Friday, October 21, 2016

Socialism and Human Nature: Cosmides, Tooby, Haidt, and Hayek

For the classical liberal proponents of capitalism, who point to the long history of socialism's moral and economic failures, it's hard to understand the continuing popular appeal of socialism, as illustrated most recently by the popularity of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. 

Friedrich Hayek explained this by arguing that socialism was an atavistic appeal to the moral instincts of our foraging ancestors, and that capitalism was a recent artificial construction of culture that required the repression of those innate instincts of human nature as shaped in foraging bands hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Some of those classical liberals influenced by Hayek have wondered whether the evolutionary psychology of those like Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Jonathan Haidt confirms Hayek's insight about how a capitalist culture must fight against a socialist nature.  Against this, I have argued that this is a mistake, because it fails to see how capitalist liberal culture appeals to the evolved human instincts for social exchange or trade and for the liberty expressed as resistance to oppression.

A few weeks ago, the Cato Institute organized a panel of speeches by Cosmides, Tooby, and Haidt on the topic of "Socialism and Human Nature," which can be seen online as a video.  (I thank Kent Guida for alerting me to this.)  Although their comments provide a partial confirmation for Hayek's atavism thesis, they implicitly reject Hayek's claim that capitalism is a purely cultural artifact that requires the repression of evolved human nature; and thus they end up close to my argument.

Cosmides begins by noting that Karl Marx had been persuaded by some anthropologists (Lewis Henry Morgan, in particular) that our ancient foraging ancestors shared their food in ways that showed that they were living in primitive communism based on the decision rule "from each according to his ability to each according to his need."  Marx thought that after the overthrow of modern capitalism, a modern form of communism could be established by reviving this instinctive propensity to communist sharing.

Cosmides argues that Marx was partially right, in that foragers did have rules for sharing large game from hunting and for sharing within families, and that this was an evolved instinct of human nature.  But Marx was wrong in not seeing that among foragers there were many different evolved systems regulating cooperation, and that sharing the food from hunting was only one. 

Hunting among foragers is a highly risky and highly variable activity, and much of the variance is due to luck.  To protect themselves against the bad luck of failing to capture any game animals, hunters engage in risk pooling, which constitutes a kind of insurance system.  Those lucky hunters who come back from the day's hunt with meat must share some of their meat with those unlucky hunters who failed to capture any meat.  The lucky hunters do this because they know that tomorrow they might be the unlucky ones who will need the lucky ones to share.

(In this account of hunting among foragers, Cosmides relies on a paper by Hillard Kaplan and Kim Hill on the Ache foragers of Paraguay.  We might wonder whether this foraging group is representative of our prehistoric ancestors, and whether we can draw general conclusions about human nature from studying this one group.  As indicated in a previous post, some anthropologists think that foraging societies are too variable to justify any generalizations about evolved human nature.)

In contrast to hunting, gathering food (plants and small animals) shows low variance and less risk.  Those who make the effort to go gathering are usually successful.  They share this food within their family.  But they do not need to share with other families, because unlike hunting, there is no need to pool risk.

There is a third form of cooperation, in which foragers reciprocate or trade goods within their band or with people in other bands.

All of these evolved systems of cooperation are part of our evolved human nature that we still have today.  Even though most of us today have never lived as hunter-gatherers, and so we have never learned the culture of hunting-gathering society, we still have the instinctive rules of cooperation of the foraging mind that can be evoked as cultural patterns of behavior when environmental cues activate specific evolved mechanisms (see 8:37 in the video).

Consequently, socialism can appeal to us today by evoking the evolved rules of sharing for risk pooling.  But this is a "mismatch" in that these rules evolved for sharing among small bands of hunters for which the rules were adaptive, but these rules are maladaptive for large modern societies in which people are interacting anonymously with thousands or millions of people.  Trying to organize a large modern economy in a socialist system based on the generalized generosity of sharing fails.

Cosmides seems to suggest, therefore, that Hayek was right to see socialism as failing because of this mismatch.  But she also suggests that Hayek was wrong to present capitalism or the extended order of markets as a purely cultural artifact that must repress the evolved instincts of human nature, because he failed to see how capitalism could be understood as evoking the evolved system of cooperation through social exchange or trade.  In contrast to Cosmides, Hayek seemed to present capitalism as a "culturally-accumulated package of norms gradually acquired via content-free learning and imitation" (12:33).  Against Hayek, Cosmides argues that different instinctive rules can be triggered by the experience of different environmental cues, so that capitalist institutional cues can trigger trading behavior for mutually beneficial exchange. While Hayek argued that there was no evidence for trading behavior earlier than a few thousand years ago, after the emergence of agriculture, Cosmides seems to see evidence for trading going far back into ancient foraging bands.

Similarly, in Tooby's speech, he observed that "vast market-based economic systems exploit for their amazing productivity one cognitive system that evolved to handle explicit contingent exchange (the social exchange system)," and that "the effects of most other psychological mechanisms terminate locally (parenting, love, friendship), but explicit exchange can extend far beyond individual perception globally through the miracle of markets" (38:40).  For our foraging ancestors, trade or explicit exchange was "only a minor part of economic life," which is still true for us today in our personal lives, but today explicit exchange has become a major part of our economic life.

Tooby and Cosmides have made this same point in a recent article: "The dazzlingly extended forms of modern cooperation we see today (Adam Smith's division of labor supporting globe-spanning trade) appear differentially built out of adaptations for small-scale sociality that modularly scale, such as exchange--rather than the marginal benevolence of Smith's butcher, brewer, and baker" ("Human Cooperation Shows the Distinctive Signatures of Adaptations to Small-Scale Social Life," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39, January, 2016).  So they seem to say that Smith was right about the "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" being a evolved "propensity of human nature."  And even if this propensity to exchange was only a small part of the economics of ancient foraging bands, it could be evoked in the modern world of the global market order to sustain the liberal social order.

