Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Might Makes Right

If it's rightly understood, it's really true that might makes right.

That's one of the recurrent themes in my writing for this blog.  As I work on the 4th edition of my book Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker, I have been rereading some of my blog posts over the past seven years to help me think about how Darwinian science illuminates the debates in the history of political philosophy.  As I have done that, I've noticed that Darwinism seems to support one of the fundamental claims of classical liberalism:  natural rights emerge in human history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking a natural human tendency to violent resistance against exploitation.

Asserting that might makes right is usually interpreted to mean that life is governed by brute force and not by any sense of right and wrong.  This can suggest a kind of nihilism that is often associated with Darwinism by its critics:  Doesn't the "survival of the fittest" mean that there is no natural standard of right in human evolution, because it's all determined ultimately by the rule of the stronger over the weaker?  Doesn't this indicate that there's a clear line "from Darwin to Hitler"?

But this fails to see how the Darwinian account of moral evolution depends on the natural propensity to exploitative dominance being checked by the natural propensity to resist exploitation, so that even the strongest tyrant is vulnerable to the vengeful retaliation of his victims.

Thomas Hobbes captured this thought in his description of the state of nature as a state of equality in which all can defend themselves with violence.  "Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.  For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself" (Leviathan, chap. 13).

Notice that Hobbes is not saying that all human beings are absolutely equal, which would be obviously false.  Even in a primitive state of nature, some people will be naturally stronger than others in their bodies or minds.  But there is a rough equality in that even the strongest can be brought down by the weaker ones who have been provoked into attack.  Machiavelli emphasizes this point when he warns that even the most powerful princes can be assassinated if they are hated by the people.

Locke points to this when he speaks about the "executive power of the law of nature" (ST, 13).  This "executive power" is the power of everyone to defend lives and property against aggressors, and to punish transgressors in any way that reason and conscience dictate as required for reparation and restraint, which includes the power to kill murderers.  The first "great law of nature" stated in the Bible is "who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (ST, 11; Genesis 9:6).

The problem, of course, is that the vigilantism of the state of nature easily collapses into perpetual feuding, and then people will consent to establish formal governments and the rule of law.  To do that, people must give up their executive power to the government, which then might become even more oppressive than any individual in the state of nature.  But if the people feel oppressed, they can take back their natural executive power in an "appeal to Heaven" in war.

Hobbes and Locke were not just speculating about this.  They had seen the English Civil War.  They had seen that Roundheads can defeat Cavaliers, and that kings can be beheaded.  Locke had plotted with the Whigs in assassination conspiracies directed against the King.

Hobbes and Locke had also studied carefully the reports about the foraging societies of New World, which Hobbes and Locke used as the basis for their depictions of the state of nature.

In tracing political history as a history of warfare going back to the original state of nature of hunting-gathering bands, Hobbes and Locke initiated a tradition of political thought that would be continued by Darwinians studying moral and political history as evolution by group selection.

Darwinians can understand modern liberal regimes as a revival of the "egalitarian hierarchy" (Chris Boehm) that existed among foraging bands, in which the natural desire of the few for dominance was checked by the natural desire of the many to resist dominance, except that now, in modern liberal regimes, the freedom of foraging societies has been combined with the civilzation of modern commercial societies.

Eventually, human social and political evolution has brought a general decline in violence (as Steven Pinker has shown).  But that decline in violence can never bring perpetual peace (contrary to the utopian pacifism of people like Herbert Spencer), because the enforcement of the liberal norm of voluntary cooperation will always depend on the threat or use of force against those who would violate that norm.

These points are elaborated in a previous post, which includes links to many other pertinent posts.

An especially pertinent post is the one on Thomas Aquinas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the "Christian Uncle Tom problem."  Against the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, Darwinian natural right rests on the idea that morality is rooted in the evolved dispositions of animals to feel anger against those that threaten them, and that this naturally evolved animal inclination to ward off attacks is the deepest root of that sense of injustice that underlies all human morality.  Vengeance is a virtue, perhaps even the fundamental virtue.


Ken Blanchard said...

I have a comment at my blog http://naturalrightandbiology.blogspot.com/2012/12/arnhart-hobbes-locke.html

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem to me that you're saying might makes right. It seems to me that what you're actually saying is that when those who resist domination rise up, it makes right, that resistance to domination makes right. If the domination was successful in setting up a 1984 style society that effectively made resistance impossible, would it be right? (P.S. don't play the trick of evading the question by denying its possibility.)

Larry Arnhart said...

If there were happy slaves, who never expressed any resistance to their enslavement, wouldn't they be natural slaves?

Wasn't this crucial for the paternalistic ideology of the slavemasters in the American South who argued that their slaves showed their natural adaptation to slavery in their happy submission?

Wasn't it then crucial for the abolitionists to argue that this was false, because the slaves showed a natural resistance to their enslavement?

Isn't slave rebellion the ultimate confirmation that slavery violates natural right?

Anonymous said...

But it doesn't show that might makes right. In fact, it shows that absolute opposite, that the slaves were right despite not having any might.

Kent Guida said...

I think Aristotle supports the Arnhart position. Those who are not prepared to resist exploitation or domination will not be or remain free, will be reduced to slavery and hence are in some sense natural slaves. Isn't that also the argument of the Declaration of Independence?

Kent Guida said...

Also, I am delighted to hear there will be a new edition of POLITICAL QUESTIONS. This is a great little book, the best introduction to political philosophy I know of.

David Friedman said...

" The problem, of course, is that the vigilantism of the state of nature easily collapses into perpetual feuding,..."

I think if one looks at actual feud systems, this doesn't seem to be the case--they usually include some mechanism to terminate feuds. It's worth noting that the one famous American feud, between the Hatfields and McCoys, terminated with a total of four people dead--one killed in a fight that started the conflict, and the three responsible then killed by the first victim's kin.

It was revived several years later by the government of the state the three were citizens of.

On the general subject of where rights come from naturally, you might be interested in an old piece of mine which views them in terms of a mutually recognized pattern of commitment strategies: