Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Darwinian History of Human Rights and Empathy

Darwinian political history would be an important part of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education." Such a history would be what Dan Smail calls "deep history," which would include "neurohistory." Narrative human history always rests upon psychological assumptions by which we project ourselves into the minds of historical actors to try to understand how and why they felt, thought, and acted they way they did in the circumstances they faced. In political history, we assume that big changes in political regimes must have been associated with big changes in the psychological profile of the human beings living within those regimes.

Darwinian neuroscience should allow us to explain this as historical changes in the human brain. This is complicated, because as Wendell Berry has argued (against E. O. Wilson), we can't rely on a simple reductionistic formula: "mind = brain = machine." The correct formula is much more complex: "mind = brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history. 'History' here would mean not just documented events but the whole heritage of culture, language, memory, tools, and skills. Mind in this definition has become hard to locate in an organ, organism, or place. It has become an immaterial presence or possibility that is capable of being embodied and placed."

If I am right in my recent posts about the biological character and the genetic basis of human rights, then the cultural and political history of human rights should provide an illustration of Darwinian neurohistory. We should also see in this history of human rights whether a Darwinian moral psychology can respond to Nietzsche's challenge: Does the death of God--the death of all cosmic support for morality--mean the death of all morality?

In fact, we can see such a history in Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History (Norton, 2007). The crucial point for the history of human rights, she insists, is the claim of self-evidence, as in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." The self-evidence of human rights depends partially on reason, but more so on emotion, and especially the emotional experience of empathy. That human capacity for empathy is rooted in the neural structures of the human brain, but the extension of empathy to ever wider circles of humanity depends on cultural history working on the neural plasticity of the brain.

We can see, then, that Hunt follows a Darwinian moral psychology by stressing the primacy of moral emotions for moral motivation, a position elaborated by Edward Westermarck and Jonathan Haidt. She also relies on modern neuroscientific research on the neural bases of empathy. I have written many posts on the neuroscience of the moral instinct.

As I have in previous posts, Hunt indicates the problem with human rights as expressed by Jacques Maritain in 1948: "we agree about the rights on condition that no one asks us why" (20). Typically, philosophers protest that this is a scandalous situation, because we should be able to support our moral principles with logical proofs. But Hunt rightly sees that this misses the point that the morality of human rights--and perhaps all moral experience--depends more on emotion than on reason.

Writing in the middle of the 18th century, in the Encyclopedie, Denis Diderot wrote an article on "natural right" (droit naturel), explaining that "the use of this term is so familiar that there is almost no one who would not be convinced inside himself that the thing is obviously known to him. This interior feeling is common both to the philosopher and to the man who has not reflected at all" (26). A long chapter in Hunt's book is devoted to showing how early modern novels--particularly Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie--cultivated the "interior feeling" favorable to human rights. As Hunt indicates, Diderot seemed to agree with this in his eulogy of Richardson. "His characters are taken from ordinary society. . . the passions he depicts are those I feel in myself." Diderot goes on to write: "One feels oneself drawn to the good with an impetuosity one does not recognize. When faced with injustice, you experience a disgust that you do not know how to explain to yourself" (54-56). Thus, a novel can work its moral effect by drawing the reader into the narrative, feeling emotional resonance with the ordinary human characters of the novel, and thereby cultivating an experience of empathy that supports a humanitarian sentiment favorable to human rights.

The novels of Richardson and Rousseau were put on the papal Index of Forbidden Books, because religious leaders feared that novels were morally corrupting by appealing to human emotions contrary to the traditional Christian teaching that human emotions express a sinful nature that must be suppressed by Church discipline and legal punishment. As I have argued in some other posts, this illustrates the conflict between a metaphysical ethics of cosmic order or divine will and an empirical ethics of human nature or moral sentiment. As Hunt shows, the emergence of the modern idea of human rights shows this conflict in that proponents of human rights were ambivalent as to whether human rights depended on religious metaphysics--all human beings created in God's image--or whether human rights could be rooted in the purely secular experience of human moral emotions. According to Hunt, "the ground of all authority was shifting from a transcendental religious framework to an inner human one" (83). Scottish philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith were contributing to that shift by their appeal to sympathy and the moral sentiments, which was later adopted by Charles Darwin and then elaborated by other proponents of Darwinian moral psychology.

