Thursday, February 16, 2006

Darwinian Libertarianism: A Reply to David Gordon

David Gordon has written a review of Darwinian Conservatism for The Mises Review (the winter 2005 issue), which is published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Unfortunately, this issue is not yet available at the website for the Mises Institute.

Gordon praises the book as "valuable" and "provocative," and he urges his readers to read it. As a libertarian, he is pleased that I defend libertarian principles of private property and limited government. He generally agrees with my argument that leftist programs tend to go against human nature.

But he also suggests some possible objections to my position. The first objection is that Darwinism does not add much to what we already know about human nature. "Did we not know, long before Darwin, that human beings have a nature? Must we appeal to speculations about the behavior of baboons and chimpanzees to justify our acceptance of obvious truths?"

In response, I would stress that my Darwinian conservatism provides support for the natural-law libertarianism of Murray Rothbard. As far back as 1983, I began talking with Rothbard, and he was enthusiastic about my idea that Darwinian science could sustain an ethics of natural law. In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard rooted his libertarian ethics in "the natural laws of the human organism" (1982, p. 32). In Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Rothbard explained: "Natural law sees ethics as living-entity- (or species-) relative. What is good for cabbages will differ from what is good for rabbits, which in turn will differ from what is good or bad for man. The ethic for each species will differ according to their respective natures" (p. 4). He elaborated his ethics of liberty as founded in the natural inclinations of the human animal. Darwinian conservatism provides a biological account of those natural inclinations and of how they sustain a natural moral sense.

Human nature and natural inclinations as the ground of ethics might be "obvious" to Gordon. But Rothbard indicated that intellectuals commonly reject the idea of human nature and of ethics as rooted in natural inclinations. So it seems important to me to show how Darwinian science confirms Rothbard's natural-law libertarianism.

Gordon's second objection is that appealing to human nature in arguments against the statist left are not very useful if the limits of human nature are so broad that leftist programs cannot be rejected as absolutely impossible. But of course the same point could be made about any libertarian argument. When libertarians like Mises and Hayek argue against socialism, they cannot show that socialism is absolutely impossible. But they can show that the human costs of socialism are high because it denies the imperfectibility of human nature. Darwinian conservatism reinforces that argument by indicating how that limited human nature arises from human biology.

Gordon's third objection arises from his acceptance of the fact-value distinction and his belief that rooting morality in natural moral emotions cannot explain "moral obligation." Like Adam Smith, David Hume, and Charles Darwin, I believe that morality is ultimately grounded in moral emotions or sentiments. Our feeling of obligation--that we ought or ought not to do something--really is a feeling or emotion, and our morality ultimately depends upon those moral emotions of the human mind as shaped by natural evolution to be part of human nature. That's why I agree with Rothbard that what is good is relative to each species. If human nature were radically different from what it is, human morality would be different.

By contrast, Gordon believes that "moral obligation" requires a "direct perception of something" that is beyond the natural world. My only response to that is to ask him to explain and defend the idea that there is another world beyond the natural world, that moral norms are found in that other world, and that those transcendent moral norms somehow enter our natural world. He might then have to defend Kant's appeal to the "noumental" world of the "moral ought" beyond the observable world of nature. Such a radically dualistic metaphysics makes no sense to me. And I am not persuaded that a transcendentalist libertarianism would be superior to Rothbard's naturalistic libertarianism.


Luke said...

Dear Larry,

First, let me say, I have just now discovered your blog (courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily), even though I have followed your work for some time.

That said, one of the problems here, I think, has to do with the distinction between in-group and out-group morality.

In-group morality seems more clearly grounded in biology, as evidenced, for example, by the relative egalitarianism observed in the ethnographic literature concerning virtually all hunter/gatherer and early neolithic (hoe culture) societies (see Christopher Boehm's Heirarchy in the Forest, who brought this fact to my attention).