Haidt makes this point again at the beginning of his speech: "We evolved to do tribalism and trade" (51:14).  Living within families and small groups, we are collectivists in evoking the social instincts of our foraging mind.  But in the extended order of markets, we are traders in evoking the foraging instincts for social exchange.  The expansion of trading networks over the past five thousand years and the explosive expansion over the past two hundred years have been cultural extensions of the innate propensities for trade.

We are also libertarians in evoking "liberty/oppression" as one of the moral foundations of our evolved human nature, Haidt argues.  Here he appeals to Christopher Boehm's account of how foragers protect their autonomy as free individuals by resistance to the dominance behavior of those who might become bullies or tyrants.  If this is part of our evolved human nature, as Boehm claims, then this would show how Adam Smith's "system of natural liberty" could be rooted in our innate instincts.

Moreover, as I have argued in some of my posts on Haidt, the moral principle of liberty can be seen as not just one of six moral foundations, as he says, but also as the one principle that secures the conditions for the full expression of the other five foundations.

Part of this is that a liberal society allows human beings to satisfy their desires for personal social bonding in civil society.  A fundamental principle of liberal thought, as Hayek emphasized, is the importance of civil society as lying between the individual and the state--a social realm in which human beings are free to express their social needs through the natural bonds of family life and the voluntary associations of life.  This allows human beings to satisfy their instinctive needs for familial and social bonding in small groups comparable to those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

So, contrary to Hayek's insistence that the liberal social order requires the cultural repression of our evolved human nature, Cosmides, Tooby, and Haidt show how we can understand classical liberalism as securing the fullest satisfaction of our evolved natural desires.

Some of my other posts on Cosmides and Tooby are here, here. and here. Posts on Haidt are here, here., and here.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Debating Hayek's Atavism Thesis at George Mason University

 I recently participated in the Invisible Hand Seminar at George Mason University, which is directed by Daniel Klein of the Economics Department.  The Economics Department at GMU is one of the best places for studying Austrian School Economics.  Klein directs an Adam Smith Program, in which graduate students study The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

The title of my presentation was "The Darwinian Evolution of Smithian and Hayekian Liberalism."  A large part of my presentation was an argument against Friedrich Hayek's Freudian theory of capitalism as requiring the cultural repression of the evolved instincts of human nature that favor socialism.  Hayek agreed with Karl Marx and Lewis Henry Morgan that originally human beings lived in primitive communism.  As I have indicated in many posts on this blog, I think Adam Smith was closer to the truth in his claim that the commercial society is rooted in  "a certain propensity in human nature"--"the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another"--and that this natural propensity to trade must have appeared among our prehistoric ancestors.

We had a lively discussion of this issue in the seminar.  Afterwards, Klein sent me these comments:
"I and others were provoked by your criticism of Hayek with respect to the atavism thesis. I take you to be accentuating that liberalism suits the natural instincts of man, while Hayek accentuates that liberalism does not suit the natural instincts of man. I think your discussion nicely highlights the tension here, that Hayek cannot coherently insist on too great an unsuitableness, for otherwise he loses whatever warrants he has for judging liberalism more desirable than the alternatives."

"I think the proper posture is some-ways-suitable, some-ways-unsuitable, and, on the whole, liberalism beats the alternatives. I haven’t gone back and reread Hayek’s “The Three Sources,” but I don’t understand him to be proposing to make custom the sole legitimate source. I understand him to be bending the rod the opposite way to get it straight, thus emphasizing the need to repress and rechannel certain natural instincts. I think that liberals need to better sort out which natural instincts need attention, and whether we should aim at repressing them or rechanneling them."

I agree with Hayek that there can be some tension between "two worlds"--the world of intimate, face-to-face interactions in families and small groups and the world of impersonal and abstract interactions in the extended order of markets.  But I don't agree with Hayek's claim that while the first world is part of our evolved instinctive human nature, the second world is a cultural invention that requires the repression of the first world's instincts.  I believe that the evidence for trading networks among our prehistoric ancestors appears hundreds of thousands of years ago, and therefore the propensity for trading and reciprocal exchange is probably instinctive for us.

While Hayek generally assumed that trade did not exist at all until the last few thousand years of human history, he occasionally admitted that there was some evidence of trade going back hundreds of thousands of years (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133).  He wrote: "Some specialization and exchange may already have developed in early small communities guided entirely by the consent of their members.  Some nominal trade may have taken place as primitive men, following the migration of animals, encountered other men and groups of men" (38).  This weakens his claim that trade was a recent cultural invention with no instinctive roots.

Klein questions my interpretation of Hayek as arguing that the liberal social order is rooted in purely cultural traditions that are contrary to human instincts.  But in his "Three Sources of Human Values," Hayek seems clear in affirming that liberalism must be grounded only in human tradition, and not at all in human nature or human reason.  He wrote:
"The transition from the small band to the settled community and finally to the open society and with it to civilization was due to men learning to obey the same abstract rules instead of being guided by innate instincts to pursue common perceived goals.  The innate natural longings were appropriate to the condition of life of the small band during which man had developed the neural structure which is still characteristic of Homo sapiens. . . . It would probably be more correct to equate these 'natural' instincts with 'animal' rather than with characteristically human or good instincts.  Indeed, the general use of 'natural' as a term of praise is becoming very misleading, because one of the main functions of the rules learned later was to restrain the innate or natural instincts in the manner that was required to make the Great Society possible.  We are still inclined to assume that what is natural must be good; but it may be very far from good in the Great Society.  What has made men good is neither nature nor reason but tradition. . . ." (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, p. 160)
If the Great Society--the liberal social order--requires a cultural repression of human nature, because it cannot satisfy the natural human desires, why would we want to prefer this to a socialist social order that conforms to human nature?

I have written many posts on Hayek's atavism thesis.  One post includes links to the others.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

How Classical Liberalism Has Shaped the Evolution of the Modern Family: Hayek and Horwitz

The title of Steven Horwitz's new book is surprising: Hayek's Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).  This is surprising because Friedrich Hayek and other classical liberal thinkers have said little about the family.

