Friday, November 17, 2017

Atheistic Religiosity in Kantian Conservatism: Roger Scruton on Wagner's "Ring" Cycle

Tomorrow, I will see the new production of Richard Wagner's Die Walkure at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This is the second of the four operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.  In the spring of 2020, Lyric will have performances of all four of the operas in one week, so that audiences can sit through all 17 hours of the cycle over a few days, as Wagner originally intended.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Wagner (here, here, and here), I regard Die Meistersinger as his best opera, because it shows how a free society with only a limited "night-watchman state" can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy, and thus it provides no support for Hitler's Nazi statism.  By contrast, Wagner's Ring cycle manifests the Romantic conception of art as appealing to the Dionysian emotions of an atheistic religiosity, which was so attractive to Hitler and the Nazis.

It is this Wagnerian art of atheistic religiosity that appeals to conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton, as is evident in his book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (Allen Lane, 2016).  Scruton is one of the preeminent theorists of political conservatism; and like many conservatives in Great Britain and the United States, he thinks a religious attitude is essential for a healthy moral order, and therefore that traditional religious experience needs to be defended against a Darwinian science that claims to explain the place of human beings in the natural world without any reference to a transcendent realm beyond nature.  And yet--again like many other conservatives--Scruton does not believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  He wants to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  We know that God is dead, but we also know that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption.  That's the truth that Scruton sees in Wagner's Ring cycle.

Scruton traces that truth back to Kant and to the German philosophers in the nineteenth century whose thinking was shaped by Kant's idealism: "Kant begat Fichte, who begat Hegel who begat Feuerbach; and Feuerbach began both Wagner and Marx" (16).

I cannot embrace the atheistic religiosity of Kant, Wagner, and Scruton, because this line of thinking is incoherent self-deception, and because it led to the Nazi philosophers of the 1930s.  (I have written a post on the Kantian idealism of the Nazi philosophers.)

Scruton thinks that Wagner saw the "bleak truth" that "we are here on earth without an explanation and that if there is meaning, we ourselves must supply it" (36).  "The core religious phenomenon, Wagner believed, is not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. . . . religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols.  Religion conceals its legacy of truth within a doctrine.  Art reveals that truth through symbols" (40).  In other words, "Wagner sees his art as expressing and completing our religious emotions.  Art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable metaphysics" (41).  Religion is an "elaborate fiction," because the gods exist only in human imagination, but in Wagner's imaginative art, the gods symbolize truthfully the spiritual needs of our human psychology (56).

Our deepest spiritual need is redemption from a world that has no meaning.  And Scruton believes that Wagner's Ring cycle satisfies our human longing for redemption.  For Scruton, this is clearest in two parts of the Ring.  First, in Act 3 of Die Walkure, which begins with the famous ride of the Valkyries.  In the previous act, Siegmund has been killed, and Brunnhilde has taken his wife Sieglinde onto the saddle of her horse to save her from Wotan.  Sieglinde sees no reason to live.  But Brunnhilde tells her that she must live to save the child--the future hero Siegfried--whom she carries in her womb.  The music introduces the motif of Siegfried as hero followed by a passionate climax with the motif of Sieglinde's blessing, which is often called the "redemption motif."  This motif is not heard again until we hear it at the very end of the cycle as the last music we hear at the end of Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods").  So, the meaning of the whole Ring cycle, it seems, is the artfully aroused emotion of redemption.

I must say that when my wife and I saw the complete Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera in April of 2005--four operas over six days--the closing music did leave us with an ecstatic feeling that might be identified as redemption.  (Well, okay, we were also feeling exhausted relief that we had finally made it through the 17 hours of Wagnerian opera!)

But then, as Scruton admits, anyone who wonders about what this really means must ask: redemption from what, to what, by whom?  The Christian will answer: redemption from our sinful human condition, to an eternal life of bliss with God, by the grace bestowed on us by Jesus Christ. 

But since Wagner and Scruton deny the truth of these Christian doctrines, this kind of redemption is not possible for them.  The only redemption that can come through Wagner's operas is the artistically induced feeling of redemption, which does not require any belief in the literal truth of Christian redemption.

I think Nietzsche was right--during the middle period of his writing career, when he freed himself from his Dionysian enchantment with Wagner--in saying that this is all a magician's trick that gives us the fake emotions of a fake redemption.  It's entertainment for atheists who want religious feelings without religious doctrines.

Scruton restates Nietzsche's objections to Wagner (296-99).  But, oddly, Scruton doesn't even attempt to refute those objections.  His only response to Nietzsche is to point out that in his last years Nietzsche revived the love for Wagner that he had had earlier in his life.  "Clearly then, his attacks on Wagner did not cure him of the enchantment, and we are left wondering how sincerely he meant them" (299).  Scruton then passes on without any further thought about what this reveals about Nietzsche's struggle with Wagner's atheistic religiosity.

In many posts (some of which can be found hereherehereherehere, and here ), I have argued that Lou Salome (the woman who turned down Nietzsche's proposal of marriage) understood Nietzsche better than all of the other commentators on Nietzsche.  (I have also written about this in my Nietzsche chapter in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Salome saw that Nietzsche was deeply moved by religious longings that made Wagner's art appealing to him, that he escaped from this only in the middle period of his writing (particularly in Human, All Too Human), when he adopted a scientific view of the world, which was the most intellectually defensible position that he ever took, but then in his later writings, he returned to the religious longings that were expressed in his attempt to create a new Dionysian religion. 

In his middle period, Nietzsche understood how the need for redemption had become so strong for human beings that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art.  Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music like Wagner's operas that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines.  Romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art.

In his middle period, Nietzsche defended a Darwinian science of evolution according to which "everything has evolved."  By Nietzsche's Darwinian account, morality does not elevate human beings beyond the natural world, because human morality arises as a natural development of animal nature.  There is no need for a redemptive transcendence of nature to give meaning to human life, because life, even in its mortality and contingency, is inherently good in its intrinsic purposefulness without any need for cosmic purposefulness.  (I have suggested that this thought is conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning": "Death is the mother of beauty.")

Scruton occasionally comes close to saying something like this, but then he insists on the need for redemption in a way that renders his thought incoherent.  Explaining Wagner's operatic art, he observes:
". . . it takes the turning points of human life and frames them as religious sacrifices--it is a 'making sacred' of those moments when we must pay the full cost of being what we are.  It is not absurd to give to these moments the name that Wagner clung to when attempting to summarize their power--Erlosung, or redemption.  He did not mean that word in its Christian sense, as invoking the promise and the purchase of a better life to come.  He meant it as a description of the religious rite itself, and hence of the moment of transcendence on the tragic stage: the moment when life is shown to be intrinsically worthwhile, exactly when it is engulfed by the ambient nothingness" (302).
But if we know that life is "intrinsically worthwhile," so that we have no need for "the promise and the purchase of a better life to come," then it makes no sense to say that life's worth depends on transcendence, if only the fake transcendence of operatic emotion.  Moreover, it's hard to see how such fake transcendence works if we know it's fake.

I suppose that Scruton would say that it's not completely fake, because the longing for transcendence in human nature is a real phenomenon of human psychology.  That's his claim in his new book On Human Nature, which I will take up in my next post.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Lockean Social Contract in Ancient Mesopotamia

In various posts in recent years, I have argued that John Locke's evolutionary history of politics has been largely confirmed by the modern research of evolutionary anthropologists and archaeologists. 

