Bottom up versus top down

Bottom up versus top down

By Neil Lock

Today, I’m going to look at two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, and at the practitioners of those two ways. One way, I call bottom up; the other, top down.

Bottom up thinking is like the way we build a house. Starting from the ground, we work upwards, using what we’ve done already as support for what we’re working on at the moment. Top down thinking, on the other hand, starts out from an idea that is a given. It then works downwards, seeking evidence for the idea, or to add detail to it, or to put it into practice.

These two opposed methods bear on far more than just the way we think. The idea of bottom up versus top down can be applied to many dimensions of our lives. It can be applied to our overall world view, and to our views on religion. To how we seek knowledge. To our ethical and political views. To our conception of government and law. To our opinions on economics and environment. To how we communicate with others. To our views on education and media; and many more. Bottom up versus top down isn’t a single scale of (say) 0 to 100, but a multi-dimensional space, in which each individual’s position is represented on many different axes.

Some individuals, like me, seek to use the bottom up method in all or almost all of these dimensions. Others may take a predominantly top down view, or even an extreme top down one. Yet others may apply bottom up thinking in some dimensions, and top down in others.

For brevity, I’ll introduce the phrases “bottom upper” and “top downer” to mean individuals who practise these two methods. Mostly, I’ll be considering only one dimension at a time. In which case, the bottom upper is someone near one end of the scale in that dimension, and the top downer is someone near the other. But at the end of the essay, I’ll take a look at an overall measure of bottom up versus top down thinking.

I’ll give a couple of historical examples. John Locke, my 17th-century hero and almost namesake, and from whose writings I’ll use a few quotes in this essay, was a fine example of a bottom upper. His politics was forward looking and genuinely liberal. While he was a staunch Protestant, his religious views were tolerant for his time. And he had among his friends several of the finest scientists of the day. In contrast, Josef Stalin was an extreme top downer. He set out to impose his style of communism on the Soviet people, regardless of the consequences to those people. And he and his policies ended up causing as many as 20 million deaths of innocents.


The most fundamental level at which bottom up versus top down applies is the way in which the individual thinks.

The bottom up thinker seeks to build, using his senses and his mind, a picture of the reality of which he is a part. He examines, critically, the evidence of his senses. He assembles this evidence into percepts, things he perceives as true. Then he pulls them together and generalizes them into concepts. He uses logic and reason to seek understanding, and he often stops to check that he is still on the right lines. And if he finds he has made an error, he tries to correct it.

The top down thinker, on the other hand, has far less concern for logic or reason, or for correcting errors. He tends to accept new ideas only if they fit his pre-existing beliefs. And so, he finds it hard to go beyond the limitations of what he already knows or believes.

World view and religion

Bottom up versus top down orientation also contributes much to the individual’s world view, including his view on religion. When considering whether humans are naturally good or bad, for example, the bottom upper will look into himself, and judge what he finds. He is, therefore, likely to conclude that (occasional lapses notwithstanding) he himself is naturally good. Thus, other human beings must be naturally good, too. And he sees those that behave badly as aberrations; John Locke dubbed them “noxious creatures” and “degenerate men.” Further, the bottom upper probably thinks that he has free will, and others do too. And consequently, each of us has personal responsibility for the effects on others of our voluntary actions.

In religion, he may or may not believe in a god. While some bottom uppers follow one form or other of religion, many (including me) end up as agnostics. And some go further, towards atheism. But the bottom upper has little or no desire to impose his personal religious preferences on others. And so, he reaches a view similar to that I encapsulate in what I call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

The top downer, on the other hand, is often too lazy to work out his world view for himself, and prefers to take a ready-made world view from others. He is quite likely to think that humans are naturally bad, perhaps because he has been told so by parents or religious instructors. Top downers (particularly Marxists) also have a tendency to see the universe as deterministic, and therefore to deny the existence of free will and so personal responsibility. And in religion, top downers often have a desire to, and many will try to, impose on others their own orthodoxy.

Seeking truth

The bottom upper sees truth as objective, independently of what people happen to think about particular truths. As a result, he believes that we can discover truths. A particular truth or fact may of course be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered.

