Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Could Trump's Denial of Presidential Greatness Make the Republic Great Again?

It is good for America that Donald Trump is not a great president, because this can teach Americans that a republican form of government does not depend on presidential greatness.

The republican government designed by the American Constitution gives the primary powers of the national government to the Congress, which is to be the central body for deliberation about national policies.  The executive and judicial branches of the national government and the state governments contribute to the process of political deliberation within a system of checks and balances in which no one person or group can have predominant power.

Abraham Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Speech of 1838 that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from the rise of ambitious men who would seek the glory and distinction of becoming the national leader--men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon--acting outside the rule of law.  But now, far from worrying about populist Caesarism as a threat to republican government, many Americans have accepted the argument of the American Progressives for presidential government--a form of government in which the President becomes the great Leader of the People who rules by executive decrees that have not passed through any deliberative lawmaking in the Congress.  I have written about this in a previous post in 2008.

One clear measurement of Presidential Caesarism in American government is the stunning increase in the number of executive orders signed by the president, in which the president attempts to rule by decree without congressional lawmaking.  From Reagan to Trump there has been a steady increase in these executive orders.  There was a big increase with Obama, who explicitly identified himself as a Progressive promoting a Progressive view of Presidential Government.  But now Trump has surpassed even Obama in this signing of executive orders that have not been subject to congressional debate.  One can see this at the website for the American Presidency Project, where there is a chart comparing Trump with the previous four presidents in the number of executive orders issued during their first 100 days.

Now that Trump is nearing the middle of his first term, we can look back over his behavior in the White House and judge the quality of the deliberation about policy in his Presidential Government.  Bob Woodward's new book--Fear: Trump in the White House--is a good account of Trump's attempt to rule by executive decree, and it shows how dangerous this is.  In fact, it is so dangerous that many of Trump's own appointees in the White House and the Executive Branch have tried to protect the country from the consequences of his erratic impulsiveness.  As the writer in the recent anonymous Op-Ed essay in the New York Times has written, "many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."  This is what Woodward identifies as the "administrative coup d'├ętat" in the Trump administration, in which those around Trump have "worked together to derail what they believed were Trump's most impulsive and dangerous orders" (xix).  This is the chaos created by Presidential Caesarism.

One illustration of this in Woodward's book occurred in early September 2017.  For many months, Trump would impulsively have an idea and then say, "I want to sign something."  He would start scribbling an order or dictate it to someone.  His advisors would tell him that his authority to issue executive orders was often restricted by law.  They would "slow walk"--stall and delay--his orders until he forgot about what he had ordered.  And sometimes when they saw a draft of an executive order on his desk, they would secretly remove it; and because of his short attention span, he wouldn't ask about it if the draft was not laying on his desk.

So, for example, Trump wanted the United States to get out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and the World Trade Organization (WTO).  "We've talked about this ad nauseam," Trump said.  "Just do it. Just do it. Get out of NAFTA. Get out of KORUS. And get out of the WTO.  We're withdrawing from all three" (264).

Many of Trump's advisors--including Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly--defended these free trade agreements.  In particular, they argued that KORUS was vital to American interests, not only economically but also militarily.  The free trade agreement with South Korea was part of an alliance against the threats from North Korea.  This included the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in the South and top secret intelligence operations  If North Korea launched a missile with a nuclear warhead to attack the United States, it would take 38 minutes to reach Los Angeles.  The intelligence operations in South Korea could detect  a missile launch in North Korea within seven seconds, allowing the U.S. time to shoot it down.  Detecting such a missile launch in Alaska would take 15 minutes, which could be a fatal time difference.  For these and other reasons, withdrawing from the free trade agreement with South Korea could have disastrous consequences.  On September 1, Trump said: "All right, we're not going to do it today.  It's not that we're not going to do it, but all right, we won't do it today" (265).

But some of Trump's advisors--particularly Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross--were opponents of free trade agreements who urged Trump to leave KORUS.  On September 5, Cohn, Porter and others saw a draft letter on Trump's desk in the Oval Office--probably written by Navarro and Ross--that gave notice to the President of South Korea that the U.S. would withdraw from KORUS.  Cohn removed the letter.  "I stole it off his desk," Cohn later said.  "I wouldn't let him see it.  He's never going to see that document.  Got to protect the country."  Trump's mind was so disordered that he never noticed the missing letter (xviii-xix).

Woodward concludes from this:
"The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader.  Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president's most dangerous impulses.  It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world" (xxii).
The fundamental problem here is that the Congress has in many ways abdicated its constitutional responsibilities by delegating its powers to the president.  In Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," to "regulate commerce with foreign nations," and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper" to carry out these specific powers.  And while the President has the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations, the ratification of treaties requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate (Article 2, Section 2).  So this clearly gives Congress the legislative power over foreign trade agreements.  But in some of its legislation for foreign trade agreements, the Congress has given the President discretionary power to renegotiate or withdraw from trade agreements, which has created the possibility that the President could withdraw from a free trade agreement without Congress's approval.

Most international free trade agreements have been approved as congressional-executive agreements by a majority vote of each house of Congress.  All of these agreements include clauses allowing for withdrawal from the agreement after advance notice to the other parties.  The Trade Act of 1974 applies to most free trade agreements, and one provision in Section 125 of that Act states that "The President may at any time terminate, in whole or in part, any proclamation made under this chapter."  It is not clear whether Congress could prevent the President from terminating a trade agreement.  Other legislation seems to give the President broad authority in this area.  The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to investigate whether imports threaten the national security of the United States, and based upon the Secretary's report, the President can "take such other actions as the president deems necessary to adjust the imports of such article so that such imports will not threaten to impair the national security."  This has allowed President Trump to declare high tariffs against Canada and other countries because imports from those countries threaten the national security of the United States.  (Some of these questions about the relative powers of the Congress and the President over free trade agreements are taken up by Brandon Murrill in a paper for the Congressional Research Service.)

In any case, it is clear that the Congress has the constitutional power to alter existing laws or to pass new laws that prohibit the President from changing trade agreements without congressional approval. The question, however, is whether the Congress has the will to exercise its constitutional powers to constrain the President.  If the Congress refuses to do this, then those people in the White House who see the danger to the country from a man like Trump must act to frustrate his plans, which creates the chaos that we now see in the White House.

Another example of the unconstitutional turn away from Republican Government to Presidential Government is the Congress's allowing the President to usurp the congressional power for declaring war.  Declaring war is one of the clearly enumerated powers of the Congress.  In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, some critics charged that the Constitution would set up the President as an elected monarch.  In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton answered this charge by pointing out the powers of the British Monarch that the President would not have--most importantly, the power to declare war, which belonged to the Congress.

