Sunday, April 24, 2011

Azar Gat on War (2): The Failed Rebellion of Ascetic Morality Against the Natural Desires

In his evolutionary study of war, Azar Gat embraces evolutionary theory as "the only non-transcendent mechanism for explaining life's complex design" (144). But then he invokes the fact- value dichotomy in a way that suggests the need for transcendence in human morality.

Gat denies that the "immanent logic" of evolutionary reasoning has any "transcendent measurement." Consequently, "the evolutionary logic in itself has no normative implications." Evolutionary science can tell us about our evolved natural desires, which we should take into account in organizing our individual and social lives. But, then, he says: "We may choose to follow such predispositions or rebel against them. . . . The human brain . . . may come up with more satisfactory arrangements."

This suggests that Gat is adopting a Kantian dualism of the sort that was defended by Thomas Huxley and later adopted by many evolutionary psychologists. If so, then evolutionary science can explain the "natural facts" of human desires but not the "moral values" of human culture and human reason. Human morality requires a "transcendent measurement" that is beyond natural experience. Moral normativity transcends scientific empiricism.

But how exactly does this dualism work in explaining war? In explaining the importance of war in the earliest agricultural societies and in the emergence of the state, Gat indicates that war in these societies was motivated not only by material interests but also by abstract ideas, including transcendent moral and religious views of the cosmos. The invention of writing and the development of literate culture allowed the emergence of religious and philosophic texts that supported grand worldviews and transcendent conceptions of cosmic order. These cosmic belief systems became important for legitimizing war and state power.

Here the moral, religious, and philosophic advances made possible by a literate culture don't deny but rather reinforce the natural desires that lead to war. And yet, Gat also sees a more radical attitude emerging--particularly, in the "Axial Age"--that supports normative ideals that rebel against natural desires. Greek philosophers began to argue that the fullest human happiness was found not in the restless pursuits of war but in the leisured life of pleasure and intellectual activity (438-40). It was not clear, however, that such a life of purely peaceful leisure was possible for all human beings. (Gat might have noted that even in Plato's "city in speech," in the Republic, there had to be warriors.)

Gat points to the asceticism and pacifism of Buddhism as the most radical attempt to rebel against the natural desires of evolved human nature. But he admits that the ascetic ideal was not very successful in stopping war.

Rather than the normal balancing of desires against each other and against possible costs, asceticism involves an attempt at a wholesale suppression of desire and constitutes a rebellion against the evolution-shaped human motivational system. Indeed, it is for this very reason that asceticism has remained marginal in human society, because it has gone against our most deeply rooted, innate predispositions. Seriously attempted only by a very small minority, it has mostly served as an unfulfilled option, a spiritual yearning, a creed, or, at most, a disciplinary constraining factor, for those among the vast majority of people who have felt tortured by the frustrations of desire. (440-41)


Gat goes on to note that ascetic religious believers--in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism--have generally been the best warriors. And even Buddhism has had a tradition of warrior-monks. The history of how the martial arts were cultivated in Buddhist monasteries, and fully integrated into Zen Buddhism, is a remarkable indication of how even the most radical asceticism fails to conquer the natural desires that lead to war.

To me, this casts doubt on Gat's dualistic claim that a normative morality of transcendent ideals is beyond the empirical claims of evolutionary science. The failure of philosophic rationalism and religious asceticism to fully suppress the natural desires of our evolved human nature suggests that human flourishing must conform to those desires. And, if so, we cannot escape the natural desire for courage in war, and thus the yearning for a normative morality of universal love and perpetual peace must always fail.

Some posts on related points can be found here, here, here, and here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Discussion of Darwinian Liberal Conservatism at George Mason University

This week, I visited the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. I spoke on "Darwinian Liberal Conservatism."

The Department of Economics at Mason is famous for its free-market and public-choice thinking. This started when James Buchanan moved his Public Choice Center from Virginia Tech to Mason. When Buchanan received his Nobel Prize, this gave special prominence to the Department. Later, Vernon Smith's Nobel Prize added even more distinction to the Department.

My discussions at Mason confirmed my general impression that public choice theorists are open to evolutionary reasoning.

The folks at Mason find it hard to understand why so many conservatives resist evolutionary science. I tried to explain why conservatives are bothered by the fear that Darwinian evolution threatens the belief that human social order rests on cosmic or religious foundations and thus denies cosmic teleology. This conservative fear manifests an underlying nihilism--the nihilistic belief that social order has no natural ground to support it in the absence of a religious belief in transcendent order.

In our discussions, there were at least two sticking points.

The first was group selection. Economists in the classical liberal tradition are often committed to a methodological individualism, and they see any idea of group selection as a treat to this commitment.

The second sticking point arose in our discussion of Hayek. Many of the people at Mason accept Hayek's argument that socialism is an atavistic return to the ancient instincts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small, face-to-face groups organized around communal norms of distribution according to merit--"social justice." By contrast, life in a modern free society based on extended trade with strangers requires a suppression of these ancient instincts of foraging society.

To me this requires a Freudian view of civilization as the repression of human desires or instincts. This is implausible to me, because it suggests that human beings would have no good reason to live in free society that suppresses all of their natural desires. On the contrary, I believe, a free society succeeds to the degree that it satisfies natural human desires more fully than any other social order, and socialism fails because it frustrates human desires in a way that creates an emotional cost that is unbearable for most human beings.

In response to my criticism of Hayek on this point, the economists answered by suggesting that Hayek was exaggerating his point about socialism as "atavism" and the need for civilization to suppress the instincts--rather, what Hayek really meant to say is that civilization must channel those natural instincts in productive ways. If this is what Hayek meant, I answered, I would agree: natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions.

But if this is what Hayek meant, he was not good in expressing it, particularly in his repeated claims that cultural evolution creates civilization by suppressing the innate desires of human beings (see, for example, "The Three Sources of Human Values," pp. 155-56, 160-61, 163-65, 167-69). Occasionally, Hayek says that civilization requires repressing only "some" of the innate rules (160-61). Then we wonder whether Hayek's "great society" does satisfy at least some natural instincts.

I have taken up this topic in Darwinian Conservatism, pp. 20-26.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Darwinian Liberal Conservatism" at George Mason University

This Wednesday, April 20, I will be lecturing on "Darwinian Liberal Conservatism" at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

I will be sketching some of my reasoning for how Darwinian science supports a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism, which brings together a Lockean politics of individual liberty and an Aristotelian ethics of social virtue.

This is part of the Center for the Study of Public Choice Seminar Series. The seminar will meet in Carow Hall, 4:00 pm to 5:15 pm.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Gat on War (1): Hunter-Gatherers

Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006) is one of the best scholarly studies of war ever written. He ranges broadly over many disciplines: animal behavior, evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, and political science. Rather than pursuing a reductive explanation of war as determined by one or a few factors, he encompasses all the major factors influencing the whole history of human warfare over two million years, while showing how evolutionary theory can explain the origins and interrelationships of all of these factors.

He sets out to answer the "riddle of war."

Why do people engage in the deadly and destructive activity of fighting? Is it rooted in nature, or is it a late cultural invention? Have people always engaged in fighting, or did they start to do so only with the advent of agriculture, the state, and civilization? How were these, and later, major developments in human history affected by war, and, in turn, how did they affect war? Under what conditions, if at all, can war be eliminated, and is it declining at present? (p. ix)


His massive study (822 pages) of these questions is divided into three parts corresponding to the three great eras of human history: the era of hunter-gatherers, the era of agrarian civilization and pre-modern states, and the era of the modern nation-states. This first post on the book will be on the first part, which covers the history of war over two million years, the period of hunting-gathering, which constitutes over 99 per cent of human history, in which the genetic evolution of the human species was shaped.

This book has helped me to think through the evolution of war as an evolved natural desire. I have included courage in war as one of the twenty natural desires.

Human beings generally desire war when they think it will advance their group in conflicts with other groups. Human beings divide themselves into ethnic and territorial groups, and they tend to cooperate more with those people who belong to their own group than with those outside their group. So when the competition between communities becomes severe, violent conflict is likely. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. War shows the best and the worst of human nature. Ware manifests the brutal cruelty of human beings in fighting those they regard as enemies. Yet war also manifests the moral sociality of human beings in fighting courageously for their group. One of the prime causes for the emergence of large, bureaucratic states is the need for increasing military power. War is an instrument of politics, and like political rule generally, warfare is a predominantly male activity.


Of all the desires on my list, this is the one that has provoked the most criticism from my readers, who don't like my claim that war is natural, and that it provides the conditions for displaying moral virtues like courage. Although Gat insists that his study of war has "no normative implications" (144), his reasoning generally supports my position.

We begin with the question of whether war is grounded in human nature, or whether it is a purely cultural invention of human history that transcends animal nature. To answer that question, we must look to what Gat calls the "human state of nature"--the original state of human beings living as hunter-gatherers, which was the state in which the genetic evolution of the human species was formed.

In their evolutionary natural way of life as hunter-gatherers, did humans fight? The enduring debate over this question has been divided between those on the side of Hobbes and those on the side of Rousseau. Hobbes answers that yes, the state of nature was a war of all against all, from which human beings escaped only by establishing a Leviathan state to keep the peace. Rousseau answers that no, the original condition of humans was peaceful. "Aboriginal humans lived sparsely and generally harmoniously in nature, peacefully exploiting her abundant resources. Only with the coming of agriculture, demographic growth, private property, division of class and state coercion, claimed Rousseau, did war, and all the other ills of civilization, spring up" (5).

Gat shows that Hobbes exaggerated the harshness and solitariness of the hunting-gathering way of life. Human beings are naturally social and political animals who began their evolutionary history living in families and in local and regional groups bound together by ties of kinship, language, and culture. But Gat also shows that Hobbes was right in seeing the propensity to warfare as part of the natural condition of humanity.

