Monday, April 14, 2014

Does Pinker Show the Bias of a Pro-Western Imperialist, Capitalist, Elitist, and Anti-Communist Ideology?

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have written one of the most elaborate critiques of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.  It's available online as an ebook--Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence (2012, 144 pages).  A short excerpt from their book has been published as a book review in the International Socialist Review (November-December, 2012).

As Rousseauean leftists, Herman and Peterson believe that our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature lived happily as peaceful egalitarians, but that this happy life was lost with the establishment of a sedentary life based on farming that eventually allowed for the sociopolitical complexity of bureaucratic states that brought all of the evils of modern life: "class structures, divisions of labor and social status, concentrations of wealth and poverty, and hierarchies of power and subordination, including religious and military power structures--all of the sins still very much with us in the modern world" (72).  They must consequently scorn Pinker as a classical liberal ideologue who wants to see a progressive history of declining violence and increasing liberty that began with the transition out of a Hobbesian state of nature among hunter-gatherers and that has culminated in the modern liberal peace.

As one manifestation of Pinker's ideological bias, Herman and Peterson point out that Pinker refuses to recognize that Western capitalist states wage imperial wars of conquest.  They quote Pinker as saying that not only do "democracies avoid disputes with each other," but that they "tend to stay out of disputes across the board," which is called the "Democratic Peace" (Pinker, 283).  They remark: "This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of U.S. assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings and invasions since 1945.  For Pinker, no attack on a lesser power by one or more of the great democracies counts as a real war or confutes the 'Democratic Peace,' no matter how many people die" (Herman and Peterson, 9).

They also quote Pinker as saying: "Among respectable countries, conquest is no longer a thinkable option.  A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter" (Pinker, 260).  They respond: "This is an extremely silly assertion.  Presumably, when George Bush and Tony Blair sent U.S. and British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, ousted its government, and replaced it with one operating under laws drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, this did not count as 'conquest,' as these leaders never stated that they launched the war to 'conquer' Iraq" (Herman and Peterson, 9).

Herman and Peterson don't indicate to their readers that Pinker's comments about the "Democratic Peace" are part of a summary of the research of Bruce Russett and John Oneal (Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations [Norton, 2001]), who used the statistical technique of multiple logistic regression to analyze more than 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001, and who concluded "not that democracies never go to war . . ., but that they go to war less often than nondemocracies, all else being equal" (Pinker, 281).  Herman and Peterson don't point out any mistakes in the research of Russett and Oneal.   Indicating that democracies sometimes do fight wars does not refute the claim that they tend to go to war less often.

Pinker's comment that "conquest is no longer a thinkable option" comes in the context of his summary of Mark Zacher's research ("The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force," International Organization 55 [2001]: 215-50).  Zacher has shown that since World War Two, there has been an international norm favoring the freezing of national borders.  As compared with previous centuries, the percentage of territorial wars that resulted in a redistribution of territory has dropped dramatically.  The recent international protest against Russia's acquisition of the Crimea is an illustration of this new international norm.  Herman and Peterson don't point out any mistakes in Zacher's research.  Instead, they cite the example of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces in 2003 as a conquest of that country.  But since there has been no change in the national borders of Iraq, it's not clear how this refutes Zacher's work.

Pinker argues that since 1945 there has been a "Long Peace"--the longest period in modern history in which the Great Powers have not fought a war with one another.  Herman and Peterson seem to agree with this, at least partially: "the First and especially the Second World War had taught them that with their advancing and life-threatening means of self-destruction, they could not go on playing their favorite game of mutual slaughter any longer.  But this didn't prevent them from carrying out numerous and deadly wars against the Third World, which filled-in the great-power war-gap nicely."  And, furthermore, the Long Peace is "increasingly threatened by a Western elite-instigated global class war and a permanent-war system" (92).  Herman and Peterson claim that Pinker ignores the "increasing structural violence of a global class war," in which capitalist nations have created a global economic system that allows them to exploit the poor nations (11, 62, 75).

According to Herman and Peterson, Pinker ignores the "structural violence" inherent in global capitalism because of his pro-capitalist and anti-communist bias.  An example of this is what he says about Mao Zedong's responsibility for the Great Famine during China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).  They quote Pinker as saying that "Mao masterminded . . . famine that killed between 20 million and 30 million people" (Pinker, 331).  For Pinker this shows the evil in communist ideology, because Mao's communism was responsible for the second worst atrocity in human history (second only to World War Two).  But Herman and Peterson insist that while Mao made a few mistakes, his communist policies were generally successful in improving the lives of the masses, and that life in China has become much worse under the influence of the capitalist reforms in China that began in 1979.

They write:
"China's death rate increased after 1979, with the surge of capitalist reforms and the associated sharp reduction in public medical services.  A recent review of China's past and current demographic trends showed that its rate of death was higher in 2010 than in 1982, and that the greatest declines in mortality occurred well prior to the reforms, with a national decline occurring even during the decade that included the famine (1953-1964)."
"So Pinker misrepresents the truths at a number of levels in dealing with the Chinese starvation episode.  He avoids the need to reconcile allegedly deliberate starvation deaths with a prior and continuous Chinese state policy of helping the masses by simply not discussing the subject.  He ignores the evidence that policy failure and ignorance rather than murderous intent was the source of those deaths.  He fails to mention the rise in mortality rates under the post-Mao new capitalist order." (60)

The reference here to a "recent review" of Chinese demographic trends is to an article by Xizhe Peng ("China's Demographic History and Future Challenges," Science 333 (29 July 2011): 581-87).  Herman and Peterson do not note Peng's warning that "there are widespread concerns in the scientific community regarding the quality of some of these population data" (581).  They are also silent about his statement that "the period 1959-1961 witnessed an exceptional demographic fluctuation mainly attributable to the great famine, with more than 20 million excess deaths" (581).

It is true, as they say, that Peng reports a slight increase in the death rate (per 1,000) from 6.6 in 1982 to 7.1 in 2010.  But what they don't say is that Peng reports that the death rate after 1979 was much less than in 1953 (14.0) or 1964 (11.6).  Furthermore, they are silent about Peng's reporting that life expectancy has been increasing and illiteracy has been declining since the capitalist reforms began in 1979.

Herman and Peterson quote from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (Hunger and Public Action [Oxford, 1989]) in explaining the Great Famine.  But they are silent about the judgment of Dreze and Sen that after 1979 "there is little doubt that the Chinese economy has surged ahead in response to market incentives, and the agricultural sector has really had--at long last--a proper 'leap forward'" (215).

