Sunday, March 21, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have defended an Aristotelian conception of liberalism in two books--Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (1991) and Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (2005).

I am largely persuaded by their Aristotelian liberalism, which resembles what I have defended as "Darwinian natural right" and "Darwinian conservatism," and this suggests the possibility of a "Darwinian liberalism." This should not be as confusing as it sounds if one keeps in mind that what I defend as "conservatism" is a "liberal conservatism," and what the two Dougs defend as "liberalism" is a "classical liberalism" or "libertarianism" that many conservatives would embrace. I will try to clarify all this in a series of posts. In this first post, I will briefly summarize their argument, and then I will briefly note some of the ways that my conception of Darwinian natural right supports their argument.

The idea of Aristotelian liberalism might seem contradictory. After all, modern liberalism (particularly as coming from John Locke) claims that the proper aim of government is to secure the rights of individual liberty without any legal enforcement of morality, while the Aristotelian tradition of political philosophy seems to claim that the proper aim of government is to shape the moral character of citizens to secure the common good. While Aristotelians seem to say that statecraft is soulcraft, liberals seem to say that this is wrong, because a government that would try to shape the moral character of souls to perfect them would become tyrannical in denying individual liberty.

The two Dougs reject this dichotomy between Aristotelian social virtue and Lockean individual liberty. This is clear in their disagreement with Leo Strauss. In his interpretation of "modern natural right" as conveyed in Locke's account of property, Strauss in Natural Right and History (248) observes: "Through the shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights, the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man--as distinguished from man's end--had become that center or origin." The two Dougs disagree with this comment:

"We uphold the shift of emphasis made by theorists of modern natural right; yet we do not think that arguing for natural rights requires that one reject the natural end of man as the standard for morality. It is not necessary to accept the alternative of either the fulfillment of the individual or the natural end of man as mutually exclusive. Making the individual the moral center of the universe does not require that one accept nominalism, mechanism, or hedonism, nor does accepting essentialism, teleology, and eudaimonism, at least as we have described them . . ., require rejecting individualism. It is possible for the fulfillment of the individual to be interpreted in terms of the requirements for human well-being. There can be a view of the ego or self that is neither otherworldly nor Hobbesian, but Aristotelian. Further, the achievement of man's natural end need not be interpreted along Platonic lines. There is no such thing as the flourishing of 'man.' There is only the flourishing of individual men. The human good neither exists apart from the choices and actions of individual human beings nor independent of the particular 'mix' of goods that the individual human being must determine as appropriate for his circumstances. Strauss's dichotomy betrays a disturbing tendency, often found among proponents of natural right and natural law, to reify the concept 'natural end' and make it some good that competes with the good of individual human beings. Our argument for natural rights begins, then, with the rejection of the dichotomy between the fulfillment of the individual human being or self and the attainment of man's natural end" (LAN, 92-93; NOL, 257).

The two Dougs argue that there is a natural end to human conduct, because there are certain generic goods required for a good human life--eudaimonia or flourishing--that are rooted in a universal human nature. For example, health, wealth, honor, and friendship are goods for all human beings. So, for instance, one could not live a flourishing human life if one had no friends at all. Here then is the natural telos for human beings: human flourishing requires the fullest expression of the generic goods of human nature.

But although we can conceive of these generic goods by abstraction, the actual reality of these goods is always individualized and agent-relative, because the human good is always the good for someone in particular, and the ranking or balancing of these diverse goods will be different for each individual based on the talents, temperaments, and circumstances of the individual. Against the "dominant end" conception of ethics that assumes that there is some one ranking of goods that is best for all human beings, the two Dougs defend an "inclusive end" conception of ethics that sees the human good as encompassing all the generic goods with the ranking of goods being determined by what is best for particular individuals in particular circumstances. So, then, they reject the idea that the philosophic life is simply the best life for all human beings in all situations. Intellectual activity is a generic good, and so a human life without any intellectual activity would be less than fully flourishing. But while a life devoted to intellectual activity as the highest good is good for Socrates and those individuals with Socratic dispositions, this is not necessarily the best life for all individuals.

Determining how best to organize or balance the various generic goods in a manner appropriate for some particular individual in particular circumstances is a matter of practical judgment or phronesis. There are no universal rules of ethics to decide this for all individuals in all situations. We look to the generic goods as constituting the natural standard of the human good for all human beings. But choosing the best form of life for each individual is a matter for the practical judgment of each individual.

The political problem of liberalism, therefore, is how to allow individuals to pursue their flourishing as individuals without interfering with the ethical pursuits of other individuals. Moreover, since human beings are by nature social animals, they cannot flourish without living their lives in association with others in various kinds of social groups based on friendship and voluntary interaction. So, a political/legal order needs to allow individuals to live together in ways that do not favor one form of life over another. This is what the two Dougs call "liberalism's problem."

The solution to liberalism's problem requires distinguishing between normative principles and metanormative principles. Normative principles are those social standards of the good life that human beings formulate as they exercise practical judgment in creating and maintaining those forms of human flourishing that they judge best suited for them as individuals. Metanormative principles are those political/legal standards that allow human beings with diverse forms of life to live their moral lives without interfering with others.