One clear illustration of how empathy and the moral emotions sustained the movement to human rights is the condemnation of legal torture as a violation of human rights. Traditionally, torture was regarded as a proper means by which legal authorities could extract confessions or punish malefactors. But, then, in the 18th century, the unjustified suffering of the victims of torture was so vividly depicted by critics as a barbarous violation of human dignity, that there was a broad movement in Europe and North America to ban torture as "cruel and unusual punishment." Hunt writes: "Torture ended because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness and to bodily inviolability and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments, and sympathies as themselves" (112).

In his Second Treatise, John Locke had justified the idea of natural rights with two kinds of principles--"divine workmanship" and "self-ownership." If human beings are created by God in His Image, then they have a divinely created worth that cannot be properly denied by those who would deprive them of their sacred rights. But if each human being is naturally inclined to take possession of himself in mind and body, and if each man can see that all other men assert the same self-possession, then this human experience of self-ownership could be a purely secular ground of human rights. The modern move towards understanding human rights as rooted in the secular human experience of empathy and moral emotions relies on Locke's secular principle of self-ownership without the religious principle of divine workmanship.

Even as Hunt stresses the primacy of emotion in this understanding of human rights, she also recognizes the role of reason. Human rights have a kind of "inner logic" or a "kind of conceivability or thinkability scale" (150). She illustrates this by showing how the French revolutionaries were driven by the logic of human rights to extend the circle of humanitarian concern. Declaring that all human beings are equal in their natural rights inevitably inclines us to expand that equal protection to new groups of human beings. So, for example, once the French revolutionary leaders had granted religious liberty to Protestant Christians, this made it easier to see the need for granting liberty to Jews.

Nevertheless, as Hunt shows, that logic of human rights was slowed in the 19th century by various ideological movements--nationalism, scientific racism, and Marxism--that were opposed to universal human rights. As Hunt indicates, and as I have noted in some other posts, the natural human disposition to empathy is constrained by a natural tribalism, so that we feel less concern for those we regard as strangers or enemies. The Volkish nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis was an extreme manifestation of this natural tribalism.

Eventually, however, the moral revulsion against the barbarous atrocities of the first half of the 20th century provoked a renewal of the human rights movement beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. We can continue to see the emotional psychology of human rights in the work of governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) that publicize those brutal practices around the world that elicit our moral repugnance in the service of human rights.

This emotional resonance of empathy expressed in the disgust with cruelty confirms, Hunt concludes, the natural grounding of human rights in human moral emotions. "The history of human rights shows that rights are best defended in the end by the feelings, convictions, and actions of multitudes of individuals, who demand responses that accord with their inner sense of outrage" (213). "The process had and has an undeniable circularity to it: you know the meaning of human rights because you feel distressed when they are violated. The truths of human rights might be paradoxical in this sense, but they are nonetheless still self-evident" (214).

This history of human rights shows, Hunt explains, the complex interaction of genetic nature, neural structures, and cultural history.

"Needless to say, empathy was not invented in the eighteenth century. The capacity for empathy is universal because it is rooted in the biology of the brain; it depends on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine their inner experiences are like one's own. . . ."

"Normally, everyone learns empathy at an early age. Although biology provides an essential predisposition, each culture shapes the expression of empathy in its own particular fashion. Empathy only develops through social interaction; therefore, the forms of that interaction configure empathy in important ways. In the eighteenth century, readers of novels learned to extend their purview of empathy" (39).


Paul said...

Human beings vary in their tendency toward empathy. One of the big five personality factors is called Agreeableness, which seems to describe two separate functions of the brain. The first is called theory of mind, and it describes how well someone can guess at and predict the mental and emotional states of others, as well as manipulate them. The other is empathy, which involves the brain actually feeling the emotions it imagines others to have when considering their mental state. Human beings vary considerably in this grouping of traits, just as they do with the other traits, such that there are a significant number of human beings who simply do not feel empathy nearly as much as others. Not only that, but those who don't feel much empathy are more likely to advance to positions of power.

The fact that we can recognize that human experience varies widely from person to person and has heritable, neurological underpinnings suggests that Nietzsche drew the psychologically correct conclusion. Which is to say that for most of humanity, they do have the disposition to accept a universalist morality without need of reference to a higher, cosmic power. But simply due to natural, within tribe human bio-diversity, there will be powerful human beings who, because they are neurologically distinct from the rest of the population in terms of empathy, do not find that universalist morality to be really binding on themselves. They just understand it as imposed on them by powers outside of themselves.
So um, yes Mr. Arnhart is right, you don't need a cosmic justification for morality to maintain it in society, but also, Nietzsche is correct that the part of the population that isn't part of the herd naturally(those low in empathy) really do need a terrible and awesome God to convince them that the morality of the more agreeable people isn't just something arbitrarily rooted in the fact that they are weak(i.e. they are much more agreeable in terms of personality and hence much less independent of other's mental states).