Locke was correct in seeing that most human beings throughout history have lived in a state of nature in which they were free, equal, and independent.  They lived in families in small bands of hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  They organized their social lives through customary laws of mutual cooperation, and they settled conflicts through informal negotiation and arbitration, with each individual having a natural right to punish those who violated the customary laws. 

In time of war, they might appoint someone as a temporary chief to lead them in war.  In time of peace, some prominent men might act as informal leaders.  But they resisted any attempt by anyone to exercise dominant rule over them as an violation of their natural freedom and autonomy, and so they had no government.  Despite the occasional wars between bands, this state of nature without government was generally a state of peace. 

But then, a few thousand years ago, as human beings moved from hunting and gathering to farming--harvesting domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals--it became harder to settle disputes peacefully.  They consented to a government that would act as a common superior over them in making, judging, and executing laws.  But those rulers who abused their governmental powers in oppressing their people rather than securing their natural rights could provoke popular resistance and rebellion, which could overthrow a tyrannical government and lead to establishing a new government that seemed more likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Locke saw evidence for all this in the anthropological history of the New World, because he believed that "in the beginning all the world was America," and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (Second Treatise, paras. 49, 108).  Archaeological studies over the past two centuries suggest that the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming villages and then to cities with centralized states occurred for the first time in Mesopotamia between 5,200 BCE and 3,200 BCE.

Does this new history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia confirm or deny Locke's history?  James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States helps to answer this question, because he provides a survey of how new evidence from the fields of prehistory, archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology brings into view how states arose in ancient Mesopotamia for the first time in human history.

Beginning around 5,200 BCE, there is evidence in Mesopotamia for small towns of sedentary foragers, farmers, and pastoralists who manage their collective affairs and trade with the outside world.  So even after the development of agriculture, with the farming of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals, human beings still lived in societies without states.

If one is looking for those attributes of "stateness" that point to "territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials" (Scott, 118), then Uruk was the first state.  A city wall was first built at Uruk around 3,200 BCE.  By then Uruk was the largest city in the world, with a population somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000.  Following the model of Uruk, roughly twenty other city-states arose in the Mesopotamian alluvium.  As Scott indicates, each city was small enough that one could walk from the center to the outer boundary in a day.

Scott is best known for a series of books (Scott 1976, 1998, 2009, 2012) that shows an anarchist scorn for organized state societies, based on fixed-field agricultural production, as a plague upon humanity--bringing slavery, conscription, taxes, forced labor, epidemics, and warfare.  For Scott, this explains why many people have rightly chosen to remain stateless; and in doing so, they have shown how ordinary people are capable of organizing their lives through spontaneously cooperative enterprises without any need for oppressive regimentation by the central planning of a state bureaucracy.  Although libertarians and libertarian anarchists have pointed to Scott's books as supporting their opposition to statism, Scott himself rejects libertarian anarchism in favor of the socialist anarchism of those like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. 

You can see this in a YouTube video of a debate between Scott, David Friedman, and Robert Ellickson, with Ellickson speaking for classical liberalism as opposed to the anarchism of Scott and Friedman.
Some of my posts on anarchism can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Although Locke was not an anarchist, he shows an anarchist propensity in his account of the state of nature as showing that life in stateless societies is natural for human beings, that there have been no governments throughout most of human history,  and therefore formal governmental institutions are artificial creations of human will that have arisen only recently in human history. 

The evidence surveyed by Scott confirms this line of thought in Locke by showing that indeed most of human evolutionary history, for hundreds of thousands of years, has been a history of stateless societies without government in bands of hunter-gatherers.  About 7,000 years ago, some people in Mesopotamia formed settled villages with farming and herding, but they still organized their social life without a state apparatus.   It was only about 5,000 years ago that the first states began to appear first in Mesopotamia.  Moreover, Scott shows, even after the emergence of states, most human beings continued to live outside the state as "barbarians."  Even at the time of Locke's birth in the seventeenth century, a majority of the human population around the world was probably living in stateless societies.

If this supports Locke as correct about the state of nature, then this sustains Locke's fundamental claim that human beings by nature have the ability and propensity to live in the natural and voluntary associations of stateless societies without centralized governmental rule.  If this is so, then this also supports Locke's claim that human beings naturally can and will withdraw their obedience to a government that they see as oppressive in depriving them of their liberty and failing to secure their lives and property: they are naturally inclined to assert their natural right to resist and rebel against despotic government.  It's in this way that we can understand all government to depend upon the consent of the individuals subject to its rule.  This is what has been called the social contract theory of government, although Locke himself does not use the term "social contract."

Scott, however, seems to deny that this is true for the history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia.  In Against the Grain, he casually dismisses Locke's social contract theory in one sentence: "If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined."  But then in the next two sentences after this passage, Scott seems to concede Locke's point that people can and will resist an oppressive state: "The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation.  If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster" (26-27, 29).

"Walls make states," Scott observes.  And while walls might protect a city's people from invaders, the walls should also be seen as keeping the city's people inside--walls demonstrate "that the flight of subjects was a real preoccupation of the early state" (139).  Repeatedly, Scott notes that the records of the Mesopotamian states are full of evidence of people running away from their states--slaves running away from their enslavement, soldiers running away from their conscripted service in war, taxpayers running away from oppressive taxation, laborers running away from coerced labor, and people generally running away from cities racked with famine and contagious diseases (150-64, 205-218).  Scott also notes the evidence for frequent rebellions.

When rulers were threatened by external invaders or internal enemies, the rulers were inclined to increase their extraction of resources from their people--increased confiscation of grain, increased taxation, increased conscription of laborers and soldiers.  This increased exploitation of the people would provoke flight or rebellion that could bring the disintegration of the state.  Commonly, historians describe this as a "collapse" of the state following by "dark ages" of stateless barbarism.  But as Scott indicates, this language assumes an unjustified bias in favor of the state.  A "collapse" of the state that brings a "dark age" might be better described as "a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare" (209, 255).

Scott doesn't reflect on how this "bolt for freedom" shows the people withdrawing their consent from the state, which confirms Locke's account of how people through resistance and rebellion against governmental tyranny reclaim their natural freedom.

Seth Richardson (2010, 2016) has noted the evidence that over 3,000 years of Mesopotamian political life, there were hundreds of rebellions.  He has also noted how these rebels were described by the state authorities: "characterizations of rebels as the violators of contracts (mitgurtu, rikistu) necessarily implied that some bilateral obligations were incumbent on the state through the framework of the social contract" (2016, 35).  The Akkadian words mitgurtu and rikistu denote agreement, consent, contract, or treaty.  Richardson suggests: "Those motifs relating to violation-of-contract strike a familiar chord to us moderns, since they suggest the premise of a social contract between ruler and ruled, or at least the existence of legal treaties and loyalty oaths" (2010, 9).

Not only in ancient Mesopotamia, but also throughout the ancient Mediterranean world--the Near East, Greece, and Rome--one sees the same pattern of rebellions against the state in which rebels assert their natural freedom from oppression, and thus confirm Locke's understanding of government as dependent on the consent of the governed (Howe and Brice 2016).


Howe, Timothy, and Lee Brice, eds. 2016. Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Richardson, Seth. 2010. "Writing Rebellion Back Into the Record: A Methodologies Toolkit." In Seth Richardson, ed., Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World, 1-27. New Haven, CN: American Oriental Society.

__________. 2016. "Insurgency and Terror in Mesopotamia." In Howe and Brice 2016, 31-61.

Scott, James C.  1976.  The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2009.  The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2012.  Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

__________.  2017.  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Amagi: Mesopotamian Liberty in the Goodrich Seminar Room

The cuneiform symbol above is the Sumerian word amagi or amargi, which is thought to be the first word in the oldest written language for "liberty."  It appears on the clay cone above that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  This clay cone is a document commemorating the social reforms of Urukagina, who was the ruler over the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2350 B.C., and who had overthrown the ruling dynasty founded by Ur-Nansche about 2500 B.C.

The Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer described this document in 1956 in his book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, which was originally published under the title From the Tablets of Sumer.  Pierre Goodrich, a successful Indiana businessman, read this book; and when he founded the Liberty Fund to promote the study of liberty, he decided that the cuneiform symbol for amagi should be the logo for Liberty Fund. 

Goodrich's search for the first word for liberty might be considered part of the search for the origins of the word "liberalism," which has been the subject of a previous post.

Goodrich used amagi in his design for what became the Goodrich Seminar Room in the Lilly Library of Wabash College in Indiana.  At the center of the room is a large circular table.  Around the room at the bottom of the walls are library shelves full of books.  Etched into the high limestone walls of the room are the names of the writings and authors that Goodrich identified as contributing the most to our understanding of liberty and responsibility.  The names are arranged chronologically to show the history of the idea of liberty.  It shows the influence of Kramer's book in beginning in ancient Mesopotamia--first the symbol amagi and then the Ur-Nammu  Code, Urukagina, Gilgamesh, and Hammurabi's Code. 

I visited this room some years ago as part of a Liberty Fund conference.  It's a pilgrimage to Mecca for libertarians.

You can take an interactive virtual tour of the Goodrich Seminar Room at the Liberty Fund website.

Goodrich was implicitly claiming that liberty as understood by classical liberals like himself was not a modern cultural invention of Western culture, because it was actually a human universal, rooted in human nature, that could be seen in the written records of the earliest states that arose first in Mesopotamia.  And, consequently, the walls of this seminar room present the evolutionary history of human liberty beginning around 2400 B.C. in Sumer on the east wall and then moving through history across the south, west, and north walls (including 88 people such as Moses, Zarathustra, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Aquinas, Locke, and Hume) and ending in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence on the right side of the north wall. 

There are two symbols on the walls.  On the left end of the east wall, there is a symbol of the Sun.  It's not clear whether this Sun of liberty is rising at the beginning of the history or setting at the end.  The other symbol is a large cross on the west wall.  Oddly, this is not located next to the name of Jesus Christ.  It is located on the timeline between 300 A.D. and 400 A.D.  Is this location in time connected to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, or to the proclamation in 393 by Emperor Theodosius I that all citizens should be Christians?

One has to wonder about Goodrich's principles of inclusion and exclusion.  For example, he includes Socrates and Aristotle, but excludes Plato.  He includes Origen, Ambrose, Boethius, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas, but excludes Augustine.  He includes Savonarola, but excludes Machiavelli.  He includes Locke, but excludes Hobbes and Rousseau.  He includes two forms of religious singing--Roman chant (also called Gregorian chant) and Reformation chorale--but excludes all other forms of music, unless one considers Psalms to be a form of religious singing. 

And why does he stop with the Declaration of Independence?  Is he suggesting that the Declaration is the fullest expression of the theory and practice of liberty, and as such the consummation of the history of liberty that began in ancient Mesopotamia?  Is this, in some way, the end of history?

When I was in this room, I thought about the fact that almost everything there depends on writing and written documents, beginning with amagi, a word in the first system of writing invented by human beings.  (Later, there were three other independent inventions of writing--in Egypt, China, and Mayan Mesoamerica.)  Was there a history of liberty before the invention of writing?  Is writing necessary for the thoughtful exploration of the meaning of liberty, which had already arisen in an unreflective way in human experience before writing was invented?  Does the invention of writing depend on the invention of the state?  After all, for 500 years or more, the only purpose for cuneiform writing was bureaucratic bookkeeping for the state.  But doesn't the state threaten the liberty enjoyed in stateless societies?  Beginning in ancient Mesopotamia, only a tiny elite of scribes could read and write; and even up to the nineteenth century, most human beings were illiterate.  If thinking about liberty depends on writing, does that mean that until recently most human beings could not think very deeply about liberty?  Does human emancipation depend upon the emancipation of the mind through literacy and literate education?  Is that what we mean by liberal education?  Is that why Liberty Fund is organized around reading, discussing, and publishing written texts that illuminate the idea and practice of liberty?  Are these the kind of questions Goodrich wanted his Seminar Room to evoke?

My question here is whether Goodrich was right in locating the starting point for liberty in ancient Mesopotamia.  In doing this, Goodrich denied the traditional idea of "Oriental Despotism."  Beginning in ancient Greece, with Aeschylus and Herodotus, it has been common to contrast Eastern despotism and Greek liberty, so that liberty was seen as an innovation of the ancient Greeks.  Later, those like Hegel saw modern liberty as emerging only with the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution: in the ancient Orient, only one person--the ruling despot--was free; in ancient Greece and Rome, some people--the class of citizens--was free; only in the modern West were all people, in principle at least, declared to be free.  Thus, all of human history is the history of the unfolding of the idea of liberty.

Karl Marx suggested that when agrarian societies first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient China, agriculture in those arid parts of the world depended upon bureaucratically planned irrigation systems, which centralized power in the hands of despotic rulers, and he called this the Asiatic Mode of Production.  Later, Karl Wittfogel elaborated this idea in Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957) as the "hydraulic theory" of ancient despotism. 

Recently, however, Sumerologists have pointed to evidence that agriculture arose in the rich alluvial areas of southern Mesopotamia where the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided the conditions for growing grain, without any need for complex irrigation systems, and this supported agrarian settlements for two thousand years before the appearance of the earliest states (see Jennifer Pournelle's Marshland of Cities: Deltaic Landscapes and the Evolution of Early Mesopotamian Civilization, Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego; and her "Physical Geography," in Harriet Crawford, ed., The Sumerian World [Routledge, 2017], 13-32).

Mesopotamia in 3,500 B.C.

Mesopotamia in 1,500 B.C.

As these maps indicate, archaeologists now believe that in ancient Mesopotamia, the northern shoreline of the Persian Gulf was much farther north than it is today, so that what is today the city of Basra in southern Iraq would have been underwater, and the ancient cities of Lagash, Larsa, Uruk, and Ur would have been on or near the shoreline.  Isolated agrarian settlements existed in the southern alluvium near the Persian Gulf around 5,200 B.C., at least two thousand years before the earliest states such as Uruk emerged around 3,200 B.C.

Moreover, some scholars now argue, even the early Mesopotamian states left a written record that shows both the idea and the reality of liberty, long before the Greek city-states.  Daniel Snell has argued for this in his book Flight and Freedom in the Ancient Near East (Brill, 2001).  Eva von Dassow has argued for this in her book chapter--"Freedom in Ancient Near Eastern Societies," in Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, eds., Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (2011), 205-24.  Von Dassow, a professor of ancient Near Eastern history at the University of Minnesota, is now working on a book elaborating her reasoning. 

If we're persuaded by this position, then we would have to say that Goodrich was right to start his history of liberty with amagi in the ancient Mesopotamian documents.  We could also conclude from this, as Snell does, that this shows the desire for liberty to be a human universal of evolved human nature, just as Goodrich claimed, and so the history of liberty has been the progressive expression of that natural desire.

Liberty understood as liberation from constraint and oppression was manifest in the rhetoric of Mesopotamian kings like Urukagina, who promised to release their people from excessive taxation, debt servitude, and oppressive power.  This release from encumbrance and subordination was understood as a restoration to an original state of liberty, which was expressed in the Sumerian word amagi and the Akkadian word andurarum.  Amagi literally meant "return to mother," and it acquired the connotation of "emancipation" or "freedom."