The bottom upper seeks out, and evaluates, the evidence he can find on his subject. He tries to investigate the facts critically. He cultivates and improves his bullshit meter. He uses it to detect things that don’t look quite right, that don’t add up, that seem to contradict facts he knows or believes, or which may repay further investigation. And he values science, and the scientific method which lies at its heart.

In contrast, many top downers hold that facts can be different for different individuals, groups or cultures; and that feelings are often more important than facts. In this view, there is no such thing as objective truth. The top downer can thus ignore or deny evidence, when it fails to fit his pre-conceived notions. He is often unwilling to change his mind, even when presented with a strong case for doing so. He may find little value in science. Or he may even try to pass off as science ideas which are not, in reality, worthy of the name scientific.


The bottom up thinker can conceive that, among the moral rules in diverse cultures, there is a core that is (or should be) common to all. He is attracted to the idea of moral universalism. That is, that what is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa. And it’s in this sense, he thinks, that all human beings are equal. He doesn’t know what, precisely, the ethical core should be; and he’s aware that it’s a hard problem. But if he has a particular interest in ethics, he will seek to understand and to elicit this core as best he can.

I myself have thought about this issue for many years. The ethical core, as I understand it, begins with three ideas: peacefulness, honesty and respect for others’ rights. I’ve made attempts to list the rights, and I know my list is nowhere near perfect as yet. But they include fundamental rights like life and property. They include what I call rights of non-impedance, like freedom of movement and of association. And they include the presumption of freedom – that, if there is no good reason to prohibit something, then it must be OK to do it – and a right to self-defence. The core must also include the notion of justice. I conceive it thus: “Everyone deserves to be treated, over the long term and in the round, at least as well as he or she treats others.”

Further, the core must include a clear idea of personal responsibility. For example: We should not intentionally do unjust harm to others. We should compensate those to whom we inadvertently or unavoidably do unjust harm. And we should strive to be independent, and not to let ourselves become a drain on others. Moreover, we must always act in good faith. When we have made promises to others, we must strive to keep our side of the bargain, as long as the other party keeps his. And if we choose to have children, we must take responsibility for bringing them up and educating them until they can function fully as human beings.

I recognize, however, that other bottom uppers are likely to have different conceptions of the ethical core. This isn’t “settled science” yet. We must, therefore, be tolerant of those with different ideas, as long as they are equally tolerant towards us. And our motto, in the final analysis, must be: “live and let live.”

In contrast, many top downers are moral relativists. They deny that there are any ethical rules which apply to everyone. Further, some maintain that right and wrong are merely cultural tastes. Some of them run aground on the libertine Scylla of “anything goes.” Others, perhaps most, let themselves be sucked into the authoritarian Charybdis of “might makes right.” They deny moral equality, holding that some (rulers) should have moral rights over and above others (subjects). In place of moral equality, many promote the conceit of equality of outcome for all. And they not only deny real rights, like property and freedom of movement and of association, but also wrongly promote aspirations like social security and “free” education to the status of rights.

Moreover, top downers are very often dishonest. They seem to have no shame about lying or misleading, or failing to deliver on their promises. And they often act in bad faith, too.

Top downers also like to deny the idea of objective or individual justice, substituting for it “social justice” or some other caricature of justice. They often duck personal, individual responsibility for what they do, and seek to evade accountability. Instead, they try to claim that some collective “we” bears responsibility for the ills of the world. This frequently leads them to behave as hypocrites. For example, promoting policies that aim to force others to make sacrifices, but failing to make any such sacrifices themselves.

Society, community and fellowship

For the bottom upper, the fundamental unit of society is the individual. The family is important, too. For the family is the smallest social unit which can survive indefinitely. Beyond the family, when individuals associate, the process must be voluntary and bottom up. As Herbert Spencer put it: “Society exists for the benefit of its members, not the members for the benefit of society.”

The bottom up thinker feels community with those, who behave civilly and cordially towards him. He prefers the company of those who, like him, seek truth and strive to obey basic moral rules such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. So, he seeks to judge others not by who they are, but by what they do, how they behave and what they say. Thus, he cares about his fellow human beings; that is, those who behave both as convivial human beings and as his fellows. And he prefers to associate and to trade with these people, rather than with top downers. Further, he knows that everyone is different. So, he strives to be tolerant of differences in received characteristics such as race, religion or nationality, and in lifestyle preferences.

