Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is the "Propensity to Truck, Barter, and Exchange" Unique to Human Evolution?

In the history of political philosophy, it is common for political thinkers to make claims about human nature as compared with the nature of other animals.  Noticing this as a young student of political philosophy, I wondered whether modern biological research could confirm or deny such claims, and this led me into a long career of applying Darwinian science to the study of political philosophy.

So, for example, I remember the first time that I read Adam Smith's claim in The Wealth of Nations that the "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" is uniquely human and not found in any other animals.  I wondered whether this was true, and, if true, what it would mean for our understanding of human social life. 

In recent years, Haim Ofek (in his book Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution) and Matt Ridley (in his book The Rational Optimist) have argued that what we now know about human evolution confirms Smith's insight about the unique importance of exchange for human history.  The whole of human history for the past 200,000 years can be understood as the progressive extension of human cooperation through exchange and the division of labor--from foraging bands to agrarian states to modern commercial societies in global networks of trade.  Both Ofek and Ridley see this as arising from a human propensity to exchange that cannot be seen in any other animal. And yet I am still trying to make up my mind about this.

In the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith explains the division of labor as the primary cause for the increasing productivity of labor, which includes the famous example of the pin factory.  In the second chapter, he explains how this division of labor arises in human history.
"This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion.  It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.
 "Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature, of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to enquire.  It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts.  Two greyhounds, in running down the same hare, have sometimes the appearance of acting in some sort of concert.  Each turns her towards his companion, or endeavours to intercept her when his companion turns her towards himself.  This, however, is not the effect of any contract, but of the accidental concurrence of their passions in the same object at that particular time.  Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.  Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.  When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires.  A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him.  Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will.  He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion.  In civilized society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.  In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is gown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature.  But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.  He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.  Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this.  Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.  It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.  Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."
Smith then indicates that the emergence of a division of labor through exchange appears originally among savages living as hunter-gatherers, where someone might specialize in making bows and arrows that he can trade for some meat captured by a hunter, so that each fills a particular occupation, and thus their joint labor becomes more productive than would be the case if each were working only for himself.  This is part of Smith's understanding of human social evolution as passing through four stages--from foraging to herding to farming to commerce.

At the beginning of this passage, we see the fundamental idea that is common to Smith's social thought and Darwin's biology--the possibility of design-without-a-designer ("not originally the effect of any human wisdom") through emergent or spontaneous order.  (I have written about this in a previous post.) 

Smith then poses an evolutionary question: Was the propensity to exchange an original principle of human evolution, or was it a late by-product of earlier evolved "faculties of reason and speech"?  Although he chooses not to take up this question here, he considers it more probable that reason and speech came first, and then the propensity to exchange came later as a by-product.  In the Lectures on Jurisprudence, Smith says that the "real foundation" of exchange and the division of labor is "that principle to persuade which so much prevails in human nature."  Like Aristotle, Smith seems to believe that human beings are more political than other political animals because human beings have a capacity for logos--reason or speech--that allows them to persuade one another to cooperate for common ends, which makes exchance and the division of labor possible.  Ofek argues, however, that the evidence of human evolutionary history now suggests that exchange was an early agent of human evolution that favored the evolution of human reason and speech.

Smith goes on to suggest that while other animals can seem to act in concert when they are in passionate pursuit of the same object--like greyhounds chasing the same hare--this is the consequence not of any contract or deliberate choice but of "the accidental concurrence of their passions" in pursuing the same object at the same time.  Non-human animals are unable to communicate with one another well enough to say: "this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that."

Notice that Smith thinks that non-human animals can engage in persuasion by begging for attention within their families or their groups or even to elicit benevolent care from human beings.  But the range of benevolence for all animals--including human beings--is limited.  In human civilization, individuals need "the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes," and for this they must appeal not to benevolence but to self-love, by persuading other individuals to engage with them in mutually beneficial exchanges.  Indeed, Smith points out that among human beings, even beggars cannot rely totally on charitable benevolence to secure their needs, because they beg for money that they use to buy what they need.

We might wonder whether Darwin would agree with Smith about barter or exchange being unique to human beings in giving rise to the division of labor as a spontaneous order.  Remarkably, Darwin says almost nothing about exchange in human evolution.  But there are at least two passages in Darwin's writings that both Ofek and Ridley cite as supporting their arguments about the human evolution of exchange.

In the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes the savage people that he saw at Tierra del Fuego.  He reports: "Some of the Fuegians plainly showed that they had a fair notion of barter.  I gave one man a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear.  If any present was designed for one canoe, and it fell near another, it was invariably given to the right owner."  Darwin seems, then, to agree with Smith that even those living in the most primitive foraging societies show "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."

In The Descent of Man, Darwin describes how man became "the most dominant animal" through technological inventions such as tools.
"To chip a flint into the rudest tool, or to form a barbed spear or hook from a bone, demands the use of a perfect hand; for, as a most capable judge, Mr. Schoolcraft, remarks, the shaping fragments of stones into knives, lances, or arrow-heads, shews 'extraordinary ability and long practice.'  This is to a great extent proved by the fact that primeval men practised a division of labour; each man did not manufacture his own flint tools or rude pottery, but certain individuals appear to have devoted themselves to such work, no doubt receiving in exchange the produce of the chase."  (Penguin edition, 2004, 69)
Although he doesn't make it explicit, Darwin implies that the complexity of artifacts in the archaeological record could be interpreted as evidence for a division of labor that promotes the dexterity and inventiveness that comes from specialization.  Ofek and Ridley have adopted this line of reasoning in arguing that the explosion of technological complexity in the Upper Paleolithic record of human evolution is a consequence of exchange and specialization, which is confirmed by evidence that some of the material in the human artifacts was transported over long distances, apparently by trade.

Darwin does not indicate, however, that this propensity for exchange and a division of labor is uniquely human, as Smith does.  Ridley argues that recent research on the evolution of cooperation confirms Smith's view.  Other animals cooperate with one another based on kinship, relatedness, and reciprocity (direct and indirect), and human cooperation show these same evolved mechanisms at work.  But cooperation based on exchange or barter is uniquely human, and it cannot be explained as a form of reciprocity.  Reciprocity means giving each other the same thing.  I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine (direct reciprocity).  Or I'll scratch your back because you have a reputation for scratching the backs of others (indirect reciprocity).  But exchange means giving each other different things.  As Smith puts it, "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want."  Other animals can't do this.

To support this conclusion, Ridley cites some experiments with chimpanzees:
"The primatologist Sarah Brosnan tried to teach two different groups of chimpanzees about barter and found it very problematic.  Her chimps preferred grapes to apples to cucumbers to carrots (which they liked least of all).  They were prepared sometimes to give up carrots for grapes, but they almost never bartered apples for grapes (or vice versa), however advantageous the bargain.  They could not see the point of  giving up food they liked for food they liked even more.  Chimpanzees and monkeys can be taught to exchange tokens for food, but this is a long way from spontaneously exchanging one thing for another: the tokens have no value to the chimpanzees, so they are happy to give them up.  True barter requires that you give up something you value in exchange for something else you value slightly more." (59)
It seems to me though that Ridley is obscuring some of the complexity in these experiments (see Sarah Brosnan, et al., "Chimpanzee Autarky," PloS ONE January, 2008, e1518, 1-5.).  Brosnan and her colleagues apparently showed that chimps do barter, at least in a situation where they can trade very low valued items (carrots) for very high valued items (grapes).  But they do not barter where the gains from barter are small--as in trading valuable apples for slightly more valuable grapes.  One possible explanation that they suggest is that the chimps are less inclined to take the risk from giving up a valued food item if the possible gains are too small.

Nevertheless, it does seem that these experiments provide some support for the Smith/Ridley position.  Even if these chimps can learn to barter under some special conditions in the laboratory, they don't seem to spontaneously barter in the wild.  This is in contrast to the human situation where bartering seems to come easily as a spontaneous behavior, even in the most primitive human conditions, as with Darwin's Fuegians.  

It's still not clear to me, however, that Ridley has successfully distinguished exchange from reciprocity.  In fact, sometimes Ridley explains exchange as based on trustworthy reputation, and thus indirect reciprocity (see Ridley, 93-104). 





Sunday, May 27, 2012

Anastaplo on Strauss, Aquinas, and Heidegger

On April 21, some graduate students and faculty in political theory gathered at my home for a discussion--led by George Anastaplo--of Chapter 4 ("Classic Natural Right") of Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History.  Many of us there were in the spring graduate seminar at NIU on Strauss, and so this discussion continued some of our discussions in that seminar.

Mr. Anastaplo chose to concentrate his remarks on the two pages where Strauss comments on Thomas Aquinas (pp. 163-64).  Mr. Anastaplo has now posted the written text of his remarks on his website.

This was a good choice of topics, because most of the students in my Strauss seminar had also been in my fall seminar on Aquinas.

At least two of the points that Mr. Anastaplo makes here are related to topics that I have taken up in various posts.

The first is Mr. Anastaplo's suggestion that Aquinas might have been a secret writer:
"The remarkable astuteness of Thomas Aquinas, in dealing competently with one subject after another across decades, might even make one wonder what he 'really believed.'  I myself somehow gathered that Leo Strauss, in his last years, came to suspect that the remarkably intelligent and learned Thomas Aquinas he had come to know must have had more reservations about the religious orthodoxy of his day than he considered it responsible to make explicit.  This would permit us to question, among other things, the story that has Thomas eventually repudiating his massive intellectual accomplishments as mere 'straw,' an assessment that might even call into serious question any Faith that may have seemed to require such an apparent absurdity."
Mr. Anastaplo's thought here is remarkably similar to the argument of Tom West that Aquinas was a secret writer who had to be cautious in expressing his doubts about Christian doctrines.  Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on West's reasoning.

If Aquinas can be read as suggesting the possibility of a natural law based purely on natural experience, without any need for appealing to Biblical revelation, that natural law might have been grounded on an Aristotelian biology of human nature.  I have developed this thought in various posts--for example, here, here, and here.

The second point that catches my attention in Mr. Anastaplo's statement is his comment about Strauss, moral virtue, and Heidegger:
"Mr. Strauss observes (p. 164) that 'intellectual perfection or wisdom, as unassisted human reason knows it, does not require moral virtue.'  I have chanced to question this assumption, particularly in my identification of Martin Heidegger as 'the Macbeth of philosophy.'  That is, I ahve been moved to wonder about the ultimate reliability of any serious thinking about critical philosophical questions by anyone as morally flawed (that is, as unable to see critical moral realities) as Heidegger was revealed to have been (a presumptuousness on my part which may even seem to question therefore the Straussian lifelong commendation of Heidegger as a remarkable Thinker, indeed as perhaps the greatest in the Twentieth Century, however dreadfully flawed he turned out to have been morally)."
In our discussion at my home, some of us pointed to the troubling passage in Natural Right and History (151) where Strauss says that "the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being."  This has become one of the fundamental teachings of Straussianism--that the philosophic life is the only good life by nature, and that moral life is not good in itself, because it has only instrumental value in serving the philosophic life.  In our discussion, Mr. Anastaplo defended Strauss on this point.  But here in this statement, Mr. Anastaplo suggests that Strauss is open to criticism on this point, and the case of Heidegger illustrates the problem--someone who cannot see moral reality cannot be a serious thinker.

Moreover, as I have indicated in previous posts, I am disturbed by the dogmatic way in which Strauss and the Straussians assert the superiority of the philosophic life over the moral life with very little supporting argumentation.  Notice the way Strauss speaks in the passage quoted by Anastaplo: "intellectual perfection or wisdom, as unassisted human reason knows it, does not require moral virtue."

This does not go beyond mere assertion--"as unassisted human reason knows it"!  I have elaborated my thought about this in various posts--for example, here and here.

Mr. Anastaplo has come up in some previous posts here, here, here, and here.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Das Charles Darwin Problem & The Bourgeois Virtues

In the nineteenth century, some German scholars identified das Adam Smith Problem as the apparent contradiction between Adam Smith's two books.  In 1759, Smith published his first book--The Theory of Moral Sentiments--in which he explained morality as arising from sympathy.  He began the book with a chapter on sympathy by declaring: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."  In 1776, he published his second book--The Wealth of Nations--in which he explained economic prosperity as arising from the division of labor based upon the natural human propensity "to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."  He indicated that this system of exchange depended on self-interest: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but their regard to their own interest."  To the German scholars, there seemed to be an obvious contradiction between Smith's emphasis on sympathy in his first book and his emphasis on self-interest in his second.  Some of them concluded that Smith must have changed his mind about human nature, deciding late in life that self-interest was stronger than sympathy among human beings, and thus that self-interest was a more reliable ground for social order.

This puzzle in interpreting Smith's two books suggests a deep question about human life.  Are morals and markets contradictory or compatible?  Do markets subvert morals?  Or do markets make us moral, or at least presuppose morality?  Is capitalism morally corrupting in fostering selfish competitiveness and greed rather than social cooperativeness and benevolence?

How one resolves das Adam Smith Problem might imply answers to these questions.

Nathan Dinneen--a political scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology--has recently suggested to me that as with Adam Smith, one might identify das Charles Darwin Problem.  In 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species in which he seemed to explain all life as governed by the "struggle for existence," which  Social Darwinists interpreted as a justification for viewing life as a competitive struggle in which the strong prevail over the weak.  In 1871, he published The Descent of Man in which a prominent part of his explanation for human evolution was the evolution of a moral sense based on sympathy.  While Darwin's Origin of Species corresponds to Smith's Wealth of Nations, Darwin's Descent of Man corresponds to Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In fact, Darwin in Descent quotes from Smith's chapter on sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Dinneen has noticed that Darwin's critics who want to connect him to Social Darwinism tend to ignore what Darwin says about morality in the Descent so that they can emphasize the theme of competitive struggle unconstrained by moral motives.  In particular, Dinneen sees this in Gertrude Himmelfarb's book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959).  This book has been especially influential among neoconservatives who attack Darwin as morally subversive.  (There's a family connection here: Irving Kristol was Himmelfarb's husband, and William Kristol is her son.)

In her chapters on "Darwinism, Religion, and Morality" and on "Darwinism, Politics, and Society," Himmelfarb presents Darwin as promoting a crude Social Darwinism that includes Adolf Hitler.  But in these chapters, she never once cites Darwin's account of morality in the Descent.  Although she does cite the Descent in her chapter on "The Origin of Man," her entire presentation of his explanation of human morality consists of only one paragraph (p. 373).

As I have indicated in a previous post, one can see a similar rhetorical strategy in Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought, which largely invented the popular view of Social Darwinism (recently manifest in a speech by Barack Obama).  Hofstadter's references to Darwin's Descent appear on one and a half pages of his book.  Hofstadter writes:  "Darwin himself offered somewhat confused counsel on the ethical implications of his own discoveries.  In the light of his discussion of the moral sense and the role of sympathy in evolution, it is not surprising to find him somewhat hurt at the suggestion that he had proved the might is right.  He little suspected that he was fated to be an intellectual Pandora; for, however dismal the Malthusian logic behind his system, it was filtered through his own tender moral sensibilities" (90-91).  In a footnote, Hofstadter concedes: "Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist" (238).

I would argue that the writings of both Smith and Darwin are consistent in explaining human conduct as grounded in both self-interest and sympathy.  If they appear inconsistent to some readers, it is only because of the unreasonable modern dichotomy between the amorality of self-interest and the morality of altruism.  Even many of the proponents of evolutionary psychology and Darwinian moral psychology make this mistake in identifying morality as totally other-regarding and therefore set in opposition to self-regarding conduct.  If morality is defined in this way as utterly selfless behavior, then it is hard to understand the personal motivation for moral conduct, and it is also hard to understand the morality of economic exchange.

"In civilized society," Smith observes in the Wealth of Nations, a man "stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons."  Since he cannot expect a multitude of strangers to cooperate with him solely out of benevolence, he must appeal to their self-love, and he does this by offering an exchange: "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want" (I.ii.2).

This does not deny that human beings are naturally benevolent towards their family, their friends, or anyone who might elicit their sympathetic concern.  But it does deny that such benevolence is sufficient to secure the extended cooperation of strangers that makes civilization possible.  The Wealth of Nations is about how exchange or trade in markets makes possible the division of labor that sustains the extended cooperation of human civilization.

If we identify morality with selflessness or altruism, then the social activity of trade as based on self-love is not moral.  And, indeed, there is an old tradition of moral condemnation of the life of trade.  But Smith rejects this in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
 because he sees that the virtuous character of an individual is judged by how it may affect not only the happiness of others but also his own happiness (VI.i-ii).  To provide for our own happiness, we need the virtue of prudence.  "The care of the health, of the fortune, of the rank and reputation of the individual, the objects upon which his comfort and happiness in this life are supposed principally to depend, is considered as the proper business of that virtue which is commonly called Prudence" (VI.i.5).  Moreover, Smith observes, "Regard to our own private happiness and interest, too, appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of action.  The habits of economy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives, and at the same time are apprehended to be very praiseworthy qualities, which deserve the esteem and approbation of every body" (VII.ii.3.16).    

These are the bourgeois virtues--the virtues that sustain the extended order of civilization as based on market exchanges.  According to Smith, these virtues are uniquely human because human beings are the only animals with a natural propensity "to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (WN, I.ii.1).  (This is, I think, what the Midwest Straussians--like Martin Diamond and Bill Galston--have in mind when they defend the liberal virtues against the Straussian complaint that modern liberalism cannot recognize human excellence.) 

Darwin also recognized the importance of exchange or barter in supporting the division of labor in human evolution.  When he met the hunter-gatherers in Tierra del Fuego in 1834, he observed: "Some of the Fuegians plainly showed that they had a fair notion of barter.  I gave one man a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear."  And in The Descent of Man, he judged that "primeval man practised a division of labour; each man did not manufacture his own tools or rude pottery, but certain individuals appear to have devoted themselves to such work, no doubt receiving in exchange the produce of the chase."

In The Rational Optimist (2010),  Matt Ridley argues that the primary cause of human cultural evolution over the past 100,000  years has been the uniquely human propensity to exchange one thing for another, just as Smith said.  Some evolutionary psychologists might say that exchange is simply a form of reciprocity.  But Ridley argues--correctly, I think--that while reciprocity means individuals giving each other the same thing, which is seen among nonhuman animals, exchange means individuals giving each other different things, which is uniquely human.  The fulfilment of the cultural evolution of exchange in modern commercial societies was made possible by modern liberal ideas that recognized the bourgeois virtues.

I will say more about this in future posts on Ridley's book and on Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues.                    

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


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Darwinian Natural Right in E. O. Wilson's New Book

Sometime in 1998, I was working in my home basement office, and I heard a telephone ringing.  After my son answered the phone, he yelled into the basement:  "Some guy wants to talk to you.  He says he's Ed Wilson at Harvard."  I picked up the phone, and we talked for about thirty minutes.  He was calling from his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.  We talked until his wife pulled him away from the phone. 

He had read my review of his new book--Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--and he wanted to talk about it.  Although I generally agreed with most of the arguments in his book, I suggested that there was a conflict between his pursuit of a strong reductionism and his recognition of emergent phenomena that cannot be explained in a reductionistic way.  He tried to persuade me that strong reductionism was the ultimate goal of science, while I argued that emergent complexity could never be fully explained in reductionistic terms. 

I was reminded of that telephone conversation as I read Wilson's new book--The Social Conquest of the Earth.  In 1998, my Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature had just been published, and much of my reasoning for Darwinian natural right in that book was shaped by Wilson's writing.  Now, as I read his new book, I see again how much of my thinking has been influenced by his work, although I also see a few points of disagreement.

In this new book, I see seven major themes related to Darwinian natural right: (1) consilience, (2) emergence, (3) genetic plasticity, (4) the two peaks of social evolution, (5) the iron rule of moral evolution, (6) religion and science, and (7) the rejection of kin selection theory.

(1) Consilience
Wilson organizes his book around the questions asked in Paul Gauguin's most famous painting of human figures set in a Tahitian landscape, which apparently depicts the stages of the human life cycle from birth to death, and which includes in one corner three questions: Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going? 

To answer these fundamental questions about our human place in the natural history of the universe, Wilson suggests, we need what he has called "consilience"--the unification of all knowledge, which would draw from the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  Traditionally, we have looked to religion, philosophy, or the creative arts to answer these great questions.  But Wilson argues that these three ways to understand the human condition have failed.  This leaves science--in its quest for unified knowledge--as the only way to understand the human story (1, 7-10). 

I think Wilson is mistaken here in his claim that philosophy and science must be separated, because of his assumption that philosophy relies purely on introspection and logic without any of the empirical research that is done by scientists.  His mistake here is in turning away from what he said in Consilience, where he recognized that the search for consilience--based on the assumption that "the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws"--began in Greek antiquity with Thales of Miletus and Aristotle (4-5).  Until recently, there was no separation between philosophy and science, and what we call "natural science" today was previously called "natural philosophy."  Aristotle was particularly important as a biologist who saw moral and political philosophy as a biological science.  Moreover, Wilson acknowledged this in Consilience, when he identified his biological science of ethics and politics as belonging in the empiricist tradition of Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin, as opposed to the transcendentalist tradition of Plato, Kant, and Rawls (248-49, 315).  (At this point, Wilson seemed to have been influenced by an article of mine published in 1995 in the American Political Science Review: "The New Darwinian Naturalism in Political Theory.")

If Wilson's project for a Darwinian unification of knowledge is to succeed, it must revive that Aristotelian tradition of natural philosophy that includes Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and Adam Smith.  Darwin understood himself as part of that intellectual tradition, particularly in adopting ideas from Hume and Smith about the natural moral sentiments.  Recently, evolutionary moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have recognized that they are reviving the empiricist moral philosophy of Aristotle and Hume, and some contemporary philosophers like Shaun Nichols have embraced "experimental philosophy" as a way of putting their ideas to the test of empirical scientific research.  Political scientists like Peter Hatemi, James Fowler, Christopher Dawes, and Rebecca Hannagan who are developing biological theories of political behavior fit into this Aristotelian and Darwinian tradition.  My argument for Darwinian natural right belongs to this same intellectual project.

(2) Emergence
In our telephone conversation in 1998, I disagreed with Wilson's statement in Consilience about reducing all knowledge to physics: "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the working of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics" (266).  I pointed out that in most of his book, he actually rejected "physics envy" and insisted that biologists must "invariably encounter emergence, the appearance of complex phenomena not predictable from the basic elements and processes alone" (86).  Later, in my chapter on emergence in Darwinian Conservatism I defended the idea of emergent complexity--including the emergence of the mind in the brain--as superior to strong reductionism.

I am pleased to see, therefore, that in The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson never argues for reducing everything to the laws of physics, and he implicitly endorses the idea of irreducibly emergent traits of life (see, e.g., 185, 287).

(3) Genetic plasticity
One ground for emergent complexity in Wilson's science is genetic plasticity.  One odd feature of the debate that Wilson has provoked ever since the publication of his Sociobiology in 1975 is that his most fervent critics accuse him of genetic determinism, even though he has repeatedly affirmed the idea of genetic plasticity as allowing for individual and cultural variation.  He repeats that idea in Social Conquest in explaining his understanding of gene-culture coevolution: the observable human variation in both individual and cultural traits does not show that such traits are free from genetic influence, because there can be great plasticity in the expression of genes that allows for a wide but still constrained flexibility in response to the cultural and individual contingencies of life (236-40).

This fits with my conception of Darwinian natural right, in which the twenty natural desires can be understood as genetic inclinations that constrain but do not determine cultural traditions and individual judgments.

One of those twenty natural desires is the desire for speech.  Wilson's emphasis on genetic plasticity is manifest in his decision in Social Conquest to reverse his previous acceptance of Noam Chomsky's argument for a universal grammar as innate in human nature (231-35).  In a famous debate between B. F. Skinner and Chomsky, Skinner argued that language is all learned and not at all innate, while Chomsky argued that language was too complex for children to learn as quickly and easily as they do.  According to Chomsky, children must have an innately constituted deep grammar that is universal to all human beings and thus universally expressed in every human language.

In Wilson's earlier writings, he supported Chomsky's position.  But now he thinks the truth is somewhere between Chomsky and Skinner:  there is some uniquely human instinctive propensity to learn language--some epigenetic rules for "prepared learning" of language--but these instinctive rules are so broad that both syntax and semantics are determined by cultural learning.  Following Michael Tomasello, Wilson concludes now that language is not basic, but derived, in that it arises from uniquely human abilities to read and share intentions with other people.  Our natural social instincts and our cognitive capacities for social interaction and communication prepare us to learn language as a cultural tool.

Daniel Everett has made a similar argument in Language: The Cultural Tool (2012). And he sees this argument as taking the side of Aristotle against Plato.  While Plato thought that meaning was ultimately derived from some transcendent realm that had to be instilled in the mind at birth, Aristotle saw meaning as learned from cultural experience of the world by social animals naturally inclined to social life.  We are naturally inclined to learn language, Aristotle saw, but the meaning of words and sentences is by convention (On Interpretation, 16a1-17a17).

(4) The Two Peaks of Social Evolution
In Sociobiology (1975), Wilson identified "Four Pinnacles of Social Evolution" (Chapter 18).  These four pinnacles were the colonial invertebrates (such as the corals, the Portuguese man-of-war, and sponges), the eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites), nonhuman mammals, and humans.  Although this sequence seems to move from more primitive to more complex forms of life, it also moves from more cohesive or cooperative societies to more discordant or competitive societies.  Colonial invertebrates can be seen as "perfect societies," because colonies consist of genetically identical individuals, and consequently they show absolutely altruistic cooperation.  But with sexually reproducing organisms, no two individuals are genetically identical, which creates conflicts of interest even among related individuals (314, 379).

In Social Conquest, Wilson moves from four pinnacles of social evolution to two.  He identifies two paths to the social conquest of the earth--the insect path and the human path.  The social insects rule the invertebrate land environment.  Humans rule the vertebrate land environment.  Like the social insects, humans are "eusocial" in the technical sense that multiple generations of individuals live together, caring for dependent offspring and cooperating in a social division of labor.  While the social insects organize their colonies largely through pure instinct, with the insect queen producing robotic offspring guided by instinct, humans must organize the cooperation of individuals through personal relationships based on social intelligence, which requires navigating through a tense social network balanced between the selfish interests of individuals and the social interests of groups.  Wilson explains this tense balance in human social life between selfishness and sociality as a product of the countervailing evolutionary forces of individual selection and group selection.

Although Aristotle did not have an evolutionary theory of social cooperation, he did explain human politics by comparison with the social life of other political animals.  He recognized the social insects--particularly, ants, bees, and wasps--as political animals.  He also recognized that human beings were the most political animals, because their cooperation was based on language and intelligence in negotiating the complex conflicts and confluences of interests in human societies.  He also saw that Plato's perfect city in the Republic was more suitable for social insects than for human beings, because human beings were moved by a love of their own that drove them into factional conflict.

(5) The Iron Rule of Moral Evolution
The tense balance between the individual and the group in human societies constitutes what Wilson identifies as the "iron rule" of social and moral evolution: "Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.  The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme.  If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve.  If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies" (243).  So if we ask whether human beings are innately good or innately evil, we should answer that they are both.  And for that reason, "human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible" (241).  Here is the scientific basis for the tragic realism of evolutionary ethics. 

This evolved imperfectibility of human nature has been a major theme of my argument for Darwinian natural right, and for traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism as conforming best to our imperfectible nature as both selfish and social animals.