What did this mean in Urukagina's Lagash?  I will follow Kramer's interpretation, since this so influenced Goodrich, but I know that there are other interpretations among the scholars of the ancient Near East.  Kramer reports: "By and large, the inhabitants of Lagash were farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and craftsmen.  Its economy was mixed--partly socialistic and state-controlled, and partly capitalistic and free" (46).  While in principle, the soil belonged to the city god and his temple, much of the land was the private property of individuals.  Much of the economic life was organized through free markets and free trade.

But then a ruling dynasty over Lagash was established by Ur-Nanshe around 2500 B.C.  These rulers expanded their power over Sumer through bloody wars of conquest, which were successful for almost a century.  But then Lagash was weakened by attacks from other city-states, and particularly from the city of Umma.  To raise and support armies, the rulers of Lagash increased taxes and appropriated property belonging to the temple.  Palace bureaucrats and tax collectors were everywhere.  And those who could not pay their taxes could be put into debt slavery.

When Urukagina came to power, he made a special covenant with Ningirsu, the god of Lagash, that he would liberate the people of Lagash from the oppression of the Ur-Nanshe dynasty.  He removed many of the bureaucratic controls over the economy, he restored to the temple the property that had been seized, he reduced the taxes, and he released those who had been put into debt slavery.  This was a "return to mother" in the sense that he restored the people of Lagash to their original condition of liberty through what Kramer called "freedom under law."

And yet in less than ten years, Urukagina was overthrown and Lagash conquered by Lugalzaggisi, the ruler of Umma, who then became the king of Sumer for a brief time.  So the final lesson here might be that achieving and preserving liberty depends on the contingencies of warfare.

Goodrich stressed the importance of law for Mesopotamian liberty by including two law collections--the Laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi's Code.  (Good translations of these texts can be found in Martha T. Roth's Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor [Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997].)

King Ur-Namma of Ur liberated the city of Ur from being ruled by the city of Uruk.  During his reign (2112-2095 B.C.), he founded the Third Dynasty of Ur, which united all the city-states of both southern and northern Mesopotamia.  His collection of laws is the oldest such collection ever found.  The tablets are fragmentary, however, and only the prologue and fewer than forty laws have been preserved.

The Laws of Hammurabi were compiled toward the end of the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.), who was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon.  This collection of laws is the longest and best preserved of the law collections from Mesopotamia.  It consists of a prologue, as many as 300 laws, and an epilogue.  This collection was copied and recopied over centuries in various parts of Mesopotamia.  It was made world famous by the excavation in 1901-1902 of the black stone stela that is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Louvre stela is almost seven and a half feet tall.  The top one-third of the stela shows the sun-god Shamash, the god of justice, seated on his throne, with King Hammurabi standing before him.  It is not clear whether the god is dictating the laws to Hammurabi, or Hammurabi is presenting the laws to the god, or Hammurabi is accepting the rod and the ring that are the emblems of authority.  In any case, this conveys the clear message to the viewers--even the many illiterate people who cannot read the laws--that Hammurabi's laws are divinely authorized by the god of justice.

The prologues of both the Laws of Ur-Namma and the Laws of Hammurabi invoke the gods An and Enlil as the divine source of the king's authority.  These gods are preeminent in the Sumerian creation myth that we know from the prologue to the Gilgamesh Epic.  In the beginning, there was only Nammu, the primeval sea.  Then Nammu gave birth to An, the sky, and Ki, the earth.  An and Ki mated and gave birth to Enlil, who separated An from Ki and carried off the earth as his domain, while An carried off the sky.  Thus, the laws of Ur-Namma and Hammurabi have the moral authority of cosmic divinity.

Here in ancient Mesopotamia is the first cosmic teleology of human law rooted in divine law, which is restated in Plato's Timaeus and in the Bible, and which becomes the theme of the Divine Cosmic Model of the universe that runs through human civilization for four thousand years.  Goodrich points to this in his many references to the texts and authors of theological cosmology as part of the history of liberty, culminating in the Declaration of Independence, which appeals to God as the cosmic Creator, Legislator, and Judge. 

Whether the natural law of liberty must depend on such a divine law of the cosmos has been a question raised in many posts herehere, and here.  I have also written about the evolutionary science of moralistic "big gods" here.

In claiming theocratic sovereignty over their states, Ur-Namma and Hammurabi might seem to exemplify the tradition of Oriental Despotism and thus deny individual liberty.  There are, however, at least two kinds of evidence in these law collections to justify Goodrich's including them in the history of liberty.

The first kind of evidence for liberty in these documents is that the principal class of persons identified in these law collections is the free person called "man" (the Sumerian lu in Ur-Namma's laws and the Akkadian awilu in Hammurabi's laws), which includes men, women, and children.  Citizens have the rights to freedom and security in one's person, family, and property.  For example, the laws declare that free people are to be protected from physical assault, theft, and breach of contract.  They are also protected in their engagement in marriage, family life, and free trade.

Some classes of people are not fully free, however.  The commoner (the Akkadian muskenu) is inferior to the free person in some rights and privileges.  And the male and female slaves (wardu and antu) belong to free persons, commoners, or the palace.  People could be enslaved by being captured in war, by incurring debt that they could not pay back, or by being born into slavery.  And yet there were ways that slaves could be emancipated.  Slaves could emancipate themselves by simply running away.  That fugitive slaves were a problem is indicated by the laws in Hammurabi's Code for punishing runaway slaves and the people who help them run away (see paras. 15-20, 226-227).

Thus, in these law collections, we see that the Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom.  Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom.  Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away.  But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery.  We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal.  That affirmation comes much later in Goodrich's history of liberty in the writing of Locke and the Declaration of Independence.

In a previous post, I have noted that while humans claiming freedom and resisting enslavement can be seen throughout history, the idea of completely abolishing slavery is a new idea that arose with Lockean liberalism.

The second kind of evidence for freedom in these law collections is what one scholar has called "the curious absence of the state in the text" (Seth Richardson, "Before Things Worked: A 'Low-Power' Model of Early Mesopotamia," in Clifford Ando and Seth Richardson, eds., Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America [University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017], 37).  In his prologue and epilogue, Hammurabi claims absolute divinely granted authority over Babylonia.  But in the hundreds of laws in his code, there is almost no reference to himself or to the central state as providing judgment or enforcement of the law.  Most of the laws seem to assume private enforcement: when something goes wrong, the wronged party must act on his own with the help of local people to investigate, try, convict, and punish the guilty parties. 

This is what today we would call "private governance," the subject of a previous post.  We could also say that what we see here is what Seth Richardson has called the "presumptive state": the early states in Mesopotamia were presumptive in claiming a sovereignty that they did not in fact possess ("Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State," Past and Present, no. 215 [May 2012]: 3-49).  Their rhetorical claims for absolute sovereignty have been mistakenly interpreted as evidence for the reality of Oriental Despotism.

Once we see how in actuality the powers of the Mesopotamian state were severely limited, we can see how they left plenty of room for liberty.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

A New Orangutan Species--Rousseau's Natural Man?

Primate taxonomists have identified six living species of non-human great apes: Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.  The Sumatran and Bornean orangutans were first identified as separate species in 2001.  Now, a team of biologists has identified a third orangutan species--the Tapanuli orangutan Pongo tapanuliensis (pictured above). The orangutans are our most distant evolutionary relatives among the living hominids, and now the Tapanuli orangutan seems to be the oldest evolutionary lineage in the genus Pongo.  The New York Times has an article on this, which includes a link to the report: Alexander Nater et al., "Morphormetric, Behavioral, and Genomic Evidence for a New Orangutan Species," Current Biology 27 (November 20, 2017): 1-12.