The top downer, on the other hand, tends towards collectivism. He thinks that individuals should be subordinated to society (with or without a capital S). He expects people to be altruistic, and to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. He is prone to judging people by characteristics such as their race, their received religion, their nationality or their political affiliations. He cares mainly or exclusively for those who share whichever of these characteristics are important to him. He is often intolerant of those who are different from others. And he has little time or respect for bottom up thinkers.


The bottom upper may be indifferent to politics. Or, perhaps, he may think of himself as a liberal, in the true sense of the word. That is, someone who desires the maximum freedom for everyone, consistent with being required to behave in a civil manner. Or he may think of himself as a conservative, one who is generally happy with tried and tested ways of doing things. But he doesn’t, as a rule, support the imposition of political agendas on people. And if he votes at all, he tends to do so for what he perceives as the lesser of two, or the least of several, evils. Further, the bottom upper usually has little desire for power over others. Thus he has no time for politics as it is practised today. And he may well hold politics, and those that take part in it, in contempt.

In contrast, the top downer tends to take a positive view of politics in general, and to support a political party or parties. His reasons may be ideological, selfish, or both. Many top downers are inclined to become active for their chosen Causes and agendas. They may favour ideas generally rated as on the left, for example: Socialism or communism. Egalitarianism and welfare-statism. Health fascism and social engineering. Social justice warfare. Suppression of capitalism, and perhaps rejection of property rights. Or ideas commonly seen as on the right, such as: Extreme nationalism. Racism. Religious or social conservatism. Fascism. Control of the economy by large, privileged corporations. Military interventionism. The top downer may combine such ideas with other, newer agendas like identity politics, political correctness and environmentalism.

Most top downers, even if they don’t much want personal power over others, still like to see their agendas imposed on people, particularly on those they don’t like. And those, that do have a desire to wield power, are naturally attracted to politics. As a result, the great majority of politicians today, even in democracies, are top downers. And thus, even in a democracy, we bottom uppers and our views are all but completely unrepresented.

Government, law and justice

The bottom upper generally recognizes that government can be valuable. But its remit must be strongly circumscribed. He may, for example, agree with my list of three, and only three, valid functions of government. These are: First, to maintain peace. Second, to defend the rights and freedoms of every individual among the governed. And third, to resolve disputes justly. Moreover, for the bottom upper, government must be no more than an unbiased umpire. And it must be as small as possible; no larger, or more obtrusive, than it needs to be to fulfil its remit.

The bottom upper knows also that the rule of law can be valuable, as long as the law is consistent with, and no broader than, the common ethical core of civilized behaviour. And he can agree with John Locke that: “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

He wants justice to be objective, impartial and individual. Not only must Lady Justice’s scales weigh accurately the evidence and arguments on both sides of each case. But also, justice must fairly balance the interests and desires of each individual or group against the interests and desires of others. Thus everyone should be treated, in the round, as they treat others; and according to what they do, not who they are. And every individual should receive, as far as is feasible, what he deserves. Those that have done unjust wrongs should be made to compensate their victims. And they may also suffer criminal punishment if their acts were greedy, or malicious, or irresponsible beyond the bounds of reason.

The bottom upper also holds that government should never violate rights or freedoms unless strictly necessary in order to deliver its remit; for example, to arrest a criminal suspect to bring him to trial. And any such violations of rights must be kept to the minimum. Further, what a non-criminal individual pays for government should be in proportion to the benefit he receives from it, neither more nor less. Just as, for example, what an individual pays for home contents insurance is in proportion to the sum insured. As John Locke put it: “It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit everyone who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it.”

The top downer, on the other hand, likes big, active government. He wants government to take on functions like education, health care, transport and insurance, none of which have anything to do with its proper remit. He is also comfortable with the idea of a ruling class – maybe including him or his soulmates – having a right to rule over people in a particular geographical area.

In contrast to law, he favours legislation. He thinks that, just because some group of politicians agree on some putative law, that gives them a right to have their minions enforce it, irrespective of its rightness or wrongness. Moreover, he may well deny the validity of objective, individual justice. And he may promote instead fatuous ideas like social justice, environmental justice or some ill defined idea of fairness.