As Horwitz himself indicates, Hayek's published writing on the family consists of nothing more than a few sentences scattered across some of his articles and books, although some of those sentences do indicate that Hayek thought family life was important, even crucial, for a liberal social order. 

Moreover, as Horwitz also indicates, theorists of classical liberalism have generally had great trouble in accounting for the moral status of children under parental care.  When classical liberals affirm the equal liberty of all human beings, they assume that these human beings are all mature adults, which ignores the obvious fact of human nature that all adults must have started their lives as children under the care of parents or parental surrogates, and so as children under parental authority, they could not have enjoyed the liberty of adults in making decisions for themselves.  For example, when John Stuart Mill in On Liberty makes his famous argument for individual liberty, he has to add the qualification that, of course, such liberty cannot rightly be exercised by children until they reach mature adulthood. 

The libertarian Murray Rothbard has argued that in a free society children should be treated as the property of their parents, because while adults have the freedom that comes from self-ownership, children do not.  But, surely, Horwitz observes, children cannot be rightly treated as the property of their parents, because as human beings, children have the potential for growing into adults who will claim their natural freedom for self-rule.  So we should see that children have some rights as human beings but not all the rights of human adults.  In a liberal social order, we will hold parents responsible for rearing their children in such a way that the children will become mature adults capable of exercising their individual freedom.  We might say that parents exercise stewardship over their children.  Furthermore, the success of a liberal social order depends on the socialization of children in the family so that they learn the social norms and habits of a liberal society.

Here Horwitz implicitly follows the reasoning of John Locke, although he does not mention Locke.  In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke recognized that in a free society, children would be under the authority of their parents, and the parents would be obligated to rear and educate their children so that they could exercise their individual liberty as adults.  In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke advised parents on how to educate their children in the moral and intellectual virtues required for a liberal social order.

This suggests that the relationship between family life and classical liberalism is one of mutual influence.  The family must promote liberal ideas, just as those liberal ideas must shape the family.  And, indeed, Horwitz's book is an account of the coevolutionary process through which classical liberalism has both shaped and been shaped by the modern family.

Horwitz's evolutionary history of the family employs three ideas from Hayek: (1) spontaneous order and deliberate organization, (2) the problems of knowledge and incentives, and (3) living in two worlds.

Against the common assumption that whatever is orderly must have been designed, classical liberals like Hayek argue that social order often arises best through undesigned evolution, just as Darwinian scientists explain the evolution of the natural and social world through an unintentional or unplanned process.  This is what Hayek, following Michael Polanyi, called spontaneous order.

For classical liberals, free markets provide a model of spontaneous order.  Through the buying and selling of goods and services, economic agents pursuing their diverse individual ends create a pricing system as the unintended outcome of their actions.  This market model can explain other kinds of spontaneous order, such as language, for example.  The languages that we speak have not been designed from the top down by any single mind or group of minds.  Rather, all of those who speak a language as a means to their diverse ends contribute to the continuing evolution of the language as the product of their linguistic actions but without any central design.

Spontaneous order works best for very complex social institutions involving many individuals pursing a multiplicity of ends.  But for simpler social institutions involving a small number of people acting for some shared end, order can arise better through deliberate organization by designing minds.  The family, Hayek thought, is an example of such a deliberate organization, because in a small family, the parents can know enough about the family members to design the social life of the family to achieve the common good of the family.

All social institutions, Hayek thought, must solve the problems of knowledge and incentives.  The knowledge of all the circumstances of a social group relevant to the problems of that group can be widely dispersed across the group.  And whoever has that knowledge must have the personal incentives to use it for the good of the whole group.  A large economy cannot be planned, because the planners cannot gather all of the necessary knowledge that is dispersed in the minds of thousands or even millions of people in the economy, and because even if the planners had such knowledge, their selfish interests would not give them the incentives to plan the economy for the common benefit of all.  Central economic planners would have to be both perfectly omniscient and selflessly benevolent.  A free market economy organizes the production and consumption of goods and services to satisfy consumer preferences without central planning.

In a small family, however, the parents can have sufficient knowledge of the needs and capacities of their children and sufficient incentives to care properly for their children, so that parents can deliberately plan the organization of their family to achieve the shared ends of the family.  This explains why abolishing the family is impossible: without the family organized around parental care of children, it's unlikely that anyone would have the knowledge and incentives to do as well as parents do in caring for their children.  So while Hayek believes that spontaneous order is the best way to manage an economy, he also believes that deliberate organization is the best way to manage a family.

This creates a conflict in modern life where we must live in two different worlds with different rules.  On the one hand, we live in families and other organizations (like firms and community groups) based on intimate, face-to-face relationships of moral concern for one another.  On the other hand, we live in the extended order of anonymous exchange in complex market economies based on impersonal rules. 

Socialists have argued that our social world would be more just if it were organized like a large family, so that everyone treated one another as brothers and sisters.  But Hayek insisted that this attempt to turn the spontaneous order of the market into the deliberate organization of a family must fail in ways that will destroy the extended order of impersonal exchange that makes modern economic life possible.

Hayek argued:
"If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (or wider civilization0, as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we wee always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.  So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once." (The Fatal Conceit, p. 18)
Hayek compared his argument here to Sigmund Freud's argument in Civilization and Its Discontents.  Just as Freud thought that the moral order of civilization required the repression of the sexual instincts that had been freely expressed in primitive human societies, Hayek thought that the extended order of modern civilization made possible by capitalist markets required the repression of the collectivist instincts that had governed the families and foraging bands of our primitive human ancestors.  The socialism that Hayek opposed was powerfully appealing to human beings because it conformed to their evolved moral instincts for life in families and small bands: Hayek believed that "an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition" (Fatal Conceit, p. 19).

Although I mostly agree with Horwitz in how he uses this Hayekian theme of living in two worlds to tell the story of the evolution of the family, I disagree with his Hayekian claim that the extended spontaneous order of a liberal society requires repressing the moral instincts of evolved human nature. 