Remarkably, in teaching college courses in American politics, I have asked students who has the power to declare war; and many say it's the President.  Despite what the Constitution says, this is correct!  Because the Congress has given this congressional power to the President.

Consider, for instance, the war in Afghanistan.  It's the longest war in American history--soon to be 17 years--with no end in sight.  There has never been a congressional declaration of war for Afghanistan, and therefore there has never been any formal deliberation by Congress about whether that war is justified.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush attempted to get a formal declaration of war from Congress comparable to the declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  He failed to get this declaration.  But he did persuade Congress to pass the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists," which was passed as a joint resolution by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks.. This resolution declares that "the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons."

Two months later, George W. Bush used this authorization to launch an invasion of Afghanistan, although there was no evidence that the state of Afghanistan had attacked the United States or approved any such attack.  Of the 19 people said to have committed the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia!  Although the government of the Taliban was overthrown, the U.S. with its NATO allies has never been able to defeat the Taliban insurgency.  Moreover, it was never clear as to exactly what the mission of the U.S. was in Afghanistan.

When Obama came into office in 2008, he promised to end the war.  Instead, U.S. troop levels increased to 100,000 in 2011.  After trying to completely withdraw, Obama decided to return.  When he left office in 2016, there were over 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Trump had campaigned on a promise to end the war in Afghanistan because it was a waste of money and lives in a war that could not be won.  Then, on August 18, 2017, Trump met with the National Security Council to decide on a new strategy for the war.  Jeff Sessions and Keith Kellogg argued for pulling out of Afghanistan.  CIA Director Mike Pompeo argued for expanding the CIA paramilitary role to replace the regular military soldiers.  H.R. McMaster, the National Security advisor, and Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, argued for continuing the war while adding 4,000 troops.

As Woodward indicates, Trump was adamant in declaring "I want to get out."  But he was finally persuaded by Mattis that withdrawal from Afghanistan would create a sanctuary for terrorists, who could use their base in Afghanistan to launch another 9/11 style attack on the U.S.  Trump approved a 60-page strategy memo signed by McMaster.  On August 21, he gave a nationally televised speech endorsing this new strategy and insisting three times in the speech that the goal was to "win."

Trump did not read McMaster's strategy memo, because Trump refuses to read anything longer than one page.  So he did not see the statements buried in the memo saying "Stalemate likely to persist in Afghanistan" and "Taliban likely to continue to gain ground" (258).  And, indeed, one year later, the Taliban has continued to gain territory.

Woodward reports that after Trump's NSC meeting on August 18, Trump called Senator Lindsay Graham:
"'You're the first person I called,' Trump told Graham. 'I just met with the generals. I'm going to go with the generals.'"
"'Well, Mr. President, that's probably the smartest thing any president could have done.'"
"'That was a hard one,' Trump said. 'It's the graveyard of empires.'  It was a reference to a book by Seth G. Jones on Afghanistan."
"'It's my luck the only book you ever read was that one,' Graham joked."
"Trump laughed along" (259).
It's clear, however, that neither Graham nor Trump has read Seth Jones's book--In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2010).  Jones tells the history of Afghanistan over thousands of years in which colonial invaders--from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians--have failed to win in a country dominated by tribal warlords.  And he shows how the U.S. has failed to learn the lessons of that history in sinking into a quagmire of endless war with no possibility of victory.

Donald Trump is incapable of seriously deliberating about any issue of policy, such as trade agreements or the war in Afghanistan.  Secretary of State Tillerson has said: "He's a fucking moron" (225).

But the real problem is not that Trump lacks the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for deliberation.  The problem is that the Constitution designed a Republican Government in which the Congress would be the primary deliberative body.  There is no reason to believe that any President can take the place of Congress in providing deliberation.

As citizens in a Republic, Americans should not demand great leadership from their presidents.  They should demand that their presidents serve a republican structure of government in which deliberation on policy is found primarily in the Congress.

Some of my previous posts on Trump's chimpanzee personality can be found hereherehere, and here.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Evidence for Rousseau's Pure State of Nature as Solitary But Not Asocial: Lemurs, Galagos, Tarsiers, and Orangutans

I have argued (here and here) that the evolutionary science of primatology provides no evidence for Rousseau's claim that the earliest ancestors of human beings lived in a pure state of nature in which individuals lived utterly solitary and asocial lives.  Rousseau wondered whether savage man in the pure state of nature might have been an orangutan, and so "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons."  But studies of orangutans have shown that while adult individuals, and particularly male adults, often seem to be solitary, they do have a loose social structure.  Mothers are bonded to their offspring, their communities are organized around a dominant adult male who is intolerant of other adult males, and these communities have cultural traditions.  Consequently, orangutans provide no evidence for Rousseau's pure state of nature.

Nelson Lund--the author of Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy--has responded in the comments on a previous post by saying that I have misinterpreted both Rousseau and the orangutan studies.  Rousseau's "nascent man" is not "utterly solitary," Lund says, because Rousseau acknowledges that mothers care for their offspring, and individuals in the state of nature do "perhaps" recognize one another individually.  The life of orangutans looks "much like" this--"an original asocial state of nature in which our ancestors lacked speech and did not form families."

After thinking more about this, I will now say that while there is evidence that some primates--lemurs, galagos, tarsiers, and orangutans--live largely "solitary" lives, they are still social animals, and therefore there is no evidence for "an original asocial state of nature."  Moreover, there is some evidence that the earliest form of social organization in primate evolution was solitary but social.

Primatologists distinguish three basic categories of social organization--solitary, pair-living, and group-living.  All primates--nonhuman and human--are unusually social animals.  So even "solitary" primates are still "social."  One primatologist explains:
"By definition, the adults of solitary primate species are typically encountered alone during their period of activity . . . . Because mothers may associate with their offspring, because some individuals may form sleeping groups regularly, because communication among neighbors by sounds and odors is widespread, and because individuals meet conspecifics regularly, 'solitary' should not be confused or equated with 'asocial.'  Instead, this term simply reflects the fact that, unlike those of group- and pair-living species, activities of individuals ae not synchronized in a manner that results in permanent spatial association, and thus primatologists encounter solitary primates as single individuals most of the time.  A solitary lifestyle is therefore a highly complex and rather challenging system to study" (Kappeler 2012, 24).
About a third of all primate species are solitary in this sense.  Most of these solitary species are lemurs, galagos (also known as bushbabies), or tarsiers.  All of these small primates are nocturnal.  Orangutans are the only solitary ape species, and they are the only solitary species that is diurnal.
                                                                The Mouse Lemur

                                                   The Southern Lesser Galago
                                                        The Western Tarsier

Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar.  Galagos are found in Africa and Asia.  Tarsiers are limited to the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippine islands.  Orangutans in the wild are found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

Shultz et al. (2011) studied the genetic distances and phenotypic social-structural similarities of 217 living primate species, which showed that social organization tends to be similar among closely related species--and thus suggesting that social structure is genetically determined.  They also concluded that the earliest primates lived some 72 Mya as solitary foraging individuals who came together only for mating.  Then, multimale/multifemale groups appeared first some 52 Mya.