The top downer often sees government as a tool to achieve the ends of the particular ideology or agenda he favours. He condones arbitrary violations of rights and freedoms by governments, as long as they are done for a cause he believes in. And he not only condones, but applauds, taxation that re-distributes wealth from those who justly earn it to government itself, to its cronies, and to those it seeks to bribe in order to gain their support.


The bottom upper is not only a bottom up thinker, but a bottom up doer, too. He strives, to the best of his abilities, to be economically productive and independent. He favours the economic free market, which he sees as the best way to achieve the common good; that is, the good of every individual who is willing to put in the effort to be productive. He abhors any kind of restriction on the free market, because such restrictions stifle the abundance of opportunity which he desires for everyone. And he may well favour the culture of small companies over large ones.

In the economy, the people who actually get the jobs done, and so create wealth, are mostly bottom uppers. Some of them work with their hands or with machinery: for example, farmers, industrial workers or artisans. Others create in a more intellectual way: for example computer programmers, mathematicians and some writers. Yet others, such as doctors, do a bit of both. Even architects and accountants are often bottom uppers. Counter-intuitively, bottom uppers can also be good, if often reluctant, managers of people. This is partly because they are usually objective; and partly because they often have a natural empathy with people as individuals. They know that each individual is different, and seek to bring out the best from each of them.

In contrast, those top downers who work in the private sector tend to prefer the top down culture of large corporations. Not being natural doers, they can only succeed through other people. And so, they seek to rise in their organizations. Many of them like company politics and scheming, and aspire to be “snakes in suits” and reach the top corporate level. And some of them treat the people they manage with contempt.

Government jobs, too, attract top downers. They often like to exercise power, and to plan and regulate other people’s lives. And if their jobs are tax funded, they only have to account to higher-ups in the bureaucracy; they don’t have to account to the people who are actually paying for what they do. Another profession that attracts top downers is academe. There have long been many top downers in humanities departments at universities. And recently, they have been increasing even in the supposedly hard sciences. Such positions can bring top downers not only public respect, but also a bully pulpit from which they can peddle their agendas.


For the bottom upper, the Earth is a home and garden for the human race. The portions of the planet, which we own as individuals or groups, are ours, to be used as we see fit. And our job as a species is to make the best home and garden we can, for every human being worthy of the name. To that end, the planet’s resources, animal, vegetable, mineral and other, are there to be used wisely. They’re our bootstrap to a better world. And those that seek to prevent others making wise use of them are seeking to curtail, or even to extinguish, human civilization.

The bottom upper sees only one valid way to address environmental issues. And that is, to direct on to the matter the cold light of objective reason. To dig into the facts. To do precise, unbiased science, without any political agenda. To assess costs and benefits accurately and objectively, for everyone. And above all, to keep to the true and original precautionary principle: “First, do no harm.” Therefore it is always the responsibility of those, who want others to make changes, to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt. And those accused of causing environmental damage should never be put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative.

In total contrast, environmental top downers like to intone mantras such as “the earth is not ours” and “sustainable development.” They make scary but unfounded accusations about, for example, humans causing catastrophic climate change, seriously polluting the air, or extinguishing species. They misuse science, and try to cover up their misuses. They endlessly repeat pre-conceived talking points that are without substance. And they call those, who disagree with them, nasty names like “deniers.”

But perhaps the most obvious failing of environmental top downers is the arrant hypocrisy of the prominent among them. Take Al Gore, who tells us we should cut our energy use, yet whose own electricity consumption is 20 or more times the average. Or Prince Charles, who demonizes carbon dioxide emissions from cars and planes, yet himself is chauffeured around in limos and goes on holiday by private plane. As Oscar Wilde asked: “And what sort of lives do these people, who pose as being moral, lead themselves?”


The bottom upper knows that he’s not perfect. He can, at times, be unpleasant towards others; particularly when they oppose him on his hot button issues. But as a rule, he tries to behave in a cordial and reasonable manner.

In contrast, top downers – particularly those whose top down views span several dimensions – often show some, or even many, of the symptoms of sociopathy or psychopathy. They may be arrogant, and think they have a right to tell other people how to behave. Their lack of respect for truth may lead them to lie or mislead. Their lack of a strong moral sense may lead them to be insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous or dishonest. Their lack of concern for the individual can lead them to fail to show empathy or sensitivity towards other people, and even to treat people ruthlessly and without remorse. It can also lead them to behave recklessly; especially when other people, not them, will be expected to bear the consequences of their actions. They may be parasites, and live off others without delivering anything worthwhile in return; most of all, when their jobs are tax funded. And their lack of a sense of personal responsibility can lead them to try to deny wrongdoing, and to evade accountability for their actions.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that high ranking corporate officials include a greater proportion of sociopaths than the population as a whole. Nor that the meme “politicians are psychopaths” has acquired the traction it has. And here’s the reason: they’re both top downers.


The bottom upper strives to be honest in how he communicates with others. He tries to tell the truth, to the best of his knowledge and belief. He tries to be polite, even if he doesn’t always succeed. He generally respects others’ freedom of speech, and their right to differ from his ideas. When he disagrees, he does his best to respond with logic and reason. If he has to go on the attack, he attacks the message, not the messenger. And, once convinced that he has made an error, he is willing to accept the fact, and move on.

The top downer, on the other hand, likes to parrot the party line, without regard for its truth. This explains why, as Terry Pratchett pithily put it: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” For it’s much easier and quicker to parrot a lie than to separate out truth from untruth. Moreover, the top downer often repeats the same dubious arguments again and again in slightly different guises. When he is wrong, he almost never accepts it. He projects his own failings on to others, for example by calling his opponents “deniers” when he is the one denying the truth. If he can’t shoot down the message, he will try to shoot the messenger instead. When he fails to get his message across, he will often shout louder. And if all else fails, he will try to shut down the freedom of speech of those who argue against him.

Education and media

Young children start their lives thinking bottom up. Until they have acquired language, they have no other way of making sense of the world. And they have a natural curiosity and a desire to learn. Some retain this curiosity throughout their lives; others, unfortunately, lose it.

The bottom upper sees education as a process of nurturing this natural curiosity. For him, education should do exactly what the word “educate” means; it should lead out the human being from the child. It should teach him to think for himself. It should teach him how to learn, and thus give him the tools to teach himself. And it should encourage him to seek information, in whatever media it is available. To evaluate it, and make judgements on it. And to reject, or at least to try to subtract out the biases from, “information” which is politically charged, or doesn’t measure up to his standards of accuracy and honesty.

In contrast, the top downer sees education as, at best, preparing an individual for life in a particular culture. But more often, in the hands of top downers education becomes a process of indoctrination, to turn the child away from his natural bottom up mode and make him into a top down thinker. And this may even turn him in later life into a peddler of top down thinking. Moreover, top downers tend to see the media, not as the source of reliable information it ought to be, but as a means of influencing and even controlling people’s thinking right through their lives. And some of them learn how to make use of the media to spread their own top down messages; including messages that are politically charged, lies, propaganda and so called fake news.

The great divide

It’s plain that, in every one of the dimensions I’ve looked at here, there’s a big divide between bottom uppers and top downers. But different people often think in different ways in different dimensions. Many academics, for example, can think bottom up within their specialities, but when it comes to politics and government, they think top down. I see a need, therefore, for an overall measure of bottom up versus top down. An approach such as rating each dimension separately, then adding up the ratings and dividing by the number of dimensions, is probably over-simple. But however the measuring is done, it’s plain that there’s still a big, big divide.

We are living in a time when virtually every powerful institution in the world is run by top downers. For example: big governments, big corporations, the EU and the UN, big media, and much of academe. They are run, not by the people for the people, but by top downers for top downers; or even by sociopaths for sociopaths.

In this system, we bottom uppers don’t get a look in. Even though we are the honest, productive people of the world; we are the people who build, and who sustain, our human civilization. And it’s worse. Our rights and freedoms, our livelihoods, our lifestyles and ultimately our lives, are under ever increasing pressure from the top downers and their political agendas. This situation is not, to use a top downer word, a sustainable one.

I wonder what will happen when the penny finally drops? When bottom uppers, en masse, come to understand what is being done to them? When the good people at last realize that the top downers are not only unworthy of all respect, but are the worst scum on the planet?

I can only speculate.


One comment

  • This is the best review I have seen of “50 shades of Grey”.

    The coining of “top down” and “bottom up” epitomises the inherent dilemma of the deuteragonist, and indeed of the protagonist, protagonising endlessly on where to start.

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