Monday, August 22, 2016

The Philosophic Life in Smith's Commercial Society: Strauss, Cropsey, and McCloskey

Although Joseph Cropsey and Deirdre McCloskey contradict one another in their interpretations of Adam Smith, they apparently agree that there is no place for the intellectual virtues of philosophy in Smith's commercial society.  Cropsey argues that for Smith commerce is a substitute for virtue, and in particular Smith says "literally nothing on the subject of intellectual virtue" (Polity and Economy, 50), which shows how Smith turns away from Aristotelian virtue to Hobbesian hedonism.  On the contrary, McCloskey argues that Smith rejected Hobbesian hedonism and affirmed Aristotelian virtue ethics.  And yet McCloskey is silent about whether Smith's virtues include the intellectual virtues of philosophy.

The issue here is more than just a scholarly disagreement over the interpretation of Smith.  It's the question of whether there is any place for the philosophic life in a modern commercial bourgeois society.  As a student and colleague of Leo Strauss, Cropsey embraced Strauss's claim that while the Ancients (particularly Plato and Aristotle) saw the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life for those few human beings capable of it, the Moderns (including Smith) promote the low hedonism of a liberal society devoted to comfortable self-preservation that does not allow for the human excellence of the philosophic life.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Cropsey completely ignores Smith's argument that the contemplative life of the philosophic few flourishes only in commercial societies (see, for example, The Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund, 782-84).  McCloskey does not include the intellectual virtues of philosophy in her list of virtues, although she does speak about the arts and sciences as belonging to the virtues of transcendence that can be expressed in a bourgeois society.  Neither Cropsey nor McCloskey give any attention to Smith's emphasis on the importance of philosophic friendship in a commercial society.

Cropsey's interpretation of Smith seems hardly plausible if one notices that Smith defends the "wise and virtuous man" as the standard of moral and intellectual perfection as manifested in the life of philosophic friends (TMS, VI.i.14, 216; VI.ii.I.18, 224-25; VI.iii.23-25, 247-48).  He observes that the division of labor in a commercial society allows for the intellectual commerce of philosophers "whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything" (WN, I.i.9, 21). Smith presents the life of David Hume as showing how a commercial society provides the conditions for the philosophic life--a life that in Hume's case approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (Letter to Strahan, Nov. 9, 1776, CAS, 221).

This language echoes the end of Plato's Phaedo. Describing the death of Socrates, Phaedo observes: "Such was the end of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whome we have known, the best and wisest and most just man" (118a).  Thus, Smith is suggesting that Hume showed how a Socratic life of philosophic inquiry is possible in a modern commercial society, just as Socrates lived his philosophic life in the commercial society of Athens.  (I have elaborated these points in a previous post.)

Smith follows Aristotle in looking to philosophical friendship as the peak of human happiness that embraces all of the moral and intellectual virtues.  The life of a Platonic or Aristotelian philosopher "necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues.  It is the best head joined to the best heart. It is the most perfect wisdom combined with the most perfect virtue" (TMS, VI.i.15, 216).  The friendship of such philosophers is the highest form of friendship that is possible only among people of the highest virtue (TMS, VI.ii.I.18, 224-25).

McCloskey's account of Smith's virtue ethics is silent, however, about philosophic virtue.  Although she puts Smith in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, she says nothing about the Aristotelian and Thomistic argument that the contemplative life of intellectual virtue is higher than the practical life of moral virtue.  As far as I have noticed, McCloskey mentions the intellectual virtues only once in her trilogy of books on the Bourgeois Era, and this comes only through her quoting from Thomas Aquinas: "The intellectual and moral virtues perfect the human intellect and appetite in proportion to human nature, but the theological virtues do so supernaturally" (quoted at The Bourgeois Virtues, 151).  She does not refer to Aquinas's argument in agreement with Aristotle that the intellectual virtues of the contemplative life are more excellent than the moral virtues of the active life (see Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 182. a. 1).

McCloskey does seem to suggest an opening for the philosophic life in a commercial society insofar as a liberal bourgeois regime allows a free marketplace of ideas as part of the "open society" (BE, 562-63).  Strauss and the Straussians would seem to say that this is impossible, because any stable society must be a "closed society" based on common opinions that are protected from philosophic questioning.  That's why philosophers must write esoterically to protect society from philosophy and to protect philosophers from social attack. 

And yet, as I have indicated in earlier posts here, here, here, here, and here, Straussians like Arthur Melzer suggest that since 1800 esoteric writing has been rendered largely unnecessary in modern liberal societies, where pluralist toleration allows for a freedom of discussion.  If so, then it would seem that the Straussians have to agree with McCloskey that the Bourgeois Era has successfully brought an open society in which the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life can flourish without persecution, which vindicates the truth of modern liberal enlightenment.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Does Donald Trump Have Any Bourgeois Virtues?

Donald Trump is a reminder that the most dangerous enemies of capitalism are capitalists like himself.

I am surprised, therefore, that Deirdre McCloskey defends Trump.  On at least two occasions, she raises the question of whether Donald Trump has any bourgeois virtues--in her 1994 essay "Bourgeois Virtue" in the American Scholar and in her most recent book Bourgeois Equality (2016).

Here's what she says in her essay:
"Donald Trump offends.  But for all the envy he has provoked, he is not a thief.  He didn't get his millions from aristocratic cattle raids, acclaimed in bardic glory.  He made, as he put in his first book, deals.  The deals were voluntary.  He didn't use a .38 or a broadsword to get people to agree.  he bought the Commodore Hotel low and sold it high because Penn Central, Hyatt Hotels, and the New York City Board of Estimate--and behind them the voters and hotel guests--put the old place at a low value and the new place, trumped up, at a high value.  Trump earned a suitably fat profit for seeing that a hotel in a low-value use could be moved into a high-value use.  An omniscient central planner would have ordered the same move.  Market capitalism should be defended as the most altruistic of systems, each capitalist working, working, working to help a customer, for pay.  Trump does good by doing well" (182).
Here's her revised version of this paragraph in her new book:
"The property developer, TV personality, and Republican politician Donald Trump, to take an extreme example, offends.  But for all the criticism he has provoked, and for all his unusual opinions about Barack Obama's nationality and Mexican immigrants and numerous other matters, he is not a thief.  He did not get his millions from aristocratic cattle raids, acclaimed in bardic glory.  he artfully made, as he put it in his first book, deals, all of them voluntary. (In a New Yorker cartoon a father explains, 'Yes, I do make things, son. I make things called deals.') Trump did not use a .38 or a broadsword to get people to agree.  In his account he bought the Commodore Hotel low and sold it high because Penn Central, Hyatt Hotels, and the New York City Board of Estimate--and behind them the voters and hotel guests and politicians--put the old place at a low value and later found the new place, trumped up, to have a high value. Trump earned a suitably fat profit for seeing that a hotel in a low-value use could be moved into a high-value use. An omniscient and benevolent central planner would have ordered the identical move. Even a Trump, in other words, does good by doing well.  Look at the manificent addition in 2008 to the Chicago skyline along the main branch of the Chicago River (spoiled in 2014 by the addition of enormous letters on the building reading TRUMP). That building, too, earned him a pretty penny, pennies showing what to do next in the way of trade-tested betterment" (230).
Trump is not a thief?  He has repeatedly gone deep into debt, refused to pay his bills, while taking as much as he could for himself, and then filed bankruptcy.  Isn't that legalized theft?  He has also defrauded this customers through deceptive business enterprises like Trump University, and then has protected himself from lawsuits by prolonged litigation.  McCloskey says that the bourgeois word "honest" means mainly "committed to telling the truth," "paying one's debts," and "upright dealing" (BE, 236).  By that standard, why isn't Trump a dishonest businessman?

Trump is also famous for using his influence with politicians to take people's property from them by force through "eminent domain."  For more than 30 years, Vera Coking lived in a three-story house off the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Trump built his 22-story Trump Plaza next door. Wanting to build a limousine parking lot for the hotel, he bought some nearby properties. But Coking and some other owners refused to sell.