Thus, Gat resolves the Hobbes-Rousseau debate by concluding that Hobbes was closer to the truth, and he does this by surveying new knowledge drawn from the study of animal aggression, the study of surviving hunter-gatherers, the archaeological evidence for prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and evolutionary theory as providing a general explanatory perspective. Although he does not recognize it, Gat's depiction of the "evolutionary state of nature" conforms closely to the hunter-gatherer state of nature described by John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. This is a good illustration of how modern evolutionary science can clarify, if not resolve, some of the enduring questions in the history of political philosophy.

In examining the issue of war among hunter-gatherers, Gat moves through through three questions. Did they fight? Why did they fight? How did they fight?

DID THEY FIGHT?
In the twentieth century, the anthropological study of war was dominated by the Rousseauean claim that warfare was a recent cultural invention in human history that was not rooted in human nature. Lawrence Keeley's War and Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996) challenged this view with overwhelming evidence of warfare in pre-state societies. But Keeley's argument was weakened by the fact that he concentrated on the Neolithic period, when people adopted agriculture and animal husbandry (about 10,000 years ago), but before the establishment of states. The Rousseaueans could argue that it was the transition to agriculture that was crucial to the emergence of war, because this brought valuable stored food and other property that was worth fighting for. Consequently, the evidence of war in pre-state agricultural societies might not apply to hunter-gatherers who lived prior to 10,000 years ago.

Gat's contribution here is to extend the evidence for warfare back into hunter-gatherer history. Hunter-gatherer society consisted of local groups (20-70 members) and regional groups (an average of 500 members), bound together by language, intermarriage, rituals, exchange, alliances, and military activity. They were nomadic, and they had few possessions. Although they were remarkably egalitarian, because there was no formal and fixed status hierarchy, these societies were not totally equal, because some people who were talented and ambitious could exercise leadership, particularly in war (14, 22, 26, 32, 71-72, 74, 88-92, 138).

Gat's claim about hunter-gatherer warfare is qualified. His claim is "not that all hunter-gatherers invariably fight," because he recognizes that in all human societies throughout history, there are long periods of peace. Here is where Gat disagrees with Konrad Lorenz and others who have argued that human beings have an instinct for killing that must invariably be satisfied in some way. But Gat does claim that there has always been warfare from time to time.

The problem, however, is that the knowledge of the hunting-gathering way of life in the Pleistocene era (from two million to 10,000 years ago) is inherently inconclusive. There is some archaeological evidence for war--for example, burial remains of people apparently killed by violence and rock art depictions of war. The studies of historically recorded hunter-gatherers also shows evidence for war. But here we face the "contact paradox": since hunter-gatherers have no written records, documentary evidence depends on contact with literate people, and this contact can "contaminate" what is being observed. Consequently, the Rousseaueans can always argue that what we see of hunter-gatherers after contact is not the true story of what they looked like before contact.

To overcome this problem, Gat looks for a natural "laboratory"--a case where we can see a hunter-gatherer society that has experienced little or no change from contact with literate people. Gat sees two such "laboratory" cases. The first case is of the "simple" hunter-gatherers in Australia. The second is of "complex" hunter-gatherers in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Although much of the anthropological debate over hunter-gatherers has been dominated by the case of the African Bushmen, Gat rightly insists that it's not the best case to study because the Bushmen had been pushed into desolate environments by competition with other groups.

When Europeans began arriving in Australia in 1788, the remote areas of the interior and the north were the locales for hunter-gatherers who had no agriculture or pastoralism. There were as many as 300,000 hunter-gatherers, in 400-700 regional groups, with 500-600 people each. Their lives were simple. They didn't even have bows. Their only long-range weapon was the boomerang. Although nomadic, their movements were within a circumscribed territory, and they enforced the boundaries of their group territories.

Among these Australian aboriginals, there were violent disputes based on women, murder, and territorial trespass. Although each group enforced a rough equality, there were differences in status and influence, as in leadership by the most skillful warriors. There were trading networks extending over long distances.

The high rates of killing in war was first reported by William Buckley, who arrived in Australia in 1803 as a 13-year-old-boy from England on the first convict ship. Buckley escaped and lived with an Aboriginal tribe for 35 years. He learned their language and participated in their daily activities. Later, his reports on his experiences were recorded. And while there is some dispute over the accuracy of his stories, this seems to be the best account of a hunting-gathering society before any extensive contact with literate people. Buckley's testimony supports Gat's claim that even the simplest kind of hunting-gathering society showed warfare.

A more "complex" form of hunting-gathering society arises in rich wildlife areas, such as swamps, lakes, river mouths, and seashores. In such rich ecological niches, human population can be dense, life is more sedentary, food is accumulated, there is extensive division of labor, trade, and property, with rich individuals exercising control over resources.

The Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America show this kind of society, and they show evidence of warfare and slavery through war stretching back for thousands of years.

This evidence shows that for both "simple" and "complex" hunter-gatherers, warfare was part of the "evolutionary natural way of life."

WHY DID THEY FIGHT?
I agree with Gat that--contrary to Freud, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and Storr--there is no "basic aggression instinct" comparable to the instinctive drives for food and sex. The drives for food and sex are unavoidable. But people can live in peace their entire lives without feeling any distress. Aggression is not a biological end, but a biological means to the primary biological ends.

War is "both innate and optional" (40). It is innate, because humans are naturally inclined to go to war whenever the benefits of war seem greater than the costs. Yet war is optional, because it fluctuates in response to changing conditions of life.

The evolution of war required group selection in which groups bound together by kinship relations, marriage, and cultural identity competed with one another. Religion can be understood as an evolutionary adaptation for cooperation in group selection. Gat agrees with the group-selection explanation of religion developed by David Sloan Wilson, although Gat notes that Wilson "overlooks the military aspect" of this.

Over the past thirty or forty years, there has been an intense debate among anthropologists as to the motivations for war in primitive societies. Some materialist anthropologists like Marvin Harris have stressed the importance of competition for food. Some evolutionary anthropologists like Napoleon Chagnon have stressed the importance of competition for women. According to Chagnon, when he asked Yanomamo men about this, they answered: "We like meat, but we like women a whole lot more."

Gat rightly points out that Chagnon was only partially correct about this, because he did not see how evolutionary theory allows us to see how many different factors can influence war. Evolutionary science suggests that the ultimate causes of adaptive human behavior are either somatic (concerned with the resources necessary for survival) or reproductive (concerned with mating and offspring). Thus, food and sex are primary needs or desires.

Yet there are also many secondary motivations for war that are ultimately instrumental (from the evolutionary perspective) to the somatic and reproductive motivations. These secondary motivations include dominance, revenge, fear, suspicion, supernatural elements, cannibalism, playfulness, adventurism, sadism, and ecstasy.

I see these secondary motivations as tied to various natural desires on my list of twenty--such as social status, political rule, justice as reciprocity, property, and the desire for religious understanding. I also agree with Gat that many of these motivations reflect the distinctly male propensities for risky violence and adventure.

Although the evolutionary explanation of war assumes that military violence is generally adaptive, it also recognizes that there is a lot of maladaptive and purposeless violence. So, for example, the sadism that is sometimes manifest in war can be understood as a deviation from an evolutionarily shaped norm.

HOW DID THEY FIGHT?
Human hunter-gatherers show a pattern of warfare similar to that of chimpanzees. Young adult males form raiding parties that attack only when they outnumber their opponents and thus can minimize the risk to themselves. When opposing groups face one another in open lines of battle, they prefer to engage in ritualistic bluffing displays, rather than going to battle.

There is one crucial difference between the humans and the chimps, however, in that among the human hunter-gatherers, there is a higher rate of mortality for adults. Gat identifies this as a pattern of "asymmetrical, first-strike killing." Hunter-gatherer warriors prefer to launch surprise attacks on their enemies--typically, at night when their victims are asleep and thus vulnerable.

The difference between humans and other animals is that human tool-making allows the humans to increase their offensive capability. But this also makes humans more vulnerable to attack, because as humans become more dependent on tools, their bodies become more slender and less robust than is the case for their primate ancestors. Adult male chimps carry their weapons in their bodies--powerful jaws and a physically strong build. Adult male humans lose this, and thus they become vulnerable to surprise attacks.

As a consequence, human hunter-gatherers are caught in what international relations theorists call the "security dilemma": they live in a state of fear and distrust, anticipating that they are vulnerable to surprise attacks, which inclines them to pre-emptive strikes, which only increases the state of mutual distrust. Thus, they are caught in a kind of "prisoner's dilemma" situation, where everyone is worse off than they would be if they could trust one another to cooperatively keep the peace. Hobbes saw this, and this is what led him to his dark view of the state of nature as full of fear and continual dangers.

Gat concludes this first part of his book by insisting that "the evolutionary logic in itself has no normative implications."

We may choose to follow such predispositions or rebel against them. There is nothing sacred or morally compelling about maximizing survival for the fittest. This is merely the blind, algorithmic mechanism of natural 'design.' The human brain--itself a product of evolution and a powerful instrument of conscious, purposeful, and future oriented, rather than blind, design--may come up with more satisfactory arrangements. (144)


Gat doesn't explain exactly what he has in mind here. Obviously, he is doing what evolutionary psychologists often do to avoid questions about the moral implications of their work: invoke the fact-value distinction and declare that, of course, human beings are free to appeal to moral values formulated by human reason as transcending the factual world of empirical science. But this seems to leave us with a radical dualism where the moral realm of human rational artifice floats free of the natural world. If this is so, then what is most distinctly human cannot be explained by science because it belongs to some kind of transcendental realm--perhaps Kant's realm of human freedom.

I agree that human beings do have some freedom of judgment that comes from their capacity for deliberate thought and choice. But I argue that this human freedom of judgment is constrained both by human nature and by human culture. So, in matters of war and peace, we can look for ways to promote peace and minimize war. But given our natural propensities towards war when we face severe conflicts between groups, we cannot realistically expect to achieve a world of perpetual peace.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (5): Neoconservative Fascism?

