Sunday, July 29, 2007

Political Judgment in Darwinian Political Science

A Darwinian political science would have to move through three levels of political history. The first level would be the natural history of political universals as shaped by the genetic evolution of the species. By "political universals" I mean the recurrent patterns of political behavior that characterize human politics generally in every human community. So, for example, the tendency for every political community to be organized as a dominance hierarchy with the "people" defering to the dominance of the one or the few. This seems to be part of the inherited propensities that human beings share with other primates. Even in democracies, all citizens are not equal in their power or status. This behavioral propensity to dominance and deference is probably part of the genetic nature of the human species.

The second level of political history in Darwinian political science would be the social history of political cultures as shaped by cultural evolution. By "political cultures" I mean the somewhat variable patterns of political behavior that distinguish different political communities. Contrary to popular belief, cultural learning is not uniquely human, because researchers in animal behavior have shown that many social animals have some capacity for culture. For example, different chimpanzee communities in Africa are distinguishable by their various cultural traditions that apparently arise as innovations made by individual animals that have spread throughout the community by learning or imitation. So, if one reads, for instance, Jane Goodall's CHIMPANZEES OF GOMBE, one can see some patterns of political behavior--like dominance and submission--that are universal to all chimpanzee groups; but one can also see some behavioral traditions at Gombe (such as certain kinds of tool-use) that are found at Gombe but not in some other chimpanzee groups. Similarly, of course, human communities show great cultural variability in political behavior. While every human community shows dominance and deference, the cultural institutions or norms for regulating the pursuit of dominance are highly variable. S. E. Finer's HISTORY OF GOVERNMENT surveys the history of the many cultural inventions in government that would illustrate this.

Finally, the third level of political history for Darwinian political science is the individual history of political judgments that reflects the highly variable decisions of individual political actors in particular circumstances. Goodall's history of the chimps at Gombe shows that chimps have individual personalities that reflect innate temperament and individual life histories. In navigating their way through the complex social environment at Gombe, individual chimps must make decisions that influence not only their individual lives but also the social life of the community. We can see the same kind of variability in human political communities, which is captured in political biographies. So, for example, the life of Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate historians and political scientists because we can see that his political judgments were crucial for the political history of the United States. His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, brought a critical turn in American political history.

At the level of the natural history of political universals, we could explain Lincoln's political life as manifesting the sort of dominance drive or political ambition that one sees throughout political history in every political community. At the level of the social history of political cultures, we could explain Lincoln's political life as shaped by the peculiar political culture of nineteenth-century America, which would include the constitutional framework of American government and the problem of slavery in American politics. Finally, at the level of the individual history of political judgment, we could see how Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was constrained by, or responsive to, the political universals of political ambition and the political culture of American political institutions. But this would still not fully explain Lincoln's political judgments, such as the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Aristotle indicated in Book 6 of the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, the intellectual virtue crucial for moral or political action is prudence or practical judgment, which is the intuitive capacity to judge what should be done in particular circumstances where it is impossible to infer any right answer by general rules or logic. The historical contingency and complexity of political life make it necessary to rely on such practical wisdom in circumstances where it is impossible to determine the right answer by purely logical means.

Leslie Paul Thiele's new book THE HEART OF JUDGMENT: PRACTICAL WISDOM, NEUROSCIENCE, AND NARRATIVE is the best single book I have ever read on the subject of political judgment. Thiele's book is a good beginning towards thinking about how the study of political judgment could fit into a Darwinian political science. Thiele shows how contemporary neuroscience illuminates the character of judgment by exploring its roots in the brain. Thiele argues that by indicating the dependence of judgment on worldly experience, emotional dispositions, intuitive insights, and narrative thinking, neuroscience confirms the wisdom of Aristotle's account of prudence.

Darwinian political science would have to be complex, because it would have to capture the complexity of political life as it arises from the complex interaction of political nature, political culture, and political prudence.

No comments: