Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Strauss, Slavery, and Darwinian Natural Right

     Ant slave rebellion?  Enslaved ants destroying a pupa of the slave-making colony

In Natural Right and History, Strauss doesn't give many examples of natural right.  But one example that appears repeatedly is slavery (23, 103-104, 118, 121, 159).  In speaking about conventionalism, Strauss observes: "what is natural comes into being and exists without violence.  All violence applied to a being makes that being do something which goes against its grain, i.e., against its nature. . . . the unnatural character of slavery seems to be obvious: it goes against any man's grain to be made a slave or to be treated as a slave" (103).  The unnatural character of slavery might be an illustration of natural right that can be defended against the relativism of both historicism and positivism.

The historicist relativist would point out that slavery has been practiced for thousands of years in many societies, which shows that our moral judgment of slavery is historically determined by the prevailing opinions of our time and place, and thus there is no natural standard for judging slavery as right or wrong.  After all, even philosophers like Aristotle defended slavery as natural, because that was the common opinion in the ancient Greek world.  And so later defenders of slavery, like the slaveholders of the American South, could cite Aristotle as supporting their position (Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery, 1858, 17).

Strauss responds to this by arguing that it is untrue that Aristotle could not have conceived of the injustice of slavery, because in fact he did (23).  Most slavery in the ancient Greek world was based on the convention that people taken prisoner in war and not ransomed can be enslaved.  Such slavery is merely conventional, not natural (104).  By making the distinction between natural and conventional slavery in The Politics, Aristotle conveys an exoteric teaching that slavery is natural, which appears to conform to prevailing opinions; but he also conveys an esoteric teaching to his careful readers who will notice that by Aristotle's standards slavery as actually practiced in ancient Greece is purely conventional and not natural.

When the Spanish conquerors of the New World enslaved the Indians in the sixteenth century, this provoked a debate in Spain over the justice of this enslavement.  Juan Gines de Sepulveda appealed to Aristotle in arguing that the American Indians were natural slaves.  But then Bartolome de Las Casas condemned the enslavement as contrary to natural right.   Las Casas argued that by Aristotle's standard of natural slavery, the only natural slaves would be those few individuals who are born mentally deformed without the normal human nature of rational and political animals; and by this standard, the American Indians were clearly not natural slaves.  Their enslavement was merely conventional, because they had been defeated in war.  To treat them as natural slaves was contrary to their nature as human beings.  This argument by Las Casas can be seen today as one of the first statements of the modern conception of human rights--that all human beings have natural rights by virtue of their universal human nature.

This example of natural right does not depend on a cosmic teleology that has been refuted by modern science.  This example of natural right depends only on the immanent teleology of human nature, which can be supported by modern biological science.  As Strauss says, "however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions" (94).  If we can "distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are natural and those which originate in conventions," then we can judge natural right as that which conforms to natural human desires and inclinations.  If Darwin was right that an evolved moral sense is part of our evolved human nature, and that our moral sense condemns slavery, then we might see slavery as contrary to Darwinian natural right.  We can see that slavery frustrates the natural human desires of the slave, especially the desire to be free from exploitation.

But then the positivist relativist (like Max Weber) might object that in trying to draw moral conclusions from our knowledge of human nature, we are violating the distinction between facts and values, or between the is and the ought, because we fail to see the fallacy in deriving moral values from natural facts (NRH, 38-48).  As historians or scientists, we can describe the facts of human slavery: that slavery has been practiced for thousands of  years, that this has satisfied the natural desire of masters for dominating and exploiting their slaves, and that this has frustrated the natural desire of slaves to be free from exploitation.  But judging whether this is right or wrong is not a factual judgment but a moral judgment. 

Slave masters will say that slavery is right because it satisfies their natural desires.  Slaves will say that slavery is wrong because it frustrates their natural desires.  To say that one side is right and the other wrong is not an objective judgment of fact but a subjective judgment of value.  Scientific knowledge must be value-free, because while we can have an empirical and rational knowledge of facts, we cannot have any genuine knowledge of values.  The values of human beings are arbitrary preferences that conflict with one another, and there is no rational way to say that one set of values is better than another.  Reason cannot tell us that anti-slavery values are better than proslavery values.