In his recent essay for Cato Unbound, Brad Thompson explains neoconservatism as shaped by the ideas of Leo Strauss as adopted by Irving Kristol. Provocatively, Thompson concludes that this Straussian neoconservatism promotes a "soft, American-style fascism," which combines what Strauss called "the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus," thus combining the idealism of Platonic philosophy and the realism of Machiavellian politics.

Thompson sees this neoconservative political philosophy most fully expressed in what David Brooks--in a series of articles for The Weekly Standard--has called "national-greatness conservatism."

The moral purpose of national-greatness conservatism, according to David Brooks, is to energize the American spirit; to fire the imagination with something majestic; to advance a "unifying American creed"; and to inspire Americans to look beyond their narrow self-interest to some larger national mission--to some mystically Hegelian "national destiny." the new American citizen must be animated by "nationalist virtues" such as "duty, loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice." The neocons' basic moral political principle is clear and simple: the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the nation-state.

Politically, Brooks's new nationalism would use the federal government to pursue great "nationalistic public projects" and to build grand monuments in order to unify the nation spiritually and to prevent America's "slide" into what he calls "nihilistic mediocrity." It is important that the American people conform, swear allegiance to, and obey some grand central purpose defined for them by the federal government. The ideal American man, he argues, should negate and forgo his individual values and interests and merge his "self" into some mystical union with the collective soul.


Thompson recognizes that his charge of "fascism" is inflammatory. He qualifies this charge somewhat: "This is a serious charge and not one I take lightly. The neocons are not fascists, but I do argue they share some common features with fascism."

At the very least, I would agree with Thompson that there is a troubling tendency to statism in the Straussian neoconservative slogan that "statecraft is soulcraft." What would it mean for the state to use its coercive powers to craft the human soul?

I agree with Douglas Rasmusssen, in his response to Thompson's essay, who argues that when the Straussians assume that the polis shapes the moral character of citizens, they fail to distinguish the polis as society from the polis as state. Human beings are naturally social animals, and thus their moral lives are shaped by all of those natural and voluntary associations of civil society. But this character-forming activity can be carried out by the spontaneous order of society--families, churches, schools, and all kinds of social and economic associations--without the need for the state to impose coercively any comprehensive conception of the best way of life.

In The Social Animal, Brooks sends contradictory messages on this issue. In most of the book, he shows how evolutionary psychology and the cognitive sciences explain the social and moral order of human life as arising from the spontaneous order of civil society. So, for example, in the chapter on "Morality" (Chapter 18), he explains the evolutionary emergence of morality without any need to call in the state to exercise "soulcraft." But, then, in Chapter 20 ("The Soft Side"), he lays out his argument for "national greatness," which he presents as grounded in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton--the tradition of "limited but energetic government"--and here he insists: "Aristotle wrote that legislators habituate citizens. Whether they mean to or not, legislators encourage certain ways of living and discourage other ways. Statecraft is inevitably soulcraft" (323).

This Chapter 20 does not fit into the rest of the book. First, the narrative flow of the book breaks down. After only a couple of pages describing Harold's career as a policy analyst, Brooks launches off on a long statement of his argument for "national greatness," which he attributes to Harold, who becomes a mannequin on which Brooks can hang his ideas.

Moreover, this chapter breaks away from the rest of the book in that Brooks cites no research from cognitive or evolutionary science to support his claims. He does refer to the general theme of the book about human beings as social animals.

Harold believed that the cognitive revolution had the potential to upend these individualistic political philosophies, and the policy approaches that grew from them. The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships. The health of a society is determined by the health of those relationships, not by the extent to which it maximizes individual choice. (320)


But if these "relationships" refer to the social networks of civil society, then it's not clear how this supports the idea that "soulcraft" comes from "statecraft."

Furthermore, Brooks rejects statism when he rejects the tradition of socialism. "The nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers who had called themselves socialists weren't really socialists. They were statists. They valued the state over society" (321).

This suggests that Brooks values society over the state, and this would be supported by evolutionary and cognitive science. But, then, elsewhere in this chapter, he suggests that the state has to shape the soul when society has failed to do so.

With his soft-side approach, Harold put his faith in programs that reshaped the internal models in people's minds. If you felt, as Harold did, that in some low-income communities achievement values were not being transmitted from one generation to another, then you had no choice but to try to instill them. That meant you had to be somewhat paternalistic. If parents were not instilling these achievement values, then churches and charity groups should try. If these institutions were overwhelmed, then government should try to step in to help people achieve the three things they need to enter the middle class: marriage, a high-school degree, and a job. (330-31)


So where all the institutions of civil society--families, churches, charity groups, and so on--have failed to instill the proper values, the government will take over and "reshape the internal models in people's minds." And yet Brooks gives us no reasons to think that government bureaucrats have the virtue and the knowledge to succeed where civil society has failed. And he gives us no reason to believe that such governmental efforts at "soulcraft" will not become despotic.

