Friday, September 28, 2012

Slave Rebellion Among Ants

This is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862, followed by the Final Proclamation on January 1, 1863. 

I have offered a Darwinian interpretation of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in my paper on "Biopolitical Science," which has just been published as a book chapter in Evolution and Morality, edited by James Fleming and Sanford Levinson (New York University Press).  I also have a chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right.  I have also written some blog posts on slavery, usually near the yearly anniversary of the birth of Lincoln and Darwin on February 12th, because Darwin was an abolitionist who cheered Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

My argument is that the history of the debate over slavery manifests a natural moral sense rooted in the biological nature of human beings,  As part of that argument, in Darwinian Natural Right, I compared ant slavery and human slavery.  The similarities suggest that slavery among ants and humans manifests a natural inclination to exploitation.  The differences suggest that the uniquely human opposition to slavery shows a natural resistance to such exploitation.

Biologists identify slavemaking ants as social parasites, who live by exploiting the labor of their slaves.  Slavemaking ants attack the nest of an opposing colony.  They kill the queen and capture the larvae, pupae, and younger adult workers.  The captives are taken back to the nest of the raiders.  Those that are not killed become slave laborers in the nest of the captors.  The slaves do all the necessary work for the colony such as foraging for food, rearing the brood, and maintaining the nest.  Some slavemaking ants are so totally dependent on slave labor that they are incapable of doing any work other than going out for slave-raiding.

Although in most cases of ant slavery, the slavemakers and the slaves belong to different but related species, there are some cases--such as the honeypot ants--where the ants enslave members of their own species.

The success of this enslavement depends on the coercion of the slave raid and the manipulation of the slaves.  When the enslaved pupae mature, they imprint on the unique odor of the colony of the slavemakers, so that the slaves are tricked into serving the colony as if it were their own.

Similarly, human slavery depends on coercion and manipulation, where manipulation might come through a paternalistic ideology of the masters in arguing that they are acting in the best interests of the slaves.  In the American South before the Civil War, some of the defenders of slavery actually pointed to ant slavery as evidence that all slavery was natural.  But this rhetorical manipulation doesn't work as well as the chemical manipulation does for the ants.  Human beings are naturally adapted to detect and punish exploitation, which is indicated by the human history of slave rebellion and moral condemnation of slavery.

Since ant slavery lowers the fitness of the slaves, biologists have wondered whether slave ants ever rebel against their enslavement.  Three possibilities have been considered and rejected.  First, the slaves could try to return to their home colony.  This is unlikely because once they emerge as adults, the slave ants will have the odor of their slavemakers' colony, and thus the slaves would be unable to find their home colony, and even if they did find it, they would be rejected because of their alien odor.  Second, the slaves could refuse to work or desert the slavemakers' colony.  This has not been observed.  Third, the slaves could reproduce themselves.  But this cannot work since the slavemakers' suppress the reproduction of slave workers.

There is now some evidence, however, that some slave ants have found a successful strategy for rebellion.  Some slave ants destroy a large proportion of the slavemaking pupae under their care, which reduces the population of the slavemakers' colony.  This form of slave rebellion does not directly enhance the individual fitness of the slaves, but it does favor their inclusive fitness by improving the chances that their collateral relatives in nearby colonies will be less exposed to slave raids.

This looks like the evolution of antiparasite adaptations.  Human beings show this as well.  The difference is that human beings can evolve moral emotions against exploitation, and these moral emotions can be expressed as a moral rhetoric of condemning slavery as unjust.  "As I would not be a slave," Lincoln declared, "so I would not be a master.  That is my idea of democracy."


Achenbach, Alexandra, and Susanne Foitzik.  2009.  "First Evidence for Slave Rebellion: Enslaved Ant Workers Systematically Kill the Brood of their Social Parasite Protomognathus Americanus," Evolution 63 (4): 1068-1075.

Pamminger, Tobias, et al.  2012.  "Geographic Distribution of the Anti-parasite Trait 'Slave Rebellion'"  Evolutionary Ecology (published online: June 13, 2012).

Other posts on insect politics can be found here and here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Haidt's Vindication of Fusionist Conservatism and Aristotelian Liberalism

Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind has provoked a lot of discussion and controversy primarily because of his claim that conservative Republicans have a better grasp of moral psychology than do liberal Democrats.  Haidt argues that Darwinian evolution has shaped human nature to be innately predisposed to grasp six foundations of morality: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation.  The first three foundations support individual autonomy.  The second three support communal bonding.  Insofar as human beings have evolved to be both individually selfish and socially groupish--or "90% chimp and 10% bee"--they need all six moral foundations.  But while liberals stress only the first three foundations, conservatives stress all six foundations.  And thus Darwinian moral psychology supports conservatism as having a superior understanding of evolved moral dispositions.

Haidt struggles, however, with the confusing terminology of "liberalism" and "conservatism."  First of all, it's only in recent years that he was forced to recognize "libertarianism" as a third position.  And it's only recently that he has begun to study libertarian morality in a paper that has not yet been published--"Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology."  Moreover, the criticisms coming from libertarians complaining that their morality of individual liberty was being ignored eventually persuaded him to add "Liberty" as a sixth foundation of morality.

It is only slowly that Haidt has come to see that this addition of Liberty to his Moral Foundations Theory is crucial, because this is the one moral foundation that is shared by liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, and it is the one foundation that makes it possible for them to live together peacefully.  What this really means is that in a liberal regime like the United States, almost everyone is a "liberal" in the sense of classical liberalism.  Although modern liberals have moved towards emphasizing "positive liberty" as requiring more governmental intervention in the economy than would be justified by "negative liberty," the modern liberals still agree with the libertarian principle of individual freedom that allows for pluralist toleration.

In his study of libertarian morality, Haidt concludes that libertarians care for their own individual liberty to the exclusion of all other moral principles: "libertarians appear to live in a world where traditional moral concerns (e.g., respect for authority, personal sanctity) are not assigned much importance" (13), and thus "libertarians place lower value on morality as typically measured by moral psychologists" (16).

But Haidt is missing something here, which is suggested by his comment that "libertarians may fear that the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights--libertarians' sacred value" (16).  He also observes that libertarians "might feel little emotional attraction to modern liberalism's emphasis on altruism and positive liberty, and turned off by its willingness to compel some citizens to help other citizens (through redistributive tax policies)" (30).  The crucial word here is "compel."  Oddly, this is the only place in Haidt's paper that he mentions compulsion, even though this is the overriding concern of libertarian morality.  Libertarians object to compulsion or coercion, and thus to any enforcement of morality through governmental coercion.  But they don't object to the moral order and character formation that arises in the spontaneous orders of civil society.  In his surveys of libertarian attitudes, Haidt never distinguished between compulsory and voluntary enforcement of morality, and thus he never captured the true character of libertarian morality.

David Boaz conveys this libertarian morality in chapter 7 of his Libertarianism: A Primer.  He contends that libertarians see human beings as having natural desires "for connectedness, for love and friendship and community," and they think those social desires are best satisfied in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society--in families, in churches, in schools, in fraternal societies, and in commercial associations.  Moral character formation is achieved better through such natural and voluntary associations than through governmental coercion, which "undermines the moral character necessary to both civil society and liberty under law."

This indicates that libertarians believe that political liberty is the condition for social virtue, which has been the fundamental idea of "fusionist" conservatism as most fully stated by Frank Meyer.  Meyer argued that American conservatism rightly understood combined libertarianism or classical liberalism with traditionalist conservatism.  If we see that liberty is the condition for virtue, then we can see that the proper purpose of politics is securing liberty, while the proper purpose of society is shaping our moral and intellectual virtues.  Although Haidt in his paper on libertarianism mentions fusionist conservatism only briefly (4), he captures its main insight when he says that libertarians believe "the liberty of the individual is the essential precondition for human flourishing" (5). 

This fusionist conservatism might also be called Aristototelian liberalism, based on the thought that while Aristotle was right about ethics as directed to virtue, Locke was right about politics as directed to liberty.  (Although he doesn't elaborate the thought in his book, Haidt endorses Aristotelian "virtue ethics" [369, n. 68].)  This conception of Aristotelian liberalism has been developed by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl.

Although I am surely guilty of confirmation bias, I am happy to see Haidt's work as suggesting that a Darwinian moral psychology supports Darwinian conservatism.

These points have been elaborated in some previous posts here, here, here, and here, and in a lecture for the Philadelphia Society.

Jon Haidt has posted this comment on my post of September 13:

"As always, you have done a very close and fair reading of my work. And as before, you see things in my work that I was not fully aware of, but which I agree with. I think you're right to call me on some potential contradictions. I am indeed a Darwinian, and I am indeed sympathetic to both classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism -- more so than to modern leftism or 1970s liberalism. So I'll have to think about this, and about the conundrums of tolerance and nested incompatible moral matrices that you raise. Thank you!"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is Haidt's Darwinian Psychology Nietzschean or Nihilist?

Leo Strauss would probably have seen Jonathan Haidt's new book as a sign that we still suffer from the crisis of liberalism.  After all, Haidt affirms his agreement with Isaiah Berlin's moral pluralism, and Strauss saw Berlin's statement of liberal pluralism in "Two Concepts of Liberty" as "a characteristic document of the crisis of liberalism" (in Strauss's "Relativism").  According to Strauss, Berlin shows the self-contradiction in modern liberalism.  On the one hand, liberals like Berlin argue that there is no absolute standard of value, because the ends of life that individuals can rightly choose are divergent and conflicting.  On the other hand, liberals like Berlin must take an "absolute stand" in favor of "negative liberty"--the freedom from excessive interference in one's private sphere of thought and action--as the condition for the peaceful coexistence of conflicting ways of life.  "Liberalism, as Berlin understands it," Strauss observes, "cannot live without an absolute basis and cannot live with an absolute basis."

At the end of his essay on "Relativism," and also in his essay on "The Three Waves of Modernity," Strauss argues that the crisis of liberalism evident in Berlin's thought was most clearly seen by Nietzsche, who saw that liberalism was suicidal in embracing the relativism of scientific historicism and evolution.  The teaching of historical and evolutionary science is a "deadly truth," because if it is true that everything has evolved over history--including human nature--then nothing is eternal, and there is no eternal cosmic standard for judging human goodness or excellence.  If there is no fixed order of Being but only the flux of becoming, then there are no permanent standards for human life, and everything collapses into the abyss of nihilism.

Like Berlin, Haidt insists that he is "a pluralist but not a relativist" (319, 338).  But he never clearly explains this.