If Adam Smith was right, as I think he was, in seeing the opulence that results from exchange and specialization in a commercial society as the necessary consequence of "a certain propensity in human nature," which is "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another," then that natural propensity to trade must have evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, it must have been expressed across human history, and this must have been the natural propensity that could be cultivated by the ideas and institutions of bourgeois liberalism over the past two hundred years to create first the Industrial Revolution and then the Great Enrichment, which have shaped the evolution of the modern family.  If this were not true, it would be hard to explain why human beings would want to render themselves desperately unhappy by repressing their deepest instincts for socialism in choosing capitalism.

If Horwitz and Hayek are right, then our prehistoric foraging ancestors did not live in two worlds at once.  They lived in only one world--the world of face-to-face, intimate groupings in families and small bands or tribes, the world of deliberate organizations without any spontaneous orders.  Marriage was a way of extending cooperation by forming alliances of groups bound together by marital ties.  But there could be no anonymous social order based on mutually beneficial trading. 

This ignores the archaeological evidence for extensive trading networks among prehistoric foragers.  Occasionally, even Hayek acknowledges the evidence for long-distance trade in the Paleolithic age and later in ancient Mediterranean civilization (Fatal Conceit, 38-44). 

Horwitz cites the work of evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby as supporting the Hayekian idea of a "mismatch" between the natural human psychology of the "environment of evolutionary adaptation" in the Paleolithic and human responses to modern environments of global commerce.  But he does not cite the observation of Cosmides and Tooby that the adaptive psychology for social exchange that evolved among our ancient forager ancestors shows adaptation for trading over vast distances (see, for example, Cosmides and Tooby, 1992, pp. 216-17).

According to Horwitz, it was not until the development of agriculture and sedentary life that human beings organized themselves into premodern families that lived in two worlds.  Agriculture led to specialization and exchange, in which the married couple separated themselves from the community of the band or tribe, and the family became the basic economic and political unit of the social world.  The agrarian family lived in two worlds, because the economic functions of the family were divided between producing for the household and producing for the market.

As an economic organization, the agrarian family saw children as units of production.  Having children was a way to increase the labor force of the household and to provide old-age insurance for the parents.  Although husbands and wives loved one another and loved their children, premodern families lived in a world of poverty that made the organization of the family primarily a matter of economic calculation in the struggle for survival, and only secondarily a matter of emotional satisfaction and personal happiness.

Horwitz has been greatly influenced by Stephanie Coontz's book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (Viking, 2005).  As the title indicates, Coontz sees the modern marriage and family based on love and intimacy as a recent break from a long history of marriage and family life understood as a purely economic arrangement.   Until recently, Coontz observes, married couples were not "soul-mates" but "yoke-mates."  Even so, they were not really "mates," if that implies equality, because premodern marriages were patriarchal in the husband's dominance over the wife.

Among the few people who were wealthy, premodern marriage had not only an economic function but also a political function, in that marriage was a way for powerful families to merge and thus consolidate their power.

As organized for economic and political functions, premodern marriage was, as Coontz says, "a matter of practical calculation rather than an arrangement entered into for individual fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness" (Marriage, p. 65).

All of this has been changed over the past 250 years by the triumph of the economic, moral, and political ideas and institutions of classical liberalism.  As wage labor became the primary source of income, agricultural and household labor became less important, and consequently the family largely lost its economic functions.  This separation of work from the home and the general increase in wealth made it easier for individuals to live independently without dependence upon a family.  As classical liberalism promoted individual liberty in economic, social, and political life, human relationships were understood as based on individual consent.  And thus marriage was seen as founded on freely chosen consent.  For the first time in history, marriage was understood as a love match for the personal satisfaction of the individuals marrying and the children they would rear.

Coontz summarizes the consequences:
"During the eighteenth century, the spread of the market economy and the advent of the Enlightenment wrought profound changes in record time.  By the end of the 1700s, personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriage as a social ideal, and individuals were encouraged to marry for love.  For the first time in five thousand years, marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances.  The measure of a successful marriage was no longer how big a financial settlement was involved, how many useful in-laws were acquired, or how many children were produced, but how well a family met the emotional needs of its individual members." (pp. 145-46)
As wages and wealth rose in the second half of the nineteenth century, men could support their families on their own, and so women and children could withdraw from the labor force.  With less need for children to work, childhood could become a time for development through education and play.  Individuals could afford to invest in education and training that would increase their value as workers.  For the first time in history, most adults learned to read, and eventually children could become college-educated.

Thus, as Horwitz argues, classical liberalism and the capitalism it promoted shaped not only the impersonal world of markets but also the personal world of the family in ways that fostered human flourishing through the bourgeois virtues (as Deirdre McCloskey has called them).  Previously, the premodern family had depended mostly on the calculative economic virtues of prudence.  But the modern bourgeois family could foster all of the moral and intellectual virtues.  Consequently, Horwitz observes, "capitalism thereby humanized the family" (98).

This moral improvement in the human family brought by classical liberalism and capitalism contradicts Hayek's famous argument that the free society cannot be a just or moral society, because the impersonal interactions of the market cannot reward merit, and therefore a free market society must suppress the moral instincts that evolved in the personal interactions of our ancient foraging ancestors living in families and bands.  As Horwitz observes, Hayek thought that capitalism must resist "the atavistic callings of our moral instincts" (99).  Horwitz must disagree with Hayek about this in showing how capitalism has improved not just the material conditions of life but also the moral and intellectual excellence of human life.

