Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Aristotelian Prudence of Bonobos

In the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, we have "Politics and the Life Sciences" as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Many of our Ph.D. students have combined "biopolitics" with political theory and other traditional areas of research in political science. Andrea Bonnicksen, Rebecca Hannagan, and I are the three faculty members who teach in this area. One of the things we do is compare human politics with the political behavior of other primates--particularly, chimpanzees and bonobos.

The Milwaukee County Zoo has the largest group of bonobos in captivity. And so I have taken some of my students to visit the Milwaukee Zoo to see the bonobos. This semester Bonnicksen will be taking some of her students there.

Many people find it weird, if not ridiculous, that political scientists would be looking for political behavior among apes. But for me, this is an extension of Aristotle's biological science of political animals.

Last year, Jo Sandin published a book--Bonobos: Encounters in Empathy--on the Milwaukee bonobos. Dr. Harry Prosen is a psychiatrist who has worked with the bonobos there for some years. Sandin reports that Prosen's colleagues in the psychiatric community have been impressed by his accounts of the practical judgment shown by some of the bonobos. In particular, Lody--until recently, the alpha male--is said by Dr. Prosen to show "evidence of wisdom, in the Aristotelian sense: the ability to see life in all its aspects and to act in a way that benefits others." According to Prosen, "Lody's empathetic behaviors and ability to use good judgment in parenting skills, discipline and, in many instances, the demonstration of altruistic behaviors have had a powerful impact on the development of the juvenile males in the bonobo group" (Sandin, pp. 51-52).

Many people would dismiss as silly the idea that apes might exercise prudence or practical judgment, which Aristotle regarded as the primary intellectual capacity for moral and political life. But Aristotle's biological writings would suggest that he himself would take this seriously. After all, he often attributes prudence (phronesis) to nonhuman animals--and particularly, to those he identifies as political animals. Although he does not speak of apes as political, he does recognize their remarkable similarities to human beings and suggests that they are the animals most closely related to human beings.

As I have suggested in previous posts, the importance of prudence--judging what is best in the particular circumstances of particular individuals--across many animal species shows the complexity and contingency of animal behavior, so that we cannot predict animal behavior with precision. The failure to achieve predictive power in the scientific study of human politics shows a pattern that holds across all animal behavior. A biological science of political animals would be a historical science of particular individuals and groups with complex cultural traditions.

Two previous posts on bonobos can be found here and here. Some of my posts on animal prudence can be found here, here, and here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Moving from "Is" to "Ought"

In arguing for Darwinian conservatism, one of my fundamental claims is that there is a universal human nature shaped by natural selection that supports the natural desires that motivate moral judgment. More specifically, I argue that there are at least twenty natural desires that are universal to all human societies because they are rooted in human biology, and these twenty natural desires provide a universal basis for moral experience.

I agree with Thomas Aquinas that "something is good insofar as it is desirable" (Summa Theologica, I, q. 5, a. 6). If the good is the desirable, then the satisfaction of our natural desires constitutes a universal standard for judging social practice as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required in judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances.

Many contemporary philosophers would complain that I am overlooking the distinction between "facts" and "values" or "is" and "ought." They would say that we can not infer moral values from natural facts because what we ought to do is not the same as what we actually do. So from the fact that we desire something, we cannot infer that it is good for us to desire it.

But I would say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value or is/ought dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken--because what we desire is not truly desirable for us--then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. In Darwin's account of the moral sense, he explains how deliberation can lead us to regret our past behavior, and thus how we can learn to judge our present choices in the light of past experience and future expectations.

Whenever a moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why? And ultimately the only final answer to that question, Because it's desirable for you as something that will fulfill you or make you happy. And if I am right about my list of twenty desires as rooted in human nature, then this would constitute a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings, although the specification of what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances will vary.

Contemporary philosophers often don't see that the move from facts to values is not logical but psychological. Because normal human beings have the human nature that they do, which includes propensities to moral emotions, they predictably react to certain facts with strong feelings of approval or disapproval, and the generalizations of these feelings across a society constitute their moral judgments.

Although contemporary philosophers commonly attribute the fact-value or is/ought dichotomy to David Hume, I believe that Hume belongs to a tradition of moral naturalism that I defend, and that the sharp separation of natural facts and moral values derives not from Hume but from Kant.

I have elaborated some of these points in Darwinian Natural Right, especially pages 69-83 and 158-160.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Political Animals--Rediscovering Aristotle's Political Biology

The New York Times has published an article by Natalie Angier entitled "Political Animals (Yes, Animals)." She surveys some of the latest research on the remarkable similarities between human politics and the political behavior of other mammals.

As the title of the article indicates, this is presented as a surprising new discovery of science. But as any reader of this blog would know, the comparative study of political animals began with Aristotle. From his observations of animal behavior, Aristotle concluded that some animals are solitary and others are gregarious. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not. The distinguishing characteristic of the political animals is that they cooperate for collective action.

Following in the tradition of Aristotle, I would argue that a true science of politics would have to be a biological science of political animals. For a few samples of my posts on this, go here, here, and here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Nature's God and the Theology of Evolution

The Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (January 19) has a good article by Jeremy Manier on attempts to reconcile biblical theology and evolutionary science.

The theological implications of Darwinian evolution has been a recurrent topic for this blog. Some of my previous posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

One of the good points made in this article is that Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins and intelligent design creationists like William Dembski agree in their understanding of God. "For both camps, the only God who makes sense is one who designed all life with exquisite attention to detail."

The main theme for this article is how some people who accept the truth of Darwinian science are questioning this understanding of God. If God must intervene miraculously to design every complex feature of life, then this would be incompatible with the Darwinian explanation of how living complexity could have evolved by natural law. But now some theologians and scientists are wondering whether this is really a correct conception of how God works. Is God unable or unwilling to work through evolutionary natural laws? If God must design everything down to every detail, does that mean that all of the evil in the world is a product of divine design? Or does God express His love by allowing the world to evolve without controlling all of the details?

What I find most interesting is how so much of this discussion is carried out without any careful attention to the Bible itself. If one were to read the Bible without any preconceptions, the Biblical God would not look much like the God assumed by the intelligent design creationists. The God of the Bible is not presented as concerned with designing everything down to the last detail. "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth" (Genesis 1:1). But He allows parts of His creation to develop on their own: "Let the earth produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants, and fruit trees on earth, bearing fruit with their seed inside" (Genesis 1:11).

Moreover, the Biblical God is presented as surprised by much of what happens in history. For example, having created human beings, God later regrets what He has done because they have become so wicked (Genesis 6:5-8). Noah's flood is God's attempt to start over again. In fact, throughout the Bible, God is depicted as experimenting with various arrangements without knowing for sure how they will turn out. If readers of the Bible don't see this element of contingency and uncertainty in God's actions, that's only because they come to the Bible with assumptions about God's omnipotence and omniscience--assumptions of traditional monotheistic theology that are not clearly dictated by the Biblical text.

Furthermore, as I have noted in previous posts, the Bible does not offer any precise dating for Creation and the history of the universe. Some editions of the Bible will have "4,004 B.C." as a date at the top of the first page of Genesis. But this date is not actually in the original Hebrew text of Genesis. This date comes from the work of Anglican Bishop James Ussher in the seventeenth century. Creationists who insist that the world was created 6,000 years ago get this not from the Bible but from a tradition of dating started by Ussher.

It is clear, of course, that the Biblical God does intervene miraculously. But most of these miraculous interventions are part of salvational history rather than natural history. The Bible does not say that God had to miraculously create bacterial flagella. But it does say that God had to miraculously take on bodily form in Jesus for the sake of redeeming human beings. Such miracles are required not for the intelligent design of living nature but for the salvation of human beings.

In other words, the Bible is not a textbook of natural science but a story of God's dealings with human beings as creatures who have lost their way in the world and seek to return to their home with God.

Natural science can neither confirm nor deny this miraculous history of God's loving interactions with human beings. But natural science can study that intelligible order of nature that God has allowed to unfold in natural history, and such study should stir a sense of wonder before the beauty of that natural order.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pinker on The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker has an article on "The Moral Instinct" in The New York Times Magazine (January 13).

This is an excellent survey of the recent research and theorizing supporting the idea of a moral instinct as shaped by evolution. It briefly surveys some of the work that is more elaborately stated in Marc Hauser's book The Moral Mind and in some of the writing of Jonathan Haidt. Much of the article will sound familiar to anyone who has read Pinker's book The Blank Slate. But one can also see how the recent work has clarified some points that remain a little obscure in Pinker's book.

One fruitful advance is Haidt's scheme for analyzing the moral instinct into five universal themes--harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. Although these are universal themes for moral experience, moral diversity arises from cultural disagreement over the ranking or specification of these themes. Moral debate arises from such disagreement. Most of these themes are implicit in my account of the 20 natural human desires. But the theme of purity does not arise in my account. I'll have to think more about that.

Another advance is the use of brain imaging--particularly, fMRI--to uncover the neural basis for moral experience, which provides more support for the hypothesis that there are genes for morality that work by guiding the development of the brain.

As Pinker indicates, biological explanations of morality elicit much fear from people who think such explanations will subvert our moral motivation by leading to the conclusion that morality is just an illusion imposed on us by our genes working through brain mechanisms. Pinker rightly shows that this fear is not warranted because a biological explanation of morality helps us to see how moral experience is not culturally arbitrary or individually subjective, because we can see how this moral experience is rooted in human nature and the nature of things. Given our nature as social and rational animals, we generally benefit from finding ways to cooperate with one another. And those who are most successful in earning the benefits of cooperation are those who have the virtuous character traits that make them deserving of admiration.

But at the same time, this biological view of morality also helps us to understand why a few people have the evolved disposition to be cheaters because they can exploit the cooperative dispositions of most people. A few people are saints, and a few are dedicated cheaters. Most people are conditional cooperators who cooperate as long as they see that most other people in their group are cooperating and not cheating.

It should also be noticed that Pinker shows how the biological view of morality combines emotion and reason. Much of our moral experience turns on gut reactions: we have some immediate feeling that something is right or wrong, and then we grope for some reason to justify this feeling. But moral reasoning can criticize our moral emotions. For example, the practice of slavery was once supported by deep moral emotions, but eventually slavery was challenged by arguments that slavery was unfair in its exploitation of the slave, arguments that could elicit the moral emotions of fairness as reciprocity and direct them against slavery.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Huck Finn Meets Abraham Lincoln

In response to my previous post, "Memetic Warrior" has observed that Huck Finn is torn between two moral commitments--one to the slave society in which he was raised and the other to the friendship he develops with Jim. A Darwinian account of morality would explain this as a tragic conflict between tribal loyalties. We are naturally social animals who cooperate with other members of our group against outsiders. But our deepest moral conflicts come when we are torn between competing group loyalties.

As I have indicated in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, the moral and political debate over slavery is a profound illustration of such a tragic conflict of interests. Mark Twain's Huck Finn experiences that conflict. In an 1895 lecture, Twain said that his novel supports "the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency, a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience," because a conscience "can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it." Huck's conscience has been trained to approve slavery, and it is only his "sound heart" that allows him to see the injustice of slavery once he has become friends with Jim.

I would say, however, that Twain doesn't grasp the full complexity of the moral tragedy in American slavery, because he presents us with only two alternatives: either we're pro-slavery or we're abolitionists. When Huck goes to the Grangerford house in Kentucky (in Chapter 17), he sees a book of Henry Clay's speeches, but nothing is said in the novel about Clay's position on the slavery debate, although Twain's father and his brother Orion were supporters of Clay. Clay's statesmanship shaped the world of Huck Finn, because Clay was largely responsible for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, while forever forbidding slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory above the latitude at the Southern border of Missouri. Clay denounced slavery as a great moral evil, but he was himself a Kentucky slaveholder who feared that any attempt at immediately abolishing slavery would destroy the Union and provoke a race war. He argued for enforcing the constitutional protections for slavery--such as fugitive slave laws--while working for the gradual abolition of slavery through voluntary emancipation and compensated colonization of freed slaves outside the United States. Abraham Lincoln adopted Clay's compromise position as a prudent way to avoid the extremes of pro-slavery fanaticism on the one hand and abolititionist fanaticism on the other.