One could infer from this that the earliest hominids lived in multimale/multifemale promiscuous social bands, as is true for chimpanzees today (Gintis et al. 2015).  But still the earliest primate ancestors of these hominids would have been a solitary but social species.  If Rousseau's "nascent man" is this kind of animal, then the evidence of primatology can be seen as confirming Rousseau's speculation about the pure state of nature.


Gintis, Herbert, Carel van Schaik, and Christopher Boehm. 2015. "Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Political Systems." Current Anthropology 56:327-353.

Kappeler, Peter M. 2012. "The Behavioral Ecology of Strepsirrhines and Tarsiers." In The Evolution of Primate Societies, eds. John C. Mitani, Joseph Call, Peter M. Kappeler, Ryne a. Palombit, and Joan B. Silk, pp. 17-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shultz, Susanne, Christopher Opie, and Quentin D. Atkinson. 2011. "Stepwise Evolution of Stable Sociality in Primates." Nature 479:219-222.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Resistance to Trump inside the Trump Administration: Bad Character Does Matter

The New York Times has just published a remarkable Op-Ed essay that is anonymous, because the author is a senior official in the Trump administration identified as "part of the resistance inside the Trump administration."  It is said that the author must remain anonymous to keep his job.

The author claims that "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations," although they "want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous."

The author says:
"The root of the problem is the president's amorality.  Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making."
"Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets, and free people.  At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings.  At worst, he has attacked them outright."
I agree that the root of the problem is the president's amorality.  In previous posts (here and here), I have argued that the fundamental problem with Trump is that he lacks both the moral and intellectual virtues of a good person, and that he suffers from a grandiose narcissism.  I am shocked that many conservatives don't see this as a problem, but I am encouraged to see that some of the conservatives in his administration do recognize this as a dangerous problem for the country, and they are doing what they can to frustrate Trump's bad impulses.

I was also encouraged to see the author of this essay paying tribute to John McCain, as I did in my last post.  "Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them."

Monday, September 03, 2018

John McCain, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Rumbold: The Liberal Rhetoric of Dying Speeches

The burial of John McCain on Sunday at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, brings to a close five days of memorials and services that were planned out months ago by McCain himself as his dying message to his country and the world.  His message employs the liberal rhetoric of equal human dignity and aristocratic honor expressed in the Declaration of Independence and rooted in evolved human nature.  This is the same liberal rhetoric expressed in the dying speeches of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and Richard Rumbold in 1685.  In McCain's dying speech, this liberal rhetoric of human dignity and honor is directed against the illiberal tribalism of Donald Trump.  Without ever mentioning the name of Trump, the audience is invited to see the subtle disdain for Trump's narcissistic vulgarity and his denial of equal human dignity.

This falls into the predominant category of social commentary today--"we're not talking about Trump, but we really are."

In McCain's Farewell Statement and in the eulogies at Washington National Cathedral by Meghan McCain, Joe Lieberman, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, one can see five themes in McCain's liberal rhetoric as opposed to the tribalistic rhetoric of Trump.  (All of these statements can be found at the John McCain website.)

The first theme is that human beings achieve honor by serving good causes that are greater than themselves.  McCain says: "Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves."  Lieberman says: "I heard John say those words hundreds of times, particularly to young people."  There is a clear contrast to Trump's narcissistic presumption that there is no cause bigger than himself.

The second theme is that those good causes bigger than ourselves can be found in what McCain calls "America's causes--liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people."  The equal dignity of all human beings is affirmed by all of the speakers, and often it is identified with the Declaration of Independence.  The America of John McCain, Meghan McCain says, is "the America of Abraham Lincoln--fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal."  Obama points to "a common creed that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights."

Notice the combination of aristocratic honor and egalitarian dignity, which denies the common claim that the modern liberal concept of dignity rejects the ancient aristocratic concept of honor.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of rights of all men while also pledging to one another "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

McCain was born into an elite family of military honor--one of the most renown military families of American history going back to the American Revolution.  Both his grandfather and his father were distinguished admirals in the Navy.  One of his early relatives was on General George Washington's staff, and even Washington himself was a distant cousin.  When his North Vietnamese captors discovered that his father was the Supreme Commander of the Pacific Fleet, they offered to release him early.  He refused, because he did not want to be given special treatment over the other prisoners of war.  Later, when Kissinger was negotiating the end of the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese again offered to release McCain early.  Kissinger refused, and in his eulogy he tells the story of meeting McCain for the first time; and McCain told him: "Thank you for saving my honor."

The third theme is that to affirm the good cause of equal human dignity as a universal truth is to deny tribalism.  McCain warns: "We weaken our greatness when we confuse our nationalism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change that they have always been."  Lieberman says that the greater cause to which McCain devoted his life was "America, not so much the country defined by its borders, but the America of our founding values, freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy and equal justice under law."  Kissinger observes that McCain thus combined realism and idealism in his foreign policy by arguing that the security of the United States required that America be respected both for its power and for its ideals, which required promoting respect for human rights around the world.  McCain's warning against illiberal tribalism is obviously a warning against Trump and those like him "who confuse our nationalism with tribal rivalries."

The fourth theme was best stated by George Bush: "At various points throughout his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of his country. To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this."

Without Bush explicitly mentioning it, the audience could easily infer that Bush was remembering how vehement McCain had been in denouncing the torturing of prisoners under Bush as a violation of American moral principles and international law--a policy that Trump has said he would like to continue.

And, of course, "American is better than this" really means "America is better than Trump."  Trump has provoked his critics like McCain to appeal to those distinctively American and yet universal principles of the Declaration of Independence as a standard for condemning Trump and denying his claim to speak for "American greatness."  It is notable that Trump never mentions the principles of the Declaration, and that even one of his supporters--Senator Lindsey Graham--had to tell him "America is an idea, not a race."

Finally, the fifth theme of the McCain memorial statements is unusual for eulogies--the imperfections of the person being celebrated.  McCain himself, in his Farewell Statement, says: "I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them."  Almost every speaker at McCain's memorials said something about his imperfections, while praising him for his willingness to admit his failures.  Most often they mentioned his explosive temper.

They did not mention his more morally seriously mistakes, such as his signing a public confession given to him by his captors in Vietnam, which came after some especially brutal torture.  The confession was read over speakers at his camp, and a copy reached his father.  He later admitted that this was one of his great moral failures.