One way that Horwitz explains this moral progress in family life caused by capitalism is by arguing that bourgeois families have been able to climb from the bottom to the top of Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of basic human needs."  Maslow arranged these basic human needs as a pyramid, moving from physiological needs and safety needs at the bottom to the higher needs of love/belonging and self-esteem and then finally to self-actualization at the top.  Throughout human history, Horwitz argues, most human beings in their families had to be almost totally concerned with the lower needs of survival and safety.  Only in the last two centuries, the ideas and institutions of classical liberalism have created a world of abundance and opportunity in which most human beings are free from worry about securing their lower needs and can pursue the satisfaction of their higher needs for love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

One might wonder, however, whether a family devoted to the self-actualizing happiness of its individual members can do the job of socializing children that is required for a liberal social order to succeed.  Horwitz raises this question in an article that asks the question "Is the Family a Spontaneous Order?" (Studies in Emergent Order, 1 [2008]: 163-185).

The answer to the question of whether the family is a spontaneous order, Horwitz suggests, is twofold: "It depends" and "Maybe."  It depends on whether we are asking about the general history of the family or about the operation of individual families.  The general history of the family certainly is a spontaneous order, because it's an undersigned spontaneous evolution from prehistoric families to agrarian families to modern families.  But if we're asking about how individual families are organized, then the answer is "Maybe."

Throughout most of human history, the family has been a deliberate organization based on hierarchy and command, just as Hayek saw.  Parents--and particularly fathers--have exercised hierarchical command in planning the organization of the family for the collective ends of the whole family.

But recently an increasing number of families in liberal societies have begun to look like spontaneous orders, in which parents and children pursuing their self-actualization act for their individually diverse ends, and thus there is little of the hierarchy and command that previously designed the family as a deliberate organization. 

Horwitz observes that if a liberal social order needs children to be socialized in their families to learn the bourgeois norms and habits of a liberal society--such as tolerance, self-control, taking responsibility for one's actions, entrepreneurial risk-taking, and learning from one's mistakes--one might doubt that a fully spontaneously ordered family can provide the socialization of children that is required for the spontaneous order of a liberal society to survive.

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

Friday, October 07, 2016

Do We Naturally Desire Eternal Life? Or Is the Natural Limit of 115 Years Enough?

Is it natural for us to want to live forever?  If that is so, is there any way to satisfy that natural desire--perhaps through a scientific conquest of nature or through a religious transition into an immortal afterlife?

Or should we see, as I have argued, that we can satisfy our natural desire for a complete life by living out our natural life span as set by our evolved human nature?

Against both the exaggerated optimism of some proponents of biotechnology (like Lee Silver and Gregory Stock) and the exaggerated pessimism of some critics (like Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama), I have argued (in Darwinian Conservatism and elsewhere) that our evolved human nature will always limit the uses of biotechnology, and that we can see this in how the natural human life span limits any biotechnological quest for ageless bodies.

Senescence--the process of bodily decay at older ages--is probably so deeply rooted in the adaptive complexity of our bodies as shaped by natural selection that it cannot be abolished by biotechnological changes.  It is likely that aging is controlled by so many genes interacting in such complex ways that it would be impossible to eliminate the genetic mechanisms for aging, and thus to greatly lengthen the life span, without disrupting other beneficial mechanisms.

The success of modern public health and medicine in extending life expectancy over the past 150 years has been cited as evidence by many people that if we continue in this direction, eventually we can conquer death completely.  And thus the dream of early modern scientists like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes of how modern science could make us such masters of nature that we might live forever would finally be fulfilled. 

But while we have increased the average length of life, we have not increased the maximum length of life. In contrast to the populations in previous centuries, in which few people lived past 60 or 70, most of us are living into our 80s and 90s.  And yet by age 100, 99 per cent of us will be dead; and by age 120, we will all be dead.  The maximum life span is the same today as it has been for thousands of years.  This confirms the wisdom of God's declaration in the Bible: "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he is also flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years" (Genesis 6:3).

That was my argument in 2005 in Darwinian Conservatism, and now there is new research supporting that argument in the current issue of Nature (October 6, 2016).  Carl Zimmer has written an article about this for The New York Times.  Jan Vijg and his colleagues have shown that demographic data suggest that there is a natural limit to the human lifespan of about 115 years.  (This confirms the position of S. Jay Olshansky and his colleagues, whose work I cited in 2005.)  Their hypothesis is that if there is no biological limit to the human lifespan, then with improvements in public health, nutrition, and medical treatment, the age group experiencing the greatest increase in survival should be shifting to ever-older groups over time.  They found that the age with greatest improvement in survival got steadily higher over most of the twentieth century, but then it reached a plateau at about 99 in 1980.

They also looked at the age of the oldest person to die in a given year in France, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  They saw that this increased rapidly between the 1970s and the early 1990s, but then plateaued in the mid-1990s at 114.9 years.  The longest lived human being whose age could be verified was Jeanne Calment who died in France in 1997 at age 122.  But she is an extreme outlier, as indicated by the fact that no one else since 1997 has been verified as living that long.  The oldest known person living today is Emma Morano, aged 116.  This also suggests a natural human lifespan of about 115.

Here we see one of the stunning achievements of liberalism: for the first time in human history, because of the Great Enrichment of the past 150 years, human beings today in liberal social orders have a good chance of living out their natural human lifespan.

Some scientists--like James Vaupel--have raised objections to this idea that there is a natural limit to the lifespan.  The first objection is that even if the age experiencing the greatest increase in survival has plateaued in many countries, it has not yet plateaued in some countries like Japan.  The second objection is that Vijg's demographic research ignores the possibility that future medical research could find new ways to increase maximum lifespan. 

It's hard to respond to such objections that depend upon unpredictable future developments.  But one can say that so far there is no clearly confirmed way for medical science to extend the human lifespan.  One can also say that this is unlikely to happen in the future if the lifespan is controlled by too many genes.

The religious believer in immortality could object, however, that this debate is about only one way to achieve immortality--staying alive indefinitely through scientific technology.  There are two other possibilities proposed by religious believers--immortality through the separation at death of the immortal soul from the mortal body or through the resurrection of the dead body to a deathless body.  Many orthodox Christians combine both forms of immortality, because they believe that at the death of the human body the human soul lives in an afterlife, and then when Jesus returns to Earth, the dead human bodies will be resurrected and reunited with the immortal souls.