Trump turned to a government agency--the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA)--to take the property he wanted.  Again, the owners refused to accept their offers, and CRDA went to court to claim the property under eminent domain so that Trump could have his parking lot.  The property owners were forced to go through the courts for several years. But they were fortunate enough to have the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that fights in the courts to protect private property rights from governmental attacks.  They won their case.

Trump has consistently defended his use of eminent domain.  He has said: "Cities have the right to condemn for the good of the city.  Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good."  But then he just wanted to build a parking lot.

In 2005, the Institute for Justice lost another eminent domain case--Kelo v. New London, CT.  The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that New London could take the property of Susette Kelo and her neighbors so that the property could be given to the Pfizer company.  Sandra Day O'Connor dissented: "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random.  The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. . . . The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

Libertarians and classical liberals were disgusted by this decision.  But Trump thought it was great.  He told Fox News: "I happen to agree with it 100%.  If you have a person living in an area that's not even necessarily a good area, and . . . government wants to build a tremendous economic development, where a lot of people are going to be put to work and . . . create thousands upon thousands of jobs and beautification and lots of other things. I think it happens to be good."

Contrary to what the city of New London had promised, the land taken from Kelo and her neighbors was bulldozed and then never developed.  It remains now a vacant lot.

When Trump is asked about his political contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, he says: "I give to everybody. They do whatever I want." Yes, that's it.  He's a great crony capitalist who knows how to use governmental coercion to advance his own interests at the expense of others who don't have such influence. 

Trump's casinos owed the state of New Jersey over $30 million dollars in taxes.  But once his friend Chris Christie became governor, New Jersey settled for less than $5 million.  Adam Smith warned about this, which is why he was so cynical about businesspeople.

Smith also warned about businesspeople who would use mercantilist policies to protect their business interests from the competition coming from free trade.  Trump is now proposing that the United States return to the mercantilism condemned by Smith, because Trump is confident that he can use this for his own interests.

It's hard to see any bourgeois virtues in this, or how Trump "does good by doing well."

To her credit, McCloskey does see the problem here: "The bourgeoisie is far from ethically blameless. The newly  tolerated bourgeoisie has regularly, I say once again, tried to set itself up as anew aristocracy to be protected by the state, as Adam Smith and Karl Marx predicted it would" (BE, 641).  This should make us wonder whether Smith's "system of natural liberty" is too utopian, because it contradicts the natural selfishness of merchants and manufacturers, who will always use their political influence to promote policies that restrict competition (see Wealth of Nations, 157-58, 266-67, 471, 584, 647-48).

Compare Trump and the Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson.  Johnson ran a successful construction company in New Mexico.  He was respected for his honesty.  He sold the company once it was worth enough to provide him and his family with a comfortable living.  He has said this made him a free man, so that he could devote his life to activities he loved that did not require money-making.  As a libertarian, Johnson scorns crony capitalism and mercantilism.

Johnson shows the bourgeois virtues that Trump lacks.

Bourgeois Virtues?

Deirdre McCloskey tells the story of preparing for a lecture at Princeton University.  An office secretary at Princeton called her to get the title for the lecture.  McCloskey said: "The Bourgeois Virtues."  After a long pause on the telephone, the secretary laughed.  Then she asked: "Isn't that an oxymoron?"

McCloskey has now completed a trilogy of big books to answer that question.  No, it's not an oxymoron, she explains.  On the contrary, the idea that the bourgeois life--the commercial life of buying and selling--can be a virtuous life is the idea that caused the world in which most of us live today: the richest, healthiest, freest, and most populous world that human beings have ever experienced in their 200,000 years of evolutionary history. 

Making deals--buying low and selling high--has always been part of human life.  Even our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged in long-distance trading networks.  So there have always been bourgeois people living a life devoted to trading.  But such a life was generally scorned as morally corrupting.  Not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (first in the Dutch Republic and then in Great Britain), McCloskey claims, did a few philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith argue that such a bourgeois life could be admirable, even virtuous.  And it was the spread of that idea that brought the Bourgeois Era in which we now live.

So what are the bourgeois virtues?  McCloskey's answer is not clear.

Sometimes she says that the bourgeois virtues embrace all of the traditional seven virtues: four profane pagan virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) and three sacred Christian virtues (faith, hope, and charity).  But she also says that the bourgeois virtues are "commercial versions" of the seven virtues or "merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society" (BE, xxi; BV, 508).  She distinguishes the "bourgeois/mercantile" virtues from the "aristocratic/patrician" and "peasant/plebeian" virtues (BE, 229).  But she says the differences are "mere verbal shading" (BV, 350).  They differ as Achilles (aristocratic/patrician) differs from St. Francis (peasant/plebeian) and Benjamin Franklin (bourgeois/mercantile).  In speaking of "a rhetorical change from aristocratic-religious values to bourgeois values" (BE, 410), McCloskey does seem to say that bourgeois virtues are separated from aristocratic and Christian virtues.  But when she says "the seven principal virtues of pagan and Christian Europe were recycled as bourgeois" (BE, 410), she seems to say that the bourgeois virtues really do include the aristocratic and Christian virtues.

The virtues of Benjamin Franklin seem very different from those of Achilles and St. Francis.  McCloskey admits that Franklin's "theorizing" about virtue includes only the virtue of prudence, and excludes all of the other virtues (BE, 214-15).  But when it is not balanced by the other virtues, the virtue of prudence becomes the vice of greed (BE, 644).  Nevertheless, McCloskey insists, Franklin's behavior as distinguishing from his theory shows more than just greed.  This is a strange argument for McCloskey, however, since she stresses the revaluation of bourgeois life as a rhetorical activity.

Adam Smith seems to be a better model than Franklin for McCloskey, because Smith was a rhetorical theorist of bourgeois ethics, she claims.  But even so, it's not clear that Smith fully supports McCloskey's argument.  Rather than embracing all seven of the traditional virtues as bourgeois virtues, McCloskey admits, Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments includes only four and a half virtues--prudence, temperance, courage, justice, and benevolence (a part of the Christian virtue of love) (BE, 191).  And thus, Smith "sidesteps" the Christian virtues.  She thinks Smith was mistaken to sidestep Christian virtues for fear of endorsing intolerant religious fanaticism (BE, 196-98).  A bourgeois life can be, and should be, open to the transcendent.  But, then, McCloskey often scorns those like Mother Theresa, who were excessively devoted to the transcendent to the point of thinking that "all that mattered, after all, was the soul's path to eternal life" (BE, 537-38).

Early in Bourgeois Equality, McCloskey devotes four chapters to Adam Smith, arguing that Smith "exhibits bourgeois theory at its ethical best" (172-209).  Only much later in the book, does she mention (in only one paragraph) that The Theory of Moral Sentiment has a long chapter (I.3.3) in which Smith rails against admiring the rich.  She does not mention that Smith identifies this admiration of the rich as the "corruption of our moral sentiments."  In her one-paragraph comment on this chapter, McCloskey observes: "That the Waltons are rich does not make them admirable people, despite the undoubted commercial savvy of Sam and his brother Jim" (BE, 564).  Doesn't this contradict McCloskey's claim that the rhetoric of the bourgeois virtues promotes "the admiration for and acceptance of trade-tested betterment" (BE, 278)?  If the success of Walmart shows "trade-tested betterment," then why doesn't this show the Waltons to be "admirable people"?  Must we say that the economic success of bourgeois businesspeople like the Waltons does not by itself show their moral success?

In his Wealth of Nations, Smith never identifies businesspeople as virtuous.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith refers to "virtue" or the "virtues" hundreds of times.  But while the Wealth of Nations is more than twice as long as The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Wealth of Nations refers only once to "virtues," and it's a lament that the "laboring poor" in a commercial society suffer a decline "in intellectual, social, and martial virtues" (WN, Liberty Fund, 782).

McCloskey says that the "main point" of her three books on the bourgeois virtues is "that markets are embedded"--that is to say, that economic life is embedded in moral life (BE, 554).  So should we say that the free markets of Smith's Wealth of Nations are embedded in the moral communities of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, although he does not explicitly say that?

If so, then it would seem that McCloskey is saying that the commercial activity of a bourgeois life is neither inherently vicious nor inherently virtuous.  Rather, commercial activity can be judged as vicious or virtuous only insofar as it is embedded in "non-commercial realms" (BE, 559).  In a liberal bourgeois regime, we all live in at least four different realms of life (BE, 554).  We live in a marketplace governed by market prices and mutually beneficial exchanges.  We live in a family, which is a natural association where children are raised, and where we take care of one another in the household.  We live in a political community where the government exercises a monopoly of the legitimate use of violent coercion.  And we live in a civil society of voluntary associations, including neighborhoods, schools, clubs, ethnic groups, mutual aid societies, and friendships.  Different virtues are appropriate for different realms: "Prudence is indeed . . . the central virtue of the agora, as courage is of the polis, and love is of the oikos" (BE, 558).

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Deirdre McCloskey and the Evolutionary Science of Liberalism

The most momentous event in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens over the past 200,000 years was the emergence of the Bourgeois Era through the Industrial Revolution (beginning around 1800) followed by the Great Enrichment (beginning around 1860).  The only other equally momentous event was the emergence of the Agrarian Era, when human beings moved from foraging (hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants) to farming (herding domesticated animals and cultivating domesticated plants), which began about 10,000 years ago.

We all recognize the importance of the Industrial Revolution, but few of us recognize that economic historians have uncovered other industrial revolutions at other times and places in history.  Those other industrial revolutions did not bring a Great Enrichment--the explosive growth in wealth sustaining an explosive growth in population over the past two centuries, beginning in northwestern Europe and then spreading around the world.  One of the deepest questions for all of the intellectual disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--is how to explain why this has happened.  Or, in other words, why is our world in the Bourgeois Era so very different from the world of all of our ancestors?

Bourgeois Equality (2016) is the third big book in a trilogy of big books that Deirdre McCloskey has written to answer this question.  The previous two are The Bourgeois Virtues (2006) and Bourgeois Dignity (2010).  All three books elaborate arguments that were first set forth in 1994 in an article--"Bourgeois Virtue"--in the American Scholar, written by Donald McCloskey before he became Deirdre.  Every main idea, and sometimes even the exact wording, in the books comes from the article.

The plan for this intellectual project came to McCloskey while she was on an airplane and reading John Casey's book Pagan Virtue (1990)As suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche, Casey contrasts the pagan aristocratic virtues of Achilles, for whom courage is the primary virtue, and the plebeian Christian virtues of Saint Paul, for whom charity is the primary virtue.  Today, McCloskey thought, most of us are bourgeois, and we are neither pagan aristocrats nor Christian plebeians.  We are neither heroes nor saints.  What are our bourgeois virtues?  Or must we admit, as Gustav Flaubert and other bohemian critics of the bourgeois have declared, that the only way for the bourgeois to become good is to stop being bourgeois?  Bourgeois liberalism has allowed more human beings to enjoy individual liberty, equal dignity, and economic prosperity than ever before in the history of the world.  Prior to 1800, most people everywhere lived in grinding poverty.  Now, few people live in such poverty.  Surely, there must be something good in that, something virtuous.

The greatness of the Great Enrichment is evident in the economic data.  McCloskey summarizes some of the data from economic historians (like Angus Maddison) and from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Penn Tables (put together by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania) (Bourgeois Equality, 5-13).  Expressed in present-day U.S. prices, corrected for exchange rates and inflation, the average human being prior to 1800 lived on $3 a day, which is the average today for Haitians and Afghans.  Today, the world average, which includes the poorest people like the Haitians and Afghans, is $33 a day, which is about the level of present-day Brazil or of the United States in 1941.  So average per person income has increased over the past two centuries by a favor of 10.  And since the world population has increased over that same period from under one billion to over seven billion, we can say that the production and consumption of goods and services has increased worldwide by a factor of 70 (7 X 10).  In the wealthier countries today, the average real income per person per day is well over $100, which means an income growth from 1800 to the present of 2,900%.

Prior to 1800, periods of increasing economic growth could double or triple average daily income--from $3 a day to $6 or $9 a day--but inevitably these periods of growth were followed by a decline back to subsistence levels.  So, prior to 1800, real income per person could increase by 100% or 200% in times of great economic growth, but never by 2,900%, as has happened in the past two centuries.

McCloskey contends that the greatest transformation in human history was not the 450 years of sustained economic growth in England, 1348-1750, at a growth rate of one-tenth or two-tenths of 1 percent per year.  And it was not the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, 1760-1860, with growth over a hundred years of a factor of 2.  The great transformation was the Great Enrichment, with growth of 5.87% per year and a factor of 100 over two centuries (BE, 532).  There had been major growth phases in earlier history elsewhere in the world--early Song China and early Tokugawa Japan, for example--but these were periods in which growth rose by factors of 2 or 3, not factors of 10 or 30 or 100 (BE, 534-35).

Moreover, other measures of improving human conditions of life show the same Great Enrichment.  Average life expectancies have doubled since 1800, for example, and literacy has increased from less than 10% in 1850 to almost 90% today.  The increase in literacy indicates not just material enrichment, but also intellectual and spiritual enrichment.

Social scientists have offered many different kinds of explanations for this unprecedented turn in human history, beginning first in northwestern Europe and North America, and then spreading around the world.  One explanation popular with many economists (such as Douglass North, Daron Acemoglu, and James Robinson) emphasizes the importance of economic, legal, and political institutions that favor economic growth--particularly, property rights, the rule of law, and free trade, which provided the incentives for economic exchange and innovation.

But while such institutional rules are necessary conditions for economic growth, McCloskey argues, they are hardly sufficient to explain the historically unique explosion in economic development that began after 1800.  Good institutions are necessary, but only quick changes in good ideas can explain the quick move to the Great Enrichment.  Ideas matter, McCloskey insists, particularly ethical ideas about the  bourgeois life.  What changed in the eighteenth century in Great Britain (preceded by the same change in the seventeenth century in the Dutch Republic) was that for the first time in human history the bourgeois life of trade-tested betterment--buying low and selling high--was judged not as morally corrupting, as it had been throughout history, but as morally virtuous and thus honorable.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have expressed the bourgeois "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange," which has fostered economic growth.  But it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe that philosophers like Adam Smith defended this as a virtuous activity that should be admired as protected by a system of natural liberty that would recognize the equal liberty and dignity of ordinary people in living their lives as they please.  This change in the ethical rhetoric of ideas brought the Great Enrichment of the nineteenth century.  This change was the move to liberalism, to Smith's liberal idea for "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund, 664, 687).

The institutions of property rights, the rule of law, and free trade can be found in many civilizations throughout human history.  For example, as McCloskey points out, Genghis Khan's Pax Mongolia of the thirteenth century enforced property rights and the rule of law over a land empire stretching from Korea to Hungary, which protected global free trade throughout Central Asia.  China had private property, extensive markets, and large firms many centuries before England had such institutions.  Even ancient Mesopotamia had property rights and trade protected by law four thousand years ago.  What all of these countries lacked, however, was the bourgeois ethics of Smithian liberalism that led to the Great Enrichment beginning in nineteenth century Great Britain.

Institutions without ideas are not enough to explain this.  In fact, as McCloskey points out (BE, 518), even institutionalists like North will occasionally admit this.  In Violence and Social Orders (2009) by North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast, there is one passage (pp. 192-93) where the authors must fall back on ideational explanation for the transition to "open access societies": they speak of a "transformation in thinking," a "new understanding," "the language of rights," and "the logic of the argument."  But then they fail to reflect on how this points to the primacy of liberal ideas advanced by people like John Locke and Adam Smith.

If McCloskey is right about the rhetorical appeal of liberal ideas promoting bourgeois ethics, as I think she is, then we must wonder what it is about evolved human nature that makes such ideas rhetorically appealing.  Generally, McCloskey scorns evolutionary science in explaining social and economic history, because she fears that this falls into a crude social Darwinism, scientific racism, and eugenic materialism, which she sees, for example, in Gregory Clark's explanation of the British Industrial Revolution as arising from "survival of the richest" (Bourgeois Dignity, 266-95).

McCloskey also says, however, that her argument can be put into "evolutionary terms," because "I am arguing that the meme 'trade-tested-betterments are good' had reproductive success, and further, that on the success of the idea depended the material success of the modern world" (BE, 521-22).  This would be a case of cultural evolution, of the sort studied by evolutionary scientists like Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Joseph Henrich.  Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have shown that in evolutionary history there are four systems of inheritance: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.  Of these four, the first three are manifest among nonhuman animals.  Symbolic evolution is the one uniquely human line of evolutionary inheritance, which includes the whole realm of conceptual ideas and rhetorical persuasion.  What McCloskey identifies as the Bourgeois Revaluation in liberalism belongs to human symbolic evolution.

McCloskey (BE, 631-39) also embraces an evolutionary theory of liberalism set forth in a paper by Gerald Gaus (2015), who relies largely on ideas developed by Christopher Boehm (1999, 2012) and by Richerson and Boyd (2008).  This is the same evolutionary account of liberalism that has been defended by Jonathan Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Paul Rubin, and me (in various writings as well as on this blog).

The basic idea is that bourgeois liberalism is "reinstating a pre-agricultural equality" by establishing an equal dignity and liberty for ordinary people--including an "equality of genuine comfort"--that restores the equal autonomy of individuals enjoyed in hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years until the establishment of rigid class hierarchies in agrarian societies. 

As I have argued in some earlier posts, this is a restatement of John Locke's argument for liberalism as the restoration of the natural liberty and equality that hunter-gatherers had in the "state of nature."  Locke's account of the state of nature depended on the reports of Europeans about the foraging life of native Americans.  "In the beginning," Locke declared, "all the world was America."  Now, after two centuries of scientific studies of the foraging way of life, we can confirm Locke's account of the state of nature as mostly right.  And we can see that the modern liberal ideas of equality, liberty, and dignity can be understood as appealing to that evolved human nature as shaped in the hunter-gatherer bands of our evolutionary ancestors.

And yet, one might object that, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his evolutionary account of liberalism, the liberalism of the Great Society--of the extended order of exchange in which millions of people can cooperate anonymously for their mutual benefit--requires a repression of the natural instincts shaped by life in ancient families and small bands.  In those families and foraging bands, our ancestors lived in primitive communism, just as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recognized, in which wealth was distributed equally for the common good according to some deliberate plan.  By contrast to this, a modern free market society requires that goods and services be distributed through market prices, which does not conform to any standard of social justice.  The socialist rejection of the market system of allocation in favor of a deliberately planned distribution for the common good appeals to our evolved instincts for the socialism of families and small bands.

In fact, McCloskey observes, our families "are little socialist economies," and the "instinctive basis" for wanting a centrally planned society is that central planning really does work in a family household, and perhaps also in small bands and small business firms (BE, 577, 624).  Moreover, McCloskey notes, the family can rightly be seen as the original social insurance scheme to provide care for children, the sick, the unemployed, and the old (BE, 605).  The problem, however, is that while it is natural for a family or a band to be centrally planned according to the communist principle of  "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," it is not natural for large societies of millions of individuals to be centrally planned; and in such large societies, we need life to be organized by trade.

According to Hayek, this means that in large liberal societies, we must live in two worlds at once that are based on conflicting principles of order.  We must neither apply the rules of the market to family life, nor apply the rules of family life to the market.  Hayek explained: "If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it.  Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learning to live in two sorts of world at once" (The Fatal Conceit, 18).

But as Gaus and I and a few others have argued, Hayek is mistaken in his belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a completely socialist or collectivist order with no individual autonomy, and therefore our evolved human nature must be suppressed if we are to live in a free society of autonomous individuals who trade with one another for mutual benefit.  In fact, as McCloskey indicates, there is plenty of evidence for long-distance trading networks among our ancient foraging ancestors (BE, 22, 106-107, 283, 376, 403, 543-59).  Even Hayek himself sometimes concedes that there is evidence for ancient trading (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133). 

Moreover, there is also evidence, as Boehm and others have shown, that foragers assert their individual autonomy and liberty in resisting the attempts of anyone to establish dominance over others.  If this is so, then the liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.


Arnhart, Larry. 2015. "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism." Journal of Bioeconomics 17:3-15.

Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Boehm, Christopher. 2012. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.

Gaus, Gerald. 2015. "The Egalitarian Species." Social Philosophy and Policy 31: 1-27.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion Lamb. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Maryanski, Alexandra, and Jonathan Turner. 1992. The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2008. "The Evolution of Free Enterprise Values." In Paul J. Zak, ed., Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy, 107-41. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rubin, Paul H. 2002. Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origins of Freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Turner, Jonathan H., and Alexandra Maryanski. 2008.  On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Elaboration of some of my points here can be found in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here, herehere., here., here., and here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Donald Trump, ISIS, and Islamic Libertarianism

Donald Trump has said that Barack Obama is the "founder" of ISIS, and Hillary Clinton is the "co-founder." 

Yesterday, here's what Trump said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt:

HEWITT: Last night, you said the president was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum; he lost the peace.
TRUMP: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the Most Valuable Player Award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.
HEWITT: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
TRUMP: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay? ...
HEWITT: I know what you’re arguing …
TRUMP: You’re not, and let me ask you, do you not like that?
HEWITT: I don’t. I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.
TRUMP: Well, I disagree.

Trump is ignorant of the history of ISIS.  As I have indicated in an earlier post, the Islamic State was "founded" in 2006, two years before Obama was elected President.  Some people see Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the "founder of ISIS."  because he formed the group al Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS.  Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 in a U.S. airstrike.  Abu Ayub al-Masri then took over the organization and called it the Islamic State of Iraq a few months later.  This would seem to be the true founding of ISIS.

Trump says that Obama's withdrawal of troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 was the cause for the spreading power of ISIS.  On August 10th, Trump said: "We shouldn't have ever, ever, ever got into Iraq.  I said it from the beginning.  I said it from the beginning . . . . I said you're going to destabilize the Middle East and we did.  And then, an even easier decision, we should have never gotten out the way we got out. . . . We had a president who decided he'd announce a date and he was going to get out by that date.  The problem is the enemy, which really turned out to be ISIS, the enemy was sitting back and actually didn't believe that this could be happening. . . . That they would actually say when they were getting out.  So they sat back and they sat back . . . but instead of allowing some small forces behind to maybe, just maybe, keep it under control, and we pulled out eventually."

Apparently, Trump is ignorant of the fact that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 was set by an agreement with the Iraqi government signed by President George Bush in 2008, so that Obama was simply carrying out that earlier agreement.

Moreover, Trump is lying when he says that he has opposed the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.  As early as March 16, 2007, Trump said in a CNN interview that the U.S. should "declare victory and leave, because I'll tell you, this country is just going to get further bogged down. . . . This is a total catastrophe, and you might as well get out now, because you are just wasting time."

Trump is ignorant of the true causes of ISIS.  The first cause is political:  there is a long sectarian dispute between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and when the Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki supported the Shiites against the Sunnis, that radicalized the Sunnis and created an opportunity for ISIS.

The second, and perhaps deeper, cause is theological.  As Obama correctly indicated in his December 6 televised address on ISIS, radical Islam is a misinterpretation of Islam that is opposed by most Muslims.  As I have indicated in some of my previous posts, ISIS embraces an apocalyptic interpretation of Islam based not on the Quran but on the Haddith (dubious reports of Muhammad's doings and sayings).  It is this apocalyptic vision of the coming of the Mahdi and the Last Battle between Islam and Satan that has attracted some misguided Muslims to ISIS.