The thoughtful reader of Twain's novel might question Twain's failure to appreciate the prudent statesmanship of Clay and Lincoln. Huck's "sound heart" is sentimentally appealing, but it disregards the importance of the rule of law and constitutional government. Huck decides to break the law by helping Jim to escape without considering the consequences of such lawlessness, because Huck's childish rebellion against adult society and attempts to "sivilize" him implies a utopian anarchism in which individuals live freely without government.

The dubiousness of Huck's position is apparent to any reader who notices how dependent Huck is on law and government. For example, he needs government to protect him against his abusive father. Moreover, the final chapters of the novel are taken up with Tom Sawyer's imaginary games for making Jim's escape "fun" for the boys. As a result, Tom is shot and almost killed, and Jim is recaptured. Jim finally gets his freedom only because Miss Watson--his owner--has emancipated him in her will, because she felt guilty about his enslavement. Such voluntary emancipation is what Clay and Lincoln hoped would eventually lead to the extinction of slavery without violence.

Of course, the fact that the final emancipation of slaves came only through Civil War might seem to indicate the ultimate failure of the Clay/Lincoln strategy of prudent compromise. The refusal of the confederate states to accept the outcome of the Presidential election of 1860 made peaceful, legal compromise impossible, and thus the moral conflict over slavery had to be settled by force of arms. But even so, the North could not have defeated the South if Lincoln had been a pure abolitionist, because then the border states of Missouri and Kentucky would have left the Union, and this probably would have allowed the South to prevail.

My general point here is that the American debate over slavery shows the complexity of tragic moral conflicts with moral emotions combined with prudential judgments. A Darwinian explanation of morality must capture the full complexity of such conflicts. Twain's novel conveys some, but not all, of that complexity.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Huck Finn's Darwinian Morality

Many times on this blog, I have argued that Darwin's account of the moral sense as shaped by moral emotions and practical deliberation explains the evolved nature of morality, which does not depend upon religious belief. Mark Twain's Huck Finn illustrates that Darwinian moral sense at work. Twain's understanding of morality was deeply shaped by his reading of Darwin's Descent of Man, and Darwin's influence on his writing is set forth in Sherwood Cummings' book Mark Twain and Science (1988).

Darwin saw that since moral norms were largely shaped by social praise and blame, and since such social norms tended to favor one's own tribal group against others, the moral conscience could be distorted by deformed social traditions. The traditional acceptance of slavery was for Darwin a preeminent illustration of how socially learned traditions could distort moral judgment. And yet he saw moral progress as people recognized the humanity of slaves and felt emotions of concern for their condition. Eventually, the extension of sympathy to ever wider groups and the rational deliberation on principles of reciprocity would lead to recognition of the Golden Rule as a fundamental standard of morality.

In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain depicts the power of social learning in supporting slavery. People in antebellum America were taught in their churches that the Bible showed the sacredness of slavery, and they were reared to believe that racial differences supported the natural inferiority of black slaves. But Twain also shows how Huck's deepening friendship with the slave Jim leads him to see Jim's shared humanity and to feel a moral concern for his welfare.

And yet because of his rearing in a slave society, Huck feels guilty in helping Jim to escape from his slavery. In one of the greatest passages in American literature--in Chapter 31 of Huck Finn--we see Huck thinking about what he should do. He calls up before his mind his experiences with Jim and the deep feelings that he has for Jim, while weighing this against the guilt that will come from violating the religious norms of his society. He figures that if he helps Jim escape, he will go to hell for his sins. But he finally concludes: "All right, then, I'll go to hell."

This is a masterful depiction of Darwin's understanding of moral judgment--of how powerful social learning is for shaping and sometimes distorting our judgment, of how religious teaching can contribute to that distortion, and yet of how humanitarian sympathy and deliberate reasoning can lead sensitive and perceptive people to reject the callous and cruel behavior dictated by unwarranted social prejudices.

This also illustrates Darwin's understanding of the complex relationship betweem morality and religion. On the one hand, religion can reinforce exploitatiive social traditions such as those favoring the tyranny of masters over slaves. On the other hand, religion can also challenge such exploitative traditions insofar as religion warns us of the danger of human selfishness and teaches the widening of our moral sympathies to embrace all of humanity. And yet the capacity for moral judgment that Twain depicts in Huck reflects a naturally evolved moral sense that stands on its own regardless of religious belief.