Through much of his book, Haidt seems to assume the truth of the fact/value dichotomy, which seems to support value relativism.  So, for example, he says that human beings are "conditional hive creatures," in that "we have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves."  He then concludes that this "has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives" (223).  But then in a footnote to this passage, he explains: "My use of the word should in this sentence is purely pragmatic, not normative.  I'm saying that if you want to achieve X, then you should know about this hive stuff when you make your plan for achieving X.  I'm not trying to tell people what X is" (362, n. 6).  Could "X" be a fascist, communist, or Islamic dictatorship?  Is he suggesting that dictators could learn from his science how to be more successful dictators by turning on the hive switch?  In fact, Haidt indicates that people like Mussolini and the radical Islamists have understood how to turn on the hive switch (14-15, 241-43, 271, 293).

If the choice of "X" is purely arbitrary, then that's relativism.  Indeed, some of Haidt's mentors like Richard Schweder have affirmed cultural relativism, even to the point of defending the female genital mutilation of children as a deeply rooted cultural practice.

But clearly Haidt does not want to be a moral relativist in this way.  After all, the whole point of his book is to help us live together peacefully despite our moral diversity.  And the very possibility of such peaceful coexistence of conflicting moral matrices depends upon everyone agreeing to the ethical foundation of individual liberty as the condition for people "to coexist peacefully without interfering too much in each other's projects" (98-100).

This requires the value of liberal tolerance, which means no tolerance for moral communities that want to enforce their norms through violent coercion or "moralistic killing" (268, 337).

Like Berlin, Haidt must take an "absolute stand" for negative liberty, for the liberty to live one' life--including the choice of one's hives--without excessive interference from others.

Strauss suggests that the only ground for any "absolute stand" must be a moral cosmology of eternal order that includes the eternity of human nature.  As an evolutionist, Haidt rejects the idea that morality must be grounded in a transcendent metaphysical order of the cosmos, because he thinks morality can be sufficiently grounded in the empirically observable order of human experience as shaped by genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.  And thus he can defend the moral order of a pluralist society ("full of small-scale hives") as promoting human happiness by satisfying the widest range of the natural human desires for moral order.

Without realizing it, Haidt is thus reviving the evolutionary moral psychology of Nietzsche in his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Dawn, and the first five books of The Gay Science.  In these writings, Nietzsche embraced Darwinian evolutionary science and applied it to the social and moral order of human life.  Everything has evolved, Nietzsche declared.  Human beings have evolved.  And thus there are no eternal facts.  Human morality must be derived from their natural history as animals.  "The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery--in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues--are animal: a consequence of that drive that teaches us to seek food and elude enemies" (Dawn).  In contrast to his early and late writings, Nietzsche here saw no need for eternalizing human life as supported by a moral cosmology of metaphysical or religious design, and thus he saw no need for the metaphysical rationalism of Plato's Timaeus. 

In these middle writings, Nietzsche speaks well of liberal democracy, and he resolves the "crisis of liberalism" by showing how liberalism can be grounded in evolved human nature that is enduring but not eternal, rather than a cosmic teleology of eternal order.

Haidt and Berlin follow this Darwinian Nietzsche in rejecting the Platonic metaphysics of moral cosmology in favor of an empirical science of human moral psychology.

Oddly, Strauss ignored this Darwinian Nietzsche, while directing his attention to the Nietzsche of the early and late writings--the Nietzsche who expressed his religious longings for a moral cosmology of intelligent design, which would sustain "the eternal basic text of Homo natura" (Beyond Good and Evil, 230).

As I have argued in many previous posts over the years, I regard conceptions of cosmic teleology and the eternity of species as implausible, because they contradict what we know from ordinary experience and from modern science.  For example, as I indicated a few months ago, to affirm the eternity of species (as the Straussians do), one would have to even deny the scientific understanding of photosynthesis as the historically contingent condition for all life, including human life.

More plausible would be Darwinian conceptions of immanent teleology arising from the natural history of the human species, which support standards of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in the natural desires of an enduring but not eternal human nature.

The debate here is about the fundamental issue in political philosophy and the social sciences.  The issue is suggested by the title of Haidt's book: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  The subtitle points to the fact of political and religious disagreement about the ends of life.  The main title suggests the human inclination to believe that there must be one final solution to all disagreement about the ends of life, one right answer, one way of life, that must be treated as sacred and thus unquestionable.  While Haidt believes that sacralizing one way of life as the best way helps to bind people into moral communities, this also blinds them to the rightful claims of other ways of life, and thus induces a dangerous fanaticism that leads to violent conflict.  Haidt observes:
"Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings--but no other animals--to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.  But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralisitic strife.  Some degree of conflict among groups may even be necessary for the health and development of any society.  When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.  Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually believe." (xiii)
We should remember that this problem of righteous violence as it arose in the Wars of Religion and the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries provided the historical conditions for the development of liberal thought in early modern Europe.

Monism or pluralism?  One way or many ways?  Is it possible to have an open society in which people who disagree about the ends of life can agree to live together peacefully?  Or must every healthy society be ultimately a closed society that enforces agreement to one way of life that must be treated as sacred and thus unquestionable?

Strauss argued that every good society must be in principle a closed society that looks up to one way of life that cannot be questioned.  (And even if philosophers must raise questions in a closed society, Strauss suggested, they must do so secretly.)  If liberalism requires an open society in which nothing is sacred, and every way of life is tolerated, that's a suicidal relativism that makes it impossible for liberal societies to defend themselves against their enemies.