As Obama said in his December 6 speech, this theological misinterpretation of Islam must be challenged by a correct interpretation of the Quran as teaching tolerance and religious liberty.  This would require what I have identified in a previous post as Islamic libertarianism (also here).  This is the same kind of theological libertarianism that has been adopted by most Christians today who have interpreted the New Testament as teaching liberalism in allowing for religious belief to be privatized in civil society without any theocratic coercive enforcement.

Finally, as I have argued in a previous post, the panic about ISIS terrorist attacks in the U.S. promoted by Trump is foolish.  The likelihood of an American being killed by a police officer is about 100 times greater than the likelihood of being killed by an Islamic terrorist.  Terrorism is a problem, but it is not an existential threat to the United States.  The greater threat, as Gary Johnson has indicated, is the threat to American liberty coming from the War on Terror.

Americans were so disturbed by the 9/11 attack that they were willing to support the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as a response to the threat of terrorism, even though the American casualties in those wars outnumbered the deaths from the 9/11 attack, and even though the economic costs for those wars were astounding.  The huge investment in the Department of Homeland Security and the loss of liberty from government surveillance of citizens adds to the harm that Americans have inflicted on themselves because of their unreasonable fear of terrorism.

Oh, my, shortly after I finished writing this post, Trump tweeted a message saying that his calling Obama the "founder of ISIS" was only sarcasm!  This is the second time that everyone has failed to recognize Trump's remarkably subtle sarcasm.  A few hours after saying he was being sarcastic, he gave a speech where he said: "Obviously, I'm being sarcastic — but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you."  So he was only being sarcastic about his sarcasm?  If this is confusing, wait a few hours, and Trump will give us another interpretation of what he's saying.

Now, I am waiting for Trump to tweet that he's suspending his presidential campaign, because, after all, it was all a big joke, and somehow we were all fooled by the joke.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Adam Smith's Commentary on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Khizr Khan

If Adam Smith had been a commentator for Laissez Faire News at the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions, what would he have said about the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

That was the question in my mind as I watched large parts of the two conventions on C-Span.  I didn't watch all of it because in recent weeks I have been reading Smith and Deirdre McCloskey's interpretation of Smith in her book Bourgeois Equality.  I watched C-Span because it broadcasted the conventions without any interruption by commentators.  Occasionally, I watched the commentators at MSNBC and Fox News, but I really wanted to hear Smith's commentary for Laissez Faire News.

I found one line in McCloskey's book that Smith might have used to characterize both Clinton and Trump: "The haunting fear . . . that ordinary people might do bad things if left alone" (p. 207). 

Clinton fears that if left alone, some ordinary people might voluntarily work for a wage of less than $15 an hour, and therefore this should be prohibited by the federal government.  Trump fears that if left alone, some ordinary people might voluntarily purchase some cheap goods imported from China, and therefore the federal government should impose high tariffs to prevent people from doing this.

So both Clinton and Trump are afraid that ordinary people might do bad things if they are left alone and not coercively regulated by the government.  In this way, both seem to reject what Smith called "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty" in The Wealth of Nations (Liberty Fund edition, p. 687):
"All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.  Every man as long as he does not violated the laws of justice, is left free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.  The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society."
Do Clinton and Trump agree with this "system of natural liberty"?  Well, yes and no.  No, because Clinton doesn't want ordinary people to have the liberty to work for "unfair wages," and Trump doesn't want ordinary people to have the liberty to engage in "unfair trade."  But, yes, on many points, Clinton and Trump agree that ordinary people have the natural liberty to live as they please.

So, for example, Clinton and Trump agree that ordinary people have a natural liberty to marry whomever they please.  And even those conservative Republicans who resist the legalization of gay marriage agree that homosexuality should not be punished as a crime, as it was until just a few years ago.

Clinton and the Democrats have warned against Trump as a threat to natural liberty, because while Trump has presented himself as the only person who can rightly rule over America, Americans don't need anyone to rule over them, because they can rule themselves, and such self-rule is the liberty to which America is devoted.  Barack Obama and other speakers at the Democratic Convention made this argument.

Trump has warned that if Clinton is elected, the United States will become "another Venezuela"--a socialist regime without individual liberty.  And, of course, Clinton has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a socialist.  But even Sanders is not really a socialist, because he doesn't believe that the state should own the means of production and set all wages and prices.  Sanders agrees with the decision of the British Labour Party in 1995, under the leadership of Tony Blair, to reject Clause IV of the 1918 text of the Labour Party constitution, drafted by Sidney Webb: "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Rejecting "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange" is rejecting socialism and affirming liberalism.

Sanders admires the "democratic socialism" of the Scandinavian countries.  But even those countries are largely free market societies, and thus conforming largely to Smith's system of natural liberty.  When classical liberal think tanks--like the Frazer Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute--rate countries around the world for their levels of "economic freedom," the Nordic countries (like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) rank near the top.

What this shows is that Francis Fukuyama really was correct in 1989 in proclaiming the triumph of liberalism at the "end of history."  In North America, in Europe, and increasingly around much of the rest of the world, most people have mostly adopted Adam Smith's liberalism of natural liberty.  I say "mostly," because many people even in the most liberal societies have some fear that in some areas of life ordinary people might do bad things if left alone.

The great ideological battle in the 20th century was between liberalism, socialism, and nationalism.  Liberalism has largely won that battle.  But now we continue to have relatively minor disputes between liberal socialists (like Hillary Clinton) and liberal nationalists (like Donald Trump).  I say that this is a minor dispute because they share so much in common.  For example, both Clinton and Trump are leaning towards the mercantilism that Smith renounced, because both are turning away from free trade towards protectionism. 

A deeper dispute is between Clinton/Trump on one side and Gary Johnson on the other, because Johnson represents full liberalism--a full commitment to Smithian natural liberty, which assumes that we can trust ordinary people to do good things if left alone.  (On some issues, however, even Johnson is not as purely liberal as some libertarians would like.)

The deepest ideological dispute over Smithian liberty that we see today is between illiberal Islamism and liberal Islamism.  The illiberal Islamists believe that any good society must be a closed society in which moral, political, and religious order must be coercively imposed by law, as in Sharia.  In this way, the illiberal Islamists represent the scorn for bourgeois liberty and equality that prevailed in the world up to the 18th century.

The primary point made recently by Mr. Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala in their dispute with Trump is that Trump has mindlessly refused to distinguish between the liberal Islamism of the Khans and most other Muslims and the illiberal Islamism that supports Sharia and terrorist holy war.

The dispute between the Khans and Trump could become a turning point if it drives many Republicans to embrace Gary Johnson as the best alternative to Trump--a fully liberal alternative.  As a full liberal, Johnson supports a policy of free immigration as part of the Smithian system of natural liberty.  Liberal people like the Khans who have chosen to immigrate to the United States because they think this will give them the liberty to live their lives as they please, so long as they do not attack the equal liberty of others to live as they please, are the kind of people who will make the United States richer and greater.

But why should we accept the fundamental premise of Smithian liberalism that we can trust ordinary people to do good things when they are left alone?  Smith's answer is that in a free society there are three kinds of restraints on how people live their lives as based on three virtues--prudence, temperance, and justice.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith argues that in a commercial society, voluntary trading enforces good conduct through the motive of prudence: dishonest businesspeople lose their customers.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argues that in a moral society, people learn temperance, because they must restrain their selfish impulses to win the approval of others and avoid their blame: we thus judge our conduct by whether it would be approved by an impartial spectator.

In Lectures on Jurisprudence, Smith argues that in a just society, government enforces laws of justice that protect property and persons from violence and fraud.

Smith admits, however, that there will always be a few people in every society who are by nature without a moral sense or conscience, who show "a complete insensibility to honor and infamy, to vice and virtue" (Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.2.9).  In their most extreme form, we might today call such people psychopaths.  Lacking in moral self-restraint, such people might suffer from their imprudence--such as dishonest businesspeople who lose their customers--or they might be punished by the laws of justice.  But what about those that David Hume identified as "clever knaves," people who lack a conscience, and who are clever enough to hide their immorality from those around them.

