’t know what that will be yet, and if anyone has a suggestion, please put it in comments; also I’m still on Xitter @MasaccioEW, and slowly moving to BlueSky. @[email protected].

Problems With The Standard Story Of The Revolutionary War And The Constitution

Index to posts in this series

The standard story of the origin of our nation tells us that the Declaration of INdependence asserts that all men are created equal and naturally endowed with certain rights including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that the Revolutionary War was fought to uphold these principles; and that the principles are instantiated in the Constitution. We didn’t always live up to those principles but we’ve always worked towards them, and we get closer all the time. P. 9 et seq. In the first post in this series, we saw that the Declaration doesn’t fit well with the standard story. What about the Revolutionary War and the Constitution?

The Revolutionary War

Roosevelt doesn’t think there was a single cause for the War.

Different people sought independence for different reasons, and likely they sometimes said what they thought would advance their cause rather than what they truly believed. History requires interpretation, and a claim to possession of the one singular truth is a hallmark of ideology. P. 55.

The Declaration explains the decision of the Colonists to throw off English rule. It claims that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The Declaration complains that the King cut off trade between the Colonies and the rest of the world. It claims that the King ignores the laws and even the courts of the Colonists. The King attacks the Colonies directly, keeps a standing army in the Colonies, and quarters troops on the population. The King imposes taxes on the Colonies even though they are not represented in Parliament. The King stirs up the “merciless savages” to attack and murder the Colonists. The only reference to slavery is oblique: the King “… has excited domestic insurrections amongst us….”

No doubt one or more of these claims were a factor for some of the Colonists. The principle of consent itself may have motivated some of them. The listed claims may have motivated others. Perhaps some were motivated by a desire to bring about equality or at least to end slavery (Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, for example.) Roosevelt points out that protecting slavery may have brought others into the war:

There isn’t much evidence supporting the idea that slavery was an issue. Of course just as people say things they don’t believe to advance their cause, others may keep quiet about their actual reasons if they would hurt the cause. There was little to be gained by saying we’re rebelling because we want to enslave people. Roosevelt suggests that

… for some of the Patriots, a desire to preserve slavery was one reason—and maybe a strong one—to declare independence[.] On its face, this is pretty plausible. Just as it seems unlikely that northern Patriots had slavery at the front of their minds, it is unlikely the southern ones didn’t have it at least at the back of theirs. P. 53.

In any event it’s hard to argue that the War was fought over the principle of equality for anyone except white men and especially white men with property. A telling detail: the British offered slaves freedom if they fought for the King. After the War the Colonists demanded the return to slavery of those people. The British refused.

Nor was the Revolution fought to advance a broad principle of equality. Roosevelt says that the statement that all men are created equal is a reference to the fictional state of nature assumed to exist in the beginning. The broader concept of equality would have to wait for the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. It asserts that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” This is a statement about real people living in real societies, not imaginary savages in the wild.

The Constitution

The Constitution was necessary because the Articles of Confederation failed to create a strong enough central government. The states were fighting among themselves, refusing to adhere to treaties, imposing trade restrictions and refusing to pay the debts incurred in the Revolutionary War. The preamble states the reasons for adoption of the Constitution, starting with “to produce a more perfect union”, and ending with “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Roosevelt says that the chief goal of the Constitution was unity, with liberty at the bottom of the list.

If the Constitution were actually about individual human rights, it would include provisions that protected the rights of individuals. It doesn’t. The Founders Constitution restricts the Federal Government’s right to intrude on the specific rights in the Bill of Rights, but the states were free to intrude as much as their own constitutions allowed. It took the 14th Amendment to change that, and to make the Federal Government the guarantor of individual rights against itself and against the states.

As to slavery, there are three provisions that directly or indirectly support its continuation: the Three-Fifths Clause, a provision barring the Federal Government from ending the international slave trade until 1808, and the Fugitive Slave Clause. Each of these cemented the power of the slave states.

The Three-Fifths Clause redressed the population imbalance between the slave states and the rest, allowing slaves to be counted at ⅗ of a person for purposes of calculating the number of Representatives allocated to each state. It worked with the provision giving each state two senators to insure a balance in the legislature between slave and free states. In addition it gave the slave states an edge in the Electoral College with respect to population. Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to John Adams without the Three-Fifths Clause. Ten of the first 12 presidents were slavers. P. 76.

The prohibition on ending the slave trade before 1808 enabled slavers to rebuild their holdings by importation after losses in the Revolutionary War. The British offered freedom to any slave who fought for the King, and thousands of slaves accepted this offer. Others escaped their bonds. The Colonists demanded return of these escapees, but the British refused. The outcome is that slave population rose from 697,497 in the first census of 1790 to 1,191,362 in the 1810 census.

The Fugitive Slave Clause says that slaves who escaped to a free state did not gain their freedom, and that the free state was required to return them to their enslavers. This was a big win for the slavers. Under the Articles, each state determined how it would treat slaves in their territory; in fact that rule remained in effect as to slaves brought to free states by their masters. The Constitution stripped the States of their right to decide the question of slavery as to escapees, which today we would call a violation of States Rights.

As South Carolina delegate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney boasted upon his return from the Constitutional Convention, “We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge, which is a right we had not before.” P. 79.


1. The standard story has a central place in our understanding of ourselves as Americans, regardless of other political views. Other nations have national stories, but it seems like we put a lot of emphasis on this story and the two documents, more than citizens of other countries do.

2. One consistent element of our self-image as Americans is that we consent to our government. In prior posts I’ve discussed the theoretical idea of the social contract. That’s not what I’m talking about. We believe that government only works if people consent to it.

Apparently that belief is not shared by a substantial of Republicans today. In this they are like the secessionist Confederates, as Heather Cox Richardson shows.

“We do not agree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence, that governments ‘derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,’” enslaver George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote in 1857. “All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force.” There were 18,000 people in his county and only 1,200 could vote, he said, “But we twelve hundred . . . never asked and never intend to ask the consent of the sixteen thousand eight hundred whom we govern.”

3. Regardless of what Jefferson meant with the phrase all men are created equal, today we flatly mean that we’re all born equal, we’re all entitled to equal rights, and that one function of government is to guarantee that equality.

Apparently that belief is not shared by a substantial number of Republicans.