In response to this criticism of liberalism, Berlin and Haidt defend--rightly, I think--a pluralist view that is neither monistic nor relativistic.  They both reject the monism of rationalist metaphysics that looks to one final solution to conflict in which all the ends of life are compatible in the perfect society.  That's why they reject the tradition of metaphysical rationalism that began with Plato's Timaeus, which supported the moral cosmology of the "Great Chain of Being" that came to dominate premodern Western culture.  They defend a tragic view of life in which the diverse ends of life are in conflict without any possibility of being rendered harmonious. 

Berlin and Haidt avoid relativism, however, because they believe that there is an enduring human nature that is manifest in a natural range of ends.  Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is his attempt to map the fundamental moral principles that are rooted in a universal human nature that will manifest itself in every human society, although the expression of those universal human ends will vary across societies and individuals.  Even though that universal human nature is not eternal, because it is the product of an evolutionary history, it is stable enough in our common human experience to set universal standards of judgment.  So that we can judge societies by how well they allow for the fullest expression of those natural human ends.

From what Berlin and Haidt say, one can infer that the liberal society that they defend is neither absolutely closed nor absolutely open.  It is a mostly open society that tolerates as much moral pluralism as is compatible with the moral principle of liberty, which means that moralistic violence will not be tolerated, because it violates the negative liberty of individuals to be free from physical coercion in their choice of moral communities in civil society.

The idea of a liberal society as a mostly open society is vague, but Berlin and Haidt would say that it's the sort of necessary vagueness that is required for political life, in which drawing boundaries requires prudential judgments that cannot be reduced to clear and precise rules. 

So, for example, should Muslim parents who practice female circumcision--cutting off the clitoris and sewing up the vulva of their daughters--be free in a liberal society to engage in that practice?  Some liberals will say this is a permissible exercise of parental authority in a multicultural society.  Others will say that this is a crime of violence against children that no liberal society can tolerate.

Parental care of children is a natural human desire that belongs to our evolved human nature.  Parental care is thus a natural human good in every society.  But judging how that natural end is to be balanced against other ends will vary across societies and individuals. 

As I have suggested in some previous posts, the best approach to the problem of female circumcision might be to teach parents about the harm that the most severe forms of genital mutilation can do to their children, and then encourage them to organize groups to change this practice.  We can assume that in general parents want to do what is best for their children, and we might try to use that motivation for moral reform.  Or we might require that this practice be forbidden until the girls are old enough to consent to it as young adults.

This is not relativism, because we are appealing to certain natural desires (such as parental care and human mental and physical health) as standards of judgment.  But the judgments in particular cases will be variable according to the circumstances. 

This leaves us with tragic conflicts of ends--the authority of parents and the best interests of children.  But it's not clear how the moral monist looking for one final solution could ever eliminate the messiness of such tragic choices.

Previous posts elaborating some of these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Haidt's Moral Psychology of Humean Conservatism

A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Intercollegiate Review entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism."  I argued that the debate over Darwinian conservatism reveals the conflict between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism.  Metaphysical conservatism views social order as grounded in a transcendent realm of cosmic design.  By contrast, evolutionary conservatism is empiricist in viewing social order as grounded in common human experience as shaped by human nature, human custom, and human judgment. 

Both forms of conservatism can be found in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, so that both metaphysical conservatives and evolutionary conservatives can appeal to Burke.  The evolutionary side of Burke's conservatism links him to David Hume and Adam Smith.  Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality follows in this tradition of Hume, Smith, and Burke.  Now, the new research being done in evolutionary moral psychology by people like Jonathan Haidt is extending and deepening this tradition of evolutionary conservatism.

One can see how Haidt fits into this tradition by noticing how he began a few years ago to recognize the affinity between his moral psychology and evolutionary conservatism.  In The Righteous Mind, Haidt identifies "two turning points" in his intellectual life (288-89).  The first was his visit to India in 1993, where his mind was opened to "the ethics of community" and "the ethics of divinity" as moral foundations that went beyond "the ethics of autonomy" predominant in Western liberal societies.  But even so, he remained a partisan liberal at least until 2008.  In the presidential election of 2008, he was initially excited by Barack Obama, because he seemed to be broadening the moral appeal of the Democratic Party to include appeals to patriotism and traditional morality.  In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama seemed to have the "broader moral palate"  of "a liberal who understood conservative arguments about the need for order and the value of tradition" (163).  But then, by the end of the campaign of 2008, Obama seemed to pull back to the more narrow moral psychology of the liberal Democrat who sees the morality of social justice and equality but not the morality of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Expressing his disappointment, Haidt in 2008 wrote "What Makes People Vote Republican" for John Brockman's online salon at, which was Haidt's first statement of his argument that conservatives understand the full range of moral psychology, while liberals do not.  That's the claim that has stirred so much controversy around Haidt.

Although it is sometimes muted in his writing--because Haidt is still nervous about openly identifying himself as a conservative--his embrace of conservative moral psychology was made possible by the second turning point in his intellectual life--his reading in 2005 of Jerry Z. Muller's book Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 1997).  This book is an anthology of conservative writing guided by Muller's argument about what constitutes the core themes of conservative thought.

In his introductory essay, Muller argues that conservatism should be distinguished from orthodoxy and from the counter-Enlightenment.  Orthodoxy believes in "a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society," which is Russell Kirk's statement of the "first canon of conservative thought."  According to orthodoxy, social order must satisfy some external metaphysical order, which can require radical change.  Muller rejects this as deviating from the main line of conservative thought.

And although conservatism is often identified as a reaction against the Enlightenment, Muller argues that modern conservatism actually arose as a movement within the Enlightenment, and particularly in the work of those like David Hume, who offered an empirical science of social order that was contrary to the utopian rationalism of some Enlightenment thinking.