What can be done with a dishonest businessman like Donald Trump?  Mr. Khan has declared: "Shame on you, and shame on your family."  He has said that Trump has a "dark soul"  But a man like Trump is shameless, and so moral blame doesn't bother him.  But if most American voters do have a moral sense and a sense of shame, then we might hope that they will punish him with electoral defeat.

We might expect that his dishonest business practices would be punished by the victims of his fraudulent deals or by the legal system.  But it's not clear that that has happened.  Through his clever use of the American laws of bankruptcy and the American legal system, Trump has often made profits for himself while defrauding his customers and his workers.  The lesson here, Smith might have suggested, is that this shows the failure of the American legal system to enforce justice in punishing dishonest deal-makers like Trump.

Here I disagree with McCloskey, who points to Trump as an example of a businessman who "offends" us by his behavior, but who is "not a thief" because he has earned his profits through voluntary deals (229-30).  But the reports about Trump's business practices suggest that in refusing to pay his bills and in defrauding his customers (like the students who signed up for Trump University), Trump really has been a thief.

Of course, one might wonder how successful he has really been.  One possible reason why he refuses to release his tax returns is that they would show that he is not nearly as rich as he claims to be.

Ultimately, the fitting and proper punishment for morally despicable human beings is that they must live the life of morally despicable human beings.  No intelligent person would choose to live the life of Donald Trump.

I have previous posts on Trump (here, here, and here,), on Johnson (here and here), and on liberal Islamism (here and here).

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lucretius in the Evolution/Creation Debate

From ancient Greece and Rome to the present, one of the fundamental debates in human history has been over a deep question: Is our universe mindful and purposive or mindless and material?  Do we live in a cosmos that was intentionally created by a divinely intelligent designer who cares for us and judges us by his moral law?  Or do we live in a cosmos that arose unintentionally by natural evolution through chance and necessity with no concern for us or any moral law?

Today, this debate is between the creationists or intelligent design theorists, on the one side, and the Darwinian evolutionists, on the other side.  Some theistic evolutionists (like Francis Collins or Owen Gingerich, for example) have tried to take a third position: that the Creator has designed the parameters of certain natural constants so that cosmic evolution is fine-tuned for producing intelligent human life as the fulfillment of the Creator's purposes.

In ancient Greece, some of the pre-Socratic natural philosophers (like Empedocles and Democritus) developed materialist or mechanist explanations for how the world and all living beings in it could have emerged by natural causes without any divine design or purpose.  In some of Plato's dialogues--particularly in book 10 of the Laws and in the Timaeus--this anti-teleological cosmology was rejected as a dangerous atheism that would subvert the moral and political order of human life. Plato's Athenian Stranger (in the Laws) argues that everyone in the political order he proposes must believe that the gods exist, that the gods think about and care for human beings, and that the gods enforce justice by rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Those people who openly question this cosmic theology should be imprisoned, and if they cannot be persuaded to accept this theology, they will be punished with death.  Plato's Timaeus argued that people should be taught that everything was created by a divine Demiurge or Craftsman assisted by other gods according to a model of an eternally enduring nature, so that the cosmos could be seen as the best of all possible worlds.

Later, Epicurus challenged this Platonic cosmic teleology by developing his own anti-teleological cosmology based on the atomistic science of Democritus.  Everything could be understood as the patterns of order arising from the combining and dissolving of atoms moving in a void, so that all possible combinations of these atoms would arise as worlds coming into being and passing away.  All life is mortal, so there is no afterlife, and no divine judgment of human beings after death. The gods exist, but they live outside the world of human experience, and they do not care for or intervene in human affairs.  All of the organized religions that teach that the gods have created the world and judge human beings both in this life and in the afterlife deprive human beings of happiness by promoting a fear of death and of divine judgment that creates unnecessary and unreasonable anxiety.

Epicureans can be happy because they don't fear god, they don't worry about death, they know that the goodness of pleasure is usually easy to get, and they know that the badness of pain is usually easy to endure.  This is possible because their freedom from religious fears and their understanding of how everything is ultimately explained by natural causes allows them to live out their mortal lives with tranquil minds.

Although Epicurus wrote many books, most of his writing has been lost, and we now have only fragments quoted by other writers.  The most extensive text of Epicurean philosophy is the Latin philosophical poem of Lucretius--De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)--which he wrote sometime before his death in 55 B.C.  Although he does not mention Plato by name, Lucretius can be seen as defending the Epicurean anti-teleological cosmology against the Platonic teleological cosmology, particularly as it was reformulated by the Stoics.

Christian theologians were able to accept modified forms of the Platonic and Stoic cosmology of divine creation as compatible with Biblical creationist theology, which became the predominant model of the cosmos in Christendom for over 1,500 years.  But Christians had to scorn the Epicurean/Lucretian cosmology of materialist atomism as promoting a dangerously atheistic view of the universe. 

The texts of Lucretius' book were either destroyed or hidden away, until a text was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini.  Many early modern philosophers and scientists could then see the Lucretian materialist and anti-teleological model of the cosmos as the alternative to the creationist and teleological model of Christian cosmology.

Finally, with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species by natural selection in the struggle for survival seemed to provide a modern scientific version of Lucretian cosmology as an alternative to Christian creationism.  If so, then the debate between evolutionists and creationists today continues the debate between Platonists and Epicureans over whether the cosmos has been intelligently and purposefully designed or not.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, this cosmological debate is also a moral and political debate, because while the Platonic/Christian cosmology of order as a top-down imposition of intentional planning seems to support moral and political authoritarianism, the Epicurean/Darwinian cosmology of order as a bottom-up emergence of spontaneous order seems to support moral and political liberalism.

 But is it really true that the Epicurean cosmology of Lurcretius' book conforms to a Darwinian evolutionary conception of the universe?  Gordon Campbell (a classics scholar) has helped me to think about this through one of his papers--"Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin" (2000)--and one of his books--Lucretius on Creation and Evolution (2003).  Campbell's writing illuminates Lucretius' place in the evolution/creation debate from ancient Greece to the present.

And yet I do disagree with Campbell on four points.  First, I disagree with his claim that the only "fully evolutionary theory" of the cosmos in the ancient world is in Plato's Timaeus (Campbell 2003, 2).  He distinguishes between two kinds of evolution (Campbell 2000, 14).  "Inter-specific evolution" is "the Darwinian model of the origin of species by the gradual accumulation of variation over time leading to the formation of new species."  "Intra-specific evolution" is "the accumulation of variation within a species that stops short of crossing species boundaries."  He claims that Plato is the only ancient proponent of Darwinian inter-specific evolution, because Plato's Timaeus describes an evolutionary process in which the Demiurge first creates human beings and then morally degenerate human beings evolve into four kinds of animals--birds, footed land animals, footless land animals, and fish--with the animals ranked from the more thoughtful animals to the thoughtless animals.

The first problem with Campbell's claim is that what Timaeus describes is not a natural evolutionary process at all, because he asserts it to be the work of divine creation by the Demiurge and the other gods (Timaeus 41a-d, 92c).

The second problem is that it's not clear that Plato or Plato's Socrates endorse Timaeus's story of cosmic creation.  Timaeus's story is so utterly ridiculous that many readers have doubted that Plato takes it seriously.  A. E. Taylor, for example, made this point, but Campbell casually dismisses this and insists that Timaeus's story must be seen as a serious teaching of Plato (2000, 158).  But Campbell doesn't explain the many strange features of this dialogue.  First of all, it's not much of a dialogue.  After some brief exchanges between Socrates and Timaeus, Timaeus launches into a long lecture that takes up most of the book.  Socrates remains silent, which suggests that Timaeus's story cannot withstand any Socratic questioning. Timaeus says that his story will be a "likely myth."  Socrates says that it will be a nomos--a song, a custom, or a law (Timaeus 29d).  So Timaeus's story is not a reasoned account of the cosmos.