He also gives us no reason to believe that this really is in the tradition of Hamilton. He writes:

Hamilton, Lincoln, and Roosevelt had been able to assume a level of social and moral capital. They took it for granted that citizens lived in tight communities defined by well-understood norms, a moral consensus, and restrictive customs. Today's leaders could not make that assumption. The moral and social capital present during those years had eroded, and needed to be rebuilt. (334)


So, in other words, the "limited but energetic government" advocated by Hamilton was not designed to craft "social and moral capital." Rather, a Hamiltonian government had to assume that civil society would do the job of shaping moral character. That's why the Constitution of the United States says nothing about the powers of government for shaping the moral and religious values of the nation.

Brooks makes much of a quotation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the relationship between politics and culture: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

In developing this thought, Brooks cites with approval Lawrence Harrison's book The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself (2006). But Harrison's book does not argue for changing culture through statist coercion. Harrison explains that culture is shaped "chiefly through child rearing practices, religious practice, the education system, the media, and peer relationships" (6). He distinguishes between "progress-prone" cultures and "progress-resistant" cultures. "Progress-prone" cultures are those that have the moral values, economic practices, and political institutions of a liberal bourgeois society. He recognizes that political leaders can help to move a "progress-resistant" culture towards a "progress-prone" culture. Contrary to Brooks, however, he does not say that this comes from mobilizing citizens through governmental programs for "national greatness." Rather, Harrison argues, political leaders promote progressive cultures by opening their countries to social, economic, and political freedom. So, for example, he recommends that political leaders should "pursue open economic policies," "encourage and facilitate home ownership," and "regularize property ownership." Political leaders foster progressive cultures by protecting the individual freedom that allows a civil society to cultivate the bourgeois virtues of a classical liberal regime.

The human soul is best crafted not by the coercive commands of the state but by the spontaneous orders of a free society as shaped by genetic and cultural evolution.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (4): Freedom in the Brain

If the human mind is the activity of the human brain, as is generally assumed today by neuroscientists, then we might worry that this denies human freedom and moral responsibility. If my thoughts and actions are ultimately determined by the neural activity of my brain, does that deny that I have any free will? Does that mean that traditional notions of moral and legal responsibility are denied by modern science?

Some readers of David Brooks's The Social Animal might draw that conclusion from his book. After all, the main idea of his book is that our lives are more controlled by our unconscious minds (Level 1), which are shaped deep within the brain, than by our conscious minds (Level 2). Our conscious thoughts and choices, it seems, simply ratify and rationalize what has already been determined by our unconscious mental processing.

And yet, in various parts of the book, Brooks insists that modern cognitive science allows enough room for human freedom to sustain traditional standards of human responsibility. Here his reasoning coincides with what I have argued for in Darwinian Conservatism (Chapter 8) as "the emergence of the soul in the brain."

Brooks declares: "The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious" (xii). We must wonder, How exactly does that "influence" of the conscious mind over the unconscious work?

In Chapter 8 ("Self-Control"), Brooks describes Erica's struggle to keep her irascible temperament from interfering with her tennis. In competition, she would become so angry that she lost control of her game. She had to develop mental techniques for separating herself from her anger and concentrating on performing the task at hand.

She would think about her anger and she would say to herself, "That is not who I am. That is an experience that is happening within me." She imagined a grassy field. On one side was the angry dog of her anger. But on the other was the tennis player who had won her last five matches. She would imagine herself wandering away from the dog and over to the tennis player. (131)


Brooks explains this in the light of psychological studies of how people use habits and strategies for focusing their attention to gain some control over their inner lives. He quotes William James: "The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slightly more or slightly less, which rival motor ideas might receive. . . . Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will."

In his notes, Brooks cites Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (2002). In Darwinian Conservatism, I cite the same book in showing how Schwartz has used techniques for mental concentration to help patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Using brain-imaging technology, Dr. Schwartz has discovered that this therapy actually changes the neuronal activity of the brain so that the activity of the frontal cortex exerts a mental force to activate one circuit rather than another. He calls this "directed mental force." So it seems that the mind that emerges from the human brain can change the brain itself. The emergent power of the brain for mental attention is the natural ground for human freedom.

To understand this kind of freedom, we need to reject the false dichotomy of free will versus determinism, so that we can see how free choice is a certain kind of determinism in which a conscious choice is an effect of unconscious processes that influences its own cause. Instead of linear causality, we need to see a circular causality in which the conscious mind influences its unconscious causes. Neuroscientist Walter Freeman develops this understanding with his "neurodynamic theory" of the mind/brain.

This would support what Brooks says in Chapter 18 ("Morality") about moral responsibility. Brooks tells the story of Erica's one act of adultery, her remorse afterwards, and her resolve that she will never again allow the temptation to infidelity to destroy her marriage. Erica chooses to frame her life as a story of fall and redemption--her weakness in falling into temptation and her strength in choosing to redeem herself by committing herself to Harold as her true love.