Herman and Peterson are also silent about the growing evidence in recent years as to the brutality of the Great Famine and Mao's responsibility for it.  Based upon archival material in China that has only recently been opened to study, Frank Dikotter (in Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrope, 1958-1962 [Walker Publishing, 2010] concludes that at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962, and "the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs" is wrong.  He explains:
"As the fresh evidence presented in this book demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.  Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed--amounting to at least 2.5 million people.  Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. . . . People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked" (xi).
Furthermore, Dikotter observes: "We know that Mao was the key architect of the Great Leap Forward, and thus bears the main responsibility for the catastrophe that followed.  he had to work hard to push through his vision, bargaining, cajoling, goading, occasionally tormenting or persecuting colleagues" (xiii).   He also concludes that "the catastrophe unleashed at the time stands as a reminder of how profoundly misplaced is the idea of state planning as an antidote to chaos" (xii).

This is a critical issue for Pinker's argument because his claim is that it's classical liberal thought that promotes declining violence, and that most of the atrocious violence of the 20th century was due to the illiberal regimes led by three individuals--Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.  Matthew White has calculated that the total death toll from communism in the 20th century is around 70 million, which would make the communist movement responsible for the greatest atrocity in human history (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, Norton, 2012, pp. 453-57).

To make their case against Pinker, Herman and Peterson would have to demonstrate that this is not true.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pinker's List: A Distorted Record of Prehistoric War?

In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in 2009, President Barack Obama had to justify the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Commander in Chief who was leading his country in two major wars.  He argued that war is so deeply rooted in human nature and the human condition that it can never be completely abolished.  He declared: "War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man."  And yet, explaining how we can and should strive for peace, he quoted from President John Kennedy: "Let us focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."  He then repeated that last phrase--"a gradual evolution of human institutions"--as the theme for his speech.  Without trying to change human nature, we can promote peace through institutional evolution--through culturally evolved norms of just war, human rights, global commerce, and international sanctions for punishing unjustified violence.  Obama thus summarized the argument of Steven Pinker that while war and violence express the "inner demons of our nature," we can move towards a life of peaceful coexistence as long as our cultural environment strengthens the "better angels of our nature."

Some of the critics of Pinker's argument think this is deeply mistaken because of its false claim that war has roots in human nature.  For example, in his book chapter--"Pinker's List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality"--R. Brian Ferguson challenges Pinker's evidence for prehistoric war that would support Obama's claim that "war, in one form or another, appeared with the first man."  (Ferguson's chapter appears in War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, edited by Douglas Fry [Oxford University Press, 2013].  A copy is available online.)

Ferguson concentrates his attention on Pinker's Figure 2-2 (page 49), which presents a list of societies showing the percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies, classified into four groups: prehistoric archaeological sites, hunter-gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups, and states.  The bar graphs show that the percentage of deaths in war is much higher for the first three groups than it is for states (ranging from ancient Mexico before 1500 CE to modern states from the 17th century to the present).

Ferguson claims that if one looks at the original sources for this data cited by Pinker, one discovers that Pinker's visual graph distorts the data to make it appear more supportive of his argument than it really is.  First, one should notice that among the 21 groups of prehistoric gravesites, the oldest archaeological site (Gobero, Niger, 14,000-6,200 BCE) has no war deaths at all.  And a couple of the prehistoric sites (Sarai Nahar Rai, India, 2140-850 BCE, and Nubia, 12,000-10,000 BCE) have only one violent death each.  If three skeletons are found at a site, and one of them shows evidence of violent death, then Pinker presents this as a bar graph showing 33% of deaths in war, which is much higher than that for modern states.  Surely, Ferguson suggests, one violent death at one gravesite hardly shows extensive warfare, but Pinker does not explain this to his reader.  Moreover, Ferguson notes, one set of 30 sites is from British Columbia, 3,500 BCE to 1674 CE.  Although he concedes this evidence for warfare, Ferguson indicates that these Indians along the Pacific Northwest Coast were "complex" hunter-gatherers--that is, hunter-gatherers who had settled into large villages with some hierarchical social structures, which was not characteristic of the nomadic hunter-gatherers who were our original ancestors.

Pinker presents bar graphs showing a range of 5% to 60% deaths in warfare for 8 hunter-gatherer societies.  But Ferguson points out that Pinker does not tell his reader that for two of these societies (the Ache of Paraguay and the Hiwi of Venezuela-Columbia), all of the war deaths were indigenous people killed by frontiersmen.

Pinker's bar graphs for 10 societies of hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups show a range of 15% to 60% deaths in warfare.  The 60% rate of death in war is the highest rate ever recorded by anthropologists, and it's for the Waorani of Eastern Ecuador.  When I was travelling through the Ecuadorian rainforest last summer, I heard about the Waorani and their reputation for violence.  One of my Quichua guides identified them as auca--"savages."

Ferguson concedes that the archaeological and anthropological evidence shows intense warfare among many complex hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, but he argues that nomadic hunter-gatherers would not have shown this.  When one sees evidence of one or a few violent deaths among a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers, this should be identified as homicide not war.

Like Douglas Fry, Ferguson agrees that there has been lethal violence among nomadic hunter-gatherers, but this was personal violence rather than war.

In defense of Pinker, one could argue for Richard Wrangham's distinction between "simple" and "complex" war.  Like chimpanzees, nomadic hunter-gatherers do not fight pitched battles under the formal command of military leaders, because such "complex" warfare arises only in agrarian societies with military and political hierarchies.  Nomadic hunter-gatherers will kill members of outside groups only when the killers can surprise their outnumbered victims and then retreat after killing only a few individuals.  This raiding and feuding will not result in large numbers of battle deaths, and thus the archaeological record will not show any evidence of large numbers of violent deaths among nomadic hunter-gatherers.  Moreover, Pinker and Wrangham would predict that violent raiding and feuding among hunter-gatherers is infrequent, with long periods of peace, although the rate of killing is still comparable to that of American cities today.

Ferguson concludes: "We are not hard-wired for war.  We learn it" (126).

He does not indicate that those like Pinker and Wrangham actually agree with him about this.  They agree that war is not a biological necessity, although there are biological propensities to violence that can be triggered by the social environment.  They also agree with Ferguson that the establishment of agrarian societies with bureaucratic states created "complex" warfare as a purely cultural invention.  They also agree that the cultural evolution of recent centuries can move us towards peace.

Pinker and Wrangham agree with Obama and Kennedy:  in the quest for peace, we need not a sudden revolution in human nature but a gradual evolution in human institutions.

Some of these points are developed in earlier posts here, here, here., here, and here.

Brian Ferguson has pointed out to me that I have made a mistake here in attributing to him the point about the Hiwi and the Ache, because Ferguson only deals with the archaeological data in Pinker's list.  Actually, the point about the Hiwi and Ache was made by Douglas Fry (17-18).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Does Steven Pinker Distort the Data for Declining Violence?

Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature has over 115 figures--an average of one for every 6 pages of text.  Many of these figures are visual presentations of data to support his argument for a historical trend towards declining violence from the Stone Age to the present.  These figures are based on data found in thousands of cited sources.  This is one of his most impressive rhetorical techniques for persuading his readers that his reasoning is based on a meticulous statistical analysis of data.

Most readers will not take the trouble to read the sources for each figure to see whether Pinker is being accurate in his presentation of the data.  But some of his critics have done this for some of the figures, and they are accusing Pinker of manipulating the data to make it look more supportive of his argument that it really is.  Having looked into this myself, I think this is a fair criticism, although it's not fatal to his argument.  If Pinker had been totally honest about the gaps and uncertainties in the data, he could still have made a plausible argument for his conclusions.

Here I'll point to two examples: the table on page 195 that ranks the greatest atrocities in human history and Figure 2-2 on page 49 that shows the "percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies."

Pinker identifies his table of the greatest atrocities as taken from Matthew White's list of "(Possibly) The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other."  White identifies himself as an "atrocitologist" who for many years has maintained a website where he compiles records of the greatest atrocities in human history based on his estimates of violent deaths drawn from historical sources.  This work has been published as a book--The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities (Norton, 2012)--with a Foreword by Pinker.

In Pinker's table, he says that he's following White in ranking the 21 worst atrocities.  Number 1 is the Second World War with a death toll of 55 million.  Number 2 is Mao Zedong who was responsible for a death toll of 40 million (mostly through a government caused famine).  Number 3 is the Mongol Conquests of the 13th century with a death toll of 40 million.  Number 4 is the An Lushan Revolt in China in the 8th century with a death toll of 36 million.

This seems to confirm the common belief that the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, especially when one notices that 5 of the top 21 atrocities were in the 20th century; and this would seem to refute Pinker's theory of a historical trend of declining violence.  In fact, White concludes his book by identifying the bloody events of the first half of the 20th century as the "Hemoclysm" (Greek for "blood flood"), which he sees as a series of interconnected events stretching from the First World War to the deaths of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  The collective death toll here would be 150 million, which would make it the other Number 1 atrocity of human history.

If Pinker is to save his theory of declining violence, he must reinterpret White's account of the historical record of violence culminating in the Hemoclysm of the 20th century.  Pinker does this with three arguments.

His first argument is that we must adjust White's numbers to overcome the illusion that the 20th century was much bloodier than past centuries.  Pinker adjusts the absolute numbers of violent deaths, and he also asks us to look at the relative numbers, calculated as a proportion of the populations.  Once these adjustments are made, Pinker can conclude that "the worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China's Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire's population, a sixth of the world's population at the time" (194).  In an endnote to this sentence, Pinker writes: "An Lushan Revolt.  White notes that the figure is controversial.  Some historians attribute it to migration or the breakdown of the census; others treat it as credible, because subsistence farmers would have been highly vulnerable to a disruption of irrigation infrastructure" (707, n. 13).

A reader who notices this endnote might become curious about what White has said about these controversial calculations concerning the An Lushan Rebellion.  A reader who looks at White's book will notice that he revises the estimates of violent deaths--moving from 36 million to 26 million to a final estimate of 13 million.  With the lower estimate, the An Lushan Rebellion ranks Number 13 on the list of atrocities, not Number 4 as Pinker has it, because Pinker accepts the highest estimate of 36 million (White 88-93, 529).

Historians know that the Chinese census recorded a population of 52,880,488 in the year 754, and then after ten years of civil war, the census of 764 recorded a population of 16,900,000.  This would suggest that 36 million people died in the war, which would be two-thirds of the entire population of China.  Pinker accepts these numbers, which allows him to rank the An Lushan Revolt as Number 4 on the list of atrocities.

But White indicates that most historians doubt the accuracy of these numbers, because they suspect that the chaos created by the war had impeded the ability of the Chinese census takers to find every taxpayer.  He cites five historians who commented on the census numbers.  He reports that two of them express "major doubt" about the census numbers, one expresses "slight doubt," one expresses "apparent acceptance," and one expresses "acceptance."  But a reader who checks these sources will see that the doubt is even greater than is reported by White.  The historian whom White identifies as expressing "slight doubt"--Peter Stearns--actually says that the population census of 16,900,000 was "certainly too low," which surely shows "major doubt."  And the historian whom White identifies as expressing "acceptance"--Peter Turchin--actually says there is "a certain degree of controversy among the experts" about the numbers, which surely indicates "slight doubt."

Not only does Pinker depart from White in accepting the 36 million estimate of violent deaths, Pinker also insists that death tolls should be adjusted as a proportion of the populations, because this allows us to judge the relative risk of being killed at different points in history.  The 55 million deaths in World War Two is higher than the 36 million in the An Lushan Revolt, but then the world population at the middle of the 20th century was much larger than that in the 8th century.  So if 36 million violent deaths was a sixth of the world's population in the 8th century, this would be the equivalent of 429 million violent deaths in the middle of the 20th century, which would raise the An Lushan Revolt to Number 1 on the list of atrocities; and World War Two would drop to Number 9 on the list.  White does not adjust the ranking in this way.

Pinker's second argument for why the Hemoclysm of the 20th century does not refute his theory of declining violence is that the causes of war can be so contingent that we can have something like World War Two erupt by chance without altering the otherwise declining trend of violence.  We can thus see World War Two as "an isolated peak in a declining sawtooth--the last gasp in a long slide of major war into historical obsolescence" (192).  If wars start and stop at random, then the accidents of history and the peculiarities of particular individuals can result in cataclysmic spasms of violence (200-222). 

In 1999, there was a lot of discussion about who should be considered the Most Important Person of the 20th Century.  White's answer was Gavrilo Princip.  And who was he?  He was the 19-year-old Serbian terrorist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary.  This was a lucky accident for Princip.  If the archduke's driver had not made a wrong turn in Sarajevo, this would not have happened, and it's likely that World War One would not have happened, and this would not have set off the series of events leading to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War (White, 344-58; Pinker, 207-10, 262-63).

