August 10th, 2009

Dr. Peter Corning proposes a new political-economic system for humanity.


Toward a 21st Century Evolutionary Ethics

Peter Corning, Ph.D.

I would like to propose four basic propositions (core assumptions) that, I believe, are vitally important for constructing a 21st century evolutionary ethics. These propositions are as follows:

1. The basic, continuing, inescapable problem for humankind is survival and reproduction; this is a problem that can never be permanently solved.

2. The ongoing survival challenge entails a broad array of “basic needs” that can be empirically documented; they are imperatives for survival.

3. An organized society is quintessentially a “collective survival enterprise.” Whatever may be our illusions, aspirations, or personal agendas, the fundamental purpose of a human society is to provide the wherewithal for meeting our basic survival needs. Indeed, the vast majority of human activity, even in complex modern societies, is devoted either directly or indirectly to meeting basic needs.

4. In complex societies, the survival enterprise is inextricably interdependent in nature (it can properly be characterized as a super-organism) and is becoming ever more so.

To quote that great free market advocate, Adam Smith: “In civilized society [man] stands at all times in need of the co-operation of and assistance of great multitudes…man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren.”

Let me digress here, for a moment, to stress something that may not be so obvious. The term “basic needs” is often treated in social theory as being relative, or a matter of personal preference. But from a biological/survival perspective, this is absolutely false. Basic needs can be strictly defined in biological terms, as requisites for the normal functioning of an organism, and a failure to meet these needs will cause more or less severe harm to its chances for survival and reproduction.

Moreover, our basic needs constitute a much bigger and more encompassing challenge than is commonly associated with the term. There is a research program at our institute called the Survival Indicators Program, which has documented and empirically validated at least 14 broad “domains” of basic survival needs in humankind.

They are referred to as basic needs “domains” because many of them in fact encompass an array of different elements. An obvious case in point is the variety of nutrients required for a balanced diet.

Survival Indicators: The 14 “Basic Needs”

1. Adequate Nutrition

2. Fresh Water

3. Thermoregulation

4. Waste Elimination

5. Respiration

6. Sleep

7. Mobility

8. Physical Safety

9. Physical Health

10. Mental Health

11. Social Communications

12. Social Relationships

13. Reproduction

14. Nurturance for Offspring

There are three interrelated normative principles that comprise the fair shares paradigm.

1. Goods and services should be distributed to each according to his or her basic needs.

This may sound like an echo of Karl Marx, but it is at once more specific and more limited. Here the term “basic needs” refers to the 14 primary needs domains mentioned above. Our basic needs are not a vague, open-ended abstraction, or a matter of personal preference. They constitute a concrete agenda, albeit subject to further refinement, with measurable indicators for assessing the outcomes. Also, this paradigm fully recognizes the fact that there are individual and contextual differences and vitally important instrumental needs, which are also subject to change throughout the life-cycle, and that reproduction and the needs of dependent offspring must be included as well. It should go without saying that both markets and a variety of other forms of collective action, inclusive of government actions, may have a role to play in meeting our basic needs.

2. “Surpluses” beyond the provision for our basic needs should be distributed according to “merit”.

Merit has many facets, of course, but the ultimate criterion is rewards that are proportionate to our contributions to the collective survival enterprise, and to our common needs (the public interest). This criterion would obviously exclude the profits of drug lords, for example, as well as excessive profits due to various market distortions, like monopoly and cartel pricing, or insider information, fraud, and so forth.

However, there is no formulaic way of determining merit. Many social mechanisms, ranging from the market place to a representative, mixed, democratic government, an independent judiciary and many other institutions and practices can and do play a vital role in the imperfect art of determining what is fair compensation.

The “merit” principle merely stakes a moral claim and poses the right question. Does this paradigm imply a return to “welfare queens,” or a culture of “free-loading” and an indolent class of economic “defectors”, to use the game theory terminology? The answer is emphatically not. Where is the equity in that? In fact, a crucial corollary of the two principles enunciated above is that the collective survival enterprise has always been based on mutualism and reciprocity, with altruism being limited – mostly – to special circumstances under a distinct moral claim (what could be called “no-fault needs”).

So a third principle must be added to the fair shares paradigm. It might be called a “reciprocity principle”:

3. In return for the benefits associated with the first two principles, each of us is obliged to contribute to the collective survival enterprise in accordance with his or her ability.

The “reciprocity principle” applies equally to the rich and the poor, to wealthy matrons and welfare mothers.

However, it also begs the question. How are “abilities” and “contributions” to be determined? Again, there are no formulaic answers, but societies have developed various ways for permitting such collective judgments to be made, from markets to legislatures, election processes, “random” military drafts, examinations, licenses, performance evaluations, progressive taxes, and many more.

Fairness is the golden thread that binds a viable society together. And when that thread breaks, the social fabric will unravel. But fairness is not an all-purpose formula or recipe. It is a general principle that recognizes the merit of competing interests and directs us to find equitable compromises.

In this paradigm, compromise is not a “sell-out” of one’s principles to political expediency but may well be, and often is, the assertion of a superordinate principle with a higher moral claim; it recognizes and accommodates legitimate competing interests, and it furthers the overarching goal of preserving a “just” economic and social order.

However, the evidence is all around us that fairness is often a matter of perspective; it can be a very difficult call. That is why we have a formal justice system, and mediators, family counselors, contract negotiations, and, not least, markets.

Indeed, every society has a panoply of informal customs and practices for approximating fairness — from “equal shares” to queuing and “first come, first served,” “taking turns,” “drawing straws,” and “handicapping”– like senior citizen discounts and allowing children to go free. In other words, fairness is an evolving (and sometimes devolving) work in progress, not an Olympian absolute.


Peter A. Corning, Ph.D., The Basic Problem is Still Survival and an Evolutionary Ethics is Indispensable, Institute For the Study of Complex Systems, Palo Alto, CA, 2003,

Dr. Corning has addressed this topic in more detail in a paper written in 2000 that he called  FAIR SHARES: Beyond Capitalism and Socialism.

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