The Tapanuli orangutan is found south of Lake Toba in northern Sumatra in the Tapanuli Forest.  The other Sumatran orangutan species--P. abelii--is found north of Lake Toba.  The third orangutan species--P. pygmaeus--is found in Borneo.  Orangutans in the wild are not found anywhere else in the world.

The Tapanuli orangutan has been found to be both morphologically and genomically distinct from the other two species.  This analysis also suggests that the Tapanuli orangutan was the first orangutan species to arrive in Sumatra about three and a half million years ago from mainland Asia.

As I have indicated in a previous post a few years ago, I am sure that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have been fascinated by these studies, because he inferred from some reports about apes in the wild that savage man in the state of nature was actually an orangutan as "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons."  He looked forward to the time when scientists would travel the world to study the ape ancestors of human beings to understand the evolutionary history of humanity in the state of nature.

Rousseau would have discovered, however, that these modern studies deny his claim that the earliest human ancestors were utterly solitary animals, and thus "man is naturally good," because solitary individuals free from any dependence on others have no motive to be wicked.  In fact, orangutans have a complex social life organized around the social bond between mothers and their offspring and a dominant adult male.

Here, then, is an example of how a claim in political philosophy--Rousseau's account of an asocial state of nature--can be refuted by the empirical science of evolutionary biology.

Recently, Nelson Lund--in his book Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)--has tried to defend Rousseau's position as confirmed by modern primatology and anthropology.  He concludes: "Orangutans live much like man in Rousseau's pure state of nature; gorillas generally live in patriarchal family bands, much as Rousseau imagines man must have lived after the 'first revolution'; and chimpanzees are cooperative and contentious hunter-gatherers, like the people in Rousseau's 'nascent society'" (54).

Lund fails to see, however, that the complex social life of orangutans is not at all like the utterly solitary life of Rousseau's "nascent man" in the state of nature.  I have elaborated this point in my chapter on Rousseau in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker (2015).

Rousseau's interest in orangutans as possibly revealing the ancestral origins of human evolution is well studied in Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin's Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017).

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Trump's Grandiose Narcissism and Other Chimpanzee Personalities

Donald Trump's Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a reminder of the importance of personality in political life.  This should draw attention to the biological science of political psychology, which includes the biological study of nonhuman animal personalities as showing the evolutionary roots of the personality traits manifest in U.S. presidents and other political actors.

Psychologists have identified two different dimensions of the narcissistic personality--grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.  Trump is obviously a grandiose narcissist.

Psychologists have studied grandiose narcissism among U.S. Presidents.  Here's the abstract for one study (Watts et al. 2013):

"Recent research and theorizing suggest that narcissism may predict both positive and negative leadership behaviors.  We tested this hypothesis with data on the 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush, using (a) expert-derived narcissism estimates, (b) independent historical surveys of presidential performance, and (c) largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance. Grandiose, but not vulnerable, narcissism was associated with superior overall greatness in an aggregate poll; it was also positively associated with public persuasiveness, crisis management, agenda setting, and allied behaviors, and with several objective indicators of performance, such as winning the popular vote and initiating legislation.  Nevertheless, grandiose narcissism was also associated with several negative outcomes, including congressional impeachment resolutions and unethical behaviors.  We found that presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents' grandiose narcissism has been rising over time.  Our findings suggest that grandiose narcissism may be a double-edged sword in the leadership domain."

This study built upon the data set of Rubenzer and Faschingbauer (2004), who had 121 expert raters (such as historians and psychologists who have studied the lives of the U.S. presidents) evaluate the personality of the 41 U.S. presidents up to and including Bill Clinton.  Watts et al. (2013) added ratings of George W. Bush from a previous study.  They were then able to rank the first 42 presidents for their grandiose narcissism.  Here are the top seven:

1. Lyndon Johnson
2. Teddy Roosevelt
3. Andrew Jackson
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt
5. John Kennedy
6. Richard Nixon
7. Bill Clinton

This suggests that Trump's grandiose narcissistic personality is not unique among the U.S. presidents, although we might wonder whether Trump manifests a more extreme form of this personality than any other president.  Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us.  After all, shouldn't we expect that the sort of person who would have the driving ambition for power that would motivate him to successfully win the presidency would often have the traits of a grandiose narcissist--such as fearless dominance?

These same personality traits can be seen in other political animals.  I have written about the biology of animal personalities (here), and particularly chimpanzee personalities (here).  For me, this shows that any biopolitical science needs to include the biological biographies of the individual animals in any political community.  The biological study of the political life of any animal community must include not only the genetic history of the species and the cultural history of the community, but also the individual history of the political actors in the community, with each individual having distinct personality traits.

Now, a new article (Weiss et al. 2017) presents a study of the personality traits of the chimpanzees in the Kasekela and Mitumba communities of Gombe National Park in Tanzania.  The New York Times has an article on this study.

The method for identifying the personality traits of these chimpanzees was essentially the same as that used for studying the personalities of U.S. presidents.  The personalities of 128 chimpanzees in Gombe were rated on 24 items from the "Hominoid Personality Questionaire," which is a slightly modified version of questionaires used to rate the personality of human beings as following the "five-factor-model" of personality based on five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  The ratings were made by the Tanzanian field assistants who have observed the chimpanzees at Gombe almost daily for over 30 years.

For each of the 24 items, the raters were asked to rate a chimpanzee on a seven point scale from low to high.  Each item was stated as an adjective along with one or two descriptive sentences.  Here are some examples:
"FEARFUL: Subject reacts excessively to real or imagined threats by displaying behaviors such as screaming, grimacing, running away or other signs of anxiety or distress."
"DOMINANT: Subject is able to displace, threaten, or take food from other chimpanzees.  Or subject may express high status by decisively intervening in social interactions."
"RECKLESS: Subject is rash or unconcerned about the consequences of its behaviors."
"THOUGHTLESS: Subject often behaves in a way that seems imprudent or forgetful."
"VULNERABLE: Subject is prone to be physically or emotionally hurt as a result of dominance displays, highly assertive behavior, aggression, or attack by another chimpanzee."
"BULLYING: Subject is overbearing and intimidating towards younger or lower ranking chimpanzees."
 "AGGRESSIVE: Subject often initiates fights or other menacing and agonistic encounters with other chimpanzees."
"IMPULSIVE: Subject often displays some spontaneous or sudden behavior that could not have been anticipated.  There often seems to be some emotional reason behind the sudden behavior."
These ratings were statistically analyzed for "interrater reliability"--that is, the degree to which the ratings of the same chimp by different raters agree.  For most of the items, the interrater reliabilities ranged from acceptable to good.

There are three important conclusions from this study.  First, this confirms that, like other animals that have been studied, these chimps really do show individual personalities.  Second, the patterns in the personalities of these wild chimps are similar to those found among captive chimps in zoos or study facilities.  Finally, this shows remarkable similarities in personality traits between these chimps and human beings, which suggests an evolutionary continuity in personality traits.

Notice how some of the items in the above list apply to Trump.  Dominant?  Reckless?  Thoughtless?  Bullying?  Aggressive?  Impulsive?  I have written some posts on "Trump's Chimpanzee Politics" (here  and here).

Notice also that the study of presidents found a connection between grandiose narcissism and impeachment resolutions and unethical behavior. If Trump is impeached by the Congress, or if the Cabinet uses the 25th Amendment to declare him "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office," we will have to decide whether Trump's personality traits are so dangerous for the country that he should be removed from office.

Can the president's authority to launch nuclear strikes with thousands of nuclear warheads be trusted to someone with the most extreme form of grandiose narcissism, perhaps even more extreme than Lyndon Johnson or any other previous president?  Or should the Congress declare that the president has no constitutional authority to launch a preemptive attack without a congressional declaration of war?


Rubenzer, S. J., and T. R. Faschingbauer. 2004. Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents. Brassey's Inc.

Watts, Ashley, et al. 2013.  "The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents." Psychological Science 24: 2379-2389.

Weiss, Alexander, Michael Wilson, D. Anthony Collins, Deus Mjungu, Shadrack Kamenya, Steffen Foerster, and Anne E. Pusey. 2017. "Personality in the Chimpanzees of Gombe National Park." Scientific Data 4, article number: 170146.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Is Emporiophobia (Fear of Markets) Rooted in Our Evolved Human Nature?

I have often argued against Friedrich Hayek's claim that socialism appeals to our evolved instincts, as shaped by our evolutionary history in hunter-gatherer bands, and therefore that capitalism requires a cultural repression of those natural instincts.  In making that argument, I have disputed the common assumption that the "mismatch" theory of evolutionary psychology supports Hayek's claim.

I have argued that evolutionary anthropology sustains the conclusion that a capitalist liberal culture appeals to the evolved human instincts for social exchange or trade and for the liberty expressed as resistance to oppression that can be seen in hunter-gatherer bands.  Adam Smith was right to see that the "system of natural liberty" is rooted in our innate instincts and that the opulence that results from exchange and specialization is the necessary consequence of "a certain propensity in human nature . . . the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and anthropologists like Richard Lee have been mistaken in believing that "our ancestors were communists" (Lee 1991, 255).  Actually, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were "the original libertarians" (Mayor 2012).

I have developed my argument in some posts here, here, here, here., and here.

And yet Hayek's socialism-as-evolutionary-atavism thesis continues to be defended by scholars who think about the evolutionary psychology of economics.  In recent years, Paul Rubin has contended that "folk economics"--the intuitive economics of ordinary people with no training in economics--shows what he calls "emporiophobia" (the fear of markets), based on the Greek words emporion (for a trading market) and phobia (for fear).  And he sees this as showing the evolved human nature that was shaped by evolution in ancient hunter-gatherer bands (Rubin 2003, 2014).   Now, Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Petersen have elaborated Rubin's reasoning in an article accepted for publication in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Boyer and Petersen 2017).  Here we can see the theoretical rigor and empirical evidence supporting Hayek's thesis that Hayek himself never provided.

According to Rubin, folk economics is mistaken in seeing the economic world as a zero-sum world in which a gain for one person must be a loss for someone else, while economists correctly understand that economic exchange can be positive-sum in showing the gains from trade, so that in any voluntary economic transaction, both sides benefit.  Folk economics arises from instinctive intuitions that evolved in our hunter-gatherer ancestors living in a world without specialization, division of labor, capital investment, or economic growth--a world without markets.  The mismatch between that Paleolithic world without markets and the modern world of extended trade in markets explains the mistakes of folk economic thinking in its assumption that markets are bad.

So, for example, folk economics assumes that international free trade is bad, because if foreigners are profiting from trading with us, we are losing out in that this creates unemployment at home.  For another example, people often say "The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer," which implies that the rich have caused the poverty of the poor by outcompeting them.  Again, the fundamental assumption is that free markets must create zero-sum competition with winners and losers.

To see the mistakes in folk economics, people need to be taught economic science.  Unfortunately, Rubin observes, the teaching of economics stresses market competition rather than market cooperation.  To show this, he surveys some of the leading textbooks in economics, and he points out that there are far more references to competition than to cooperation.  This reinforces the assumption of folk economics that markets always require competition, with winners and losers, and so we need to restrict or regulate markets to promote cooperation rather than competition.

To overcome this, Rubin proposes changing the way economics is taught, so as to stress cooperation rather than competition.  In fact, the fundamental insight of economics is that every economic transaction is cooperative, because all parties expect to benefit from a transaction, otherwise they would not agree to it, and therefore it's a act of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Of course, competition is essential, but only as a tool facilitating cooperation.  Competition sets terms for cooperation and selects the best partners for cooperation.  When economic agents compete with one another, they are competing for the right to cooperate with others.  The most successful competitor is the one who is most successful in cooperating with others--either by selling to more buyers or buying from more sellers.  When people are taught to understand this, they will see that markets are fundamentally cooperative rather than competitive, which dispels the fear of markets as bad or immoral in promoting a destructive competition in society, a fear that arises from evolved instincts that distort the reality of markets in the modern world

Boyer and Petersen extend and deepen Rubin's reasoning by laying out an evolutionary cognitive model that specifies how cognitive systems that evolved in ancestral hunter-gatherer bands now shape the fear of markets in folk economics.  They present eight examples of folk-economic beliefs.
1. International trade is zero-sum, has negative effects.
2. Immigrants steal jobs.
3. Immigrants abuse the welfare system.
4. Necessary social welfare programs are abused by scroungers.
5. Markets have negative social impact ("emporiophobia").
6. The profit motive is detrimental to general welfare.
7. Labor is the source of value.
8. Price-regulation has the intended effects.
Each of these beliefs can be explained as connected to an evolved cognitive bias.  For example, the belief that international trade must be zero-sum can be seen as arising from the evolved cognitive propensity for forming coalitions in competition with other coalitions.  The evolved human mind is inclined to identify nations as competing coalitions, and therefore we are inclined to believe that when foreign nations benefit from trading with us, our nation is harmed, because if the other nations are winning, we are losing.  (Doesn't this remind us of Donald Trump's rhetoric against free trade?)

But even if this explains the folk-economic beliefs of ordinary people that show fear of markets, it does not explain the economic behavior of these people that shows endorsement of markets.  Most of those Americans who condemn international free trade as unfair to America are happy to shop at WalMart and buy imported Chinese goods if they think they are the best products for the price.

Rubin recognizes this when he quotes Frederic Bastiat as saying "each man is in practice an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more advantageous to do the one or the other" (Rubin 2003, 167).  So while Rubin complains that the economic beliefs of ordinary people show ignorance of economics, he sees that in practice people show themselves to be excellent economists!

The quotation from Bastiat comes from his discussion of theory and practice in the debate between the proponents of free trade and the proponents of protectionism.  The theorists of free trade say: "It is better to buy from another what it would be more costly to make oneself."  The theorists of protectionism say: "It is better to make things oneself, even if it would be less expensive to buy them from another."  Bastiat points out that only the first assertion enjoys the support of universal practice.  That's why the theorists of protectionism want to use coercion to compel people to produce what they would find more advantageous to purchase. 

While the theory of protectionism is contrary to practice, Bastiat observes, the theory of free trade is "so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else than practice explained."  So what he means in saying that "each man is in practice an excellent economist" is that "everyone gains a knowledge of this science through experience; or rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically interpreted" (Bastiat 1968, 84). 

Human beings show in their behavior a practical understanding of why markets are good, because of the gains from trade, which does not require any formal training in economic theory.  And this practical understanding of markets shows how the institutions of capitalism can elicit the evolved propensities of the human mind for cooperation through trading or exchange.  This is why, against Hayek, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have argued that evolved 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.  Or, as Tooby has put it, "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 "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."

This suggests that there are evolved cognitive systems that promote market behavior, and so Adam Smith was right about there being a natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.