The theory of multilevel natural selection--with individual selection at one level and group selection at another--explains the ultimate causes of those complex conflicts in human moral and political life that are expressed proximately in our moral emotions.  Those moral emotions are well-studied in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which begins by observing:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.  Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.  That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility.  The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin cited this opening chapter of Smith's book in developing his evolutionary theory of the moral sense as rooted in social instincts, reason, language, sympathy, and group selection.

And yet even Darwin's friend Thomas Huxley eventually rejected Darwin's evolutionary account of morality, because Huxley insisted that morality transcends nature as being a purely cultural product constituting "an artificial world within the cosmos." 

More recently, some of the leading proponents of evolutionary psychology have followed Huxley in assuming that human morality belongs to a transcendent realm of cultural artifice and free will that is beyond the natural realm of causal forces open to scientific study.  So when Wilson spoke about his evolutionary theory of morality in his keynote address in 1996 at the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, many of the people at the convention were shocked, and they criticized Wilson for committing the "naturalistic fallacy."

In recent years, however, the rapidly accumulating research on the biological bases of morality has become so impressive that some evolutionary psychologists have begun to concede that Darwin was right, and Huxley was wrong.  They have thus joined Wilson in reviving the tradition of the empirical study of morality that includes Aristotle, Hume, and Smith.  My conception of Darwinian natural right falls into that tradition.

Darwinian natural right also includes that sense of honor that Wilson identifies as crucial for moral evolution, citing Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010).  This sense of honor includes the moral emotions of indignation and resentment in response to injustice.  This sense of injustice expresses what Leo Strauss calls "those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right" (NRH, x, 31-32, 105); and it is this that allows us to derive "rights from wrongs" (in Alan Dershowitz's phrase): our moral history is a history of resistance to injustice from which we derive standards of fair treatment.  My  chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right is an extended case study of this natural moral sense expressed as honorable resistance to injustice.


(6) Religion and Science
In my understanding of Darwinian natural right, religion satisfies the natural desire for religious understanding, and science satisfies the natural desire for intellectual understanding.  In answering questions of ultimate explanation, we must appeal to some unexplained ground of all explanation.  Science might appeal to nature.  Religion might appeal to nature's God.  In the debate between these two alternatives, neither side can refute the other.

In some of his earlier writings, Wilson has been ambiguous as to whether science and religion can coexist, or whether science must prevail over religion.  In Social Conquest, he explains religion as a product of evolutionary group selection in which religion expresses tribalism, because religion reinforces the demands of the group for the loyal obedience of individuals.  But then we must ask, to whom is that obedience directed?  Wilson answers: "Yes, perhaps it really is to God.  But perhaps it is to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth" (267).  That "perhaps" suggests that there might be no final resolution of the reason/revelation debate, as I argue.  But Wilson makes it clear that he foresees a future of complete secularization in which science replaces religion.  He concludes his book with a profession of "blind faith" in scientific enlightenment (297), which has been a theme of his writing going back to On Human Nature (1979).

(7) The Rejection of Kin Selection Theory
For his colleagues in evolutionary biology, the most controversial part of Wilson's new book is his rejection of kin selection theory.  On this point, he draws from an article published in Nature in 2010, which he coauthored with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita.  Their attack on kin-selection theory in that article was so controversial that it provoked criticisms from hundreds of scientists in a series of articles published in Nature in 2011.

William Hamilton developed the theory of kin selection in 1964.  The idea is that animals have evolved to serve not only their personal fitness (the number of surviving offspring) but also their inclusive fitness (which includes the fitness of their collateral relatives).  Hamilton put his theory into a formula: rb>c.  A gene for altruism will increase in frequency in a population when the benefit (b) to the individual receiving the benefit times the degree of relatedness (r) to the altruistic individual is greater than the cost (c) to the altruist. 

Part of the appeal of this theory is that it seemed to solve what Darwin recognized as a big problem for his theory of evolution:  if animals have evolved for reproductive fitness, then why so some social insects have non-reproductive workers who care for the queen's offspring while producing none of their own?  Hamilton's answer was that because of the reproductive system of haplodiploidy among these insects (ants, bees, and wasps), sisters are more closely related to one another than to their own offspring, and thus it serves the inclusive fitness of the sisters to rear the queen's daughters rather than reproduce their own offspring.  (This explanation does not apply to termites, whose reproduction is diploid, and thus the relatedness of parents to offspring is the same as that between siblings.)

In The Insect Societies (1971) and Sociobiology (1975), Wilson defended Hamilton's kin-selection theory, which subsequently became a generally accepted theory in evolutionary biology for explaining social evolution.  But now, in Social Conquest, Wilson restates the argument against kin-selection made in his article coauthored with Nowak and Tarnita:  as long as multilevel natural selection (individual or group selection, or both) works generally to explain social evolution, there is no need for a theory of kin selection. (See Nowak, Tarnita, Wilson, in Nature, 466: 1057-62, 2010.)

I am not persuaded by this.  But I must admit that this debate is so hard to follow that I am never sure that I understand exactly what's at issue here.  The hundreds of scientists who have come to the defense of kin selection theory have surveyed the evidence that this theory has been remarkably fruitful.  In responding to these critics, Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson wrote a brief article (one and a half pages) that does not answer all the points made by the critics.  (See Nature, March 24, 2011, vol. 471, pp. E1-E10.)  I agree with those critics (like Samir Okasha, in Nature, October 7, 2010) who argue that multilevel selection theory is not an alternative to kin selection theory; rather, they are complementary to one another.

Indeed, Martin Nowak seems to concede this point in his recent book SuperCooperators.  "Despite its limitations," Nowak writes, "Hamilton's rule has been a valuable heuristic."  "Kin selection is still a mechanism for the evolution of cooperation, as long as it is properly defined" (110).   Moreover, Nowak indicates that there are at least five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: direct reciprocity (tit for tat), indirect reciprocity (reputation), spatial selection (the structure of a population so that some individuals interact with each other more often than others), multilevel selection (individual selection and group selection), and kin selection.  He thinks that indirect reciprocity is most important.

It is clear that kin selection cannot be the whole story, because we need to explain how unrelated individuals can cooperate.  But it is also clear that kin selection must be part of the story, because we need to explain the tendency for individuals to be more cooperative with close relatives than with distant relatives or strangers.

The fundamental idea here was developed by Aristotle:  the natural sociality of animals originates as an extension of parental care and affiliation to ever wider groups.  A similar point is made by Wilson in stressing the importance for social evolution of having a nest or campsite that is defended from enemies. 

All of these mechanisms for social cooperation are manifest in my list of twenty natural desires, which includes the desires for sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, and war.

My points here have been elaborated in many other posts, some of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here, and here.



Monday, May 07, 2012

Strauss, Altman, and Darwin: Eternity or Evolution?

In Leo Strauss's "German Nihilism," Will Altman sees some of Strauss's boldest statements of his secret teaching in his sympathetic account of the "young nihilists," but he also sees Strauss pulling away from this and asserting a public teaching that argues against nihilism. 