Meghan McCain said: "Dad, I know you were not perfect.  We live in an era where we knock down old American heroes for all their imperfections when no leader wants to admit to fault or failure.  You were an exception and gave us an ideal to strive for."

So, in a nice rhetorical twist, McCain could exemplify a heroic ideal even with his imperfections because he admitted his faults, at a time when leaders like Trump--that "very stable genius"--deny that they have any faults.

This contrast between McCain and Trump--again without directly mentioning Trump--was made most dramatic by Meghan Trump: "The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold.  She's resourceful, confident, secure.  She meets her responsibilities.  She speaks quietly because she's strong. America does not boast because she has no need to.  The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great."

At this point, the audience in Washington National Cathedral applauded loudly, the only time any speaker elicited applause, because this was the most evident rebuke to Trump.

Since McCain carefully organized all of this while he was dying, this can all be seen as his dying speech to America and the world invoking the principle of equal human dignity as the universal moral ideal inherent in human nature that sets the alternative to the tribalism of Trump.

In this way, McCain's dying speech belongs to a liberal rhetorical tradition that includes Thomas Jefferson and Richard Rumbold.  In the spring of 1826, Jefferson was dying at Monticello.  He struggled to stay alive into the summer.  July 4th of 1826 would be the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  The city of Washington, D.C. was planning a special celebration.  Roger Weightman, the Mayor of Washington, invited Jefferson to attend and give a speech.  Jefferson had to write a letter to Weightman declining the invitation because his illness made travel impossible.  Jefferson knew that his letter to Weightman on June 24th would be his last speech.  And it was a time when he worried that in America and elsewhere in the world, the principles of the Declaration were under attack from despotic movements.  And so, like McCain this past week, Jefferson pointed back to the principles of equal liberty in the Declaration:
"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.  These are grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."
Over the next few days, Jefferson faded in and out of consciousness.  Those around his bed said that when he awoke, he asked whether July 4th had arrived, as if he wanted to survive to that day.  He died on July 4th.  Amazingly, John Adams died on the same day in Braintree, Massachusetts.  The two surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence had died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.  As the news spread across America, there were eulogies and sermons celebrating this obvious miracle of Divine Providence to signal the sacred sanction for the principle that all men are created equal and endowed with natural rights that should be secured by governments with the consent of the governed.  Thus did the deaths of Jefferson and Adams on this day support the rhetorical elevation of the Declaration--and particularly its principle of the equal liberty of all human beings--to be the defining statement of America's moral standard as a universal standard for the world.

In his dying speech, Jefferson used a metaphor--"that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God"--that he remembered from Richard Rumbold's dying speech in 1685.  Rumbold was a radical Whig who had fought in Cromwell's army during the Civil War.  Having been convicted of high treason for plotting to kill the King, the statutory punishment was to be hanged, beheaded, and quartered (cut into four pieces).  In his speech in Edinburgh before his execution, He denied the charge that he was antimonarchical:
"It was ever my Thoughts, That Kingly Government was the best of all, Justly Executed; I mean, such as by our ancient Laws; that is, a King, and a Legal Free Chosen Parliament.  The King having, as I conceive, Power enough to make him Great, the People also as much Property as to make them Happy; they being as it were contracted to one another.  And who will deny me, that this was not the Just Constituted Government of our Nation? How absurd is it then for Men of Sense to maintain, That though the one Party of the Constract breaketh all Conditions, the other should be obliged to perform their Part? No; this Error is contrary to the Law of God, the Law of Nations, and the Law of Reason."
So a monarchy could be just only if bound by a contract with the people, because a king had no natural or divine right to rule over others without their consent.  He ended by saying:
"This is a deluded Generation, vail'd with Ignorance, that though Popery and Slavery be riding in upon them, do not perceive it; and though I am sure there was no Man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the World with a Saddle on his Back, neither any Booted and Spur'd to Ride him; not but that I am well satisfied, that God hath wisely different Stations for Men in the World, as I have already said: Kings having as much Power as to make them Great, and the people as much Property as to make them Happy." 
Rumbold could have derived his claim that all men are equal in their liberty from the dominion of others and his metaphor of horses and riders from the English Levelers and from Algernon Sidney, who was executed in 1683 for the treason of writing a defense of republican government in his Discourses Concerning Government. Sidney had declared that "man in his first condition" is "naturally free" from subordination to any other man, except for the temporary authority of parents over children, and thus the liberty of the people is a gift from God and Nature.  Thus must be so unless one could see that God "caused some to be born with crowns upon their heads, and all others with saddles upon their backs" (III.33).

The reference to "man in his first condition" indicates Locke's state of nature, which can be understood as the original life of human ancestors in foraging bands in which human nature was first shaped for a natural condition of equal liberty without government, in which the disposition of some few to assert dominance over others was checked by the counterdominance by which people protected their autonomy against bullies.  The modern revolutionary resistance to tyrannical dominance without consent of the people could be seen as an expression of this evolved propensity of human nature as formed in prehistoric foraging bands.

If this is true, this would support McCain's appeal to the equal liberty and dignity of all human beings asserted in the Declaration of Independence as a universal cosmopolitan principle of human rights. This would also have supported McCain's proposals for immigration reform, allowing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Trump's nativist tribalism must reject this in claiming that in fact human beings are defined by their racial or ethnic nationalism, which must be protected through strict limits on immigration from countries with different national identities.

This nativist denial of the Declaration of Independence has occurred previously in American history.  Abraham Lincoln saw this in the nativism of the No Nothing Party.  The nativists were a movement of native-born Protestants who saw immigration from countries like Ireland and Germany as a corruption of American government and culture, and thus they sought severe restrictions on immigration and the rights of foreigners.

Lincoln declared:
"I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.'  We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy" (Letter to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855).
The Republican Party has moved far away from being the Party of Abraham Lincoln to being the Party of Donald Trump.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Joshua May's Reply

I have received a reply to my previous post from Joshua May, the author of Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind.  I post it here in its entirety:

Thank you for sharing this with me and for engaging with the book. From what I can tell, you describe my views accurately and charitably, which I greatly appreciate. 

I think you rightly draw out that since my view isn't an extreme caricatured rationalism, my defense of the independence of reason does ultimately depend quite a bit on my anti-Humeanism. But I agree with you that the empirical research is unfortunately not very useful for settling that debate. In that part of the book, I'm largely just on defense, arguing that we don't have any empirical reason to accept Humeanism. But I certainly don't want to claim that only anti-Humeanism is empirically defensible. (Sinhababu in particular does an admirable job.)

