Monday, December 11, 2006

Another Response to Sandefur

Timothy Sandefur has a post on my reply to his review of Darwinian Conservatism.

He elaborates his argument that libertarianism and traditionalist conservatism are incompatible, and that Darwinian naturalism supports libertarianism but not traditionalist conservatism. His main point is that while the libertarian believes that social order is to be judged by how well it serves the happiness and flourishing of individuals, the conservative believes that individuals are to be judged by how well they serve the stability of social order.

I will concede that Russell Kirk's deep scorn for libertarian thought drove him to describe his Burkean conservatism in a way that drove a wedge between conservatism and libertarianism. But as I have argued in my previous post and in my book, the libertarianism of people like Hayek is actually compatible with Burkean conservatism. Although Hayek did not like to call himself a "conservative," he appealed to Burke throughout his writing, and he insisted that "true individualism" (as opposed to "false individualism") was consistent with Burkean thought.

Like the Burkean conservatives, Hayek repeatedly stressed the need for moral order rooted in tradition or custom to secure the social conditions for liberty. In Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek observed that "coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society where conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable" (p. 24). In support of this idea, he quotes Burke: "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites." Moreover, Hayek writes, "It must remain an open question whether a free or individualistic society can be worked successfully if people are too 'individualistic' in the false sense, if they are too unwilling voluntarily to conform to traditions and conventions, and if they refuse to recognize anything which is not consciously designed or which cannot be demonstrated as rational to every individual" (p. 26).

For Kirk, the necessary moral traditions were ultimately rooted in some permanent order of the universe manifested in enduring human nature and religious belief in a transcendent order. By contrast, Hayek was a skeptic. And yet he saw no necessary conflict between his classical liberalism and religion. "Unlike the rationalism of the French Revolution, true liberalism has no quarrel with religion, and I can only deplore the militant and essentially illiberal antireligionism which animated so much of nineteenth-century Continental liberalism. . . . What distinguishes the liberal from the conservative here is that, however profound his own spiritual beliefs, he will never regard himself as entitled to impose them on others and that for him the spiritual and the temporal are different spheres which ought not to be confused" (The Constitution of Liberty, p. 407).

This last point leads Sandefur to warn against Kirk as a "theocrat" who "called for an established religion in America." But here I would say that he is not being fair to Kirk. Kirk accepted the First Amendment principle that Congress should not establish a national church. "Christian teaching," Kirk claimed, "is intended to govern the soul, not the state." He warned that it was a mistake for the church to usurp the powers of the state. Although Kirk thought religion was essential for social order, he thought that no particular church should be established by the state, because he believed in religious liberty as a hard-won legacy of the Western tradition.

In listing his "Ten Conservative Principles", Kirk began with the principle of "an enduring moral order" rooted in a constant human nature. Darwinian science supports that principle by accounting for human nature, including the natural moral sense.

As Sandefur indicates, some conservatives are suspicious of Darwinian accounts of human nature as a product of evolutionary history, because they fear that this falls short of the eternal order that they seek. But my claim is that even if Darwinian human nature is not necessarily a fulfillment of some eternal, cosmic purpose, this human nature is still an enduring ground for moral judgment. Moreover, the question of whether this evolutionary nature is guided by some supernatural cause is left open for those who would move beyond nature to nature's God.

Some skeptical libertarians see no need for such a move beyond nature. But shouldn't they see the openness to divine mystery as one of the deepest expressions of individual liberty?


Neil Parille said...

In his series of lectures at the Heritage Foundation before his death, Kirk said that it was wrong for people to deny the basic accuracy of biological evolution, if my memory serves me correctly. I believe these lectures are collected in Redeeming the Time.

Anonymous said...

I hope Tim also sees this; I'd have left it at his blog, but he doesn't seem to allow comments.