Some of my critics--like Peter Lawler--have objected that human beings will never be satisfied with living out their natural human lifespans, and that it is only the prospect of achieving the immortality of body and soul in Heaven or Hell that will satisfy the natural human desire for eternal life.

I am skeptical about whether this is possible or desirable.  Is it possible for my personal identity to live forever as an immortal soul separated from any body or as a resurrected body that never ages?  Would it be desirable to live forever if living timelessly and changelessly would not be really living a human life? Would it be desirable to live forever in an afterlife if most human beings are condemned to eternal punishment in Hell? Or should we assume, as many Christians today do, that all human beings will go to Heaven?

Should we agree with Wallace Stevens that "death is the mother of beauty"?  Does this arise from our evolved human nature as embodied minds that pass through a natural life cycle from birth to maturity to death?

Here, however, is where Leo Strauss and his students object that most human beings cannot live with "the most terrible truth" that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, viii, 81, 83, 85, 92, 96, 100, 122-26, 134-35).  Insofar as liberalism embraces evolutionary science, it teaches that not only must all individual human beings die, but even the human species as a whole and the cosmic order of the Earth that makes human life possible must die.  Although this is a scientific truth of evolution, this is a deadly truth that promotes nihilism.  Only philosophers can live with this truth, and so they must hide it from everyone else.

Friedrich Nietzsche accepted evolutionary science in his middle writings--particularly, Human, All Too Human--and argued for a Darwinian aristocratic liberalism based on the truth that "everything has evolved."  Strauss and the Straussians are largely silent about this, because they agree with the Nietzsche of the later writings who saw evolutionary liberalism as a deadly nihilism that must be overcome through a new Dionysian myth that will eternalize human experience by affirming the "eternal basic text of Homo natura." Not death but eternity is the mother of beauty.

Some of these points have been developed in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here., here., and here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

"The Evolution of Liberalism" at George Mason University, October 15

On October 15th, I will be at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  I will be leading a discussion for the "Hidden Hand Seminar" of the "Adam Smith Program" directed by Daniel Klein.

The title for my comments is "The Evolutionary Science of Smithian and Hayekian Liberalism."

The seminar will meet at 4:00-5:45 pm in Mason Hall D180.  The seminar is cosponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and the John Templeton Foundation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Debate--Hillary Clinton, Bonobo Alpha Female



So what really happened in the Presidential Debate Monday night?  The previously alpha male chimpanzee was defeated by the alpha female bonobo.  Everyone who watched the debate knew this as soon as they saw Clinton's shimmy.

After a lengthy comment, Trump concluded: "I have much better judgment than she has.  There's no question about that.  I also have a much better temperament than she does."

Clinton's response: "Whoo!" she said. "OK."  She then shimmied her shoulders while smiling broadly.  The audience laughed.  She was having fun. Trump was not.

I have written a previous post on Trump's "chimpanzee fascism."  The only way to explain Trump's success is to see that he is showing the chimpanzee politics of an ambitious male seeking alpha dominance through charging displays of bluffing intimidation. Just like the Gombe chimp Mike discovered that making lots of noise with empty kerosene cans could intimidate the high-ranking males, Trump has discovered that loudly yelling insults at anyone who challenges him is so shocking and flamboyant that he becomes the center of attention for voters, and his competitors are thrown into stunned confusion.  This shows us that much of political competition has less to do with intellectual debates over public policy and more to do with gut-feelings about who looks dominant and who looks subordinate, gut-feelings rooted in our evolved primate political psychology.

One way that social scientists have studied this is to have people judge political candidates through their nonverbal displays.  Some years ago, Jim Schubert, a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University, did a study in which he asked people in Europe and in the United States to watch videos of political candidates running for office in Romania and then to rate them for "electability."  With the sound turned off, they saw only the bodily and facial displays.  Remarkably, their rankings corresponded closely with the electoral outcomes.

Similarly, Jonathan Mahler has written an article for the New York Times on his experience in watching the Clinton/Trump debate with the sound off and with no other information about the debate.  His assignment from his editor was to test the idea that nonverbal displays in debates can determine winners and losers.  And, indeed, he knew that Clinton had won the debate when he saw the restless anxiety and frustration of Trump's displays and the confident serenity and humor of Clinton's displays.  That shimmy of her shoulders and her big grin were enough to show that Clinton was the alpha female.

If Trump has been trying to show that he's the alpha male chimpanzee, Clinton has shown that she can be the alpha female bonobo.  In chimpanzee communities, there are both male and female dominance hierarchies, but the alpha male is clearly superior to the alpha female. In bonobo communities, as I have indicated in some posts, the alpha female seems to be dominant over the alpha male, although some primatologists think there is actually codominance shared by the alpha male and alpha female. 

Since chimps and bonobos are the closest living evolutionary relatives of the human species, we might expect that we combine chimp and bonobo traits, as Frans de Waal argues.  In all human societies, even in egalitarian foraging societies, men tend on average to hold more dominant positions than do women.  There has never been a true matriarchy in human history.  But even so, some women have the ambitious temperament that inclines them to seek dominance, and obviously Hillary Clinton is one of those.  In fact, this became an explicit topic for the debate--whether she had the "temperament" or "stamina" to be President.

Bonobo males are physically bigger and stronger than bonobo females, but when bonobo females form alliances with one another, they can dominate over the males.  Similarly, Clinton in the debate indicated that she was leading a female alliance against Trump's attempts at subordinating and denigrating women.  Clinton spoke about the case of Alicia Machado, who was crowned Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump ran the Miss Universe contest.  When Machado began to gain some weight, Trump ridiculed her as "Miss Piggy."  He also called her "Miss Housekeeping," an insulting reference to her Latina ethnicity as a Venezuelan woman.  Now Machado is a U.S. citizen, Clinton indicated.  So in supporting her against Trump's insults, Clinton was appealing to both women and Latino immigrants.