It's interesting that you bring up Darwall's Roberta case, because I had written about it but decided to cut it from the book. Partly that's because I don't know how helpful it is to focus on a single hypothetical case. What's going on with Roberta? Well, it's Darwall's fictional case; it's kind of up to him! Of course, if he describes Roberta as having no relevant antecedent desire, then Humeans will say that's either conceptually or empirically impossible. Anti-Humeans will say otherwise. The debate doesn't advance much.

The alternative tack I take is to think more about cases of that sort and empirical research on how moral beliefs motivate generally. Here Chapter 7 is key. There I argue that we have overwhelming empirical evidence that people's moral (more broadly, normative) beliefs play a pervasive role in motivating behavior. Now, Humeans will then have to posit an antecedent desire, but not just any one. They have to posit one in such cases that links up with the moral beliefs. If the moral belief plays a motivational role, then it looks like they have to attribute an antecedent desire to be moral. I don't think that's a terrible result, but it's one they often want to avoid. 

At any rate, as I say, I'm ultimately more on the defensive when it comes to my anti-Humeanism. I'm happy if I can resist the apparent consensus that only Humeanism is empirically defensible.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Humean Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind: Comments on Joshua May

One of the most interesting developments in the intellectual world over the past 30 years has been the cooperation of scientists and philosophers in applying empirical scientific research to philosophical questions.  I have often argued that empirical science can clarify and perhaps even resolve some of the great debates in moral and political philosophy.  In particular, I have contended that empirical research in Darwinian moral psychology proves that Humean empiricist sentimentalism is right, and Kantian transcendentalist rationalism is wrong. Some of my pertinent posts can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

Joshua May's new book Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind (Oxford University Press) argues, on the contrary, that the scientific research in moral psychology that I cite actually does not sustain Hume's sentimentalist ethics, because it supports an anti-Humean rationalism in moral philosophy.  Hume is famous for declaring: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them" (Treatise of Human Nature,  May claims, however, that there is nothing in the empirical science of moral psychology that refutes the anti-Humean position "that normative beliefs can causally produce a normal, non-pathological action without merely serving or furthering an antecedent desire. On this picture, we can be motivated to act ultimately by recognizing that it's the right thing to do.  Reason is not a slave to such passions" (179).

I agree with May in rejecting pure sentimentalism (like that promoted by Jesse Prinz), because this ignores the fact that while our emotions or desires motivate our actions, those emotions or desires are prompted and directed by our rational judgment, and thus emotion alone cannot explain our moral actions.

I also agree with May in rejecting pure rationalism (like that of Immanuel Kant), because while reason influences our conduct, pure reason alone cannot move us to act without the motivational impetus of emotion or desire.  Although May does not emphasize or elaborate the point, he clearly rejects the Kantian position that "we can arrive at moral judgments by pure reason alone, absent any sentiments or feelings" (5, 19, 97, 186-87).

What we need, then, is a theory that accounts for the experimental research on moral judgment that shows a complex interaction of reason and emotion.  The best statement of such a theory is Hume's rationalist sentimentalism.  As I indicated in my previous post on Jonathan Haidt, Hume is often mistakenly identified as an irrationalist emotivist.  When Hume declared that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," he was not denying the power of reason in moral judgment.  As the context of this remark makes clear, he believed that reason can direct action but not motivate it: "The impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it" (1888, 414).  When our passions are accompanied by false judgments, reason can properly correct them: "The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means, our passions yield to our reason" (1888, 416).  "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion" (1888, 462).  Consequently, "reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions" (1902, 172).  For example, reason might instruct us as to how justice could be useful to society, but this alone would not produce any moral approbation for justice unless we felt a sentiment of concern for the happiness of society (1902, 285-87).

Consider, for example, the research by Joshua Greene (2013) and others who have used functional MRI to scan the brains of people as they make decisions about the Trolley Dilemma.  In the Switch Case, most people are willing to pull the switch to save five lives while taking one life.  But in the Footbridge Case, most people are unwilling to push the fat man onto the tracks to save five lives.  In judging the Switch Case, the more calculating parts of the brain are activated (including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), while in judging the Footbridge Case, the more emotional areas of the brain are active (including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex).  

Like many of the thought experiments favored by contemporary philosophers, this Trolley Dilemma is a cartoon story that doesn't seem realistic.  But we could also think about some real cases in history--particularly the history of war--that would present essentially the same dilemma, which comes up in the debates over "just war" reasoning.  As I have indicated in a previous post (here), Winston Churchill and the British war leaders faced a real Trolley Dilemma in responding to Germany's flying bomb attacks on London in the summer of 1944.  The British philosopher who first proposed the Trolley Dilemma--Philippa Foot--lived through these attacks.

Here's Jesse Prinz's interpretation of how people judge the Trolley Dilemma:

"In all these moral dilemmas, there are too options: you can save five people (that's good!), or you can do something that results in one person dying (that's bad!).  When you think about doing something good, you may have a positive emotional response; it feels good to help people.  When you think about doing something bad, your response is negative.  These two emotional forces battle it out in the brain and the stronger one wins." (2012, 297)
Prinz is silent, however, about the point made by Greene and his colleagues that there is no absolute separation between reason and emotion in the brain.  For example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are interconnected, and this confirms Hume insight about the interconnectedness of reason and emotion in moral judgment.

Prinz is also silent about the point made by John Mikhail that the emotional responses to the Trolley Dilemma show an intuitive grasp of the rational principle of double effect, which often figures prominently in just war reasoning.  Mikhail generalizes this principle to cover homicide and battery:  "the principle holds that an otherwise prohibited action, such as battery or homicide, which has both good and bad effects may be permissible if the prohibited act itself is not directly intended, the good but not the bad effects are directly intended, the good effects outweigh the bad effects, and no morally preferable alternative is available" (2011, 149).

Most people think pushing the fat man is wrong because their emotional response against this embodies a rational principle by which a directly intended killing of an innocent person is wrong, while an indirect and unintended killing of an innocent person might be justifiable if it achieves a good effect that outweighs the bad effect.

Emotions are judgments about the world, and thus our emotions are shaped by rational judgments.  So, for instance, in the Switch Case, if we discovered that there was some other way to divert the trolley without killing the one innocent person, we would condemn throwing the switch.

Sometimes it is said that when we see the influence of intuitive emotional reactions in the Trolley Dilemma, this debunks our moral judgments in such cases because it shows that our judgments are biased by irrational emotions.  Utilitarians like Greene and Peter Singer say that the abstract utilitarian principle of killing one person to save five is the same in both the Switch case and the Footbridge case, and so the emotional resistance to pushing the man off the footbridge is morally irrelevant. 

But May rightly observes that this is mistaken, because "integral emotions can alert us to morally relevant factors, so it's not problematic in general to base one's belief on them" (99).  Our emotional aversion to pushing the man off the footbridge to stop the trolley from killing the five people is alerting us to "something like greater agential involvement in the generation of a bad outcome."  As opposed to the Switch case, we are here "harming another actively, purposefully, and in a personal way," which is surely a morally relevant factor (100-101).

But if May sees here the necessary combination of reason and emotion or beliefs and desires in explaining moral action, which is necessary because pure thought by itself cannot motivate us to act without emotion or desire, then it seems that May is actually agreeing with the Humeans in embracing a rationalist sentimentalism.  

May nonetheless insists that while he agrees with the Humeans about the need for combining reason and desire, he disagrees about which comes first: the Humean thinks that reason leads to moral action only when it is guided by an antecedent desire, while the anti-Humean thinks that moral reasoning that is not guided by any antecedent desire can produce a desire that motivates the execution of the moral judgment reached by reason alone.  Unlike the Kantian anti-Humean who thinks that moral reason produces moral action without any need for intrinsic desire, May's anti-Humean thinks that moral reason produces the intrinsic desire that then produces the moral action dictated by reason, and thus reason is the ruler of desire, not the slave.  Thus, May can say that "reason is not a slave to unreasoned desire," because moral reason creates its own reasoned desire to motivate moral action (188).

How exactly does this happen?  May explains: "The process involves ordinary causation: an intrinsic desire is causally generated by a normative belief and the relevant disposition," because "it's partly constitutive of being a rational, virtuous, or strong-willed person that one possesses the disposition to desire in accordance with one's normative beliefs." Notice that May has added a reference to "disposition."  He concedes that "Humeans must say something quite similar.  The only difference is that, instead of a disposition, Humeans posit a full-blown desire," because they believe that "actions are generated by intrinsic desires combined with beliefs about how to satisfy them" (190-91).

The Humeans might complain that May's "disposition" is just another word for desire, so we might as well say that reason is the slave of the dispositions!

May writes
". . . the best anti-Humean theory merely posits a disposition for normative beliefs to generate the corresponding desires.  While a strong-willed person, for example, may lack the antecedent desire to throw her pack of cigarettes away, she may simply have a disposition to do so if she believes it's best to trash them."
"Humeans may be tempted to count such dispositions as desires and declare victory.  However, while we're working with a rather broad conception of desire, we shouldn't broaden it to any mere disposition of a person to do something.  A desire is a goal-directed, conative, motivation-encompassing state with some content, so it's a state whose function is to bring about what's desired.  But desire is not the sole proprietor of dispositions relevant to action.  To adapt an example from Darwall . . ., even if I'm disposed to eat a piece of pie upon seeing one, this disposition alone need not constitute a desire for some pie.  A mere disposition can graduate to a full-fledged desire only if it has the requisite function and content . . . . Of course, Humeans would explain the eating of some pie in terms of an antecedent desire to eat delicious food when it's available.  However, the pie example is not meant to refute Humeanism but rather to show that being disposed toward some action (e.g., eating pie) doesn't entail antecedently desiring it in particular" (189).
Here May's distinction between disposition and desire seems to be a distinction between a general desire (such as a desire for delicious food) and a particular desire (such as a desire for this piece of pie before me that I judge to be delicious food), where the transition from one to the other requires a rational judgment.  This looks like what Aristotle identified as the "practical syllogism" in The Movement of Animals:  the major premise is a desire for something, the minor premise is a judgment that some action will satisfy that desire, and the conclusion is the execution of the action.  So if I desire healthy food, and if I judge that this piece of pie before me is healthy food, then I will eat it.  May's argument seems to be that my desire to eat this piece of pie is not antecedent to my judgment that this is a good piece of pie.  Rather, my rational judgment that this piece of pie is healthy food appeals to my general disposition to eat healthy food in a way that produces the desire to eat this piece of pie.  But, still, the Humean will say that my rational judgment here is serving my general disposition, which might as well be called a desire.

Since May admits that reason must be combined with a motivating disposition to create a new desire, which then motivates action, it's hard to see that this really differs from the Humean claim that all action requires the combination of reason and an antecedent desire.  May even admits the weakness of his argument:
"Now, I don't pretend to have conclusively ruled out Humeanism as a hypothesis about the structure of motivation.  I only aim to show that moral beliefs play an important role in human action and that we lack empirical reason to always posit antecedent desires that they serve or further.  Perhaps our best theory will require always positing such antecedent desires.  As we saw in the previous chapter, construing moral integrity as involving such antecedent desires isn't always incompatible with virtue anyway" (198).
It's not clear to me how any neuroscientific experiments could resolve this dispute between May's "sophisticated anti-Humeanism" and the Humeans.  The scientific research can refute both pure emotivism and pure rationalism by showing that neither emotion alone nor reason alone can explain our moral psychology, because, as May says, "both reasoning and emotion together play important roles in moral psychology."  But it's hard for scientific research to decide whether reason is prior to emotion or emotion is prior to reason, because once one recognizes the cognitive aspects of emotions as resting on judgments about the world, the line between emotion and reason becomes fuzzy.  May says that "the reason/emotion dichotomy, intuitive as it may be, is either spurious or fruitless" (228).  A Humean like Haidt says the same thing in speaking of the "useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion."  "Emotions are not dumb. . . . Emotions are a kind of information processing" (Haidt 2012, 44-48).

Any experimental testing to resolve this dispute between May and the Humeans would require some agreement on possible scenarios that could be studied.  The anti-Humean Stephen Darwall has offered one good example of what he interprets as an illustration of how moral judgment creates a new desire to execute the judgment without any need for an antecedent desire.  The Humean Neil Sinhababu (2009) accepts this as a good example for study, but he points to evidence that there really is an antecedent desire in the story.  Although May accepts Darwall's argument and rejects Sinhababu's argument, May does not speak about this story.

Here's the story:
"Roberta grows up comfortably in a small town.  The newspapers she reads, what she sees on television, what she learns in school, and what she hears in conversation with family and friends present her with a congenial view of the world and her place in it.  She is aware in a vague way that there is poverty and suffering somewhere, but sees no relation between it and her own life.  On going to a university she sees a film that vividly presents the plight of textile workers in the southern United States: the high incidence of brown lung, low wages, and long history of employers undermining attempts of workers to organize a union, both violently and through other extralegal means.  Roberta is shocked and dismayed by the suffering she sees.  After the film there is a discussion of what the students might do to help alleviate the situation.  It is suggested that they might actively work in promoting a boycott of the goods of one company that has been particularly flagrant in its illegal attempts to destroy the union.  She decides to donate a few hours a week to distributing leaflets at local stores." (Darwall 1983, 39; Sinhababu 2009, 483-84)
According to Darwall, this shows that Roberta's decision to support the boycott arose from her moral judgment that the workers were suffering from unjust exploitation, which created the desire that these workers not suffer, and this new desire then motivated her to act in accordance with her moral reasoning.  Contrary to what the Humeans would say, there was no antecedent desire guiding her moral reasoning, but instead her moral reasoning created a new desire to motivate her moral action: her passions were the slave of her reason.