The primary metanormative principle for the two Dougs is self-direction as secured by the negative right to liberty. All of morality requires self-direction, because we are not truly moral if we have not chosen our moral paths through our own judgments. Something good for me is not really my good if I have not chosen it for myself. Being self-directed does not guarantee self-perfection, because we can make self-directed choices that are counter to our true self-perfection. So, for instance, if we choose to not have any friends or to never engage in any intellectual activity, we will not achieve full self-perfection even though we are self-directed. But in securing self-direction, by legislating that all individuals have the right to liberty, understood as the negative right not to have their self-direction denied by force or fraud from others, a liberal government secures the possibility of self-perfection.

The two Dougs argue that this establishes a link between ethics and politics that provides ethical legitimacy for politics but without identifying ethics and politics. They say that the ancient political philosophers were right to claim that ethics is a self-perfecting activity of actualizing the natural potentialities of human beings, which is the natural end of human life. They were wrong, however, in thinking that politics could coerce citizens into self-perfection. But the two Dougs also say that modern liberal political philosophers were right to claim that politics could not rightly enforce directly any standards of self-perfection. They were wrong, however, to suggest that moral standards were merely subjective or hedonistic. The ancients were right about ethics, but wrong about politics. The moderns were right about politics, but wrong about ethics.

Notice that here the two Dougs come close to what I identified in a previous post as "Midwestern Straussianism," which asserts--against Strauss--that modern liberalism is good in its political teaching as securing individual liberty and limited government, and that this modern liberal politics can be combined with ancient Aristotelian ethics. Aristotelian liberalism combines virtue and liberty.

There are at least four points in the reasoning of the two Dougs where my Darwinian natural right would support them: teleology, generic goods, individuality, and sociality.

1. Teleology. Aristotelian ethics requires natural teleology, because it asserts that the human good is a natural end for human conduct. Often, those like Strauss have said that this Aristotelian teleology is a cosmological or theological teleology that has been refuted by modern science. But the two Dougs note that Aristotelian teleology--as opposed to Plato's cosmic teleology--is a "biocentric teleology." Even if it is indefensible to think of the physical cosmos as aiming towards ends--perhaps the cosmic ends of a cosmic designer--it is still defensible to see living beings as naturally aiming for ends, as in the growth of plants and animals to maturity or the striving of mammalian animals to care for their offspring. As I have often argued, this biological teleology is sustained in modern Darwinian science as an immanent teleology of species-specific ends that does not require a Platonic cosmic teleology.

2. Generic goods. The two Dougs offer a list of generic goods that they identify as universal ends for all human beings rooted in human nature. They are a little unclear as to the grounds for this claim. I would argue that their list corresponds closely to my list of twenty natural desires, which I see as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings. These goods are not cosmic goods, because they are relative to the nature of the human species. What is good for human beings is not necessarily good for other species. So contrary to Plato, there is no transcendent Idea of the Good. And contrary to Kant, there is no categorical imperative for all rational beings in the universe. Instead, morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives relative to the goods of the species.

3. Individuality. The two Dougs stress that although we can generalize about generic human goods, these goods don't really exist as pure abstractions. Rather, they exist as good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. They thus recognize the biological fact that every living being is unique in its individuality. Although plants and animals show general traits that characterize each species, each member of the species is an individual, and thus what is good for each individual must be what is suited to that individuality. The need for practical judgment or prudence follows from this biological individuality, because since there are no universal rules for what is good for each individual in each situation, there must be some judgment of what is best for each in each case.

4. Sociality. Contrary to the common assumption that liberal individualism must take an atomistic view of individuals as utterly solitary in the state of nature, the two Dougs insist that human beings are naturally social animals. This natural sociality manifests the evolved biological nature of human beings as social mammals who must live in social groups to fulfill their natural potentialities. The dependence of human offspring on parental care shows this social nature from birth. (Unfortunately, as I will indicate in a future post, the two Dougs say almost nothing about the natural need for parental care and the fact that all human beings are born dependent on parental authority.) Because of their natural mammalian sociality, human beings are naturally inclined to form and maintain social groups, beginning with the family. This provides biological support for the two Doug's in their emphasis on the distinction between society and the state. When Aristotle declares that it is natural for human beings to live in a polis, his conception of the polis obscures this distinction. But if we recognize the distinction, we can see that human beings are naturally inclined to and capable of forming social groups and engaging in social activity in civil society without the coercive activity of the state. Here in civil society is where our moral habituation and moral judgment are secured. A liberal state cannot guarantee that civil society will properly shape human social life for ethical self-perfection. But a liberal state can secure the possibility of self-perfection by protecting the possibility of self-direction through the right to liberty. By contrast, those like Hobbes who deny the natural sociality of human beings must look to the collectivist coercion of the state as the only way to secure social cooperation.

In these and other ways, a Darwinian biological science could support Aristotelian liberalism as a Darwinian liberalism.

Some comments on Rasmussen and Den Uyl in a post from a couple of years ago can be found here.

For the other six posts in this series, go here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Troy Camplin said...

Sounds great. I'm definitely going to have to get ahold of those books.

Kent Guida said...

It's great to see you taking up the work of Rasmussen and Den Uyl, who deserve more recognition than they receive. I'll look forward to the rest of your series.