The HBD crowd is really a bore insofar as they are nothing more than scientific racists. But I really think that Mr. Arnhart should give more consideration to attempting to read a more intelligent version of HBD into Nietzsche's writings, as I think that Nietzsche himself would love seeing the best of current cognitive science and the knowledge we have of the variation of traits within human populations back into his writings. I think that when Mr. Arnhart does this, he will better understand human moral history from a Darwinian perspective. Also, he will better be able to promote his views and to understand the real threats to the emerging consensus to human rights, which has to be with how the powerful, those generally lower on the agreeableness continuum, interact with the world and their own societies. The information is there waiting to be put together as to how societies, with their limited multiplicities of personalities, should be organized such to guarantee human rights, but no one that I know of in the contemporary world is doing such a thing. This is why, I think, that the politic writers in the canons of old world civilizations seem so much wiser and knowledgeable than contemporary political thinkers; they focused on the various personality types within a polity, and the ways in which they interacted with each other. Even their informed guesses produced a better understanding of politics then currently exists among contemporary wonks, pundits, lawyers, etc.

Larry Arnhart said...


Your comments here--about the human variability in empathy and other traits of temperament related to moral experience--are well stated.

I will be writing more about this in some future posts on the biology of empathy.

But for now I'll just note that the most dramatic manifestation of the problem to which you point is psychopathy. Although often very intelligent, psychopaths have little capacity for empathy. That's why I call them "moral strangers" in my chapter on psychopathy in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT.

The psychopathic personality is probably a product of genetic abnormalities that create neural abnormalities.

I am not sure that religious doctrines are going to make much difference for these kinds of people.

Vincent said...

I'm impressed by the post and comments. From history, I feel that religion has had a restraining influence where nothing else worked, but it too had its limitations. The Divine Right of Kings could be abused and was: but remained Europe's best attempt at a theocratic society in turbulent times.

On your last point, I'd say that the psychopath can be restrained only by government or people-power. When there is ineffective government or policing the emotional sense of outrage results in "summary justice" such as that of Ceau┼čescu and his wife in Romania in 1989; and similar forms of justice by violence where gangs rule. Perhaps it's because of psychopathy alone that moral values can't be assumed to reign intact in every heart, but have to be enforced somehow. Again, the moral instincts of the majority demand it.

But where the inner sense of rightness has been distorted by suffering prolonged oppression and cruelty, it can be perverted.

I suspect that psychopaths are the result of "brain + body + world + local dwelling place + community + history" and not just "genetic abnormalities that create neural abnormalities".

Tim said...

Interesting post and blog. I applaud your integration of much contemporary psychology and evolutionary thinking in addressing these issues.

My only point of contention is whether "Darwinian biology sustains conservative social thought."

I'm inclined to believe that both liberalism and conservatism (and everything in between) emerge from different evolved inclinations (empathy & tribalism, for example) in combination with experience. Some feel more strongly about empathy; others about in-group/out-group distinctions. This influences which political ideology we lean towards, and adopting a political ideology further reinforces those inclinations.

As such, I would suggest Darwinian biology (although I'd just call it 'evolutionary biology') sustains a dynamic pluralism of inclinations, moral intuitions, moral emotions and, as a result, a dynamic pluralism of political views - liberal and conservative.

The old Left has been incorrect, as you've stated, by assuming we're born a tabula rasa. The old Right has been incorrect (via the naturalistic fallacy) in justifying inequality from evolution.

The future, in my opinion, is an acknowledgement of the role evolution plays underpinning *all* our moral and political inclinations - and stepping back to map this dynamic pluralism.

Then to acknowledge that all moral inclinations (and, by extension, virtually all political ideologies) are trying to solve the same problem: i.e. how to get a large number of unrelated individuals to live and work together for mutual benefit.

There are multiple solutions to this problem, although no one is best in all situations (as demonstrated by game theory). This is why evolution equipped us with a diversity of inclinations to allow a diversity of solutions.