But why, Sinhababu asks, is Roberta "shocked and dismayed by the suffering she sees"?  Aren't those emotions of shock and dismay evidence of an antecedent desire that human beings should not suffer unfairly?  This general desire that people not suffer could then be turned into the particular desire that the workers in the South should be relieved from their suffering once she understood the film's  presentation of the information about their suffering.  So here her moral desires guided her moral reasonng to moral action.  Her desire that humans not suffer was latent in her mind until it was activated by the judgment that people were suffering in the South.

What would be May's alternative explanation?  Would he say that Roberta had an antecedent disposition that human beings not suffer, but this was not an antecedent desire?  Or would he say that Roberta's moral reasoning about the suffering of the Southern workers created a disposition that humans not suffer that could then produce a desire that these Southern workers should not suffer?

Could this be experimentally tested?  We could test some subjects for the desire that people not suffer.  We could then show them the film about the Southern workers.  We could then see if the desire to relieve the suffering of the Southern workers arises in those subjects who had no antecedent desire that people not suffer.  Of course, we might expect that almost everyone would have some general desire that people not suffer.

If we were to scan their brains during the test, I am not sure that we could distinguish reason and desire clearly enough to resolve the debate between May and Sinhababu.


Darwall, Stephen. 1983. Impartial Reason. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  New York: Penguin Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Hume, David. 1888. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1902. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

May, Joshua. 2018. Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mikhail, John. 2011. Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prinz, Jesse. 2012. Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. New York: Norton.

Sinhababu, Neil. 2009. "The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended." Philosophical Review 118:465-500.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Were Julie and Mark Wrong to Engage in Incest? Reconsidering Jonathan Haidt's Evolutionary Moral Psychology


I have written a long series of posts on Jonathan Haidt's evolutionary moral psychology.  One of them can be found here, which includes links to some of the others.  My series of posts on the Darwinian psychology of the incest taboo (here has included some thoughts about how Haidt uses the disgust aroused in most people by incest to illustrate the priority of emotion over reason in our moral judgments.

I have generally agreed with Haidt, but recently I have become skeptical about his use of his widely discussed scenario of Julie and Mark as a sister and brother who engage in incest.  He presents this as a "harmless-taboo story" that elicits disgust and thus moral condemnation in the minds of most people, even though they cannot give any good reasons for why this is wrong, which apparently shows how moral judgment arises from irrational emotions rather than good reasoning.  When people are asked to give reasons to justify their disgust, they grope for reasons that they cannot defend when challenged.  They are, Haidt says, morally dumbfounded--they are sure that incest is wrong but without being able to support this moral judgment with good reasons.

I no longer find this persuasive.  And I see some evidence that Haidt himself has changed his mind about this, because his "moral foundations theory" seems to recognize moral disgust as possibly being a good reason for moral condemnation, and also because he seems to have moved away from a purely emotivist theory to a more rationalist theory that sees no sharp dichotomy between reason and emotion in moral judgment.  Earlier, Haidt embraced what he interpreted as David Hume's emotivist theory of morality; but now he seems to be moving towards accepting a better interpretation of Hume as seeing moral judgment as arising from both emotion and reason.  In this way, he is moving towards Charles Darwin's understanding of human moral evolution.

Here's Haidt's story:
"Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France.  They are both on summer vacation from college.  One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love.  At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them.  Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe.  They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again.  They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other.  So what do you think about this?  Was it wrong for them to have sex?" (Haidt 2012, 38)
Originally, Haidt and his collaborators presented this story to 30 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  24 of the students said that Julie and Mark were wrong to do this.  They were then asked why was this wrong.  They struggled to give a reason, and when they did, the interviewer would challenge what they said.  Haidt reports:
"Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love, and they then begin searching for reasons.  They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control.  They argue that Julie and Mark will be hurt, perhaps emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them.  Eventually, many people say something like, 'I don't know, I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong'" (Haidt 2001, 814).
Notice what Haidt did here.  First, he implicitly assumed that the best rational principle of moral judgment is "no harm."  Then, he carefully wrote the scenario about Julie and Mark to exclude the possibility of harm from their incest--either the harm of inbreeding for their offspring or the emotional harm to their relationship as siblings.  He could then tell the students that this harmless conduct could not be morally condemned and that condemning this conduct as disgusting is irrational because disgust is not a rational principle of moral judgment.

Some of Haidt's critics have challenged him on all these points (Jacobson 2012; May 2018; Royzman et al. 2015).  Weren't the students who condemned Julie and Mark correct in thinking that sibling incest is likely to be harmful?  Even if they could avoid pregnancy and the harm of inbreeding, isn't it implausible that they could avoid emotional harm to themselves.  In his scenario, Haidt says that Julie and Mark thought making love would be "interesting and fun," and that they could keep it as a "special secret between them" that would make them "feel even closer to each other."  But isn't that unrealistic?  And isn't it likely that most of the students found Haidt's scenario unbelievable?

In fact, when Royzman and his colleagues conducted their own experiment in asking students to respond to Haidt's story of Julie and Mark, the students were allowed to express their disbelief in the claim that Julie and Mark could engage in incest without harm.  Most of the students could not believe that sex between siblings could occur without some emotional harm to the siblings.  In Haidt's experiment, he refused to accept this by forcing the students to agree with the stipulated claim in his scenario that Julie and Mark were not emotionally harmed by their incest.

Some of the 39 comments on my first post on incest (October 7, 2006) are pertinent to this question of how harmful sibling incest might be.  The 6th comment is by someone who says that "my younger sister and I played together sexually from an early age, and persisted well into adulthood," and he describes this as "an outlet for our strong sexual drives around the onset of puberty."  But I wonder whether this "sexual play" stopped short of full sexual intercourse.  And even if some siblings can do this at an early age, at the onset of puberty, with little permanent harm, isn't this likely to be risky behavior?