In the 80-year-long Hemoclysm sparked by Princip's bullets, three individuals--Stalin, Hitler, and Mao--were responsible for most of the violent deaths.  The communist regimes were responsible for 70 million deaths, which would justify ranking communism as the Number 1 atrocity--even greater than World War Two--except that it's hard to think of the whole communist movement as one event (White, 453-57).  Notice that what we see here is that most of the violence of the 20th century has been caused by illiberal ideology--Nazism and communism.

This supports Pinker's third argument for why the violence of the 20th century does not deny his theory of history.  The historical trend towards decreasing violence and increasing liberty depends on the spreading influence of classical liberal culture based on the principle that violence is never justified except in defense against violence.  That illiberal regimes have been the primary sources of violence in the 20th century confirms Pinker's argument. 

Because of the contingency of history, we can never be sure that illiberal leaders will not arise and cause great disasters.  Some day, we might see another Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot.  And that's why Pinker is clear in stating that there is no inevitability in the historical trend towards declining violence, because it could be reversed by illiberal turns (xxi, 361-77, 480).  But insofar as classical liberal ideas and norms spread around the world, they can increase the odds in favor of declining violence, which is what has happened since World War Two.

In my next post, I'll turn to Figure 2-2.

My first long series of posts on Pinker's Better Angels was written from October, 2011, to January, 2012.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Leo Strauss and Liberal Democracy: Grant Havers's Response

Grant Havers has sent me the following response to my blog post on "The Attack on Leo Strauss from the Paleoconservative Historicists":

While reading Professor Arnhart’s bracing review of my book on Strauss, I kept recalling the oft-quoted words of John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” The gist of Arnhart’s critique of my book seems to be that my historicist argument that Straussianism is essentially wrong to teach that there is a universal human desire for liberal democracy (regardless of faith, history, or culture) is unpersuasive because my thesis does not fit into the theory of evolution that Arnhart has popularly applied to the history and content of political philosophy. In brief, I am apparently wrong to dismiss this ideology of democratic universalism that Straussians usually teach because I set up a false dichotomy between nature and history. My insistence that bourgeois Protestant Christianity is a necessary precondition for successful constitutional self-government apparently flies in the face of liberal regimes that are not rooted in this faith tradition. Arnhart asks the rhetorical question: “Isn’t this historical evidence for the universal appeal of liberalism, suggesting that liberalism really does conform to a universal human nature?” Strauss’s teaching that liberal democracy is the best regime for all human beings must be correct, then, according to Arnhart, because both nature and history support it.

        I find it curious that Arnhart does not give much attention to the reasons why I make this historicist argument. Most of my book develops the argument that Strauss and his many students erroneously tried to locate the true origins of liberal democracy in Greek political philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle. This reading of ancient political thought is crucial to the Straussian assumption, which Arnhart shares, that human beings by nature seek the best political regime. In the process, they can argue that democracy is the universally best regime for humanity. Yet I show in my book that this central assumption is false because the ancient Greek concept of democracy never allowed for certain virtues that are crucial to successful self-government: these include Christian virtues such as charity (love thy neighbor, and even one’s enemy, as one loves God) as well as humility and mercy. The best evidence for the unnatural status of these virtues is that the greatest Greek philosophers did not even account for them, based on their own philosophies of nature. This fact was sometimes recognized by Strauss himself, who, as I show in the last chapter of my book, rigorously distinguished the moral teachings of “Athens,” or Greek political philosophy, from “Jerusalem,” biblical revelation. Until the Christian Era, which includes early modernity, the assumption that charity is a necessary precondition for a peaceful, stable, and humane government was absent in the works of political philosophers who followed Plato and Aristotle. The ancient Greek tolerance of slavery, infanticide, and natural hierarchy held no place for the ethic of caritas, a fact that was well-known to social contract theorists such as Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke. (It is also central to Hegel’s philosophy of history.) Only in a specific historical period, as opposed to nature, then, do we find evidence of a regime that rises above nature to embody, however imperfectly, an ethic of charity.

        I recount all these facts because of Arnhart’s Darwinian-Straussian thesis that it is false to set up a dichotomy between nature and history. Apparently, Christian charity is just as natural as the desire for liberal democracy, according to my reviewer. To anyone who is familiar with the biblical tradition, the first assumption is shocking in its naiveté. If it is natural for human beings to love each other, why does our sinful nature so regularly conflict with this natural moral desire? And, why did the social contractarians cited above similarly insist that there is neither charity nor government in the “state of nature,” the natural order of humanity, if charity is so closely aligned with our instincts? (I must confess to a strong Protestant bias here about the fallenness of humanity as well as the sheer difficulty that human beings have in practicing charity on a consistent basis.)

        Arnhart, of course, will have none of this. His first specific objection to my argument is that I too harshly limit the universal morality of Christianity to the particular foundation of liberal Protestantism, even though I also inconsistently claim that Christian charity has great influence beyond this modern foundation. How can a morality be universal without being historically universal as well? My answer to this objection is that Arnhart is confusing moral universalism with historical universalism. It is one thing to claim that all human beings ought to be charitable. It is quite another to assert that all traditions in history have practiced or even understood charity. Arnhart confuses the “ought” with the “is” here because his adherence to the theory of evolution forces him into this theoretical cul-de-sac: if charity is not historically universal (that is natural), then it cannot be naturally intelligible to all human beings. Evolutionism, then, is inadequate in trying to explain how charity emerged naturally. (Arnhart presumably does not agree with his fellow evolutionist Richard Dawkins that Christian charity is so unnatural that only “suckers” would practice this ethic.) Arnhart can always fall back on his view that human nature and human history are equally influential, but that tactic is just question-begging. Which is most influential?

Additionally, how does evolution, in Arnhart’s own words, explain how “some historical traditions show a better grasp of human nature than do other historical traditions”? How indeed would evolution explain the fact that Athens, one of the founding traditions of the West, lacked a concept of charity if the latter ethic is natural? Why did it take so long for this ethic to be applied to politics, culminating in the creation of modern self-government, if it is all so natural and universal? How can we avoid the fact that Jerusalem, not Athens, makes possible the historical rise of charity as it is applied to politics?

        Arnhart’s response to all this is that “many different religious and philosophical traditions have discovered the Golden Rule (charity) as a reasonable inference from natural human experience” and cites C. S. Lewis’s famous argument in defence of natural law as the “Tao” that all human beings understand by nature. This assertion, to say the least, requires evidence. Although all religions teach some concept of moral obligation, Christianity is unique in teaching that love and obligation extend to one’s enemy, a teaching that is consistent with the Christian emphasis on mercy and humility. Arnhart would have to show how the pagan texts of antiquity, including those of Plato and Aristotle, contain these virtues. (Arnhart’s fellow Straussian Harry Jaffa, in his Thomism and Aristotelianism [1952], brought out this distinction between Jerusalem and Athens with great insight.) In Plato’s famous dialogue on love, The Symposium, the reader will look in vain for any expression of love akin to charity. Confucianism, which at a superficial level teaches moral obligation towards other human beings, generally restricts this sense of duty to one’s family. (Christ’s famous condemnation of family-based love in Luke 14:26 would be shocking to a Confucian.) Since charity teaches the love of both God and humanity, any religion or philosophy that dualistically opposes one to the other (either love God or humanity) is incompatible with Christian morality.

        I am not, of course, claiming that all Christians in history have adhered to this demanding ethic with perfect consistency. Arnhart is quite right to point out that abolitionists and slave-owners in the decades leading up to the American Civil War profoundly disagreed as to whether Scripture, including the Christian teaching on charity, opposed slavery or not. How, then, asks Arnhart, can I appeal to the Bible for guidance or claim that the Golden Rule was the foundation of Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery when Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line claimed to be good Christians? My answer, which I develop in detail in Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (2009), is that the 16th president never doubted that a true application of Christian charity was incompatible with slavery. Since no slave-owner would ever choose to be a slave, he could not justifiably enslave another human being. Yet Southern slave-owners sinfully and wilfully denied this moral truth even as they falsely projected onto the Bible a violently uncharitable rationale for slavery. Lincoln knew all too well that human beings were naturally inclined to enslave each other and to reject the “self-evident” nature of human equality. For this reason, he appealed to that most unnatural, yet humane, expressions of morality: charity.

        Arnhart nevertheless claims to have the facts on his side when he confidently recounts the “historical trend towards the spread of liberalism” around the world since the Enlightenment. (Ironically, this progressivist argument would not have sat well with Strauss, who absolutely opposed any appeal to the “march of progress” as a justification for a prudent politics.) He goes on to claim that many of these “liberal regimes are clearly not rooted in the historical tradition of liberal Protestant culture” such as Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. These examples, however, do not exactly confirm his thesis since all three of these nations had some significant exposure to English or American ideals due to the influence of occupation, colonization, or war. What is shocking in this discussion is Arnhart’s deafening silence on the failure of liberal democracy to take root in most nations of the Middle East. If liberal democracy is so natural, then why has the Arab Spring become the Arab Winter? Could the grim oscillation between theocracy and dictatorship have anything to do with a distinct religious and historical tradition? And recent wars for democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not exactly confirmed Arnhart’s optimistic view that all the peoples of the world are itching for constitutional government and the rule of law. But then again, history is full of inconvenient truths that do not fill well into ideological boxes.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Incest Avoidance and Incest Taboos as Two Aspects of Human Nature

In October of 2006, I wrote a post entitled "So What's Wrong with Incest?"  Amazingly, that post has continued to receive two to three dozen pageviews every week for the past seven and a half years!

That might just confirm that the only thing more interesting than sex is tabooed sex.  But I hope that it also shows an interest in incest avoidance and incest taboos as human universals that show the complex evolutionary interaction of human nature and human culture.

My thinking about this has been shaped largely by Edward Westermarck's Darwinian explanation of incest and the incest taboo and by Arthur Wolf's defense of Westermarck's theory based on the research that he and others have conducted over the past 60 years.  As I have argued in various posts, I have come to see the Westermarck theory as a model of how Darwinian science can explain human morality and culture in a manner that confirms the moral and political philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly as expressed in the work of David Hume and Adam Smith.

For me, this began in 1998 when I lectured at a conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Westermarck's moral philosophy and his theory of incest avoidance and incest taboos.  Westermarck was Finnish, and the Westermarckian tradition was being carried on by some sociologists and anthropologists at the University of Helsinki.

There were many prominent people at the conference (Frans de Waal, for example) and some young people who would later become prominent (like Debra Lieberman).  But, clearly, Arthur Wolf (a professor of anthropology at Stanford University) was the center of attention, because of his recently published book Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck (Stanford University Press, 1995).  I had first met Wolf when I attended some of his lectures for the Program in Human Biology at Stanford in 1988-1989.  Later, after the Helsinki conference, I contributed to another conference organized by Wolf that led to the publication of Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo (Stanford University Press, 2004), which contains my most extensive statement on this subject--"The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right."

Now Stanford University Press has just published a new book by Wolf--Incest Avoidance and the Incest Taboos: Two Aspects of Human Nature.  When I read the manuscript for this book last year for the Press, I saw it as a brilliant statement of the Westermarck/Wolf position.

As the title suggests, Wolf distinguishes the question about incest avoidance from the question about the incest taboos.  The first question is: Why is it that most people avoid sexual relations with their close kin?  The second question is: Why is it that most people disapprove of other people having sexual relations with their close kin, a disapproval expressed as an incest taboo?

Wolf identifies two opposed groups in the debates over these questions.  The "constitutionalists" ground their explanations in human nature.  The "conventionalists" ground their explanations in human culture.  Wolf identifies himself as a constitutionalist, because as the subtitle of his new book indicates, he sees incest avoidance and the incest taboos as "two aspects of human nature."  And yet he thinks the constitutionalists have largely evaded the second question, and his rectification of that mistake is his major advance in this new book.

Wolf explains: "Constitutionalists always begin with the first question and commonly ignore the second--they assume that people disapprove of anyone doing something they would dislike doing.  Conventionalists, in contrast, always begin with the second question and usually ignore the first--they assume that people avoid doing what custom disapproves of their doing" (1).

Edward O. Wilson is an example of a constitutionalist who has often used the Westermarck/Wolf Darwinian theory of incest avoidance as one of the best developed examples of a sociobiological explanation of human social behavior and morality.  But as Wolf sees it, Wilson assumes that in answering the first question (about incest avoidance), he has answered the second question (about incest taboos).  This fails to recognize, according to Wolf, that a Darwinian explanation of incest avoidance as a behavior that human beings share with other mammals and primates is insufficient to provide a Darwinian explanation of incest taboos as culturally constructed moral norms that are unique to human beings.

In the first part of his new book, Wolf restates the evidence and argumentation for the Westermarckian explanation of incest avoidance (5-66).  In the second part, he lays out his explanation of incest taboos (66-133).