But today we need to focus on the root problem, and acknowledge there are multiple solutions, rather than attempt to elevate either liberalism or conservatism to the exclusion of the other but, instead, find the best solutions we can to the problems at hand.

I have more musings along these lines on my blog.

Thanks again for an interesting blog. I'll be adding it to my list of regular reads.

Vincent said...

I was stimulated to further comment by Tim's equation of conservatives as tribal and liberals as empathic. I see that Tim like me is British, so we ought to understand one another's definitions of conservatism, because the word doesn't necessarily have the same connotations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The academic's temptation might be to define conservatism in abstract terms, equivalent to an evolved inclination. But in practice it's an individual response to current environment, and tends to drift to the Right with age.

I would challenge the notion that in-group/out-group distinctions are central to conservatism; and suggest they are contingent characteristics not always present.

To me the essential characteristic of conservatism is looking to the past for the wisdom to meet today's problems; to have a sense of history and tradition.

From this angle, conservatism and Darwin make a perfect marriage.

What characterises the Left is a quest for breaking new ground in order to solve today's problems. Thus the old ideas of marriage, sexual behaviour, upbringing of children and all matters of social and political organisation, are at all times ripe for experimentation.

That Tim is of the Left is revealed in his concern for the future and finding new solutions to a "root problem" (coexistence) as old as the animal kingdom itself.

My conservatism is empathic, global, embracing every culture and species, confidently driven by instinct and emotion which consciously employ reason as their servant (but not their spin-doctor).

Tim said...

Were I British, I would suggest we arrange to discuss this over tea some time. However, I'm afraid I'm from the colonies - Australia, as it happens - and my definitions of liberal and conservative are more shaped by North American discourse than that of the Old World.

But I understand your characterisations - which are the more traditional characterisations of the liberal/conservative spectrum.

And I would agree that resistance to change (particularly when it's perceived to be for its own sake) is a trademark of conservatism; and openness to change is a signature of liberalism.

However, I see the political ideological spectrum to be more complex than just that. In fact, a one-dimensional spectrum hardly does justice to the wealth of nuanced positions in between (and above and below, to continue the spatial metaphor) liberalism and conservatism.

In this I draw upon political psychology, and researchers like Jon Jost, Christopher Federico, Paul Goren, Altermeyer, Sidanius and others. They primarily consider more North American conceptions of liberal and conservative, but there are overlaps with continental conceptions. They have found many fascinating correlations between political orientation and other psychological and personality factors. Happy for forward references if you're interested.

Thus, in a coarse telling, I would bundle together several inclinations (i.e. gut feelings, emotions, intuitions etc) under the broad umbrella of conservatism: resistance to change; acceptance of hierarchy; mistrust of those outside the in-group; pessimism about human nature; more likely to attribute causes to individual agency; more concerned with social conformity (which often manifests as regulation of private behaviour and adherence to tradition).

On the other side of the coin, liberalism: openness to change; counter-dominance and rejection of hierarchy; more trusting of out-group members (or prone to expand the in-group to include individuals conservatives would consider out-group members); optimism about human nature; more likely to attribute causes to external forces; more encouraging of diversity; suspicious of the wealthy/sympathetic to the poor.

I'm not suggesting these are all or nothing things - the difference between a self-declared liberal and self-declared conservative might by be slight on some or many of these, but as a whole, it's often enough to tilt an individual to identify with a stated ideology, which will then reinforce their inclinations, thus further polarising them.

And my main thesis is that both of these approaches are effective strategies for aiding in coordinating large groups of non-related individuals - but both have their strengths and weaknesses depending on the environmental conditions.

Oh, so much more to say, and to argue. I haven't even touched on evolution yet! Perhaps I should write a more considered post on my blog. Hmm. Might do that.

Vincent said...

Thanks for this Tim. I had realised by now where you come from. I was born in Perth WA myself, but have lived in England since 1946.

By your bundle of inclinations I am only partly conservative, viz: critical of change, rebellious to and respectful of hierarchy, reject the whole construct of in-group, even humanity as a whole (if it means considering animals as an out-group), reverent to human nature, eternally open about causes, respect superficial conformity for its value in survival and respect to others; and emotionally cold towards expressions of the liberal agenda; and strongly against generalisations!

Which adds up to a mystical rather than a political manifesto. Still I prefer to call myself a conservative, unless I were in America when I would be forced to say "A plague on both their houses!"

With apologies to our host Larry if this goes off the blog's agenda.