What this shows is that the rhetoric of dominance displays is not mindlessly irrational, because it does have some rational content insofar as it's connected with policy issues--in this case, questions about immigration, the social status of women, and the leadership style of those competing for dominance.

As Gary Johnson argues in his op-ed article for the New York Times, he offers a third way between Clinton and Trump--fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.  If he is allowed onto the debate stage, he will have to display the dominance style of a classical liberal.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Smith and Strauss on Bourgeois Liberalism and the Philosophic Life

Steven Smith's Modernity and Its Discontents elaborates the argument of Leo Strauss and the Straussians for the "crisis of liberalism" as showing "the problem of the bourgeois."  The basic idea for Smith's book comes from Strauss's "Three Waves of Modernity"--the idea that the first wave of liberal modernity is theoretically flawed in ways that provoke two waves of illiberal attacks on modernity. This suggests the question of whether Strauss and the Straussians are proposing some illiberal alternative to the bourgeois liberal order. 

Smith's answer is no, because while Strauss was a critic of liberal democracy, he was a friendly critic who saw liberal democracy (like that of the United States) as the best practicable regime for the modern world, despite its weaknesses.  And, therefore, Smith says, Strauss was actually "a classical liberal who believed that present-day liberalism requires the support of certain premodern sources of authority if it is to be sustainable" (292).   Smith is relying on what Will Altman has called the "Golden Sentence" of Straussian apologetics: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy."  (Altman points out that Strauss is careful here to use the word "we" rather than "I," and that Strauss says that Maimonides uses the word "we" to distinguish a popular opinion from what he himself believes.)

It's not clear how Smith's claim that Strauss was a friend of liberalism is consistent with Smith's observation that in his lecture on "German Nihilism," Strauss implicitly included himself among those young German nihilists who preferred a "closed morality" that was "based on such old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, duty, honor, and self-sacrifice" as showing a higher level of humanity than an "open morality" that was "divorced from the particularities of nation, race, or class" (250). Smith is silent about Strauss's assertion in "German Nihilism" that National Socialism was "a return to a pre-modern ideal."

We must wonder whether Smith's reading of Strauss as a classical liberal is persuasive.  In particular, given what Strauss said about the supremacy of the philosophic life and about the conflict between philosophy and society, we must wonder whether a bourgeois liberal regime can allow for such a philosophic life.  And if the open society of a liberal regime can be open to philosophy, does that refute Strauss's claim that every stable society must be a closed society that cannot tolerate the skeptical questioning of philosophers?

In order to separate Strauss from the illiberal critics of the Enlightenment, and thus protect Strauss from Will Altman's charge of being a Jewish Nazi, Smith distinguishes between the radical Counter-Enlightenment of those like Joseph de Maistre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Martin Heidegger, and the moderate Counter-Enlightenment of those like Strauss, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Isaiah Berlin (348-49).

Smith's distinction here between two forms of Counter-Enlightenment is strange for at least two reasons.  First, to put Strauss on the side of Berlin rather than Heidegger ignores Strauss's severe criticism of Berlin as failing in his attempted defense of liberalism and Strauss's fervent endorsement of Heidegger as the one great thinker of our time who has refuted liberalism.  Strauss writes: "All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power. One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate. I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger" ("Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," 29).  Remarkably, Smith is silent about this claim by Strauss that Heidegger has refuted any argument for rational liberalism.

The second reason why Smith's distinction is strange is that in assigning Nietzsche to the radical Counter-Enlightenment, Smith is silent about Nietzsche's defense of the Enlightenment and liberalism in Human, All Too Human and other writings from his middle period.  As I have argued in some previous posts, Nietzsche lays out in his middle writings a vigorous defense of Darwinian aristocratic liberalism as superior to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later writings.

Smith does not see that in order to push Strauss towards Berlin and away from Heidegger, he has to implicitly reinterpret Strauss as a Platonic or Aristotelian liberal who embraces Berlin's advocacy of both liberal pluralism and negative liberty, so that the individual liberty secured by a liberal regime allows a few people to choose the philosophic life as the highest end, while most others choose different lives with a different ranking of ends.  In other words, Smith has to interpret Strauss as being what Michael and Catherine Zuckert have identified as a Midwest Straussian, who believed that bourgeois liberty allowed for the expression of the bourgeois virtues, which could include the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life.

Another way of putting this is to say that Smith has to read Strauss's classical liberalism as based on a liberal interpretation of both Plato and Aristotle.

Strauss is best known for his illiberal interpretation of Plato as arguing that the philosophic life is the only naturally good way of life, and that this philosophic life is necessarily in irreconcilable conflict with society.  As Smith puts it, this can be expressed as a syllogism:
"Major Premise: Philosophy is the attempt to replace opinion, including opinions about political things, by knowledge.
"Minor Premise: Opinion is the medium of society.
"Conclusion: Philosophy is necessarily at odds with society." (304)
If this is true, then Strauss would seem to be saying that a liberal open society is either impossible or a foolish mistake, because no stable society can be open to philosophical questioning.  No society can safely tolerate the philosophic life.  Therefore, philosophers must employ esoteric writing to hide what they are thinking, and thus protect philosophy from social persecution, while also protecting society from subversion by philosophical questioning.  Plato's metaphor of the cave in The Republic shows that society must always be ruled by illusory opinions rather than philosophic enlightenment.  And Plato's Apology of Socrates shows that society must persecute Socratic philosophers who corrupt the young and deny the gods of the city.

But as Smith indicates, Strauss also offers a liberal interpretation of Plato.  While Book 8 of The Republic contains the "severest indictment" of democracy, according to Strauss, it also presents democracy as a "multicolored coat" in which every way of life, including the philosophic life, can be lived.  And, after all, Socrates lived his philosophic life in Athens until the age of seventy, and he could not have lived this life in Sparta (298).  Thus, as Will Altman has argued, Plato might endorse liberal democracy as the regime most open to the philosophic life, because "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c). 