Muller's crucial move here is in taking Hume as his model conservative and then stressing those strands of Burke's thought that conform to Hume's empirical and evolutionary conservatism, which is the tradition of conservative thought that I defend in my Intercollegiate Review article.

One should notice that this is a very liberal conservatism, as contrasted with the illiberal conservatism of conservative theocracy as espoused by those like Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre.  Generally, American conservatives have been liberal conservatives, because the American political tradition has been predominantly liberal (as Louis Hartz argued).

While traditionalist conservatives like Kirk can sound like theocratic conservatives when they affirm that social order must be derived from the law of God, even they turn out to be liberal conservatives, because they accept the liberal arguments for separating Church and State, for religious toleration, for democratic government, for free markets, and for moral pluralism.  As is well argued by Mark Henrie, liberal conservatives want to "box in liberalism" by promoting "the intermediate associational life of society" as a social realm for moral character formation that stands between the public realm of government and the private realm of individual life (Henrie, "Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,' in Peter Berkowitz, ed., Varieties of Conservatism in America [Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2004], 3-30).  This corresponds to what Haidt says about how the groupish or hiving psychology of human beings can be expressed in a nation that is "full of small-scale hives," so that "many moral matrices coexist within each nation" (107, 110, 242-43).  Thus, the individual liberty of the liberal Gesellschaft (contractual society) can be combined with the moral community of the conservative Gemeinschaft (organic society).

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt indicates the crucial importance for him in seeing Muller's version of the evolutionary conservatism that began with Hume.  He writes:
     As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science.  It followed, therefore, that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal.  But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances.  Could it be?  Was there a kind of conservatism that could compete against liberalism in the court of social science?  Might conservatives have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society?
     I kept reading.  Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism.  Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed (yes, I thought; see Glaucon, Tetlock, and Ariely in chapter 4).  Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it's dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience (yes; see Hume in chapter 2 and Baron-Cohen on systemizing in chapter 6).  Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.  We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder (yes; see Durkheim in chapters 8 and 11).
     Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims.  As I continued to read the writing of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before.  They understood the importance of what I'll call moral capital.  (Please note that I am praising conservative intellectuals, not the Republican Party.)  (289-90)
I should emphasize that although Haidt is an atheist and is therefore suspicious of religious orthodoxy, he recognizes the importance of religious belief as an evolved tendency of the human species for supporting social cooperation by sacralizing moral norms.  Haidt even doubts that a healthy society of atheists is possible (269). 

Here again, Haidt follows in the tradition of evolutionary conservatism, which recognizes that human beings are religious animals by nature, and that religion can be important in binding people together into groups.  Thus, religion has a practical truth (in its social utility) regardless of whether one is persuaded of its doctrinal truth.  Evolutionary conservatism accepts the irresolvability of the reason-revelation debate, in which neither side can refute the other.  This explains Haidt's disagreement with the "New Atheists" (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens) who deny that religion serves any evolutionary adaptive function (249-69).

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

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jonathan Haidt's Darwinian Conservatism

More clearly than in any of his previous writing, Jonathan Haidt's new book--The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion--shows his movement towards Darwinian conservatism.  And now his friends are wondering, how could such a good Jewish liberal atheistic boy from Brooklyn turn out so badly?

Haidt's path to Darwinian conservatism is suggested in his interview in the Wall Street Journal.  An earlier version of his Darwinian moral psychology can be seen in his TED talk in 2008.  More recently, he has extended his theory through a paper on libertarian morality.  A few months ago, he appeared on "The Colbert Report."

The most revealing comment from the Wall Street Journal interview is his praise for Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions, in which Sowell elaborates Friedrich Hayek's distinction between the "constrained vision" of the British tradition and the "unconstrained vision" of the French tradition.  The constrained or realist vision of human nature is the vision of classical liberalism (Adam Smith) or traditionalist conservatism (Edmund Burke).  "Again, as a moral psychologist," Haidt says, "I had to say the constrained vision is correct."  The evolutionary support for the constrained vision is one of the major themes of my Darwinian Conservatism.

In his exchange with Stephen Colbert, Haidt said that "conservatives have a more adequate view of human nature than liberals do."  But then Colbert had a good comment at the end of their exchange, pointing out that if Haidt is telling us to see that there might be some truth on opposing sides of the political debate, that's a liberal idea!

Haidt argues that political psychology is rooted in moral psychology, because political ideologies (such as liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism) express moral commitments.  The moral matrix of each political ideology depends on the relative values given to six possible moral foundations: (1) care/harm, (2) liberty/oppression, (3) fairness/cheating, (4) loyalty/betrayal, (5) authority/subversion, and (6) sanctity/degradation. 

For liberals, the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression, which gives great weight to care, liberty, and fairness, but almost no weight to loyalty, authority, or sanctity.  For libertarians, the most sacred value is individual liberty, which raises liberty above all other values.  For conservatives, the most sacred value is preserving the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community, which gives some weight to all six moral foundations.

Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory is Darwinian, because he explains these six moral foundations as products of human evolutionary history.  His theory is conservative, because he suggests that conservatism has the advantage of embracing all six moral foundations, and in that respect, it is superior to the other ideologies.  For that reason, he argues, it is easier for conservatives to understand liberals than it is for liberals to understand conservatives.