In a few passages of his book, Altman identifies the secret teaching as an affirmation of Darwinian evolution and the public teaching as an affirmation of Platonic eternity.  That public teaching of Strauss is what Altman embraces as true.  By contrast, I find the Platonic teaching of eternal cosmic standards implausible, and I embrace the Darwinian teaching of enduring but not eternal standards as true.  This Darwinian teaching is not nihilistic, as Altman believes it is, unless one agrees with the early and late Nietzsche that Darwinism is a "deadly truth" because it frustrates our longing for eternal standards. 

Strauss seems to be favorable to the "young nihilists" when he writes:

"I have tried to circumscribe the intellectual and moral situation in which a nihilism emerged which was not in all cases base in its origin.  Moreover, I take it for granted that not everything to which the young nihilists objected was unobjectionable, and that not every writer or speaker whom they despised, was respectable. . . . Let us then not hesitate to look for one moment at the phenomenon which I called nihilism, from the point of view of the nihilists. . . . A new reality is in the making; it is transforming the whole world; in the meantime there is: nothing, but--a fertile nothing." (363)
But then Strauss pulls back and suggests a criticism of nihilist historicism:
"I frankly confess, I do not see how those can resist the voice of that siren who expect the answer to the first and the last question from 'History,' from the as such, who mistake analysis of the present or past or future for philosophy, who believe in a progress toward a goal which is itself progressive and therefore indefinable; who are not guided by a known and stable standard: by a standard which is stable and not changeable, and which is known and not merely believed." (364)
Altman reads this as Strauss's effort to reassure the reader that he is not attracted to nihilism.  "This has been Strauss's point all along, he now reassuringly suggests.  Moreover, it is only by embracing a timeless, absolute, and unchanging standard that the nihilist can be refuted.  Strauss now seems to be calling for a revival of traditional Platonism ('the Ancients') or even possibly actual knowledge--rather than mere belief--in the Living God ('Jerusalem')" (327).  Altman then proclaims his own belief in this "exoteric teaching" of Strauss.

But according to Altman, Strauss's secret teaching denies that there is any "timeless, absolute, and unchanging standard," and thus Strauss is a Darwinian.  "LS [Leo Strauss] generally ignores Darwin, but in his immorality, his atheism, his historicism, and in his revival of 'natural right' (as opposed to rights), LS is neo-Darwinian" (382).

Altman offers no proof that Darwinism must promote immorality, atheism, and historicism.  But in a footnote, he suggests that he accepts the argument of Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (416, n. 85).  I have written some posts on Weikart's books, who argues that Darwin was responsible for Hitler, and that the only alternative to Darwinian Nazism is intelligent design theory. 

One oddity here is that the arguments for intelligent design were originally invented by the Athenian Stranger in Book 10 of Plato's Laws.  So while Altman generally scorns the Athenian Stranger, here he seems to agree with him about the need for persuading people to believe in intelligent design, because any natural evolutionary explanation for human nature within the cosmos will promote immorality, atheism, and historicism.  But the Athenian Stranger's arguments are not very plausible.  And it's not even clear that he believes them himself.

Strauss and the Straussians are ambivalent about this.  (One can see this, for example, in Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers.)  On the one hand, they suggest that the only alternative to historicist relativism is a Platonic cosmology of eternal standards for human life.  On the other hand, they suggest that Socrates never clearly endorses this cosmology, and that he implies that the ultimate standards for human life must be drawn from human nature, from natural needs and desires, as arising from human biological nature.

My argument is that the Platonic dialogues give us reasons to believe that conceptions of cosmic teleology and the eternity of species are implausible because they contradict what we know by experience.  More plausible, I suggest would be Aristotelian and Darwinian conceptions of immanent teleology and the natural history of the human species that would support standards of moral and intellectual excellence grounded in natural human desires.

These points are elaborated in various posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Altman's Nine Theses on Strauss as the German Stranger

The argument of Will Altman's The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism can be summarized in nine theses:

1. Biblical dualism
2. Biblical liberalism
3. Platonic dualism
4. Platonic liberalism
5. Straussian anti-dualism
6. Straussian anti-liberalism
7. Nazi anti-dualism
8. Nazi anti-liberalism
9. Straussian Nazism

In my comments on these nine theses, there will be some repetition from my previous post on Altman's book.

Altman identifies himself as a Jew, a Christian, a Platonist, and a liberal.  These religious, philosophic, and political commitments support one another, he argues, because the Bible and Plato teach a dualism that provides the metaphysical ground for political liberalism.  Strauss rejects the dualism and the liberalism of the Bible and Plato.  In doing so, Altman concludes, Strauss agrees with the intellectual core of National Socialism--in its nihilistic denial of dualism and liberalism--and thus he became the German Stranger in the United States, seeking to destroy the American enemy of German Nazism.

Altman thus sets a big task for himself.  It's hard to imagine that anyone could provide sufficient evidence and argumentation for all of these claims in one book.  And, indeed, he leaves some of these claims as assertions without much support.

Biblical dualism is one of Altman's less controversial claims.  Given the existence of a transcendent God, reality is divided into "two worlds"--the real world of divinity and the apparent world of ordinary human experience.  This dualistic metaphysics is shared by Judaism and Christianity, because Christianity is originally a Jewish religion.  Here Altman apparently agrees with Nietzsche about the "two worlds" tradition of the Western Biblical culture.

Biblical liberalism is a much more controversial claim.  To support it, he cites only two Biblical verses--1 Samuel 8:7 (on the conflict between the rule of kings and the rule of God) and John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world") (27).  Altman believes that the true solution to the "theological-political problem" is the liberal solution--the separation of religion and politics through religious toleration (527).  It's easier to find this in the New Testament than in the Old Testament, which is why it was easier for Locke to find support for religious toleration in the New Testament than in the Old Testament.  Christian proponents of toleration like Roger Williams contrasted the theocracy of the Jewish polity with the New Testament teaching that Christians were not to expect a legal enforcement of their religion.

In defending Platonic dualism, Altman accepts the traditional interpretation of Plato as teaching "the absolute existence of transcendent Being and the problematic existential status of everything else" (14).  The transcendent peak of Platonic philosophy is the ascent to the Idea of the Good.  This puts Plato in opposition to Aristotle's naturalism.    Plato really is a Platonist, and Aristotle really is an Aristotelian.  Altman elaborates this in his new book on Plato--Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (2012). 

Altman argues that Plato's dualism is found most clearly in the Symposium, the Republic, and the Phaedo.   In the other dialogues, Plato's teaching is challenged in various ways.

In contrast to the true Plato, Altman argues, "Strauss's Plato" (or "Farabi's Plato") is actually the Athenian Stranger of the Laws, which is an anti-Platonic book, with no Idea of the Good and with a political theology that is invented by the Stranger for his political ends.  Strauss distorts the Republic by reading it through the lens of the Laws.  Actually, Altman suggests, the Athenian Stranger is Plato's prediction of Strauss, the German Stranger.