Referring to John Searle's "social ontology," Wolf concedes to the conventionalists that they have a good point when they argue that through language and symbolism, human beings can create social institutions and institutional norms that have little or no physical reality: Searle's favorite examples are money, marriage, and markets (70-72).  To explain incest taboos, we must explain why human beings agree to create the prohibition of incest as a moral norm.  We must explain not just why most of us avoid incest, but why most of us agree to the social norm that we ought to avoid incest.

What Wolf says here about the uniqueness of human social intentionality is similar to what Michael Tomasello has said about "shared intentionality" as a capacity that sets human beings apart--even as young children--from other primates.  This has been the subject of a previous post.

To explain the uniqueness of human incest taboos as social constructions, Wolf argues that a taboo is something to be avoided because a society regards it as dangerous.  Society prohibits incest because it is perceived to be unnatural or abnormal sex that elicits fear and foreboding.  Thus, the incest taboo arises from two traits of human nature--the fear of events perceived as unnatural or abnormal and the desire to conform to one's group.  These create an incest taboo as a collective intentionality to avoid behavior perceived as dangerous to the community (77-118).

This taboo becomes a moral norm not because there is some transcendent normativity or deontic force inherent in such a social rule, but because, as Westermarck argued, retributive emotions become moral emotions when they show "generality, apparent disinterestedness, and a flavor of impartiality" (119).  Emotional disapproval constitutes a moral rule when the emotional disapproval is expressed in such a general way as to conform to what an "impartial spectator" would condemn--thus following Adam Smith's account of the moral sentiments.

Wolf recognizes, however, that Westermarck's Darwinian explanation of the incest taboo will be scorned by those who fear what looks like Darwin's assault on human dignity.  In the 18th century, Francis Hutcheson explained the incest taboo as expressing an "innate moral sense" instilled in human beings by God.  Bernard Mandeville responded by denying this and arguing that the incest taboo was merely a matter of custom with no natural basis.  In this debate, Mandeville's conventionalism seemed to be an assault on the moral dignity of human beings.  But then when Westermarck developed his Darwinian account of the incest taboo as a cultural expression of naturally evolved dispositions that did not need to be attributed to the Creator, his naturalist or constitutionalist explanation seemed to be degrading in denying human moral transcendence.  At this point, the culturalists or conventionalists seemed to be the defenders of human dignity, because they offered a kind of creation story in which human beings create themselves through culture as transcending mere animal nature (25-27, 30, 33).  This explains the moralistic vehemence of those who reject a Darwinian science of human nature as a repugnant form of reductionism and materialism.

Wolf concludes his new book with a helpful summary of the 12 steps in his reasoning (134-35):
"1. Inbreeding is dangerous, raising the excess death-plus-major-defect rate by 20 to 40 percent in the case of primary relatives.
"2. The selection pressure generated by the dangers of inbreeding has so shaped primate sexuality that early association inhibits sexual relations.
"3. Because children are normally reared by their parents and siblings with one another, nuclear family incest is rare except as child abuse.
"4. Being an exceptionally emotional species, human beings are startled by rare events and see them as predicting misfortune.
"5. Nuclear family incest is a rare event and is therefore startling.
"6. There is always a consensus condemning incest because most people interpret incest as threatening, and the few who do not accept the majority view because they want to belong.
"7. Human institutions are created when people agree that something exists and agree to assign it a purpose.
"8. The incest taboos are the creation of a consensus condemning incest and have the purpose of forestalling the dangers it threatens.
"9. The incest taboos have a moral quality because they are the products of a general reaction that does not appear to serve any selfish interest. 
"10. The nuclear family is universal and everywhere existed before the creation of larger kinship groups like the clan.
"11. When larger kingship groups like the clan were created, they were modeled on the nuclear family and therefore included incest taboos as constitutional features.
"12. The scope of the extended incest taboos varies because the composition of the groups modeled on the family varies.
"Taken together, these twelve statements account for most if not all of what is known about incest avoidance and the incest taboos.  They add up to a constitutionalist solution to the incest problem, because they are claims about human nature or rest on assumptions about human nature."
My post on incest in 2006 includes links to most of my subsequent posts on this.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Attack on Leo Strauss from the Paleoconservative Historicists

The debate over Leo Strauss's political thought has been dominated by two positions.  Strauss's critics on the Left have charged that he was a right-wing--even fascist--enemy of liberal democracy.  In response to this criticism, his defenders on the Right have argued that he was a defender of liberal democracy against the threats coming from communism, Nazism, relativism, and historicism.

Over the last couple of years, we have seen a new position in this debate staked out by the paleoconservative historicists Paul Gottfried (in Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America [Cambridge University Press, 2012]) and Grant Havers (in Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy [Northern Illinois University Press, 2013]).  Gottfried and Havers speak for what they identify as the Old Right, which they regard as true conservatism.  Here I will comment on Havers's book.  I hope to comment on Gottfried's book in a future post.  Some of the thinking in this paleoconservative historicist critique of Strauss is stated in Havers's review of Gottfried's book.

As a conservative Christian historicist who wants to defend Anglo-American liberal democracy, Havers contends that such a defense must appeal to history rather than nature, because Anglo-American liberalism is rooted in the historical particularity of liberal Protestant Christianity, and consequently, it cannot be universalized by any appeal to a universal human nature.  As a Darwinian classical liberal, I argue that Havers's antithetical dichotomy of nature versus history is mistaken, because one can rightly defend Anglo-American liberal democracy as rooted in an evolutionary natural history.

In contrast to those like Shadia Drury, Stephen Holmes, and William Altman, who identify Strauss as a man of the extreme anti-liberal Right, Havers takes Strauss as sincere in his professed support of liberal democracy, even if it's the moderate support of a friendly critic.  More specifically, Havers identifies Strauss as a Cold War liberal.  To counter the threats coming from communist universalism, historicist relativism, and Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss thought that liberal democracy had to be defended as grounded in a universal human nature, and thus conforming to the timeless standards of natural right that could be grasped by reason as transcending the time-bound traditions of history.  Although Strauss himself never interpreted this to mean that American ideals should be imposed on all other nations by an American foreign policy of democratic imperialism, that's the message that was advanced by the neoconservative followers of Strauss.

According to Havers, Strauss's primary mistake here is in failing to see that Anglo-American liberal democracy is rooted in the particular historical tradition of modern liberal Protestantism--especially as based on the egalitarian morality of Christian charity--and therefore it has no timeless natural truth outside of this unique historical tradition.  As a result, liberal democracy has no human appeal beyond the Anglo-American world of England, the United States, and Canada.  Any attempt to export liberal democracy to other countries must fail.  And even in the Anglo-American world, liberal democracy will lose its appeal as fervent belief in liberal Protestantism declines.

