Friday, February 07, 2014

Hobbes, Aristotle, and the Sociobiology of Political Animals

The debate between Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes over whether human beings are political animals by nature is another example of a fundamental issue in the history of political philosophy that depends on empirical natural science.  Aristotle's account of political animals was rooted in his biological science.  In criticizing Aristotle, Hobbes relied on his understanding of the new natural science being developed by Galileo, William Harvey, and others.  When Richard Cumberland wrote in 1672 in defense of Aristotle against Hobbes, Cumberland argued that the biological science of Harvey and Thomas Willis supported Aristotle.  Although Aristotle did not specifically identify apes as political animals, he did conclude from his anatomical studies that apes were an intermediate species close to human beings.  When Edward Tyson in 1699 wrote the first modern anatomical comparison of human beings and apes, he saw that Aristotle was right in identifying chimpanzees as halfway between monkeys and human beings.  Now, I argue, the new Darwinian sciences of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and animal behavior sustain Aristotle's position rather than Hobbes's.

Aristotle would agree with the Hobbesian claim that human politics is uniquely human insofar as it manifests uniquely human capacities for language, conceptual abstraction, and shared intentionality.  But Aristotle thought that an adequate political science should understand both the continuity and the discontinuity between human politics and the politics of the other political animals.  We see continuity if we understand that human beings are like the other political animals in cooperating for some common end or function (koinon ergon), in showing social cooperation as an extension of the natural impulses to sexual coupling and parental care of the young, in organizing their social life based on kinship, mutualism, and reciprocity, and in having political leaders that either direct a community to its common ends or divide it into factions.  We see discontinuity if we understand that human beings do all of this in a uniquely human way because their cognitive capacities for reason and speech (logos) allow them to organize their social life around authoritative concepts of expediency, justice, and goodness.  Consequently, human beings are more political than the other political animals, because human cooperation and competition is more complex and extensive in its shared intentionality than is the case for the other political animals.

In De Homine (ch. 10), De Cive (ch. 5, par. 5), and Leviathan (ch. 17), Hobbes makes various arguments against Aristotle, which depend upon three fundamental claims.  First, in the state of nature, human beings are solitary animals.  Second, among the naturally political animals, social cooperation is completely harmonious because there are no conflicts of interest to create competition, but this is not true for human beings.  Third, nature and instinct are necessarily antithetical to artifice and learning, so that social order cannot be natural or instinctive if it depends in any way on artificial or learned activity; and therefore human politics cannot be natural because it arises from cultural learning.

In some of his most famous words, Hobbes describes the state of nature as a lawless anarchy in which human life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  But as many of his critics have pointed out, this cannot be true, because it ignores the fact that human beings have always lived as social animals.  Even when there is no centralized state, human beings have lived in bands and tribes organized by social norms of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.

Oddly, Hobbes admits this, because he recognizes that even in the state of nature, one sees the "government of small families," as among the American Indians.  Parents were the original sovereigns, who enforced customary rules of behavior within their families, and who selected arbitrators or judges to settle disputes between families.  The customary rules of social life in primitive bands constitute what Hobbes calls "the laws of nature," and these natural laws correspond largely to what evolutionary anthropologists have seen among foraging bands, showing the kind of life lived by our evolutionary ancestors.  So, clearly, the state of nature for human beings must be a naturally political state.

Hobbes was right, however, about the centralized state being a uniquely human contrivance based on a social contract.  But this social contract is natural in the sense that it fulfills the natural human inclinations to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.

Human social cooperation is never perfect because it is always disrupted by conflicts of interest.  Contrary to Hobbes, this is true for other political animals like bees and ants.  As E. O. Wilson has observed, the only perfect society free from conflict might be found among colonial invertebrates--that is, colonies of genetically identical individuals.  Since the social insects are not genetically identical, there can be conflicts of interest.  Reproductive competition between individual insects can create aggressive encounters and dominance hierarchies.  There can be conflicts between colonies, between queens, between workers, or between queens and workers.  This requires some means of conflict resolution in which dominant individuals enforce their will over others.  So human beings are not the only political animals who need "a common power to keep them in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit."

Of course, the establishment and maintenance of a human political order requires a tradition of cultural learning for the transmission of the rules of political authority.  Contrary to what Hobbes claims, culturally learned order is not uniquely human.  Aristotle recognized that many animals have natural instincts for social learning, which can create cultural traditions.  Recent studies of animal culture suggest that Aristotle was right about this.

And yet, Aristotle and Hobbes also saw that human social learning is unique insofar as it shows a human capacity for symbolic understanding that makes possible concepts of political authority based on shared intentionality, which is not possible for the other political animals.

I will have more to say about "shared intentionality" as unique to human political psychology.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So... as usual or quite common at least, Aristotle is proven to be ar more right than the would-be challengers of The Philosopher.

I have enjoyed reading his works, which often feel as though an old friend has come back, though perhaps it is only I who have come back, after being subjected to a society of madmen.