Monday, September 02, 2013

The Evolutionary Anthropology of the Declaration of Independence

The best short study of the Declaration of Independence that I have ever seen is Michael Zuckert's "Locke in America: The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence," which is found in his Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy, pages 203-34.

One of his most insightful interpretive claims is that the six "self-evident truths" of the theoretical section of the Declaration can be understood as six stages in the history of politics.  The first two truths are about the prepolitical or pregovernmental condition, in which human beings are equal and possess rights.  The central two truths are about the making of government, in which human beings institute government by consent of the governed for the purpose of securing their prepolitical rights.  The last two truths are about the response to unjust governments, in which governments are identified as becoming "destructive" of the rights that should be secured, and then the people have the right to "alter or abolish" such governments and to institute new governments.  Thus, this history has "three moments--the state of nature, the formation of civil society, and the revolutionary moment" (229).  Obviously, as Zuckert indicates, this history in the Declaration shows the influence of John Locke.

Zuckert indicates that this history has been criticized as bad history.  Human beings are never born into a state of nature as completely free and equal individuals, because they are always born into some structure of authority, including the authority of their parents and of the larger society in which they live.  Consequently, we never see human beings making a government through a social contract.

Zuckert deflects this criticism by insisting that this history of politics in the Declaration is not "a literal history of human politics," but is rather a "moral history."  "It is in important senses a self-conscious fiction that presents moral and rational truths about politics but not the literal truth about history" (230).

I disagree, because I think this political history as presented in the Declaration and in Locke's writing really is a literal history.  Furthermore, I think the truth of this history has been largely confirmed by evolutionary anthropology.  This supports my general claim that political philosophy is ultimately an empirical science, and particularly an evolutionary science of political history.

Locke lays out a history of political evolution based principally on two sources--the books on the social history of the American Indians by Europeans who had lived in the New World and the Biblical history of politics in the Old Testament.  This evolutionary history of politics is crucial for his argument that human beings are naturally equal in their freedom, that governments arise by popular consent, and consequently that unjust governments can be overturned by popular revolution.

Locke recognizes two major objections to his reasoning.  First, it is said that there are no historical cases of people who begin as free and equal and then meet to set up a government.  Second, it is said that all individuals are born under a government to which they owe obedience, and thus that they are not free to set up a new one (ST, 100). 

In response to these objections, Locke does not say, as Zuckert suggests, that his history is not meant to be literally true, because it's a "moral history" or "a self-conscious fiction."  Instead of that, Locke insists that there is evidence for the truth of his history.  We can see among the American Indians and other hunter-gatherer groups how human beings originally lived without government.  "In the beginning, all the world was America," and thus this was "a pattern of the first ages" (ST, 14, 49, 108).  We can also see in the Bible and other records stories of how government first arose (ST, 101-112). 

In the original state of nature, human beings lived as hunter-gatherers--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals (ST, 26-31).  They did not have any formal governmental authority over them.  Each person took the law into his own hands, as it were, exercising the "executive power of the state of nature," which was the power to retaliate against attacks and take vengeance for harms done to oneself or to one's own.  The state of nature can be a state of peace when all or most people agree on the customary rules of behavior as enforced by informal mediation and arbitration.  But it becomes a state of war when it falls into a cycle of revenge and feuding in which life, liberty, and property are so insecure that people seek out some formal system of law and government to keep the peace (ST, 6-14, 123-31).

As I have indicated in some previous posts, the studies of hunter-gatherer bands by anthropologists over the past century and a half largely confirm Locke's account of the original state of nature.  From a modern evolutionary perspective, we can see that for 99% of our evolutionary human history, we have lived as nomadic foragers, which thus constitutes the environment of evolutionary adaptation in which our human nature was shaped.

Among the Bushmen in Southern Africa, Polly Wiessner reports, "all adult members of the society are autonomous equals who cannot command, bully, coerce, or indebt others."  There is a "strong egalitarian norm that no adult can tell another what to do."  "All people as autonomous individuals are expected to stand up for their rights," and so everyone has the right to enforce the social norms of the group by punishing those who violate them.  Doesn't this sound like Locke's state of nature?

Although they did not have a formal structure of governmental authority, hunter-gatherers did have some informal leadership by which prominent people could mediate disputes and lead them in war, but always constrained by the informal consent or resistance of the community.  Eventually, these informal and episodic positions of leadership became formal and permanent as they moved to leadership by Big Men or Chiefs.  So, for example the American Indian Kings were originally temporary war leaders (ST, 105, 108).

This suggests that human beings really are political animals by nature, so that even in primitive societies without formal governmental institutions, there are natural propensities to political rule in that some individuals will be ambitious in seeking positions of informal leadership.   But with hunter-gatherers, there is a strong resistance to anyone who tries to dominate over others in an oppressive way.

This might be what David Hume had in mind in his essay "Of the Origin of Government," when he described how the "love of dominion" as rooted in the "principles of human nature" would motivate leaders in savage societies who get prestige from acting as dominant individuals, although this dominance would depend on the voluntary consent, or at least acquiescence, of the other individuals in the society.  In this way, Locke's idea of "original contract" really does explain the primitive origins of law and government, although the later history of government has been decisively shaped by war and conquest.  Originally, one man might have been a temporary war leader, but as the state of war became almost perpetual, the war leader might become a permanent chief or king with the authority to compel obedience to his rule.  And thus, Hume concluded, the history of government has been a continuing struggle between liberty and authority.

Locke recognized that the history of government is largely the history of conquest, and in wars of conquest, popular consent is ignored (ST, 175-96).  But when government rules by force alone, without any authority from popular consent, that government can be overthrown whenever enough people are discontented and have sufficient courage and opportunity to rebel.  People are naturally inclined to meet force with force, when they think they are being exploited by tyrants.  People can always choose to rebel against their government.  And when they do, they have "appealed to Heaven," which is to say, they have invoked the God of battles, just as Jeptha did in leading the people of Israel in war with the Ammonites, as reported in the Bible (ST, 240-43).

As suggested by both Hobbes and Locke, the ultimate ground of the natural right to equal liberty is the natural inclination of human beings to use violence in retaliating against those who attack or exploit them.  In the state of nature, everyone has the "executive power of the state of nature," so that each person can punish murderers, thieves, and others who disrupt the social order (ST, 6-13).  Even when people are living under an established government, to which they have given up their natural executive power, they can still reclaim that natural power, if they think it is necessary to defend themselves against the attacks of individuals or the oppression of government.

This history of government that is elaborated in Locke's writings and that is briefly stated in the Declaration of Independence is not a "self-conscious fiction," as Zuckert says, it's a literal history that's open to confirmation by evolutionary political anthropology.

Some of my points here have been developed in other posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Clifford Bates said...

Larry do you know of James Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed (Yale University Press 2009)? Like his Seeing as a State, this might have some interest to you here.