In the course of developing this general argument, Havers offers insightful commentary on many aspects of Strauss's influence on Anglo-American conservatism.  He criticizes Strauss and his followers for generally downplaying the importance of Christianity in shaping liberal democratic thought, and he indicates how troublesome this has been for Christian conservatives.  He shows how Strauss tried to find ancient Greek roots for liberal democracy.  He observes that while Strauss and his followers have celebrated Winston Churchill, they have failed to reflect on how Churchill stressed the importance of Christianity in shaping Western civilization as a unique historical tradition in ways that departed radically from ancient Greek and Roman traditions.  He explains the complex and confusing relationships that the Canadian conservative George Grant and the American conservative Willmoore Kendall had with Strauss.  And he shows how Strauss's account of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens--revelation and reason--points to the historical uniqueness of modern Western culture in a way that subverts his appeal to natural right as opposed to history.

In the final paragraph of his book, Havers writes:
"Debates over what is universal and relative within Western civilization will not go away anytime soon.  Even if a cosmic 'clash of civilizations' between the West and its historic rivals is not in the cards, the unique contribution that biblical morality has made to the West is bound to be a source of friction with peoples who do not embrace the seven dogmas of Spinoza.  Despite the best efforts of Strauss to universalize Anglo-American political ideas, even he hit the wall of historic and religious particularity.  If the Bible teaches a universal morality that all human beings must practice, it will never logically follow that this morality is historically universal.  Although it is unlikely that the globalist Left and Right will take this message to heart, the survival of the Anglo-American West may well depend on its peoples heeding this lesson."  (168)
I see here four problems that run throughout Havers's book.  First, he never explains exactly when and where we "hit the wall of historic and religious particularity," given that that wall moves in an expanding circle.  Second, he never demonstrates that human nature and human history must be antithetically opposed to one another.  Third, he never explains how this nature/history dichotomy can be consistent with his presentation of the universalistic demands of the Christian historical tradition. Fourth, he is silent about the empirical evidence of history over the past 250 years that shows a remarkable spread of liberal regimes around the world, far beyond the confines of the Anglo-American world.

The smallest enclosure for "the wall of historic and religious particularity" that constitutes liberal democracy is "the seven dogmas of Spinoza" stated in chapter 14 of Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise.  According to Havers, Anglo-American liberal democracy is impossible without belief in liberal Protestantism as defined by those seven dogmas of Spinoza (77-78, 88, 164, 168).  But then at many points, Havers expands the wall outward to embrace all of Christianity, and not just liberal Protestantism, when he speaks of "Christian charity" as the crucial belief.  At other points, however, he speaks of "biblical charity," as if to include Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament.

Havers is also unclear about the geographical and chronological location of this wall.  Apparently, "Anglo-American" refers collectively to England, the United States, and Canada, thus erasing the boundaries between those three.  But then he also speaks about "the uniqueness of the West," thus suggesting that liberal democracy is actually rooted in the whole of Western culture over the last two thousand years.  And yet he also identifies "the Anglo-American West," as if to indicate that the wall does not enclose all of Western culture, but only the English, American, and Canadian parts of that culture.

If this "wall of historic and religious particularity" moves in an expanding circle--from England to America to Canada to all of Western culture--why can't it be moved even farther outward to embrace all of humanity?

In fact, when Havers speaks of "the universalistic demands of Christianity" (125) as foundational for liberal democracy, he implies that Christianity's universal morality of charity teaches a universal humanitarianism.  But then he contradicts this by saying that this can't be true.  Anglo-American liberal democrats must affirm the biblical teaching of a "universal morality that all human beings must practice," but they must deny that "this morality is historically universal," because this universal Christian morality is not really universal!

This incoherence in his reasoning arises from his false antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, which he repeatedly assumes as a first premise that he never demonstrates (15, 37-40, 63-64, 77-85, 90-91, 96, 100, 103, 107, 109, 125, 133).  I have argued that human nature constrains but does not determine human history, and that human nature and human history jointly constrain but do not determine human judgment.  If this is so, then we can exercise our judgment in discerning how some historical traditions show a better grasp of human nature than do other historical traditions. 

Havers simply assumes that any standard that is historical as being rooted in some specific time and place cannot also be natural as being rooted in a universal propensity of human nature.  So, for example, he identifies Christian charity as the Golden Rule (59, 62, 78-80, 90, 148, 151, 164).  Since the statement of the Golden Rule in the New Testament belongs to a specific historical tradition of religious thought, he assumes that it cannot therefore be natural or universal.  But this ignores the possibility that many different religious and philosophical traditions have discovered the Golden Rule as a reasonable inference from natural human experience, as an expression of what C. S. Lewis called "the Tao," or as showing how diverse historical traditions can manifest natural law.  (See Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule [Oxford University Press, 1996].)  Charles Darwin and other evolutionary moral psychologists have showed how the Golden Rule can emerge through the coevolution of human nature and human culture.

For Havers, one of the best illustrations of the application of the Golden Rule or Christian charity was Abraham Lincoln's reasoning about the injustice of slavery (63-64).  (Havers is the author of Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love [University of Missouri Press, 2009].)  But Havers is silent about the fact that Lincoln was confronted with two contradictory historical traditions of interpreting the Bible's position on slavery.  Christian abolitionists followed the historical tradition of the Bible as anti-slavery.  But many Southern Christians adopted the historical tradition of the Bible as proslavery.  And indeed both the Old Testament and New Testament endorse slavery and never explicitly condemn it.  Lincoln admitted that the Bible provided no clear resolution of the dispute.  In his Second Inaugural Address, he observed: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."  That's why the American Civil War was such a deep theological crisis for America.

Being faced with two opposing historical traditions for interpreting the biblical teaching on slavery, Lincoln had to appeal to the natural human desire for justice as reciprocity in judging that the anti-slavery tradition was closer to natural justice than the proslavery tradition.  If Havers were right about the antithetical dichotomy of nature and history, such a judgment would have been impossible.