For the student of Plato, Altman's reading of the Republic as Platonic in contrast to the Laws as anti-Platonic is perhaps his most intriguing idea.

Like Clement of Alexandria and Augustine (522), Altman sees Plato's dualism as prefiguring Christianity and the transcendent God of Israel who identifies Himself as "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14).

So, again, Altman agrees with Nietzsche--Christianity is "Platonism for the common people" (19).

Altman's affirmation of Platonic liberalism is one of his most controversial claims.  Traditionally, Plato has been read as a fervent critic of democracy, and generally modern liberalism is assumed to be fundamentally contrary to Plato's political thought.

Oddly enough, one of Strauss's insights supports Altman's reasoning for Plato's liberalism.  Strauss points out that when Plato gives his history of regimes in Book 8 of the Republic, his sequence of five regimes corresponds to Hesiod's history of the five races of men (CM, 130-33; LAM, 35).  Consequently, democracy as the fourth of five corresponds to Hesiod's divine race of heroes.  So, although Plato presents democracy as a bad regime, he also suggests that it comes closer to the golden age than any other bad regime.  The end of democracy is not virtue but freedom--the freedom of each to live as he pleases by choosing from among all the possible human lives.  This freedom of choice makes democracy the only bad regime in which some people can choose the philosophic life.  Indeed, the conversation of the Republic, in which people are free to philosophize about all the various regimes is possible only in a democracy like Athens.  Even if Socrates is a critic of democracy, he shows his preference for democracy by his action in living in Athens, fighting in its wars, and living by its laws.  So while democracy does not aim at excellence or virtue as such, democracy does secure a freedom of choice that allows people the freedom to choose excellence or virtue, including the excellence of the philosophic life.  If one believes that philosophy is the highest life, as Strauss does, then the openness of democracy to philosophy might lead one to regard democracy as at least the best of the bad regimes.

In his book on Plato, Altman elaborates this Straussian insight into democracy as the best of the bad regimes, and this constitutes his argument for Platonic liberalism.  But then in his book on Strauss, Altman never seriously considers the possibility that such reasoning could have supported Strauss's qualified embrace of liberal democracy.

In his book on Plato, Altman comments on "Plato's characteristically serious joke: despite appearances, Democracy--fourth on Plato's list as the Age of Heroes is fourth in Hesiod--is philosophy's golden age; i.e., the golden age tout court" (349).  The democratic freedom to choose one's own way of life is the precondition for Glaucon's choosing justice and the precondition for the philosophic discussion in the Republic--democracy is the only regime where the philosophic life can be freely chosen.

Altman suggests that those like Karl Popper who see the Republic as a defense of totalitarianism fail to see this Platonic endorsement of democratic freedom, and they also fail to see that the totalitarianism of the Athenian Stranger in the Laws is meant to be a challenge to Plato's teaching.

Altman recognizes that the depiction of democracy in Book 8 of the Republic does offer a comically exaggerated image of democracy's aimless freedom and formless equality.  But he suggests that this very comic exaggeration is part of Plato's pedagogy:
"Attacking 'the democratic man' as a lazy, scatter-brained, selfish, shape-shifter, incapable of any sustained and consistent dedication to fixed principle, should be recognized for what it is: effective pedagogy.  Certainly no effective teacher of adolescent males is unfamiliar with Plato's technique.  Through Socrates, Plato is challenging the freedom-loving reader to prove him wrong by overcoming the typical democrat's directionless drift, a drift that leads to Tyranny.  Encouraged by neither the state nor the prevailing temper of the times, any student capable of shame may yet, under the influence of a good teacher, seek other influences--the influence of Greek philosophy, for example--and practice an internal politics quite different from what prevails.  And there is always the fear of what may follow Democracy: of what may happen if no heroes arise." (354)
Was there something like this in the pedagogy of Strauss--attacking "democratic man" so that his freedom-loving students and readers would be challenged to prove him wrong?  After all, Altman praises Arlene Saxonhouse for recognizing the Platonic argument for democracy, but he does not identify her as a scholar influenced by Strauss (350, n. 142).

Altman might respond by arguing that the Straussians can't appreciate Plato's liberalism because they can't appreciate the dualism in which it is grounded.  But this contradicts what Altman notices about the purely naturalistic grounding of democracy in Book 8 of the Republic.  According to Altman, Socrates states "the single most important truth about democracy" (353) when he says: "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (562c).  If democracy is rooted in natural freedom, it's not clear that this requires any appeal to a supernatural dualism.  Altman writes:
"This is not to say, of course, that Democracy values the Idea of the Good: none of the defective cities do this.  But unlike the false forms of the merely apparent good sought after in Timocracy (honor), Oligarchy (wealth) and Tyranny (absolute power), Democracy's good is merely an indefinite plurality: freedom (cf. 562b10-c2).  Of course, Plato does not regard freedom per se as the Good.  In fact, it is worth repeating the central Idea of Platonism as often as necessary: Plato regards only the Idea of the Good as the Good.  But because the citizens of a democracy (unlike other cities) can agree on no one thing that is absolutely good--other than the freedom to seek after their good--only here is the door left open to philosophy, as 'the bazaar of constitutions' passage indicates." (Plato, 353-54)
Democratic freedom allows for human beings to pursue their natural desires, which includes the natural desire for intellectual understanding, and a few human beings will be inclined by this natural desire to live a life of philosophic inquiry, which might include questioning whether there is an Idea of the Good.  But regardless of what we might think about the Idea of the Good, we can recognize the natural goods of human life as constituted by the natural human desires.   Liberal democracy is naturally good in so far as it secures the freedom that is the condition for the possibility of the expression of those natural human desires.

My point here is that while Altman is surely right about Straussian anti-dualism--the tendency of Strauss and the Straussians to dismiss the metaphysical dualism of Platonism as not truly Plato's teaching--it's not clear that this must lead to Straussian anti-liberalism.

Moreover, I am not convinced by Altman's thesis about Nazi anti-dualism, because as I have argued in another post, many of the Nazi philosophers were neo-Kantian dualists who appealed to eternal values grounded in some transcendent realm of absolute good.

Clearly, Strauss was a critic of liberal democracy.  But the question in dispute is whether Strauss was a friendly or unfriendly critic.  Against Altman's claim that Strauss was an unfriendly critic of liberal democracy, Strauss's defenders can quote what appears to be a clear statement from Strauss: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy" (LAM, 24).

Altman identifies this as the "'Golden Sentence' of Straussian apologetics," because it is so frequently quoted to show that Strauss was a friend of democracy (GS, 356).  Altman's commentary on this sentence illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of his argumentation. 

The strength of his argument here is in pointing out Strauss's use of the word "we" in the Golden Sentence, in contrast to his multiple uses of "I," "me," and "my" in the first paragraph of the essay in which the Golden Sentence appears ("Liberal Education and Responsibiliy").  This is significant if one considers what Strauss says about how Maimonides uses the word "we" to distinguish a popular opinion from what he himself believes.