Out-group morality, by contrast, is almost a contradiction in terms if we look at the historical record -- unless you want to call the relationship of domination and submission a moral one (as Nietzche did, by the way). Aristocratic codes governing the relationship between the few and the many -- for that is what we are talking about -- were all, without exception, so as far as I know, born in conquest, in which one tribe or ethnic group sucessfully engaged in war against another, and then, instead of killing its foes or driving them away (the Paleolithic pattern), decided to subdue them, beat them with clubs, and put them to work.

This new relationship of physical subjugation first became practicable on a wide scale with the development of agriculture, which, it so happened, tied people down to a place in a way thay made it impossible to run away.

The earliest example of conquest, according to Gordon Childe's What Happened in History (which is I think still the best reference on the subject) seems to have occured in northern Mesopotamia sometime in the early 4th millennium BC. From there the institution of conquest spread rapidly thoughout all neighboring agriculural zones, leading to ever expanding political empires competing with one another for power, and in the process amalgamating diverse tribes, ethnicities, language groups, etc.

We are the heirs of that barbarous historical process which goes by the name of civilization -- and this goes far, in my opinion, to expose the special difficulties of appealing to purely natural rules of behavior to establish moral order amongst the diverse populations who share a common space in all complex, civilized societies, including our modern ones today.

It is in this context, I believe, that religion and systems of religious ideas belief have had, and may continue to have, a necessary role to play, attempting to bridge the moral divide that separates diverse populations in ways that our purely natural feelings and emotions are unable to do.

Larry Arnhart said...

David Gordon has responded to my comments in an email message. He has agreed to have it posted here. Here it is:

You very rightly point out tht Murray Rothbard supported natural law ethics: he maintained that what is good for each species depends on the nature of that species. But I didn't challenge this position in my review. Rather I wondered whether Darwinism adds substantially to our reasons to accept natural law ethics. Rothbard did not base his ethics on theories about what traits natural selection has implanted in our evolutionary ancestors. As a matter of fact, he was personally skeptical about evolution (not only natural selection) altogether. This was not for religious reasons--he just didn't think the argumetns in favor of evolution convincing. I know that he thought highly of your book on Aristotle's Rhetoric, and I don't doubt he encouraged your project. But he many times in conversation rejected sociobiology.

You haven't taken my "second objection" in the way I meant it, and here the fault is entirely my lack of clarity. I didn't mean that arguments based on human nature are at fault because they do not show that leftist programs are impossible but show only that these programs face substantial costs in going against human nature. Rather, my objection is that it isn't clear which leftist programs do go against human nature. Some of them, e.g., feminist proposals to abolish the family, certainly do so. But how far does your criticism extend? This question, I should add, is not a suggestion that most leftist programs are immune from your point. I suspect that most of them are vulnerable, but I think this should be spelled out in more detail.

Suppose that I say that given the premises, "All men are motal" and "Socrates is a man," you ought to conclude "Socrates is a man." Does my appeal to an "ought to believe" depend on mysterious unobservable properties or involve me in Kant's noumenal world? I cannot see that it does. In like fashion, I suggest the unconditional ought of morality involves no murky metaphysics but is part of our ordinary grasp of the world. Further, to reject your reduction of moral obligation to what is desirable as something that makes one happy or fulfills one is not to embrace the fact-value dichotomy. Someone could consistently hold that from certain facts about human nature, various conclusions do follow about what human beings ought to do, without holding that statements about what ought to be done can be reduced to claims about the desirable. To reason "I need x; therefore I ought to try to get x," does not commit one to "I ought to try to get x" means "I need X." Of course, if someone accepts this claim about meaning, then he should accept the other claim as well; but the converse does not follow.

I hope it was clear from my review that I think very highly of your book. In any case, I reiterate that opinion.

Larry Arnhart said...

Oh, well, it seems that part of the imperfectibility of the human mind is the difficulty we have with logic. David Gordon has pointed out to me that he stated his syllogism incorrectly, which should be "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal."

Larry Arnhart said...

Here are a few thoughts in response to David Gordon's comments.

He suggests that the sense of moral obligation might arise from purely logical reasoning. We might feel obligated to act in accordance to morality just as feel obligated to accept the logical conclusion of a valid syllogism.

Although I agree that logical reasoning is important in moral judgment, I cannot see how pure reason by itself can motivate moral conduct. And I cannot see that Rothbard's ethical naturalism would conform to such purely rationalistic ethics.

In DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, I analyze Peter Singer's claim that moral judgments are logical deductions from the principle of ethical impartiality. I try to show the mistakes in his assumption that purely logical reasoning from an abstract principle of impartiality should override the social emotions of human nature. So, for example, Singer was driven to the conclusion that spending money to help his mother who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease was immoral because the money would have been better spent to help strangers.

In contrast to Singer, I argue that the human moral sense is a joint product of the social emotions and intellectual capacities of the human animal. We can feel sympathetic concern for distant strangers, but usually our humanitarian feelings are weaker than our feelings for family, friends, and fellow group members. As intellectual animals, we can generalize these social emotions into customary or legal rules for judging behavior as right or wrong, just or unjust.

I know that Rothbard was not fully persuaded by the evidence and arguments for Darwin's theory of evolution. And yet Rothbard could speak of grounding ethics in "the natural laws of the human organism." This indicates that libertarians like Rothbard might see ethics rooted in human biological nature while still doubting evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary explanation is about ultimate causes. But much of biology is about more proximate causes that can be directly observed. Libertarians like Rothbard might then accept behavioral biology while questioning evolutionary biology.

For example, we can explain the biological differences in the average propensities of men and women as arising from the proximate causes of hormonal and neural factors that we can study directly, without reference to the more speculative ultimate causes of evolutionary history.

This suggests then that libertarians and conservatives generally might accept human biological nature as the ground of ethics and politics, even while doubting evolutionary theory.

Kent Guida said...

If Rothbard was familiar with your commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric that's another indications he was one of the great polymaths. Seems like there was virtually nothing he didn't know more about than everyone else.

One substantive area where Rothbard might have had trouble with your theory (other than evolution in general) is in your list of natural desires and the conclusions you draw from it. In particular, #7, Social Ranking, #9 Political Rule and #10 War are items where Rothbard and other hardcore libertarians might want to get off the bus.

I don't recall Rothbard ever discussing the desire to dominate or the desire for hierachy or thymos in any systematic way, but this is one aspect of the biological approach to natural right that seems to conflict with Rothbard's political philosophy. In ignoring thymos and its part in human nature Rothbard shares the weakness of practically all modern thinkers at least since Hobbes.

But maybe Mr. Gordon would have a different view.

This is a great blog, and I hope it continues to attract interest.
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...


You've made a good point.

Although much of Rothbard's libertarianism is persuasive to me, his argument for a stateless anarchy does seem to deny the natural human propensities for social status, political rule, and war. On this point, I would be closer to Hayek's limited government stance than to Rothbard's anarcho-capitalism.

Kent Guida said...

Regarding Hayek: on the one hand he was clearly influenced by Darwin, and went pretty far down the road with 'cultural evolution.' On the other hand, perhaps under the influence of Mises' utilitarianism and Weber, he seemed to be quite hostile to any ideas that smacked of natural right.

This has always been a bit of a puzzle to me. Did you ever discuss this with him? Or know of anyone who did?
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...


I never spoke with Hayek. From reading his works and talking with people who knew him, it is clear that the idea of evolution was central to his thought. Alan Ebenstein's book brings this out.

And yet, as I indicate in DARWINIAN EVOLUTION, Hayek stressed cultural evolution (as being "between instinct and reason") in a manner that suggested cultural relativism. But his general argument for liberty suggested that it must satisfy some universal desires of the human species.

Although Hayek was suspicious of natural law/natural right reasoning, he implicitly drew upon that tradition as filtered through the Scottish moral sense philosophers who deeply shaped Hayek's thought.