Friday, July 13, 2012

The Darwinian Biology of Adam Smith's Reflective Liberal Sentimentalism

For almost 35 years, I have been thinking about how Darwinian biology might apply to the history of political philosophy.  My question has been, Does that biological science support some traditions of political thought over others?

From the beginning, I have been inclined to think that Darwinian biology tends to favor Aristotle's empiricist naturalism rather than Plato's transcendentalist rationalism.  Aristotle was a biologist.  And although his biology is not evolutionist, much of what he says about the biological roots of human morality and politics is confirmed by modern Darwinian biology.  By contrast, Plato's rationalism tends to disparage the biological nature of human beings in assuming that human excellence requires pure reason to rule over the passions and appetites of the body.

Aristotle was also a theorist of rhetoric, who defended the rhetorical character of moral and political judgment against Plato's rationalist denigration of rhetoric as irrational manipulation.  Crucial to Aristotle's defense of rhetoric was his social psychology of the human mind as combining reason and emotion.  Pure reason by itself cannot move us to action without the motivational power of emotion or desire.  That emotional motivation is not irrational, because we can reflect on our emotions and judge them as warranted or not.  This Aristotelian social psychology has been confirmed by Darwinian biology and social neuroscience, which show that human judgment requires a combination of reason and emotion as inextricably bound together.

Over the past 15 years, I have moved towards seeing this Aristotelian tradition of biological naturalism and rhetorical psychology as revived in the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly through the sentimentalism of David Hume and Adam Smith.  Charles Darwin adopted much of Hume's and Smith's reasoning about sympathy and the moral sentiments in explaining the evolution of the human moral sense.  Edward Westermarck then developed this Humean/Smithian/Darwinian account of ethics as rooted in the moral emotions of the human animal.  Recently, Westermarck's Darwinian psychology has been revived through the research in sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral game theory.  Most recently, the neurological basis of this Darwinian psychology has been worked out through research in social neuroscience. 

The importance of Adam Smith's moral and political philosophy in all of this has been clarified by Michael Frazer's book The Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and the Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford University Press, 2010).   Frazer argues that while the distinctive demand of Enlightenment liberalism was reflective autonomy--the freedom to reflect for ourselves in determining our moral and political standards--the Enlightenment thinkers disagreed about the character of this reflective autonomy.  The Enlightenment rationalists (like Kant in his later years) assumed that autonomy required the rule of reason over emotion and imagination, because the true self was identified as pure reason.  The Enlightenment sentimentalists (like Hume and Smith) assumed that autonomy required reflective choices by the mind as a whole, including not only reason but also emotion and imagination, because the true self was understood as embracing the whole human mind.

Frazer's aim is to revive the tradition of Enlightenment sentimentalism as superior to Enlightenment rationalism, and to indicate how recent research in social psychology and social neuroscience supports reflective sentimentalism.  He uses the term "reflective sentimentalism" to indicate that sentimentalists are not arguing for enslaving reason to emotion, because they are actually arguing for autonomy as the activity of the whole human mind, in which the mind can reflect rationally on itself and thus refine its emotional responses to the world by judging those responses as reasonable or unreasonable.  We can reflect on whether our moral sentiments are contradictory or consistent, whether they rest on true or false judgments, and whether they promote or impede our happiness. 

I would identify the Enlightenment rationalists as following in the Platonic tradition and the Enlightenment sentimentalists as following in the Aristotelian tradition.  Frazer's argument, then, can be seen as furthering that Aristotelian tradition.

What Frazer says in defense of Smith's reflective liberal sentimentalism coincides what I have said in defense of Aristotelian and Darwinian liberalism.  As the naturally social animals that we are, we have evolved propensities to care about our fellow human beings, a care that is expressed as sympathy or empathy, or what Aristotle would call "friendship" (philia).  Through sympathy, we judge others and judge ourselves as we appear in the eyes of others, judgments that are expressed as moral sentiments of approbation or disapprobation.  When we see people suffering unfair injuries, we sympathize with their suffering and share their resentment against those who have injured them, because we have imaginatively projected ourselves into their situations.  That resentment against injustice is the natural ground of rights, because we derive rights from wrongs: human beings have the right not to be injured in ways that would elicit our moral resentment. 

Darwinian evolutionary biology can explain the evolution of these moral and intellectual capacities.  Darwinian psychology and neuroscience can explain the proximate causes of our judgments in our neurophysiological constitution.  This then provides scientific confirmation of reflective sentimentalism.

This reflective sentimentalism is liberal because it recognizes the natural separateness of individuals and the moral claims that individuals make.  As members of the same human species, we share those general propensities or generic natural desires that constitute our human nature.  But we also are unique in our identities as individuals with personal temperaments and social histories.  For the harmony of society, there must be some shared experiences between individuals based on sympathy.  But sympathy can never be perfect in the sense of being a complete unity of spectator and actor, because this would deny the separate identity of the two individuals.  "Though they will never be unisons," Smith observed, "they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required" (TMS, I.i.4.8).

One weakness in Frazer's account of Smith is his silence about Smith's theological teleology.  Smith repeatedly speaks of God as the intelligent designer of nature or "Author of Nature" who judges human beings.  Although morality arises as an unintended order from the interactions of individuals, the emergence of this order is made possible by God's creation of cosmic nature and human nature in such a way as to foster human happiness.  Consequently, the general rules of morality are "justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity" (TMS, III.v).

Frazer recognizes that the sentimentalism of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Butler was grounded in such a theological teleology, in contrast to Hume, who developed a "free-standing" sentimentalism that did not depend on mysterious metaphysical or theological conceptions of the cosmos as intelligently designed for moral purposes.  On this point, Smith seems closer to Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Butler than to Hume.  Later, Herder continued that tradition of theological sentimentalism.

This theological sentimentalism might seem to conflict with Frazer's argument for a liberal sentimentalism, assuming that liberalism requires a purely secular grounding for moral and political order.  But Frazer rightly argues that a liberal sentimentalism that is open to moral pluralism must be open to those religious believers who see natural right as rooted in divine right, while also being open to secularists who see natural right as rooted in propensities of human nature that have no divine sanction.

Darwin allows for such openness to religious belief by recognizing that religion can evolve as an important support for the moral sentiments, but even so, those who are atheists or skeptics (like Darwin himself) can follow those moral sentiments as purely natural products of human evolution.

Consequently, a Darwinian liberal sentimentalism can find support among religious believers as well as unbelievers.  This sustains a liberal policy of religious liberty and toleration, which extends toleration to atheists.

Smith's liberal sentimentalism allows for the evolutionary emergence of morals and markets as unintended orders.  But this unintended social evolution is made possible by the intended order of cosmic nature and human nature as created by God as the intelligent designer of everything.  One might infer from this that belief in God as the intelligent designer is the indispensible support for human social order, which is the idea behind the tradition of the confessional state--the idea that every political regime depends on a political theology that is enforced coercively on all individuals in the regime.  But while Smith recognizes the importance of religious instruction for the people of each society, he argues against any governmental establishment of religion and in favor of tolerating a multiplicity of religious sects competing freely for adherents.

By showing how all living species--including the human species--could have evolved naturally, without any need for special creation by God, Darwin extended the idea of unintended order to embrace the whole history of life, and thus he allowed for moral order to be understood as free-standing, without any necessary support from a theology of intelligent design, which then made it safe for governments to tolerate atheists without fear that atheism would subvert the moral order of society.

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