Strauss could have said: "I am not permitted to be a flatterer of democracy precisely because I am a friend and ally of democracy."  I agree that we should criticize Strauss for not speaking in such an emphatic way so that all his readers could recognize him as a friendly critic of liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, the weakness of Altman's commentary is that he fails to note that the immediate context of the Golden Sentence suggests a rather clear but qualified embrace of liberal democracy.  Strauss writes:
"What then are the prospects for liberal education within mass democracy?  What are the prospects for the liberally educated to become again a power in democracy?  We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy.  While we are not permitted to remain silent on the dangers to which democracy exposes itself as well as human excellence, we cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence.  No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone. . . . As matters stand, we can expect more immediate help from the humanities rightly understood than from the sciences, form the spirit of perceptivity and delicacy than from the spirit of geometry.  If I am not mistaken, this is the reason why liberal education is now becoming almost synonymous with the reading in common of the Great Books.  No better beginning could have been made." (LAM, 24)
Notice that Strauss evokes the same Platonic argument for democracy that Altman adopts: "by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence."  Moreover, many of those influenced by Strauss--Martin Diamond and William Galston, for example--have developed this idea as supporting the conclusion that liberal democracy can cultivate human excellence by cultivating the "liberal virtues."

Moreover, the conviction that a liberal education through the Great Books can promote excellence, at least among those few open to such an education, underlies much of Strauss's influence in promoting the study of the classic texts of political philosophy as well as the Great Books generally. 

My criticism of Altman here is that in his determination to demonize Strauss as anti-liberal, he fails to acknowledge that he and Strauss ultimately agree in their friendly criticism or qualified embrace of liberal democracy as--in James Madison's words--"the least imperfect" form of government.  In his Plato book, Altman writes: "Indeed, the highest praise Plato has for Democracy is indirect.  Why wouldn't that be?  Everyone who has ever fought for Democracy with intellectual weapons knows that it is the worst form of government except for all the rest of them" (354-55).

One example of this "least imperfect" character of liberal democracy is the liberal distinction between state and society.  To demonstrate "Strauss's ineradicable hatred for Liberal Democracy," Altman quotes this "extraordinary passage":
"To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism.  Liberalism stands or falls by the distinction between the state and society or by the recognition of the private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere.  As certainly as the liberal state will not 'discriminate' against its Jewish citizens, as certainly is it constitutionally unable and even unwilling to prevent 'discrimination' against Jews on the part of individuals or groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private 'discrimination,' to protect it, and thus in fact to foster it.  The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibition against every kind of 'discrimination,' i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state." (Altman, GS, 517-18, quoting LAM, 230)
Altman complains that in affirming this as a "truth" in 1962, Strauss had chosen to blind himself to the truth of his experience in the United States where he had been free to live and work as a Jew without persecution.  What Strauss affirms here as a "truth" was actually something that he had learned in Weimar Germany, and he would not allow his American experience to show the falsity of this truth.  But to reach this conclusion, Altman has to pass over in silence Strauss's explanation that he accepts the "uneasy solution" to this problem offered by liberal democracy.  "There is nothing better than the uneasy solution offered by liberal society, which means legal equality plus private 'discrimination'" (JPCM, 317; LAM, 231). 

Strauss's willingness to accept the "uneasy solutions" of liberal democracy and his failure to endorse any anti-liberal alternative as providing superior solutions refute Altman's thesis of Straussian Nazism.

In fact, Altman implicitly concedes the weaknesses in this thesis.  He recognizes that Strauss regarded Hitler as a fool (GS, 323-26, 451-52, 515-16).  He also recognizes that there is no evidence that Strauss ever developed any positive program for moving towards a National Socialist society.

And yet, Altman insists that Strauss was "remarkably successful" in his project "to take Germany's western enemy out of the picture: to destroy Liberal Democracy's faith in itself" (516).  Where's the evidence for this?  Is there any evidence that Strauss and his students have in fact destroyed liberal democracy's faith in itself?  Clearly, many of those under Strauss's influence have actually defended liberal democracy--Jaffa, Diamond, Galston, Anastaplo, and many more.  Would Altman say that all of these people failed to get the secret message from Strauss?  If so, who did get the secret message that Strauss wanted to destroy liberal democracy's faith in itself?

In his section on "My Personal Encounter with Straussianism," Altman begins with this startling claim: "As is now the case with every American, I came under the influence of Leo Strauss long before I'd ever heard his name" (393).  Really?  Every American has been under Strauss's influence without knowing it?  And consequently, every American has been losing faith in liberal democracy?  Wild claims like this weaken Altman's argumentation.

Still, I am persuaded that Altman has shown that Strauss is open to the criticism that he was not emphatic enough in defending liberal democracy against the ideas of Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Heidegger.  Strauss never really offered a thorough refutation of these ideas, and instead he showed some attraction to them--most clearly in his lectures on "German Nihilism" and the "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism."  Significantly, these lectures were not published in Strauss's lifetime.

In "German Nihilism," Strauss seemed to admire the "young German nihilists."  Many of the ideas he attributed to them were recurrent themes of Strauss's writing.  For example:
"It is a moral protest.  That protest proceeds from the conviction that the internationalism inherent in modern civilization, or, more precisely, that the establishment of a perfectly open society which is at it were the goal of modern civilization, and therefore all aspirations directed toward that goal, are irreconcilable with teh basic demands of moral life.  That protest proceeds from the conviction that the root of all moral life is essentially and therefore eternally the closed society; from the conviction that the open society is bound to be, if not immoral, at least amoral; the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness." (GN, 358)
In "Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism," Strauss left his reader doubting whether there was any good refutation of Heidegger's Nazi attack on liberal democracy:
"All rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power.  One may deplore this, but I for one cannot  bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate.  I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort in order to find a solid basis for rational liberalism.  Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight.  But here is the great trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger." (RCPR, 29)
George Anastaplo has told the story of trying to arrange a meeting between Strauss and Strauss's old friend Hans Jonas.  Anastaplo reports that Strauss refused to meet with Jonas because Jonas had met with Heidegger once in the late 1960s.  For Anastaplo, this showed Strauss's hatred of Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. 

I am not persuaded, however, that this story shows that Strauss exercised better judgment in his handling of Heidegger than did Jonas. Jonas had publicly criticized Heidegger's ideas.  In fact, his 1964 lecture on "Heidegger and Theology" provoked an international controversy because of the vehemence of Jonas's criticisms, and there was even a front page story in the New York Times about the controversy.  This led to lecture invitations for Jonas from around the world to explain his disagreements with Heidegger.  Jonas wrote to Heidegger demanding that he renounce his Nazism and confess his mistakes.  Jonas was disappointed when Heidegger refused to answer.  Strauss did nothing like this.  Instead, Strauss praised Heidegger--just after Heidegger had reaffirmed his support for Nazism in 1953--as "the only greater thinker in our time."  Anyone who wants to defend Strauss against Altman's charges must explain Strauss's behavior.