Moreover, what Timaeus says is often self-contradictory.  For example, Timaeus says that the best account of astronomy depends on sight--looking at the stars and the Sun--and this shows the primacy of our eyes for our knowledge of the world (47a-c).  But then he condemns as "light-minded" the empirical astronomers who believe that our knowledge of astronomy must begin with what we can see with our own eyes.  Such people are punished by being turned into birds (91d-e).

My point here is that Campbell does not consider the possibility that while Plato might have thought that a teleological cosmology of divinely intelligent design could be a salutary belief for many people, it could not be a rational account of the cosmos for natural philosophers.  Aristotle suggested this in observing that such cosmic myths were little more than traditional folk tales (On the Heavens, 270b1-25, 283b26-284b5, 291b24-292a20, 298b6-299a2; The Movement of Animals, 699b12-31; Metaphysics, 1050b20-25, 1074b1-14).

Not only do I think Campbell is wrong in identifying Plato as an evolutionist, I also think he is wrong in denying that Lucretius was an evolutionist.  This is my second point of disagreement.  Although Campbell is right in noting that Lucretius never explicitly affirms the "inter-specific evolution" of a new species from an ancestral species, Lucretius does at least implicitly suggest that human beings have evolved from an earlier species that was human-like but not fully human, because it did not have the human digestive system that requires food cooked with fire.  Lucretius could not explicitly elaborate this idea, because he lacked the evidence for human evolution that is available today--including the fossil record, the archaeological record, human physiology, and comparative primatology.

In Book 5 of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius explains the origin of all living beings as the spontaneous generation of life from the Earth (5.785-1012).  Just as today we can see the spontaneous generation of worms and cicadas from the Earth, Lucretius claims, we can imagine that at the beginning the Earth was so fertile that it could generate all forms of plant and animal life (2.871-72, 898-901, 928-29, 3.719-36, 5.797-98).  For this reason, Lucretius observes, the Earth has rightly been called the Mother of all life.

At first, the Earth experimented with many monstrous animal bodies with grotesque appearance--such as animals that were both male and female, animals without feet or hands or mouths.  These forms of life "were created in vain," because nature extinguished them.  They died from starvation. Or they could not reproduce. Or they could not compete with other animals.  Only those species adapted for survival, reproduction, and competition were naturally selected for preservation.  Those human beings who lived in these early days were tougher and larger than human beings today.  They lived as solitary foragers and like savage beasts, with no families, no farming, no customs or laws, no use of fire or clothing.  Men and women came together for sexual copulation and then separated with no enduring attachment.  (Here is where Rousseau found his first "state of nature" of "nascent man" for his Discourse on the Origin of Equality.)

Some modern commentators have argued that this Lucretian account of the origin life is refuted by modern science.  One criticism is that Lucretius speaks mythically of Mother Earth as a teleological creator.  Another criticism is that the belief in the spontaneous generation of life was refuted by Louis Pasteur's famous experiments showing that living organisms cannot arise spontaneously from lifeless material.  A third criticism is that the modern fossil and archaeological record shows an evolution from simple forms of life to more complex forms, including a human fossil record showing human evolution over millions of years, which denies Lucretius's claim that all forms of life originated simultaneously and his claim that the first human beings lived as utterly solitary animals who lived on raw food without fire for cooking.

Campbell rightly defends Lucretius against the first two criticisms.  But he cannot defend Lucretius against the third criticism.  Against the first criticism, Campbell can point to clear statements from Lucretius that he uses teleological metaphors--like Mother Earth--to aid his anti-teleological message (2.655-60).  In doing this, Lucretius is like Darwin, who explained that in personifying "survival of the fittest" as "natural selection," he was employing a metaphorical expression that was not to be interpreted literally as suggesting some intentional agency or deity (see Chapter 4 of the second edition of The Origin of Species).  For Darwin, nature "selects" only in the sense that those traits that impede survival, reproduction, and competition tend to go extinct.  Similarly, for Lucretius, those forms of life that cannot survive, reproduce, or compete successfully tend to go extinct.  There is no teleological cosmic plan guiding this evolutionary process.

To answer the second criticism--that Pasteur refuted the belief in the spontaneous generation of life--Campbell rightly points out that while Pasteur's experiments showed that at present life cannot arise from lifeless material, this does not show that originally life could not have been spontaneously generated in the earlier conditions of the Earth.  Indeed, any scientific account of the origin of life from non-life through natural evolution rather than intelligent design would have to be a spontaneous generation of life.  There is today no generally accepted theory for explaining the natural origin of life, and so it remains one of the great mysteries in modern science.  But there is general agreement among scientists that any successful theory for resolving this mystery will have to find a natural mechanism for the spontaneous generation of the most primitive form of life.  For example, one popular theory today is that life originated from 3.2 billion to 3.8 billion years ago in very hot geothermal vents at the bottom of ancient oceans.  Even if this does not prove to be the correct theory, it illustrates the search for a spontaneous generation of the first life forms like that sought by Lucretius.

Campbell does not defend Lucretius against the third criticism--that his assertion that all forms of life that we see today arose fully formed simultaneously at the beginning is contrary to the evidence for the evolutionary history of life as we know it today.  Here, Campbell argues, we see why Lucretius is not truly an evolutionist in the modern Darwinian sense, because here we see that Lucretius believes in the fixity of species: although Lucretius allows for some evolutionary change within a species, he does not allow for evolutionary change by which one species evolves into another.  Species can go extinct, but all of those species that have survived to the present are essentially the same species as they were at the beginning.

Although there is good evidence for this interpretation of Lucretius, there is some ambiguity here, particularly in what Lucretius says about the origins of fire and cooking (5.955-58, 1012-20, 1091-1104).  Lucretius says that the first primitive human beings were tough enough to live on raw food like other animals.  They had no knowledge of how to use fire for cooking.  But then from observing the effects of wild fires and the warming of the Sun, they learned how to cook their food, which was part of a suite of changes that allowed them to live in family settlements that made them fully human for the first time.  In his comments on this section of Lucretius's poem, Campbell observes: "Humans become truly human, and finally civilized when they have been mastered by fire, marriage, and love, and when they in turn master nature with new technologies.  Fire and cooking were chief among these" (2003, 329).  This shows the "process of becoming fully human" (2000, 154-55).

Doesn't this imply that those first primitive human beings who lived totally on raw food were not "truly human" at all, and so what we see here is evolution from a non-human but somewhat human-like animal species to a fully human species?  If so, then this points to human evolution as inter-species evolution.  Lucretius could not elaborate this idea explicitly because he did not have all of the empirical evidence available today for human evolutionary emergence from primate ancestral species.

That evidence--from fossils, archaeology, primatology, and evolutionary anthropology--confirms the truth of Lucretius's insight about the importance for human evolution of controlling fire for cooking.  Richard Wrangham has surveyed this evidence in support of his "cooking hypothesis" for explaining human evolution (Wrangham 2009; Gowlett and Wrangham 2013).  No human societies have ever relied on raw food for most of their diet.  And no human beings have been known to survive for more than a few weeks by eating only wild raw food.  Unlike every other animal, human beings need a large portion of their food to be cooked.  Compared with the great apes, human beings have a reduced digestive system--small molars, mouth, stomach, and large intestine--that is adapted for digesting cooked food.  Moreover, the brain is a metabolically expensive organ that requires lots of energy; and therefore the increase in the size of the brain that characterizes human evolution required a reduction in gut size and energy costs and the consumption of higher quality cooked foods to reduce the metabolic constraints on brain size by delivering increased energy to enlarged brains.  The evidence of the hominin fossils indicates that Homo erectus had such enlarged brains that would have required digestive systems needing cooked food.  There is also some archaeological evidence for the controlled use of fire appearing at around 1.5 million years ago, at the time of the first major increase in the brain size of early Homo.  All of this evidence suggests that what Lucretius describes as a transition from primitive humans living "in a manner like wild animals" (more ferarum) (5.932) without fire and cooking to fully human beings living with fire and cooking was actually an evolutionary transformation from a pre-human species to a truly human species.