Haidt is somewhat evasive or ambivalent, however, about his conservatism.  In his new book, as well as his other writings, he generally identifies himself as a value-free social scientist who is engaged in description not prescription.  He also says that in his personal views, he has moved from being a pure liberal to being a "centrist" rather than a conservative.  But at the same time, he clearly indicates that conservatism is superior in its broad grasp of all six moral foundations. 

In a review of the book in Science (August 3, 2012), John Jost complains about this alternation between Haidt's descriptive science and prescriptive conservatism.  Moreover, Jost writes: "If descriptive morality is based on whatever people believe, then both liberals and conservatives would seem to have equal claim to it.  Does it really make sense, philosophically or psychologically or politically, to try to keep score, let alone to assert that 'more is better' when it comes to moral judgment?"

Another source of confusion is that while Haidt sometimes seems to be a moral relativist, because any of the six moral foundations are equally moral, he insists that he is a "pluralist but not a relativist" (319, 338), and thus apparently following the lead of Isaiah Berlin, in defending moral pluralism as expressing the multiple moral ends of a universal human nature (182, 316-17, 350).

The imprecise terminology of liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism is also confusing.  From my reading of Haidt's book, he is implicitly embracing a liberal conservatism, or what people like Frank Meyer defended as a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism.  (Haidt mentions fusionism briefly in his paper on libertarianism.)  Crucial for this fusion is the distinction between state and society.  The end for a free state is liberty.  The end for a free society is virtue.  Political liberty provides the conditions for people to pursue virtue in civil society through the natural and voluntary associations of life.  Classical liberals or libertarians rightly emphasize political liberty.  Traditionalist conservatives rightly emphasize social virtue.  Political liberty provides the liberal tolerance by which people are free to pursue their moral visions within whatever moral community they join, as long as they do not violate the equal liberty of all others to live their moral lives as they choose.

This is, I think, implicit in Haidt's book, but he never makes it explicit, because he never clearly makes the crucial distinction between state and society, political liberty and social virtue.

Consider the confusing way in which Haidt argues for going beyond the "ethic of autonomy" to embrace the "ethic of community" and the "ethic of divinity."  On the one hand, the ethics of community and divinity seem to require an illiberal denial of individual autonomy and liberty.  On the other hand, Haidt clearly does not want this, because the whole point of his book is to make it possible for all moral communities to live together peacefully, which requires agreement on liberal tolerance as founded on political liberty.  He opens his book with the famous appeal of Rodney King--"Can we all get along?"  He closes the book by echoing King's language: "We're all stuck here for a while, so let's try to work it out" (318).  But Haidt never clearly explains that his project requires a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature.

From the perspective of the "ethic of divinity," Haidt explains, "the personal liberty of secular Western nations looks like libertinism, hedonism, and a celebration of humanity's baser instincts" (100).  In the footnote to this sentence, he observes: "This, for example, was the conclusion by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who spent two years studying in America in the 1940s.  He was repulsed, and this moral repulsion influenced his later work as an Islamist philosopher and theorist, one of the main inspirations for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda" (337). 

Haidt leaves his reader wondering what this means.  Does this mean that embracing the "ethic of divinity" necessarily requires what he calls elsewhere "moralistic killing" (268) of those outside of one's religious community?  Clearly this is not what Haidt wants, because he wants everyone from diverse moral communities to live with one another peacefully.  How is that possible?

Haidt describes the enlightenment that came to him from living for a few months in the small Indian city of Bhubaneswar, where he saw life organized around the ethic of divinity.  After some struggle, he began to see the goodness of this community: "I began to feel the ethic of divinity in subtle ways" (104).  But he also saw problems.  "I could see the dark side of this ethic too: once you allow visceral feelings of disgust to guide your conception of what God wants, then minorities who trigger even a hint of disgust in the majority (such as homosexuals or obese people) can be ostracized and treated cruelly.  The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights" (105-106).

So how do we allow for an ethic of divinity while avoiding its "dark side"?  Haidt writes: "I began to see that many moral matrices coexist within each nation.  Each matrix provides a complete, unified, and emotionally compelling worldview, easily justified by observable evidence and nearly impregnable to attack by arguments from outsiders" (107).  But how is it possible for many moral matrices to coexist in one nation?  Doesn't that require that these multiple moral communities must not be permitted to violate the classical liberal principles of liberty and tolerance?

Haidt complains about the narrowness of people who grow up in Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.  He explains:
The moral domain is unusually narrow in WEIRD cultures, where it is largely limited to the ethic of autonomy (i.e., moral concerns about individuals harming, oppressing, or cheating other individuals).  It is broader--including the ethics of community and divinity--in most other societies, and within religious and conservative moral matrices within WEIRD societies. (110)
But notice the contradiction in this passage.  WEIRD cultures are said to be "unusually narrow" because of their commitment to the principle of autonomy or individual liberty.  But at the same time, this very principle allows WEIRD cultures to include "religious and conservative moral matrices" that manifest "the ethics of community and divinity."  One might infer from this that WEIRD cultures are actually the broadest cultures of all, because only they allow for the individual liberty that is the condition for all moral communities to flourish.

