Outside the Monkeysphere: How Liberals and Conservatives Generalize Information about ‘Those People’

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Or: Why Liberals Support Food Stamps and other Government Food Programs:

CC by The Shopping Sherpa
Philosophers created the science of epistemology to explore how we know what we know and have been grappling with it for at least 4000 years without firm resolution. In today’s world, the issue is an incredibly complex one. We have multiple sources of information, with varying degrees of reliability and validity, and we often don’t know for sure which sources are more and which are less reliable.
This post assumes that you have a basic grasp of the scientific method and logic and critical thinking skills. Given that, and given what we know, and how we know, how do we decide how to live our lives? Usually, we make a moral decision about the nature of the world, and build our belief system to match it from the pieces of information we discover that most support our belief system.
Mankind is not primarily ‘the rational animal’, but the rationalizing animal. This has been demonstrated in experiment after experiment (ironic, I know). We often start from a conclusion we want to reach and build backwards to achieve philosophical unity with the conclusion. Scientists and people of faith (not a mutually exclusive group) are equally guilty of this, and with good reason. Our information overload leaves us with greater, not less, uncertainty, as we have to weigh many more variables.
Belief systems are frameworks that we build to make sense of our world. They are made up of many assumptions about the nature of knowing, about the reliability of facts, and about the nature of our relationship to other humans and the larger world.
Dunbar’s number (popularized as the ‘monkeysphere’) helps to understand why many humans are unable to empathize with people who are significantly different from them. If your social circle (monkeysphere) consists totally or almost totally of people who are essentially just like you are, it’s easy to fall into the belief that others (’Those People’) are fundamentally different from you.
How we react to those outside our monkeysphere in large part is defined by the two broadest classes of political philosophy. Liberalism rejects the ‘fundamental difference’ belief, while conservatism embraces it. It’s the question of what to do with ‘those people’.
Liberals generally assume that all human beings are intrinsically valuable (like we are) and we build systems outside the monkeysphere in order to provide as many opportunities as possible to potentiate (lovely word, that) their intrinsic value. In other words, ‘those people’ are just like me.
For instance,as a liberal, I might feed hungry people I’ve never met, and use my government’s food assistance as an automatic deposit system to set up a system to do so, because I assume that those other people, like me, have intrinsic value. Our primary view of those outside of our monkeysphere is that they are just like the people inside our monkeysphere, but not yet known to us, with the same basic needs, wants, urges, and potential, expressed, perhaps, in different ways.
Conservatives generally view those outside their own monkeysphere in one of three ways: Some ‘others’ are inferior in some way to the conservative and thus available to be used or thrown away. Other people outside the monkeysphere are a threat to a conservative, in which case he feels justified in depriving the other (’Those People’, again) in order to minimize the threat. Finally, some others are irrelevant to the conservative, in which case he doesn’t feel the need to consider the impact of his actions on them in any way.
A conservative, therefore, must allow a person into their monkeysphere, at least provisionally or tribally, in order to provide food assistance. A person must be ‘like me’ (race, class, or aspirations) in order to ‘deserve’ food assistance. A conservative can be just as generous as a liberal, so long as he has, to some extent, decided that this particular non-monkeysphere person or group has provisionally earned personhood.
In addition, the conservative is going to weigh whether it is useful to him to feed the other (he might support food stamps on the grounds that he will then be able to hire workers for lower wages without consequences in terms of their ability to perform the work). If a conservative views an outsider as a threat (racism comes to play here), he will actively fight providing aid to a group, viewing it as counter to his interests. This has been a primary driver of health care debates.
(CC by Jeffrey Beall) Which of these people deserves to eat?

As a conservative, I might volunteer at a food bank, or give a check to victims of a hurricane, or support a cause I grew to know through some personal connection, but it is anathema to me that others that I haven’t ‘pre-approved’ would get care that I in part pay for through a government program. This does not change even if I or someone I know benefits from this program, as I can then rationalize my monkeysphere-central acceptance of help as a ‘special case’.In the aggregate, conservatives live deep within their monkeyspheres and guard the borders. Liberals build bridges and roads between monkeyspheres and visit every now and again to see how things are going. It is up to the reader to decide which sort of life is more likely to lead to a better world.


  • What is the difference between my conservatism and progressivism? (tannngl.wordpress.com)
  • Personality predicts professional philosophers’ beliefs (experimentalphilosophy.typepad.com)
  • What is the value of a human being? (psychologytoday.com)
  • The science of friendship (socialcapital.wordpress.com)
  • Augmenting your Dunbar Number (ross.typepad.com)
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