Boyer and Petersen recognize that folk economic beliefs "do not govern people's economic behavior," because people "who say that markets are 'bad' may still behave as roughly rational agents in markets, and they may even detect the advantages of competition in their everyday economic behavior" (5, 32-33).  Boyer and Petersen recognize that people have folk-economic beliefs that are "incompatible with their own behavior in markets," and they cannot explain this: "the actual connections between micro-processes of economic decision-making on the one hand, and folk-economic beliefs on the other, remain unexplored" (39, 41).

Boyer and Petersen do not consider the possibility that even though people untrained in economics often do not have a good intellectual understanding of markets, they do have a good practical understanding of why markets are good, as manifest in their economic behavior, and this shows how the cognitive system for social exchange that evolved among our ancestral hunter-gatherers can be elicited in modern capitalist environments to sustain extended market behavior.

That this is the case is indicated by the remarkable triumph of capitalism over socialism in the past 150 years.  After V. I. Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in 1917, he set out the next year to leap directly into pure socialism by abolishing all buying and selling in markets and having all economic activity controlled by governmental planning, which was called "war communism" (Richman 1981).  This produced an economic disaster.  If Russia did not totally collapse, it was only because the natural human impulse towards markets could not be completely suppressed, and so most of the economic activity went underground into illegal black markets.  By 1921, in response to popular uprisings that threatened to overthrow the regime, Lenin publicly admitted the failure of war communism, and he announced the "New Economic Policy," which legalized buying and selling in markets. 

Never again have socialists tried to totally abolish markets.  They have tried to severely restrict markets, but even that has been subverted by people going into illegal markets.  In some countries today, most of the economic activity is in underground markets that evade governmental controls and taxation.

Even those European countries that are regarded as most successful in their socialism--such as the Nordic social democracies--are not really socialist but rather welfare state capitalist systems.  As I have argued in some posts (here and here), these countries rank high on the Human Freedom Index, which includes economic freedom for markets.

It is hard to explain this if one assumes that human beings have evolved instincts to fear markets and love socialism, because "our ancestors were communists."  It is easier to explain if one assumes that human beings have evolved instincts for liberty and a propensity to truck, barter, and exchange, because our ancestors were "the original libertarians."


Bastiat, Frederic. 1968. Economic Sophisms. Trans. Arthur Goddard. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education.

Boyer, Pascal, and Michael Bang Petersen. 2017. "Folk-Economic Beliefs: An Evolutionary Cognitive Model." Behavioral and Brain Sciences (forthcoming).  Available online.

Lee, Richard B. 1991. "Reflections on Primitive Communism." In Hunters and Gatherers: History, Evolution, and Social Change, eds. Tim Ingold, David Riches, and James Woodburn, pp. 252-68. New York: Berg.

Mayor, Thomas. 2012. "Hunter-Gatherers, The Original Libertarians." The Independent Review 16 (Spring): 485-500.  Available online.

Richman, Sheldon. 1981. "War Communism to NEP: The Road from Serfdom." The Journal of Libertarian Studies 5 (Winter): 89-97.  Available online.

Rubin, Paul H. 2003. "Folk Economics." Southern Economic Journal 70: 157-71.

Rubin, Paul H. 2014. "Emporiophobia (Fear of Markets): Cooperation or Competition?" Southern Economic Journal 80: 875-89.


After reading this post, Pascal Boyer sent me the following comment:

I just read your blog post and must say I agree with most or all of it.
But of course (when were academics happy with what other people say about their work?), I must say I am worried that you write:

Boyer and Petersen do not consider the possibility that even though people untrained in economics often do not have a good intellectual understanding of markets, they do have a good practical understanding of why markets are good, as manifest in their economic behavior, and this shows how the cognitive system for social exchange that evolved among our ancestral hunter-gatherers can be elicited in modern capitalist environments to sustain extended market behavior.

We not only consider that possibility, we make it explicit, and even reiterate it at several points in the paper, e.g.:

In this regard, it is important to note, again, that emporiophobia is a matter of stated, explicit beliefs, which may or may not reflect the intuitive principles that actually guide people’s economic behavior. People who say that markets are “bad”, may still behave as roughly rational agents in markets, and they may even detect the advantages of competition in their everyday economic behavior. But, if asked whether a given domain of activity should be left to a market of competitors, or when asked the extent to which markets should be regulated, they readily express the view that market outcomes are socially detrimental. 
But, OK, the point was buried in the text and should have been made much salient. It is in fact a really fascinating problem: most people will routinely accept that having two butchers in their town is better than having one, and yet, will opine that ‘markets’ should not ‘dictate’ economic activity. Understanding how this inconsistency can be sustained is difficult but necessary. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sapolsky (6): Determinism, Free Will, and Natural Freedom in the Legal System

In 1987, Robert Sapolsky was the recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants."  Some years later, he received a letter from the Foundation asking him to submit some Big Ideas for a funding initiative.  The letter said something like "Send us a provocative idea, something you'd never propose to another foundation because they'd label you crazy." 

So he sent them a proposal titled "Should the Criminal Justice System Be Abolished?"  He argued that the answer was clearly yes, because neuroscience had proven that all human conduct is biologically determined, and therefore there is no free will, which means that the criminal justice system is wrong in holding people morally responsible for their behavior.  When the Foundation accepted this proposal and organized a conference on this, Sapolsky and other neuroscientists began debating lawyers, law professors, and judges, who tried to defend the standards of legal responsibility against Sapolsky's claim that those standards are unscientific in so far as they assume free will.  As a result of this conference, the Foundation has funded a general program for "neurolaw"--applying neuroscience to the study of law--and one of the primary issues has continued to be this debate over whether neuroscience justifies abolishing a legal system that assumes the reality of free will.

Ah yes, many of my critics would say, don't you see here, Arnhart, that this is the disastrous consequence of your biological science of human nature--biological determinism denies the concept of free will that supports our legal and moral judgments of human responsibility?  The only way to avoid this, they insist, is to recognize that human beings have a spiritual capacity for free will that transcends their biological nature and for which there is no natural biological explanation.

In response to this criticism, I have argued that biological explanations of human nature in general and of the human brain in particular are fully compatible with traditional conceptions of moral and legal responsibility (see my posts here, here, here, here, here, and here). 

To see this compatibility, we must reject the idea of "free will" as uncaused cause. Whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from eternity--God--could be uncaused or self-determined. The commonsense notion of liberty is power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice. Human freedom of choice is not freedom from nature but a natural freedom to deliberate about our natural desires so that we can organize and manage our desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. This is how Aristotle understood "deliberate choice" (proairesis)

Similarly, Darwin believed that "every action whatever is the effect of a motive," and therefore he doubted the existence of "free will." Our motives arise from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, and external conditions. Still, although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, Darwin believed, we are morally responsible for our actions because of our uniquely human capacity for reflecting on our motives and circumstances and acting in the light of those reflections. "A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals."

If we understand moral responsibility in this way, and see this as the conception of responsibility assumed in the law, then neuroscientific research on the natural causality of the brain is no threat to moral and legal responsibility. Stephen Morse--a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who specializes in psychology and law--has laid out the case for this conclusion based on a "compatibilist" view of moral choice.

As Morse indicates, the "hard determinists" and the "metaphysical libertarians" agree that "free will" would require a "contra-causal freedom." But while the determinists deny there is such a thing. The libertarians affirm its existence as an uncaused cause beyond natural causality. If we had to choose between these two positions, neuroscience would favor the determinists.