 Haidt suggests this inference again in another passage, in which he is considering the social nature of human beings as like bees:
     Let's imagine two nations, one full of small-scale hives, one devoid of them.  In the hivish nation, let's suppose that most people participate in several cross-cutting hives--perhaps one at work, one at church, and one in a weekend sports league.  At universities, most students join fraternities and sororities.  In the workplace, most leaders structure their organizations to take advantage of our groupish overlay.  Through their lives, citizens regularly enjoy muscular bonding, team building, and moments of self-transcendence with groups of fellow citizens who may be different from them racially, but with whom they feel deep similarity and interdependence.  This bonding is often accompanied by the excitement of intergroup competition (as in sports and business), but sometimes not (as in church).
     In the second nation, there's no hiving at all.  Everyone cherishes their autonomy and respects the autonomy of their fellow citizens. . . . You'll find no culturally approved or institutionalized ways to lose yourself in a larger group.
     Which nation do you think would score higher on measures of social capital, mental health, and happiness?  Which nation will produce more successful businesses and a higher standard of living?
     When a single hive is scaled up to the size of a nation and is led by a dictator with an army at his disposal, the results are invariably disastrous.  But that is no argument for removing or suppressing hives at lower levels.  In fact, a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people.  It's not a very promising target for takeover by a demagogue offering people meaning in exchange for their souls.  Creating a nation of multiple competing groups and parties was, in fact, seen by America's founding fathers as a way of preventing tyranny. (242-43)

So now it's clear that in arguing for the superiority of the hiving nation, Haidt is arguing not for a nation that is a single hive, but for a nation that is "full of small-scale hives," a nation like that designed by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the other American founders, a nation that secures individual liberty and thus secures the moral foundation that allows people to pursue all other moral foundations so long as they respect the equal liberty of all individuals in that moral pursuit.  (It should be noted that Madison and Hamilton are identified by Sowell as belonging to the "constrained" or realist tradition of social thought.)

Here we see the fusion of classical liberalism (promoting the political liberty that secures the free exercise of hivishness) and traditional conservatism (promoting the social virtue that is cultivated in hives).

We also see here how Haidt moves from value-free description to value-laden prescription:  by nature human beings pursue happiness, and we can judge some societies as more successful than others in securing that pursuit of happiness.  From this point of view, more is better if Darwinian conservatism is better in accounting for the widest range of those moral foundations necessary for human happiness.

Some of my other posts on Haidt and related topics can be found here, here, here, here. here, and here.

You can determine your "morality profile" according to Haidt's theory by taking some tests at Haidt's moral psychology website.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Adam Smith's Natural Teleology: Divine Design or a "Fatherless World"?

At the recent Republican National Convention, many of the speakers concluded by invoking God's blessings on the United States.  Some of the speakers (like Senator Marco Rubio) insisted that what makes America "exceptional" is the belief that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights--that rights are therefore God-given.  Moreover, it was said that God exercises providential care over the world in enforcing his moral law. 

By contrast, we can expect that we will not hear this kind of political theology at the Democratic National Convention.  Sometimes President Obama will say that the American creed rests on the belief that "all men are endowed with rights."  But he usually omits the phrase "by their Creator" as it appears in the text of the Declaration of Independence. 

This difference in rhetoric between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party points to a fundamental issue in moral and political philosophy.  Is a healthy moral and political order impossible without some belief in a cosmic teleology of divine design, as many Republicans believe?  Or is it possible for a healthy moral and political order to be rooted in a purely human order of human nature, human culture, and human judgment?

On the one hand, the Declaration of Independence invokes a cosmic teleology of divine providence.  On the other hand, the Constitution of the United States makes no clear reference to God or cosmic teleology, and the "no religious test" clause suggests that no religious belief is necessary for the constitutional order.

One of the most common objections to my argument for Darwinian natural right is that if Darwinism denies cosmic teleology, it must therefore collapse into nihilism.  That's the objection often made by the Straussians.  Of course, as I have indicated in some previous posts, the Straussian position on this is confusing, because it often seems that the Straussians do not actually believe that cosmic teleology is true, although it might be a noble lie.

Similarly, my religious critics argue that the only escape from nihilism is some religiously based cosmic teleology; and if Darwinism denies that human beings were created in God's image, and thus denies the cosmic teleology of Biblical religion, Darwinism leads to the sort of nihilism manifested in the Nazi movement.  That's what Richard Weikart identifies as the line of influence "from Darwin to Hitler."

This issue comes up in the interpretation of Adam Smith, who influenced the thinking of the American founders (Madison and Hamilton, for example) as well as Darwin.  In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith often invokes God as the "Author of Nature," who has designed the universe to serve his cosmic ends and ultimately to promote human happiness.  But in The Wealth of Nations, Smith says nothing about God, and he speaks about religion as a social institution, without any profession of his faith. 

Many readers have assumed that Smith was an atheist or skeptic, rather like his friend Hume, and that Smith's theological language is merely a concession to popular religious beliefs that he did not personally share.  But in recent years, some scholarly commentators on Smith have argued that he assumed a theology of natural teleology as foundational for all of his work. 

For example, James Alvey has argued this in a book--Adam Smith: Optimist or Pessimist? (2003)--and in an article that is available online -- "The Secret, Natural Theological Foundation of Adam Smith's Work," Journal of Markets and Morality 7 (Fall 2004): 335-61.  As Alvey indicates, he is reviving an argument made by Jacob Viner, The Role of Providence in the Social Order (1972).

Alvey was originally a student of Richard Staveley at the University of Queensland in the mid 1970s.  Under Staveley's influence, he eventually went to the University of Toronto to get a Ph.D. in political science, specializing in political theory, and writing a dissertation on Smith that became his book.  I mention this because I have often been impressed by Staveley's remarkable influence in directing many of his students to the study of political theory.  Some of these students have become students and friends of mine.