This suggests the possibility that a liberal open society could overcome the conflict between society and philosophy by creating a free market of ideas, so that philosophers would no longer need to practice esoteric writing.  In fact, Arthur Melzer has pointed to that in his Philosophy between the Lines.  Since about 1800, he observes, the art of secret writing has largely disappeared, because in modern open societies, we no longer see the need for hiding dangerous philosophic ideas.  That's why Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing was so novel--and controversial--because he was rediscovering an art of esoteric writing that was common before 1800, but that had been rendered unnecessary by the triumph of the liberal open society over the past two centuries.  Smith suggests the same point when he writes: "It is certainly far from evident that a strategy adopted by Halevi, Al-Farabi, and Maimonides, writing in times of considerable hostility to philosophy, remains applicable in a modern democratic age where the demands for intellectual probity and 'transparency' have become not just private but also public virtues" (308).

Notice the startling implication here.  What often seems to be Strauss's signature idea--the irresolvable conflict between society and philosophy and the necessity for esoteric writing as dictated by that conflict--has been refuted by the success of bourgeois liberalism in creating an open society where the philosophic life can be openly lived in the free market of ideas.  Does that follow from Strauss's liberal interpretation of Plato?

Smith also suggests a Straussian liberal interpretation of Aristotle, although he is not as explicit about this as he is with Plato.  Strauss often asserted the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, in contrast to which the merely moral person appears as "a mutilated human being" (Natural Right and History, 151).  Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be read as supporting this idea of the philosophic life as a purely solitary contemplative life that is superior to the moral life.  From this view, as Smith says, "morality is at most instrumental to the attainment of a kind of contemplative autonomy," in which the philosopher does not need morality or any engagement with other human beings (309).  Here there seems to be no common ground between the moral life of society and the philosophic life of the solitary thinker.  Here Aristotle seems to affirm a dominant end conception of the good life as directed to one end--philosophic contemplation.

But in the books on friendship (Books 8 and 9) of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of the political association (koinonia) as an association of associations in which people pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life in association with others who share their ethical ends, and this includes those who pursue the philosophic life in association with their philosophic friends (NE, 1160a9-31, 1170a13-1170b19).  This conforms to what Smith identifies as Strauss's understanding of philosophy as a way of life, in which the aim is "to create spiritual communities in which the individual members could seek to live freely and in friendship with others who had chosen a similar way of life" (293).  In democratic Athens, philosophical schools could form voluntary private associations (like the Academy and the Lyceum) in which philosophic friends could gather with others who shared their devotion to the philosophic life.  In this understanding of Athens as an association of associations, Aristotle seems to affirm an inclusive end conception of the good as a multiplicity of moral and intellectual goods, with different ways of life organized by different rankings of those multiple goods.

This suggests the possibility, which Smith never considers, that modern liberalism is the expansion of ancient Athenian liberalism.  After all, even Strauss admitted that "the city of Athens was rather liberal" ("The Liberalism of Classical Political Philosophy," 47).  This would cast doubt on the sharp Straussian dichotomy of ancients and moderns.

Aristotle's inclusive end conception of the human good as supporting a free society in which individuals pursue their diverse ends in association with others of like mind looks a lot like Berlin's understanding of liberal pluralism and negative liberty, in which the negative liberty of an open society allows for the fullest expression of value pluralism in the diverse associations that people form to pursue their differing conceptions of the good life.  We might think that Strauss could not have endorsed this, because he criticized Berlin's value pluralism as a relativism that created the crisis of liberalism by denying any absolutist affirmation of liberalism as conforming to the human good of human nature. 

But as Smith indicates, Berlin denied that his value pluralism was value relativism (277-86).  While Berlin believed that there were many different good ends for human life, and that these good ends were not perfectly harmonious, yet he believed that these good ends were not "infinitely many," because they were all within the "human horizon."  Berlin affirmed both "a common human nature" and "a wide variety of cultural experience" (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 11).  The pluralism of human nature--that human beings have different natural ends or desires--is an objective truth about human nature, and therefore this pluralism is not relativism.  By virtue of our shared human nature, we all share in the generic goods of human life--such as, for example, self-preservation, family life, friendship, social status, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.  (These generic goods correspond to what I have called the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature.)  But how we rank these generic goods will vary across cultures and across individuals.  A liberal open society secures the negative liberty that allows for individuals live different ways of life in association with others in their families and associations, and these different ways of life will manifest different rankings of those generic goods.  Those with the temperament and talents of a Socrates will live a philosophic life that ranks intellectual understanding as higher than the other generic goods.  Others will live different kinds of life with different rankings of the generic goods.

This seems to be what John Locke meant by a free society that would secure the pursuit of happiness for diverse individuals with diverse conceptions of the good life rooted in human nature.  The summum bonum is not by nature the same for all human beings, but all human beings by nature "are both concerned and fitted to search out their summum bonum" (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV.12.11).  Locke's point seems to be that there is a summum bonum--a highest good--for each person that constitutes the natural standard of happiness for each person.  But there is no single highest good for all people, because different people will rank the generic goods of life in different ways.

Human nature sets the standard for the human good.  By nature the generic goods characterize the human species.  By nature the individualized goods characterize human individuals.

A bourgeois liberal society conforms best to this human nature, because a liberal open society will secure both natural liberty and natural virtue--the liberty of individuals to develop those moral and intellectual virtues that express that ranking of the generic goods of human nature that constitutes the best life for those individuals.  In such a free society, someone like Strauss, who "fulfills the office of philosopher to the highest degree," will be free to live the philosophic life in friendship with other philosophers; and the rest of us will be free to live other kinds of life that best conform to our individual propensities and talents.

Smith concludes his book by declaring that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable" (352).  He believes this is true because antibourgeois intellectuals have said that it is true.  He never reflects on the fact that this contradicts the reality of the life that most of us live today in bourgeois liberal societies.  Because of market freedom, cultural pluralism, and the bourgeois virtues, our life today is generally more peaceful, more just, and richer in both material and spiritual goods than has ever been the case for human beings at any previous time in history.  Does Smith really believe that that is not progress?