But Morse rightly argues that the law's conception of responsibility does not require a "contra-causal freedom." It requires only that human beings have sufficient practical rationality to understand their choices and to act on their deliberate decisions. When rationality is so diminished that someone cannot understand or act on his choices--a child or someone who is insane, for example--then we excuse their behavior and do not hold them fully responsible for their actions. But this conception of moral and legal responsibility as based on the capacity for practical deliberation or rationality does not require any transcendence of natural causality.

Sapolsky has debated Morse, and in Behave, he explains why he thinks Morse fails in his account of "mitigated free will" as compatible with the science of human behavioral biology.  I am now wondering whether the compatibilism that Morse and I share can be defended against Sapolsky's critique.

Sapolsky observes that there are three ways of viewing the influence of human biology on human behavior.  (1) We have complete free will in our behavior, because our behavior is always freely chosen, and it is never biologically caused.  (2) We have no free will, because our behavior is never freely chosen, and it is always biologically caused.  (3) Our behavior is somewhere in between these two extremes.

Almost no one takes the first position, because almost all of us recognize that sometimes people are compelled by biological causes to behave in ways that we have not freely chosen.  So, for example, in 1842, Daniel M'Naghten tried to assassinate British prime minister Robert Peel, and instead he killed Peel's private secretary, Edward Drummond.  He had been convinced that the Tories were persecuting him and even trying to murder him.  For years, he had heard voices telling him that Peel was spying on him.  He felt compelled to kill Peel.  At the trial, a doctor testified that he was insane.  Today, we would say he suffered from some form of paranoid psychosis.  He was declared innocent by reason of insanity, and for the rest of his life he was in insane asylums.  His case became the basis of the "M'Naghten rule" that someone can be innocent by reason of insanity if, at the time of the crime, the person is so "laboring under such a defect of reason from disease of the mind," that he cannot distinguish right from wrong.

In Anglo-American law, this shows the limits of free will when a diseased mind creates a compulsion that drives someone to commit a crime for which they are not fully responsible.

But as our scientific knowledge of the natural causes of behavior grows, Sapolsky observes, we can see that not just brain diseases like this but all human behaviors have natural biological causes.  And if all of our behavior is naturally caused, then we don't have free will, because we cannot act outside of the naturally causal world known to natural science.  So Sapolsky takes the second position--that there is no free will at all.

But Sapolsky admits that most human beings--or at least most of those who have thought deeply about this problem of free will--take the third position--that there is some middle ground between complete free will and no free will.  This is the position that the determinism of natural causes can be compatible with a limited free will. 

Those like Morse (and me) who defend compatibilism claim that human beings can have a natural freedom of choice that is not a free will understood as uncaused cause, and therefore this natural freedom is compatible with the determinism of natural cause.  Sapolsky denies this is possible, because he believes that any notion of human freedom must tacitly assume some kind of spiritual or immaterial power acting as uncaused cause.

Morse distinguishes between causation and compulsion.  The fact that all of our behavior is caused does not mean that all of it is compelled.  When we freely choose to think or act, what we do has been caused by our beliefs and desires, but this causation is not compulsion, and so we can be held legally or morally responsible for this.

Sapolsky responds: "But try as I might, I cannot see any way of making this distinction that does not tacitly require a homunculus that is outside the causal universe, a homunculus that can be overwhelmed by 'compulsion' but that can and should handle 'causation'" (600).

Although the compatibilists deny that they are metaphysical dualists, in fact, they really are, at least implicitly:
"There's the brain--neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis.  Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone's prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritative or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast.  It's the whole shebang, all of this book."
"And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel.  The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother's admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption.  In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck."
"And the homunculus sits there controlling behavior.  There are some things outside its purview--seizures blow the homunculus's fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files.  Same with alcohol, Alzheimer's disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycemic shock."
"There are domains where the homunculus and that brain biology stuff have worked out a d├ętente--for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot."
"But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions.  Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do.  A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science" (588).
In reply to this reductio ad absurdum argument, Morse and I will say that this is a straw man--or straw homunculus--argument, because we are not claiming that freedom of choice acts outside the causal laws of nature. But Sapolsky's claim is that despite what we say, we must implicitly or tacitly invoke such a homunculus acting outside the natural world.

Now, it should be noted that in defending a biological determinism that denies free will, Sapolsky is not a reductionist; nor is he claiming that biological science can predict behavior.  His biology of human behavior is a non-reductive multifactorial biology that sees behavior arising from a great multitude of factors interacting with one another, so that no single factor or set of factors acts as the single cause of the behavior.  So, for instance, genes influence behavior, but they do not by themselves determine behavior, because genes by themselves do nothing, and their influence depends on the various contexts in which they work.

Moreover, since this multifactorial biology is so complex, and since our scientific knowledge of how it works is so limited, we cannot now--and perhaps cannot ever--predict any behavior exactly.  We can only talk about what tends to happen on average in certain circumstancesThe variability of individuals and the variability of the contexts in which they act make precise prediction impossible.  We can say that people with paranoid psychosis will have some tendency to act as M'Naghten did, but he cannot say that every person with such a disease will do so.

So, if we were persuaded by Sapolsky that there is no free will or freedom of choice to support the standards of legal responsibility assumed by the criminal justice system today, then how would we have to reform the system to conform to this science of non-reductive multifactorial biological determinism?

Sapolsky says we should draw three conclusions--one is easy to see, one is hard to implement, and the third is almost impossible to achieve.

First, it should be easy to see that a legal system that denies free will would not have to allow dangerous people to roam freely in society and create havoc.  Of course, we need to protect ourselves from dangerous people, even though those dangerous people are acting under the disordered compulsions of their brains.  Here Sapolsky's neuroscience would not make any difference for the criminal justice system: we would continue to separate criminals from the rest of society for the protection of society.

But, then, the second conclusion is a little harder to adopt:  if we deny free will, then we can punish dangerous people by removing them from society, but we cannot see this punishment as justly deserved, as virtuous retribution for their immoral behavior.  It should not feel good to punish.  We cannot rightly feel that those we punish have earned their punishment.

The third conclusion, Sapolsky admits, is perhaps impossible to put into practice.  If we deny free will, then we cannot blame people for their bad behavior.  But it also follows that we cannot praise them for their good behavior, nor can we feel proud of ourselves for our good behavior.  For, if there is no free will, then no one deserves to be either praised or blamed.

It will be almost impossible for human beings to accept this.  So Sapolsky concedes:
"I can't really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will.  It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology.  Perhaps we'll have to settle for making sure our homuncular myths are benign, and save the heavy lifting of truly thinking rationally for where it matters--when we judge others harshly" (613).
"Our homuncular myths are benign," it seems, when we praise others for their accomplishments, but not when we judge others harshly.

It is not clear to me that Sapolsky can consistently deny human freedom of choice.  After all, his whole book Behave is an effort to persuade people to freely change the way they think and act--to see how the science of human behavioral biology can help them choose to create a world that is less violent, more peaceful, less vicious, and more virtuous than it is now.  He must conclude "that there is hope, that things can change, that we can be changed, that we personally can cause change" (648).

"That we can personally cause change"?  Well, yes, if we believe that we have the natural freedom to cause change.  But not if we believe that we have no such freedom.

Presumably, Sapolsky has written his book to try to persuade his readers with his arguments, and if he succeeds, this will change the neural circuitry in their frontal cortex and other parts of their brains in ways that can then exert some causal influence towards changing their behavior.  He is not trying to persuade a homunculus who can act as an uncaused cause.  Rather, he is trying to persuade those brain mechanisms that have the natural causal power to change behavior.  That is not free will.  That is the natural human freedom of choice.