I agree with Alvey that Smith does assume a natural theology in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  My objection, however, is that Alvey does not consider the possibility that what he identifies as Smith's "trimmed-down version of natural theology" (345) could be affirmed by both Hume and Darwin. 

In Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Philo criticized the traditional reasoning for God as the intelligent designer of the universe.  Philo also suggested that the emergence of complex order in the physical and living world could be explained as the result of a process of natural selection of accidental variations in the history of the world.  And thus he anticipated Darwin's theory of natural evolution.  Philo also indicated, however, that the ultimate first cause of everything remains a mystery, which leaves an opening for believing in a Creator as something like a Cosmic Mind.

Similarly, Darwin argued against the traditional theory that the forms of life arose by divine special creation of each species, and he argued for a theory of natural evolution that looks a lot like what Philo had suggested in Hume's Dialogues.  And yet Darwin also indicated that the ultimate first cause of life and the universe was a mystery that left open the possibility that something like a Divine Mind might be posited.

But even as Hume and Darwin left an opening for religious belief in a Creator, and even as they agreed that this religious belief could reinforce morality in some ways, they also agreed that morality could stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief.  Alvey doesn't take seriously the possibility that this was Smith's position as well.

Remarkably, Alvey says almost nothing about either Hume or Darwin, and thus he never considers Smith's fundamental agreement with Hume or Smith's anticipation of Darwin.  Without thinking through the line of thought linking Hume, Smith, and Darwin, it is impossible to understand the place of natural teleology in the modern world.  (One could also stretch this line of thought back to Lucretius and Cicero in the ancient world.)

Hume's blunt criticisms of Christian theology gave him an infamous reputation as an atheist or infidel.  Not being as blunt as Hume, Smith did not suffer from the same bad reputation.  But Smith's friendship with Hume and some of his writing led some of Smith's readers to suspect that he was as much of an infidel as Hume.  Smith had to be cautious to avoid persecution.  For example, he refused to help Hume get a professorship at the University of Glasgow, because he feared the unfavorable reaction of the public.  When Hume was dying, he asked Smith to secure the publication of the Dialogues after Hume's death.  Smith refused to do this, apparently because he did not want his reputation soiled by association with Hume's attacks on natural theology in that book.  And yet Smith arranged for the publication of his letter to William Strahan describing Hume's cheerful attitude in the face of death without any belief in an afterlife.  He concluded: "Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."  This exposed Smith to denunciations from Christians.  After the publication of the Dialogues in 1779, Smith never indicated any disagreement with Hume's attack on traditional natural theology.

In explaining Smith's teleology, Alvey identifies five or six ends of human life: self-preservation, reproduction, the order of the human world, the perfection of human nature, the happiness of human nature, and perhaps liberty as an implicit end.  Collectively, Alvey suggests, we could see all of these ends as contributing to "human flourishing" understood as "ease and tranquillity" (339).

But notice that none of these ends is supernatural.  None of these ends require redemption of human beings in an afterlife.  All of these ends belong to a purely natural, this-worldly, secular life.  Consequently, this immanent teleology of human nature is fundamentally contrary to the Christian teaching that there can be no "ease and tranquillity" in this world, because what human beings really need to be happy is heavenly salvation.

Of course, the Christian teaching requires not only eternal salvation in Heaven for the redeemed but also eternal punishment in Hell for the damned.  Smith does say in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that the belief in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments is "deeply rooted in human nature."  But he also indicates that the "virtuous man" might well doubt those standards of eternal judgment that are contrary to our moral sentiments--for example, the eternal punishment of pagan philosophers because they were not Christians (TMS 132-34).  Here Smith seems to agree with Darwin that the eternal punishment of unbelievers is a "damnable doctrine."

Smith seems to say that the universal benevolence of the "wise and virtuous man" requires belief in the cosmic teleology of divine providence:
This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe, the meanest as well as the greatest, are under the immediate care and protection of that great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature; and who is determined, by his own unalterable perfections, to maintain in it, at all times, the greatest possible quantity of happiness.  To this universal benevolence, on the contrary, the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections; from the thought that all the unknown regions of infinite and incomprehensible space may be filled with nothing but endless misery and wretchedness.  All the splendour of the highest prosperity can never enlighten the gloom with which so dreadful an idea must necessarily over-shadow the imagination; nor, in a wise and virtuous man, can all the sorrow of the most afflicting adversity ever dry up the joy which necessarily springs from the habitual and thorough conviction of the truth of the contrary system. (TMS, 235)
Here it seems that the "wise and virtuous man" would never embrace "the very suspicion of a fatherless world."  And yet, the only man Smith ever identified as approaching "the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man" was Hume, and Hume did apparently entertain the suspicion of a "fatherless world." 

Smith himself was a fatherless child, having been born a few months after the death of his father.  Could he have suspected that the whole world was fatherless?  If so, then he might have thought that the universe does not care about us or for us, but we care for ourselves, and through sympathy we extend our care to others.  This could have led Smith to believe that even if our moral sentiments cannot be grounded in a cosmic God or cosmic Reason, they can be grounded in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  Would that have been enough for him?

If Adam Smith's work has a "natural theological foundation," as Alvey contends, then why is it that in The Wealth of Nations, Smith never mentions God, treats religious groups as purely secular institutions for popular education, and condemns the corrupting effect that theology has had upon moral and natural philosophy (WN, 764-74, 788-814)?  Is the world of The Wealth of Nations a "fatherless world"?

I wish that Alvey had probed some of these questions.

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