The idea of Darwinian natural right is mistaken, therefore, because it fallaciously infers moral values from natural facts.  Darwin was vehement in his condemnation of slavery, and much of his book on human evolution--The Descent of Man--was written to refute the proslavery argument that the human races were separate species, that some species were naturally inferior, morally and intellectually, to others, and that these inferior species were naturally adapted for slavery (Desmond and Moore 2009). 

But the positivist relativist will suggest that Darwin was wrong if he thought that his personal value judgment condemning slavery could be grounded in his natural science.  After all, Darwin in The Origin of Species recognized that slavery was a naturally evolved adaptation for some ant species that have a "slave-making instinct," which shows that slavery can arise by natural evolution.  In the first edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that this ant instinct for making slaves was "extraordinary and odious" (1859, 220).  In the second edition of his book, he struck out the word "odious."  Perhaps he did this because he realized that this word was only an expression of his moral emotions--his hatred of slavery--and not a scientific description of the facts.

The proslavery American southerner Thomas Cobb pointed to ant slavery as a natural fact showing that slavery conforms to the law of nature.  "It is a fact, well known to entomologists," Cobb observed, "that the red ant will issue in regular battle array, to conquer and subjugate the black or negro ant, as he is called by entomologists," and "that these negro slaves perform all the labor of the communities into which they are thus brought, with a patience and an aptitude almost incredible" (8-9).

Some religious believers will argue that this shows how a Darwinian science of nature and human nature cannot provide any standard of right and wrong for judging that slavery is wrong, because our knowledge of right and wrong depends on a religiously informed cosmic teleology like that suggested in the Declaration of Independence.  If it is self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we can see that slavery is wrong because it violates God's law in denying the equal dignity of all human beings as created in God's image.  That's the argument of John Hare, Carson Holloway, and Benjamin Wiker.  The positivist relativist would see this as a religious value judgment that cannot be derived from our empirical knowledge of the facts of nature.

Strauss objects to this positivist fact-value distinction by insisting that a value-free social science is impossible, because the social phenomena studied by the social scientist are "constituted by value judgments," and all social scientists must strive to make "objective value judgments" about the social phenomena they study (NRH, 53-57).  So, for example, a military historian studying the actions of statesmen and generals must necessarily make value judgments in which he judges whether these actions were successful or mistaken.  A general who loses a battle because of a blunder in some tactical maneuver must be judged to be a bad general, because he has not correctly chosen the right means for achieving his ends.  All human actions are purposeful--aimed at some end--and so we can judge the success or failure of those actions in achieving their ends. 

We don't need a cosmic teleology for our value judgment here, because we have an immanent teleology of human action.  Strauss explains: "It is impossible to understand phenomena of this kind without being aware of the standard of judgment that is inherent in the situation and accepted as a matter of course by the actors themselves; and it is impossible not to make use of that standard by actually evaluating" (54).

As opposed to nonliving things, all living organisms have standards of value inherent in their nature as the kind of organism that they are.  To live, every animal must act, either consciously or unconsciously, to achieve the goals set by its nature.  An animal either succeeds or fails in this, and its relative success or failure will decide whether it lives or dies, and whether its life is satisfying or not.  This not true for inanimate entities.  We might explain a thunderstorm, for instance, as a physical and chemical system that sustains itself for a period of time and then dissipates, but we could not properly speak of its relative success or failure in achieving its goals.  In all animal behavior, by contrast, there are natural goals, which are standards of achievement that we can identify as values or goods.  If we define value or good in relational terms as whatever satisfies a desire, then all animals have values, because they all have natural desires that they strive to satisfy as they gather information about their world.  This includes human beings, who are unique only in the complexity of their desires and the complexity of the information they gather to satisfy their desires (Binswanger 1990, 1992; Herrick 1956; Polanyi and Prosch 1975).

If Darwin is right about human evolution, human beings have evolved to be social animals, who desire the praise of those around them and fear their blame.  They have evolved to have a natural desire for justice as reciprocity in their social life, so that they are naturally inclined to feel love and gratitude in return for benefits conferred on them, they are inclined to feel anger and hatred in return for injuries inflicted on them, and they are inclined to feel guilt and shame when they violate their reciprocal obligations to others.  If this is so, then we can expect that slave masters will feel the injustice of their exploitation of their slaves, and they will try to hide that injustice by pretending that slavery is good for the slaves.  So, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, it's depiction of the brutal exploitation of slaves by masters was denied by many defenders of slavery as a false account.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln argued, anyone with "ordinary perceptions of right and wrong" can see the injustice of slavery, because anyone can see how it frustrates the natural human desire to be free from exploitation.  Even in the American South, Lincoln observed, slave-traders are despised: it is considered improper for a gentleman to shake hands with them, because the buying and selling of human beings as property elicits a feeling of disgust (1953, 2:264-65).  What Lincoln called "ordinary perceptions of right and wrong" might correspond to what Strauss called "those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right" (NRH, 31-32, 105).

But then the critics of Darwinian natural right will say that what we see here is a conflict between evolved natural desires with no standard beyond those desires to resolve the conflict.  The slave masters' desire to exploit their slaves is opposed to their desires for reciprocity and sympathy.  But there is no standard here for determining that one desire is better than the other.  The slave masters are free to suppress their sense of the injustice of slavery by deceiving themselves and others to believe that slavery is actually just.

Some of the critics will argue that the standard we need for recognizing the injustice of slavery is a transcendent standard that goes beyond evolved human nature--a religiously-informed cosmic teleology by which we can see that slavery violates God's moral law.  But if this is an appeal to the Biblical God, then it's not obvious that this gives us a clear and reliable standard for judging slavery, because Christian defenders of slavery have cited the Bible as supporting slavery (Cobb 1857; Ross 1857). 

That's why the American Civil War became a theological crisis: the theological dispute between proslavery Christians and anti-slavery Christians was settled by force of arms (Noll 2006).  Lincoln pointed to this in his Second Inaugural Address:  "Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Some readers of Strauss would object to the assumption here that Strauss views the injustice of slavery as a good example of natural right.  In Natural Right and History, when Strauss speaks of the injustice of slavery, it's not always clear that he is speaking for himself.  At times, Strauss seems to intimate that if there is natural right, the only clear principle of natural right is the supremacy of the philosophic life of those few who can live it as the only naturally good life (NRH, 36, 74-79, 110, 112-13, 115, 126-27, 143, 151-52, 156).


CJColucci said...

The question of exoteric and esoteric writing has come up in several recent posts. While it would not be surprising if thinkers of the past thought it prudent not to say all they thought, or to dress up their more disturbing thoughts in conventional garments that, privately, they would not wear, it seems that determining the esoteric teaching would require literary or historical detective work of a high order, and most of the little I've seen has none of that. Instead, what I have seen is: "Aristotle was a smart guy. His argument seemingly in favor of slavery is stupid. He must have known that. Therefore, he didn't believe it, and people able to see that his argument is stupid can thereby tell that he didn't favor slavery."
Is there anything reasonably short I can read on the subject? I've read Strauss's Persecution, and that doesn't tell me what I want to know.

Larry Arnhart said...

Chapter 9 of Melzer's book (pp. 287-324): "A Beginner's Guide to Esoteric Reading."

Xenophon said...

Other earlier commentators had also noted that Aristotle's "defense" of natural slavery, when read carefully, showed that most slavery in the Greek world was entirely conventional and not natural and that Aristotle fully understood this:

Sir Ernest Barker in his book The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (1906):

"Aristotle's doctrine may seem to us to defend slavery; it is quite possible that it struck his contemporaries as also an attack." (p.369 n1.)

"So far, we have attempted to show that Aristotle's theory of a natural slave and natural slavery is, as all false theories tend to be, refuted by its own author in the course of its statement. For a false theory must always fall into inconsistency if it deals with all the facts and data of its subject... But if this theory of slavery is thus defeated by its own inconsistencies, one must at any rate admit that Aristotle himself supplies his own refutation and by his own full admission of the facts shows his width of view even in a false conclusion..."

" if only the natural master, endowed with moral capacity, had a right to his position, and the merely legal master, or the master who rested merely on force, were disqualified: if, again, only the natural slave, whom Nature had left morally imperfect, could properly be a slave, and the Greek was exempt from slavery- then it is easy to see, the numbers of masters and slaves would be seriously diminished; and the doctrine of natural slaves, far from condoning, would seem to challenge existing slavery." (p. 369) (my italics)

Anonymous said...

"...the unnatural character of slavery seems to be obvious"

"Seems to be obvious" is not the same as "is obvious."

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, and in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (10), Strauss indicated that originally the "liberal man" was defined by distinction from the slave, and thus liberality presupposed slavery. In a liberal democracy, those free men without leisure are "almost like slaves."