The risk is indicated in the 9th comment, where a man writes about his incest with his younger sister:
"While our relationship was consensual, non-abusive and non-exploitive, it also exacted a heavy price. Not 15 minutes after making love for the first time, she and I were both overcome with intense feelings of guilt and shame. No one ever taught us to feel this way, we simply did. These feelings did not go away either, but persisted for years afterwards, creating problems in our relationship that have never been fully resolved. For a long time I considered what we did back then to be the worst thing I'd ever done. Even so that did not stop us. The ability of the human libido to suppress one's moral judgment is truly amazing. What finally ended our sexual relationship was my leaving home to go to college. When she joined me a year later we'd been separated long enough to break the cycle I guess. We've never done anything since then."
What explains those "intense feelings of guilt and shame" that arose automatically without their ever having been taught to feel that way?  Edward Westermarck elaborated Darwin's suggestion that if inbreeding between closely related kin increases the risk of deleterious physical and mental traits in offspring, then natural selection might have favored a natural disposition to acquire a aversion for sexual mating with those with whom one has been reared from an early age, which might then be expressed culturally as an incest taboo, so that the idea of incest arouses a sense of disgust.  This disgust would be strongest for sex within the nuclear family--sex between parents and children and between siblings--and weaker for more distantly related kin.  This "Westermarck effect" would arise even for sex between unrelated people who have been reared together from an early age.  One famous example of this is that people who had been reared together as children in the Israeli kibbutzim did not marry one another as adults, because they felt like siblings.

If this is true, then the moral condemnation of incest will be both emotional and rational: there will be an emotional expression of disgust with incest that depends on a rational judgment of what constitutes incest.  Consider, for example, how Haidt's students might have responded to a scenario in which Julie and Mark were cousins who fell in love.  Many of the students might have felt no disgust if they thought that sex between cousins need not be considered incest.  Or if they were told that Julie and Mark were stepsiblings who had been reared in different families, this also might have led some of them to conclude that this was not incest.  Or what if they were told that Mark's wife had died, and Julie was his sister-in-law?  Here our moral emotion of disgust depends on our cognitive judgment of what counts as incest.

This illustrates how we reason with our emotions: we argue ourselves into and out of our moral emotions by judging whether those emotions are a justified response to the circumstances.  Not many years ago, most people might have felt a disgust with interracial marriage and homosexual marriage comparable to their disgust with incest.  But now this reaction has been weakened by the judgment that there is no harm in such marriages.  Legislators and judges must debate these questions in deciding what kinds of marriage are permitted.

Although originally Haidt interpreted the moral disgust with incest as illustrating the purely emotive character of moral judgment, in which reason does nothing but fabricate rationalizations for what has been dictated by moral emotion, he has seemed to move in recent years towards recognizing the interaction of reason and emotion in moral judgment.  He speaks of the "useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion," and he says that "emotions are not dumb," because "emotions are a kind of information processing," and therefore emotion and reasoning are two forms of cognition (2012, 44-48).

Here is his "social intuitionist model":
Haidt explains: "Intuitions come first and reasoning is usually produced after a judgment is made, in order to influence other people.  But as a discussion progresses, the reasons given by other people sometimes change our intuitions and judgments" (2012, 47).  But if other people can give us reasons that change our intuitions and judgments, why can't we give ourselves reasons that shape our intuitions and judgments?  Haidt does allow for this in links 5 and 6, but these links are dotted lines to indicate that they are rarely used links.  He observes: 
"One of the most common criticisms of the social intuitionist model from philosophers [like Joshua Greene] is that links 5 and 6, which I show as dotted lines, might in fact be much more frequent in daily life than I assert. . . . Of course people change their minds on moral issues, but I suspect that in most cases the cause of change was a new intuitively compelling experience (link 1), such as seeing a sonogram of a fetus, or an intuitively compelling argument made by another person (link 3).  I also suspect that philosophers are able to override their initial intuitions more easily than can ordinary folk" (2012, 329).
Notice, however, that Haidt does not explain the unnumbered arrow from "Eliciting Situation" to "A's Intuition." Surely, a situation cannot "elicit" my intuition unless I cognitively interpret that situation, which requires some kind of reasoning, even if the reasoning is quick, unconscious, and implicit rather than consciously deliberate.  So when Haidt's students read his scenario about Julie and Mark, the students had to engage in some reasoning to decide whether the claim that their incestuous liaison could be harmless was realistic or not.  Most of them decided that this was not realistic, and as a consequence of this rational judgment, their interpretation of this "Eliciting Situation" produced an intuitive emotion of disgust.

This is Hume's position.  When Hume famously declares that "reason is, and ought to be the slave of the passions" (1888, 415), Haidt and others assume that he is promoting emotivist irrationalism or sentimentalism.  But as the context of this remark makes clear, Hume believes that reason can direct action but not motivate it: "The impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it" (1888, 414).  When our passions area accompanied by false judgments, reason can properly correct them.  So, for example, reason might correct our false judgments that interracial marriage or the marriage of cousins is harmful and thus allay our moral disgust.  As Hume says, "The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason" (1888, 416).  "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion" (1888, 462).

Consequently, Hume contends, "reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions" (1902, 172).  For example, reason might instruct us as to how justice could be useful for society, but this alone would not produce any moral approbation for justice unless we felt a sentiment of concern for the happiness of society (1902, 285-87).

Our concern for social happiness might promote the principle of no harm as one foundation for morality, which would apply to our moral judgments about incest.  And if Haidt is right, the principle of not harming others is only one of at least six moral foundations--the other five being "liberty/oppression," "fairness/cheating," "loyalty/betrayal," "authority/subversion," and "sanctity/degradation."  All six of these principles can be explained as intuitive or instinctive propensities of human nature as shaped by Darwinian evolution, and thus as moral universals across all of human history and across all human cultures.  But the different rankings of those six principles constitute differing moral matrices.  So Haidt has found that the moral matrix for American liberals ranks care for the victims of oppression as higher than the other principles, while American social conservatives elevate the principles of loyalty, authority, and sanctity, and American libertarians rank liberty as the highest principle.

Each of these six principles is a good reason for a moral judgment expressed through a moral emotion.  And thus the debates between liberals, conservatives, and libertarians will be both rational and emotional as they argue over the proper ranking of those principles as applied to particular moral issues such as the legal regulation of sex, marriage, and family life.

Haidt has claimed that his research shows that "social conservatives have the broadest set of moral concerns, valuing all six foundations relatively equally" (2012, 306), which has provoked criticism from some liberal social psychologists.  Haidt has criticized his colleagues in social psychology for having a bias against conservatives and libertarians in their field, In some of my posts, I have argued that Haidt's research actually supports a Darwinian conservatism that combines classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.


Haidt, Jonathan. 2001.  "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment." Psychological Review 108:814-34.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hume, David. 1888. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David. 1902. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jacobson, Daniel. 2012. "Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Stupefaction." In Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, ed. Mark Timmons, 289-315. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

May, Joshua. 2018. Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Royzman, Edward B., Kwanwoo Kim, and Robert F. Leeman. 2015. "The Curious Tale of Julie and Mark: Unraveling the Moral Dumbfounding Effect." Judgment and Decision Making 10:296-313.