Brooks explains this as consistent with the cognitive science of morality and responsibility. Adopting the "intuitionist" view of Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt, Brooks argues that while moral choices are shaped by moral emotions and unconscious drives, rather than by purely rational conceptions of moral imperatives, there is still room for moral reflection that gives us some freedom of choice. We can consciously influence the habits and dispositions that give us some control over our moral sentiments.

This is not an absolute freedom. This is not free will understood as an uncaused cause that acts from some transcendent realm of pure freedom beyond nature. Rather, this is a freedom within our human nature to exercise some influence over those hidden forces deep in our unconscious that direct our lives.

Some posts on related themes can be found here and here.

Friday, April 01, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (3): Emotional Choice Theory

About twenty years ago, I was interviewed for a faculty position in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rochester. The Department was widely regarded as one of the preeminent political science departments in the United States, particularly for those interested in applying "rational choice theory" to political science. Beginning in 1962, when William Riker became Chair of the Department, the Department became known for specializing in research that employed game theory to study politics based on the economic model of human beings as rational maximiser's of their self-interest.

Although I respected the work of Riker and his colleagues, I thought that their model of Homo economicus was only partially true, because its view of human nature was too rationalistic and egoistic to capture the reality of human beings as emotional and social animals. In a job talk that was entitled "Emotional Choice Theory," I argued that an evolutionary science of human nature shows that human beings are not just rational egoists, but also social animals moved by moral emotions.

Predictably, my talk was not well received, and I didn't get the job.

If I were giving the same talk today, I hope I would be a little more persuasive, because I could build on all of the research in evolutionary theory and neuroscience over the last twenty years that casts doubt on the rational choice model of Homo economicus. I could benefit from David Brooks's The Social Animal as an engaging survey of that research.

Brooks introduces the main themes of this research in his first chapter--entitled "Decision Making." This chapter sets the pattern for all the other chapters: a title that states the facet of human life that's the topic for the chapter, a narration of some events in the fictional story of Harold and Erica that illustrate the topic, and then a review of the scientific research on that topic.

The story in this chapter is how the parents of Harold--Rob and Julia--first met and fell in love. Brooks begins with the decision about whom to marry because this is the most important decision that most of us make in our lives. Moreover, all of us are products of this decision as made by our parents.

The subject of this chapter sets the themes for the whole book: how the deepest influences on our decisions arise largely from unconscious decisions, in being shaped by human genetic history and cultural history, rather than from conscious and rational calculations of individual interests.

Introduction (pp. 3-5)
Brooks begins with a mocking sketch of the "Composure Class," those high-status men and women who have climbed the American ladder of meritocratic success, so that "wealth had just settled down upon them like a gentle snow."

Brooks's writing here is amusing, but some readers will find this a bit discordant in that the comic irony of his style doesn't seem to fit the serious tone of his writing about Harold and Erica. For example, he writes:

So Mr. Casual Elegance married Ms. Sculpted Beauty in a ceremony officiated by Bill and Melinda Gates, and they produced three wonderful children: Effortless Brilliance, Global Compassion, and Artistically Gifted. Like most upper- and upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate.


Even if Brooks's literary skill hardly matches that of Jane Austen, there is a similarity between them in their combination of irony and seriousness in depicting the human pursuit of happiness, particularly as displayed in the decision about whom to marry.

The Meeting (pp. 5-10)
Hoping someday to join the Composure Class, Rob and Julia are young professionals who go to a swanky resort community. A mutual friend arranges for them to meet for a blind lunch date.

Relying on David Buss and other researchers on the evolutionary psychology of heterosexual attraction, Brooks comments on the differences between men and women in courtship. Men are looking for visual cues of fertility. Women are looking for indications that a man might be worthy of trust. "So while Rob was looking at cleavage, Julia was looking for signs of trustworthiness. She didn't need to do this consciously--thousands of years of genetics and culture had honed her trusting sensor" (8). So Brooks recognizes both genetic evolution and cultural evolution as shaping their behavior.

Brooks also recognizes the importance of individual temperament. In the case of Julia, "she had a hypercritical inner smart-ass" that was an impediment to any man trying to get close to her.

I see here at least three levels of analysis--human nature, human culture, and human individuals.

The Meal (pp. 10-14)
Rob and Julia begin their courtship while sharing a meal. "As destiny would have it, Rob and Julia were meant for each other. Despite what you've heard about opposites attracting, people usually fall in love with people like themselves."

Relying on Helen Fisher and others, Brooks explains how people seek out others like themselves, because "familiarity breeds trust." Discovering that they have many common interests and experiences, a couple begins to feel that they were destined for one another. Brooks demystifies this feeling of destiny. "People generally overestimate how distinct their own lives are, so the commonalities seemed to them like a series of miracles. The coincidences gave their relationship an aura of destiny fulfilled."

Brooks observes that most of the emotional communication in flirting is nonverbal and unconscious. "Unawares, Julia did the head cant women do to signal arousal, a slight tilt of the head that exposed her neck . . . there she was like any Marilyn Monroe wannabe--doing the hair flip, raising her arms to adjust her hair, and heaving her chest up into view."