According to Campbell, "Lucretius' early humans evolve in response to their changing environment, but they are still unable to cross the species barrier imposed by the atomic laws of nature (foedera naturae); they evolve but remain within their own species" (2000, 155).  Does this mean that there can be a major change in the physiology and anatomy of the digestive system without a change of species?  Or should we say, in the terminology of modern taxonomy, that there has been a change of species but not of genus?

Campbell says that the evolution here in Lucretius is not Darwinian evolution but Lamarckian evolution, because it's the evolution of acquired characters.  Contrary to what Campbell assumes, Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution.  Today, some evolutionary theorists would say that there are at least four levels of evolutionary inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic (Jablonka and Lamb 2014).  Could we explain what Lucretius describes here as genetic/behavioral coevolution?

Oddly, while Campbell argues that Lucretius was not a Darwinian evolutionist, he also argues that Lucretius was a better evolutionist than was Darwin!  This is my third point of disagreement with Campbell.  According to Campbell, Lucretius suggests that evolutionary adaptation in the struggle for life can occur at five levels--survival, reproduction, competition, competition avoidance, and cooperation.  Campbell thinks that Darwin recognizes the first three levels but not the last two (Campbell 2003, 119-23, 129, 252-61).  I disagree.  Lucretius claims that human beings could not have survived if they had not learned to cooperate: "It was then that neighbors, in their eagerness neither to harm nor be harmed, began to form mutual pacts of friendship, and claimed protection for their children and women, indicating by means of inarticulate cries and gestures that everyone ought to have compassion for the weak" (5.1019-23). 

Campbell sees this idea as confirmed by recent work (by Robert Axelrod and others) on the evolution of cooperation, but he does not see this idea was first elaborated by Darwin in his account of the evolution of the "moral sense" in The Descent of Man.  All of the recent thinking about the evolution of cooperation through kin selection, reciprocity (direct and indirect), and group selection is building on Darwin's thinking in Descent.

Lucretius also recognizes the human domestication of animals as mutually beneficial for the animals and human beings (5.862-78).  Campbell identifies this as "extinction avoidance through symbiosis and the survival advantages of becoming tame" (2003, 129).  This also was well studied by Darwin, particularly in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).

My final point of disagreement with Campbell concerns his understanding of teleology.  He is right in seeing that modern Darwinian biology agrees with Lucretius and the Epicureans in their anti-teleological view of the cosmos as a spontaneous order that has not been designed to serve any purpose.  But only obliquely does Campbell recognize that modern biology can affirm immanent teleology while denying cosmic teleology (Campbell 2000, 152, 170-71).  Although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for offspring--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such phenomena unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in the evolved nature of the species.  This allows for a biological understanding of morality as natural right or natural law rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature.


Campbell, Gordon. 2000. "Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin." In M. R. Wright, ed., Reason and Necessity: Essays on Plato's Timaeus, 145-80. Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales.

Campbell, Gordon. 2003. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Five, Lines 772-1104. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gowlett, John A. J., and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. "Earliest Fire in Africa: Towards the Convergence of Archaeological Evidence and the Cooking Hypothesis." Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48: 5-30.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2014. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Revised edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wrangham, Richard W. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

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

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Does Moralistic Religion Promote Human Sacrifice and Other Moralistic Violence?

At the beginning of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius promises that his teaching of Epicurean atomism, according to which the world is governed by natural laws and not by the gods, will liberate human beings from the suffering caused by religion.  He recognizes that many people will see this teaching as promoting impious wickedness, because the gods are not understood as enforcing a moral law in human affairs.  Lucretius's answer to this objection is to argue, on the contrary, that the religious belief in moralistic gods will support the most impious and wicked crimes, and he illustrates this with the story of Agamemnon sacrificing the life of his first-born daughter Iphigeneia to appease the anger of the goddess Artemis, who had sent unfavorable winds to detain the Greek fleet at Argos.  Thus, a father's natural love for his daughter was overcome by the religious belief that the gods could intervene into human affairs and command the killing of his innocent daughter.

Lucretius concludes: "Such evils could religion prompt" (1.101).  This is one of the most famous lines in Lucretius's book.  Voltaire praised this as one of the most insightful ideas in the book.

The fearful evils of religion arise, Lucretius believes, from the fear of the gods, and particularly the fear of eternal punishment by the gods after death.  Such fear is dispelled by seeing that the gods exist in some realm beyond our world, and that they live a self-sufficient life in not caring for us and not intervening in our world.  The natural world in which we live is governed by natural laws, and so "all things happen independently of the gods" (1.159).  By nature we are mortal, and so we must die.  But death is not fearful, because death is nothing to us, since we cannot suffer anything when we don't exist.  Death becomes fearful only when we have a religious belief in an afterlife with eternal divine judgment.  Such religious fears weaken our natural moral sense and promote unjust violence, such as human sacrifice, when we think we are obeying divine commands.

But is this true?  Wouldn't most religious believers today say that the belief that God demands the human sacrifice of innocent people is a false superstition rather than true religion?  And haven't some evolutionary scientists shown that the religious belief in moralistic gods--gods who enforce moral conduct by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, in this life and the next--was necessary to sustain human cooperation in the large agrarian states that began to emerge for the first time about 4,000 years ago?

Lucretius might have found some confirmation for his argument in some recent research on the evolution of ritual human sacrifice (Joseph Watts, et al., "Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies," Nature 532 [2016]: 228-31).  This study examined 93 traditional Austronesian cultures (in parts of Asia and the South Pacific).  The scholars found that 40 of these cultures had practiced ritual human sacrifice, and that the practice of human sacrifice seemed to create and preserve social hierarchies.  Through human sacrifice, ruling elites could legitimize their power by claiming supernatural authority and by enforcing obedience by the intimidation of human sacrifice.  So while some evolutionary scientists have seen evidence that moralistic religions have supported cooperative behavior in large states, the scholars in this study suggest that there is a dark side to this that is evident in the religious practice of human sacrifice.

Even the Bible shows some evidence of human sacrifice, which must trouble Biblical religious believers.  The most famous example of this is in Genesis 22, where God decides to test Abraham's obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham obeys, although an angel intervenes to stop his hand from plunging a knife into Isaac.  He has passed the test by showing that he was willing to engage in the ritual human sacrifice of his son.  According to Soren Kierkegaard, this shows the "teleological suspension of the ethical" in the Bible--that the faithful believer must obey any command of God, even when it is immoral.

Another example of human sacrifice in the Bible is Jephthah killing his daughter.  He had promised to God that if God gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering to God the first person coming out of his house on his return.  The Ammonites were defeated, and when Jephthah returned, his daughter came out of his house to greet him.  According to his vow, Jephthah sacrificed her, and the Bible says nothing to indicate that this was mistaken (Judges 11:29-40).

The most prominent example of ritual human sacrifice in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.  God demanded the ritual sacrifice of His only son, who was both fully human and fully divine, as atonement for human sin.

More generally, one might see the Biblical teaching of capital punishment for violating divine law as human sacrifice.  Blasphemy, apostasy, witchcraft, homosexuality, and many more crimes are to be punished by death.  Up to the middle of the 19th century, many Christian legal systems dictated capital punishment for hundreds of crimes.  Islamic sharia law continues this tradition of divinely commanded capital punishment.

Remarkably, even Thomas Aquinas upheld God's command to Abraham to kill his son, and he also upheld the killing of apostates in the Inquisition.

In recent history, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected divinely commanded human sacrifice or capital punishment.  Does this show the influence of a Lucretian natural science that denies or minimizes divine intervention into nature?  Today, if parents think God has commanded them to kill their children, we assume they are insane.

We are also less inclined today to believe in an afterlife with divine judgment and eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell.  Even the most fundamentalist Christians have largely given up any belief in Hell.  As indicated in a previous post, Dante's cosmic model of the universe with Heaven above and Hell below was replaced in the 17th century with a cosmic model that had a Heaven but not a Hell.  Increasingly, it seems that even devout Christians agree with Charles Darwin that eternal punishment in Hell is a "damnable doctrine."