The victory of the North in the American Civil War extended liberal republicanism over the entire American nation.  This could be seen as part of a historical trend towards the spread of liberalism around the world.  Employing Immanuel Kant's criteria for liberal republicanism, Michael Doyle (in Ways of War and Peace [Norton, 1997]) has surveyed the historic expansion of liberalism around the world.  At the end of the 18th century, there were only three liberal regimes: the Swiss Cantons, the French Republic (1790-95), and the United States.  By 1850, there were 8 liberal regimes.  By 1900, 13.  By 1945, 29.  After 1945, there have been at least 68, and they are scattered around the world on every continent.  Many of these liberal regimes are clearly not rooted in the historical tradition of liberal Protestant culture.  They include, for example, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea.  Isn't this historical evidence for the universal appeal of liberalism, suggesting that liberalism really does conform to a universal human nature?  If so, then liberalism is rooted in natural right and history, and Havers is wrong.

Some of my previous posts on Strauss, Lincoln, natural right, and evolutionary natural history can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Increasing Liberty and Declining Violence in Spencer's Evolutionary Classical Liberalism

Reading Alberto Mingardi's Herbert Spencer (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) has finally convinced me that modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and that the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence.

Mingardi's book is the best short introduction to Spencer's social thought.  It is part of a remarkable series of books on "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers" edited by John Meadowcroft. 

Mingardi points out the odd character of the history of Spencer's reputation.  During his lifetime, Spencer was perhaps the most famous and respected philosopher of the last half of the 19th century.  He was probably the first philosopher to sell over a million copies of his books before his death.  And yet, by the 1930s and 1940s, hardly anyone was reading Spencer.  Through the influence of people like Richard Hofstadter--through his book Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944)--Spencer's evolutionary classical liberalism was labeled as Social Darwinism, which suggested a morally repugnant claim that nothing should be done to help the weak and the poor who were unfit to live in a competitive society.  Now, Barack Obama regularly pins this label of Social Darwinism on those who disagree with him about expanding the power of government for social reform.

As Mingardi indicates, even those leading the recent revival of evolutionary classical liberalism--those like Paul Seabright, Paul Rubin, Daniel Friedman, Matt Ridley, and me--rarely acknowledge that this is a revival of Spencer's thinking.  Moreover, this recent evolutionary social thought draws from the influential ideas of Friedrich Hayek about how the spontaneous orders in complex modern societies are generated by adaptive cultural evolution; but while this corresponds exactly to what Spencer said about the spontaneous evolution of "industrial societies" as opposed to "militant societies," Hayek showed no knowledge of, or interest in, Spencer.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I reject the unreasonable utopianism found occasionally in some of Spencer's writing--as, for example, when he writes in Social Statics: "so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must the things we call evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect" (80).  Mingardi never takes up this fantastic claim that human nature can be so changed as to be morally perfect.

Mingardi has convinced me, however, that, setting aside his occasional utopianism, Spencer defended an evolutionary classical liberalism that supports a rational optimism about historical progress towards increasing liberty and decreasing violence.

One good statement of this reasoning is at the end of Spencer's "Filiation of Ideas" (in David Duncan's Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer):
The assertion of the liberty of each limited only by the like liberties of all, was shown to imply the doctrine that each ought to receive the benefits and bear the evils entailed by his actions, carried on within those limits; and Biology had shown that this principle follows from the ultimate truth that each creature must thrive or dwindle, live or die, according as it fulfills well or ill the conditions of its existence--a principle which, in the case of social beings, implies that the activities of each must be kept within the bounds imposed by the like activities of others.  So that, while among inferior creatures survival of the fittest is the outcome of aggressive competition, among men as socially combined it must be the outcome of non-aggressive competition: maintenance of the implied limits, and insurance of the benefits gained within the limits, being what we call justice.  And thus, this ultimate principle of social conduct was affiliated upon the general process of organic evolution. (576)

Despite this optimism about evolutionary progress as favoring the expansion of liberty and social order based on voluntary cooperation, Spencer became deeply discouraged by the move--during the last few decades of his life--from the classical liberal principle of limited government protecting individual liberty to the new liberal principle of expanding government for promoting social reform.  As this movement towards collectivist statism increased in the first half of the 20th century, some scholars claimed that Spencer had been overthrown by the very evolution that he had championed, because social evolution had turned away from his classical liberalism.

Actually, however, Spencer did not claim that evolutionary progress was an unswerving and inevitable line of ascent.  Rather, he recognized the "rhythm of motion" in social evolution:
On recognizing the universality of rhythm, it becomes clear that it was absurd to suppose that the great relaxation of restraints--political, social, commercial--which culminated in free trade would continue.  A re-imposition of restraints, if not of the same kind, then of other kinds, was inevitable; and it is now manifest that whereas during a long period there had been an advance from involuntary cooperation in social affairs to voluntary cooperation, there has commenced a reversal of the process. (Autobiography, II: 369)
But if Spencer was right about societies with increasing liberty and decreasing violence being generally more functionally adaptive than other societies with less liberty and more violence, then we can expect that although there will be unpredictable swerves in history away from classical liberal principles, the general pattern of history over the long run must be towards classical liberalism.

Pinker offers a good visual model of this in his Better Angels of Our Nature.   While surveying the evidence for a long historical evolutionary trend of declining violence and increasing liberty, which supports classical liberal culture, Pinker acknowledges that there can be variable deviations from this general trend.  So he presents the trend of declining violence as a declining irregular sawtooth pattern, in which it's possible to have sudden peaks in violence like World War Two, caused by a few illiberal individual leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, but still the general trend downwards continues.

In 1971, Murray Rothbard made a similar point in his essay on "Social Darwinism Reconsidered".  He observed that if one is persuaded by the evolutionary classical liberal argument of Spencer, then one can be reasonably optimistic that history is generally moving towards liberty, despite the many deviations and reversals in the process.  So, for example, if one is persuaded by Ludwig von Mises' argument that socialism cannot calculate economic values, then socialism cannot work in a modern industrial society.  Even Lenin recognized that when he saw the failure of his attempt to abolish money, in his attempt to put Marx's ideas into practice, and Lenin was forced to shift back to a limited free market economy (the "New Economic Policy").  Similarly, all of the attempts to establish pure socialism in an industrial society have eventually failed.

This vindicates the reasonable optimism of Social Darwinism as based on a scientific understanding of evolutionary natural law and of cause and effect, Rothbard concluded, because "over the long run, the dysfunctional must come to a bad end, must cleanse itself and wipe itself out, while the truly functional and proper can remain and prosper."  "The eventual victory of liberty is inevitable," he declared, "because only liberty is functional for modern man."

If evolutionary classical liberalism is correct, then liberal societies must be evolutionarily more adaptive, more functional, or more productive--economically, morally, and intellectually--than illiberal societies.  And, consequently, despite the occasional turns towards illiberal social orders, the arrow of history in the long run points to liberty.

Posts on some of these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.