And yet the verbal side of courtship is important as well. For example, men show their intelligence by displaying their large vocabulary. Here is where Brooks cites the research of Geoffrey Miller on "verbal courtship theory," which Thomas Nagel dismissed as "idiotic."

Brooks suggests that courtship is ultimately an exercise in rational calculation, which should satisfy the rational choice theorists. But most of this reasoning is done unconsciously.

Like veteran stock-market traders, people respond in predictable, if unconscious, ways to the valuations of the social marketplace. They instinctively seek the best possible return on their market value.

The richer the man, the younger the woman he is likely to mate with. The more beautiful the woman, the richer the man. A woman's attractiveness is an outstanding predictor of her husband's annual income.

Along with everyone else, Rob and Julia were doing these sorts of calculations unconsciously in their heads--weighing earnings-to-looks ratios, calculating social-capital balances. And every signal suggested they had found a match.


The Stroll (pp. 15-17)
As they walked out of the restaurant, Rob and Julia were "unaware they were already doing the lovers' walk--bodies close to each other, beaming out at the space in front of them with a wide-open glee."

This was one sign that they were making a decision about marriage. Their culture helped them to make this decision by giving them "a social script that applies to first dates in their culture." This is an example of how human culture helps us to restrain and channel our natural desires. "The tension of courtship is produced by the need to slow down when the instincts want to rush right in."

Here we can see Brooks's evolutionary conservatism. Like all conservatives, Brooks sees the importance of cultural traditions--such as the social norms for courtship--in helping human beings to make prudent decisions about how best to satisfy natural desires like sexual mating and conjugal bonding. Evolutionary science allows Brooks to see how cultural traditions are constrained but not determined by genetic evolution, and how individual judgments--such as deciding whom to marry--are constrained but not determined both by genetic nature and social culture. Thus it is that deciding what we want arises from a complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment.

Such decisions are largely made unconsciously and emotionally, rather than by conscious acts of pure reason. That's why Brooks endorses the famous quotation from Blaise Pascal about how the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of. This belongs to an old intellectual tradition of biological and rhetorical psychology that goes back to Aristotle, which understands human decisions as arising from the interaction of reason and emotion, head and heart.

Love's Role (pp. 17-21)
Citing the research of neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, Brooks describes the role of emotion in decision making as working through an "Emotional Positioning System."

Like the Global Positioning System that might be in your car, the EPS senses your current situation and compares it to the vast body of data it has stored in memory. It reaches certain judgments about whether the course you are on will produce good or bad outcomes, and then it coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion (fear or excitement, admiration or repugnance) and an implied reaction ("Smile" or "Don't smile," "Approach" or "Get away") that helps us to navigate our days.


This shows the error of Descartes in separating the brain from the body, because the mental and the physical are inseparably connected in complex networks of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Pure reason by itself cannot move us without the motive power of emotion. But emotion can lead us astray, and so we need reason to elicit and direct emotion towards the flourishing life that we seek.

Implications (pp. 21-22)
Brooks concludes: "Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic." We should see, then, that "the key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls."

Brooks stresses that Rob and Julia are not deep thinkers. In fact, they're rather shallow. But they have the social intelligence that allows them to make a decision about marriage that will lead them to happiness.

Rob and Julia were assigning value to each other. They felt themselves swept along in some strong and delightful current that was carrying them toward someplace they deliriously wanted to go. This wasn't the sort of dissecting analysis Julia's inner smart-ass had used when she first glimpsed Rob. This was a powerful, holistic appraisal that followed an entirely different set of rules. Julia would fall in love and then invent reasons for her attraction later. That day she and Rob began wandering together down a path that would be the most rewarding of their lives.


In showing how modern cognitive science helps us to see this "holistic appraisal" in human decision making that combines reason and emotion, Brooks shows us how modern science confirms the moral psychology of the British and Scottish Enlightenments, in which rational judgment and moral sentiment are inextricably intertwined. One can see this, for example, in the following passage from David Hume's appendix on "moral sentiments" in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects, as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation. Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impulse to desire and volition. From circumstances and relations, known or supposed, the former leads us to the discovery of the concealed and unknown: After all circumstances and relations are laid before us, the latter makes us feel from the whole a new sentiment of blame or approbation. The standard of the one, being founded on the nature of things, is eternal and inflexible, even by the will of the Supreme Being: The standard of the other, arising from the internal frame and constitution of animals, is ultimately derived from the Supreme Will, which bestowed on each being its peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and others of existence.


The ultimate source of these two standards as grounded in "the nature of things" and "the internal frame and constitution of animals" might be, as Hume indicates, the will of the Supreme Being. But evolutionary science also allows us to see how these standards of reason and sentiment could have arisen by natural evolution, perhaps as the process by which the Supreme Being chose to work His creative will.

"The Darwinian Science of Aristotelian Virtue"--A Video

Last November, I lectured on "The Darwinian Science of Aristotelian Virtue" at Berry College as part of the "Stuck With Virtue" conference. I have just noticed that a video of my lecture is now available online.

I have written about my reaction to this conference in a previous post.