I've rarely seen a better example of two people talking past each other. I'm having trouble following both your arguments because I've never read most of the chaps you're using as sources and authorities, but I think I follow you well enough to see that you're both suffering from a very basic logical error: you haven't defined your terms. In the modern context, what is a liberal? a conservative? a libertarian? I suggest that at least the first two words are rorshach blots, with no fixed definitions. You and Tim are each defining them in the way that best supports your argument. Unfortunately, the two definitions differ in some major ways, so getting a meaningful debate going seems difficult at best.

Kent Guida said...

Sandefur's comments are more political than philosophical. Today's libertarian movement was conceived as a way of distinguishing itself from the conservative movement -- an explicitly anti-fusionist strategy. Cato is the flagship of this movement, and Sandefur is mostly echoing this line. As you point out, he takes an extreme interpretation of thinkers he considers opponents in an effort to sharpen the differences. Hayek is a problem for this group, because he was not an orthodox libertarian.

This has nothing to do with Darwinian natural right. It has practically nothing to do with political philosophy. It's a matter of political strategy.
Unfortunately, you have ended up in a no-man's land between these two factions, and you are taking fire from both.

Libertarians won't accept some of your catalogue of natural desires relating to social ranking, political rule and war (because libertarians generally follow the moderns in ignoring or denying thumos.) And they will be critical of some others because they seem to restrict the scope of human choice (this is what Sandefur seems to object to most.)

And conservatives like Mansfield take pot shots because they tend to be extreme essentialists who have metaphysical problems with Darwin -- how can there be a human nature if species are not eternal? Not to mention the theological objections to evolutionary theory.

As for modern liberals, you won't get the time of day from that quarter.

So I'm afraid you are a man without a party -- not that there is anything wrong with that. I just hope you persist in your patient explanations of your theory, which will eventually find an audience among those who think beyond political strategy.

Best regards,
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...

Thanks, Kent. You have given me an insightful explanation of my predicament. But I wish your explanation of my predicament offered me some escape from it!

I recognize the implicit criticism--that you were kind enough not to make explicit--that I am foolish in trying to move from political philosophy ("Darwinian natural right") to political ideology ("Darwinian conservatism").

Kent Guida said...

No, really, I did not intended it as a criticism. It was more of a compliment for your tenacity and patience in dealing with your critics.

I do think that your thought would cause practically anyone to revise their political views to some degree -- conservative, libertarian, or liberal. And as you know, this is not something people do easily.

Libertarians are fond of talking about the obsolescence of left and right. I think DNR has something of that effect -- it undermimes conventional definitions of conservative and libertarian. The problem is with the categories and the partisans, not the theory.

I think moving from DNR to DC was a very important step. And the analysis in DC is brilliant -- particularly in your ability to sort out so many strands of thought. The analysis of Hayek alone makes the the exercise worthwhile. (I am searching for comments from the Hayekian community, but have found none. Did I miss something?)

But, as I'm sure you know, people who live in the political arena have only a fleeting interest in philosophy and are not likely to give your work the thought it requires. I think it will have the effect you intend on libertarian-conservative thought, but it will take a while.

Just curious -- did you ever consider the title Darwinian Libertarianism? How about Darwinian Aristotelianism? Or even Darwinian Liberalism, understood in the Aristotelian sense? It would open up new frontiers of vilification.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to the book?

Larry Arnhart said...


I can't really complain about the reaction to either DNR or DC. After all, they have provoked a lively debate. I never expected many people to fully agree with me. But at least many people have taken me seriously enough to criticize me!

What is most interesting here is how we are now going through a transitional period. On the one hand, there is great confusion about established categories of political thought--conservative, libertarian, neoconservative, liberal, socialist and so on. And, on the other hand, there is also a lot of rumination about how the emerging science of human nature--in evolutionary theory, neuroscience, game-theoretic social science, and elsewhere--might influence social and political theory. We could hope that this new science of human nature could shape a new set of categories in political thought.

My thought is that there might emerge a new Aristotelianism of ordered liberty rooted in scientific naturalism. (I have long admired the work of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl. And I am wondering how their recent book--NORMS OF LIBERTY: A PERFECTIONIST BASIS FOR NON-PERFECTIONIST POLITICS might contribute to my thinking.)