Tuesday, June 27, 2017
I have often argued for the evolution of a Darwinian liberalism that was first expressed by John Locke and Adam Smith, although there are precursors in the liberal thinkers of ancient Athens and in Lucretius of ancient Rome. But it might be objected that the English word "liberalism" as a term for a political position did not appear until the 1820s in England.
In January, I wrote a post on the evolutionary origins of the word "liberalism." The use of the adjective "liberal" in its political sense derived from Adam Smith's language in The Wealth of Nations, where Smith identified "the liberal system of free exportation and free importation," and where he spoke of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice." Smith's description of the "liberal system" suggests that it coincides with what he calls the "system of natural liberty," because in both cases, he speaks of a man's freedom "to pursue his own interest his own way."
Later, in Great Britain, the English noun "liberalism" was coined to refer to this Smithian understanding of "liberal" thought. The earliest use of "liberalism" that I have noticed is by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on May 24, 1804, in which Humboldt writes: "Your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas have inspired me from my earliest youth."
Although Smith does not use the word "evolution," his account of the "liberal system" does have an evolutionary character to it. Hayek noticed this and developed it in his account of the liberal idea of "spontaneous evolution" or "spontaneous order." Smith's system of natural liberty is a spontaneous order that evolves from the bottom-up rather than being designed from the top-down. It is a natural evolutionary order in that it arises from the natural desire of all individuals to better their condition, which leads to wealth and prosperity whenever the laws secure to individuals the liberty to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.
In the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer elaborated the principle of equal liberty as fundamental for liberalism, and he presented it as part of a cosmic evolution of order in which the whole history of the Universe could be seen as an evolution from simplicity to complexity. Modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary progressive trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence (see my post in March 2014).
In August, I wrote posts on Deirdre McCloskey's argument--elaborated in three books--that modern classical liberalism first arose as part of the "Bourgeois Revaluation" that elevated the "bourgeois virtues." She embraces an evolutionary theory of bourgeois liberalism that is similar to the evolutionary account of liberalism that has been defended by Jonathan Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Paul Rubin, and me (in various writings as well as on this blog).
The basic idea, as McCloskey says, is that bourgeois liberalism is "reinstating a pre-agricultural equality" by establishing an equal dignity and liberty for ordinary people--including an "equality of genuine comfort"--that restores the equal autonomy of individuals enjoyed in hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years until the establishment of rigid class hierarchies in agrarian societies.
As I have argued in some earlier posts, this is a restatement of Locke's argument for liberalism as the restoration of the natural liberty and equality that hunter-gatherers had in the "state of nature." Locke's account of the state of nature depended on the reports of Europeans about the foraging life of native Americans. "In the beginning," Locke declared, "all the world was America." Now, after two centuries of scientific studies of the foraging way of life, we can confirm Locke's account of the state of nature as mostly right. And we can see that the modern liberal ideas of equality, liberty, and dignity can be understood as appealing to that evolved human nature as shaped in the hunter-gatherer bands of our evolutionary ancestors.
And yet, one might object that, as Hayek claimed in his evolutionary account of liberalism, the liberalism of the Great Society--of the extended order of exchange in which millions of people can cooperate anonymously for their mutual benefit--requires a repression of the natural instincts shaped by life in ancient families and small bands.
But, as I have argued in many posts, Hayek is mistaken in his belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a completely socialist or collectivist order with no individual autonomy, and therefore our evolved human nature must be suppressed if we are to live in a free society of autonomous individuals who trade with one another for mutual benefit. In fact, as McCloskey indicates, there is plenty of evidence for long-distance trading networks among our ancient foraging ancestors. Even Hayek himself sometimes concedes that there is evidence for ancient trading.
In October, I wrote a post on some speeches on "Socialism and Human Nature" at the Cato Institute by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Jonathan Haidt. They indicated that Hayek was partly right in that socialist sharing within families and small bands was one of the evolved instinctive rules of cooperation for foragers, but he was partly wrong in failing to see how the evolved instinctive rules of social exchange and resistance to oppressive dominance could be evoked by modern liberal culture.
Haidt declared: "We evolved to do tribalism and trade." Living within families and small groups, we are collectivists in evoking the social instincts of our foraging mind. But in the extended order of markets, we are traders in evoking the foraging instincts for social exchange. The expansion of trading networks over the past five thousand years and the explosive expansion over the past two hundred years have been cultural extensions of the innate propensities for trade.
We are also libertarians in evoking "liberty/oppression" as one of the moral foundations of our evolved human nature, Haidt argued. Here he appealed to Christopher Boehm's account of how foragers protect their autonomy as free individuals by resistance to the dominance behavior of those who might become bullies or tyrants. If this is part of our evolved human nature, as Boehm claims, then this would show how Smith's "system of natural liberty" could be rooted in our innate instincts. If this is so, then the bourgeois liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.
Some anthropologists have objected to looking at hunter-gatherers as models of evolved human nature. Surely, there is so much variability in the lives of the foraging bands of the past 200 years studied by anthropologists that we cannot generalize about them. Nor can we assume that their lives are the same as the lives of our ancient prehistoric foraging ancestors. That's the argument of Robert Kelly in The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, which was the subject of a post in September.
And yet, far from denying human nature, Kelly's book is actually organized around an implicit theory of human nature that is evident in the topics of chapters 3-9 of the book: (3) Foraging and Subsistence, (4) Mobility, (5) Technology, (6) Sharing, Exchange, and Land Tenure, (7) Group Size and Demography, (8) Men, Women, and Foraging, (9) Nonegalitarian Hunting-Gatherers. Why does he assume that these are the most important topics? Because they are natural human desires or needs that any human society must satisfy in some manner? If so, then why can't we judge liberal societies by how well they satisfy those natural desires?
One of the best surveys of the evidence for these natural desires as grounded in evolved human nature is Stephen Sanderson's Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. In April and May, I wrote a series of posts on Sanderson's book showing the ways in which he supports my argument for the meaning and purpose of life in 20 natural desires. In particular, Sanderson suggests that capitalist social orders might satisfy the naturally evolved propensities for reciprocal exchange; and he cites Cosmides and Tooby as supporting this in a way that suggests that even they see capitalist social orders as satisfying some evolved propensities of human nature.
Sanderson has suggested that my list of twenty natural desires should be altered to include the natural desire for ethnic identity. I am not persuaded by his argument, which he derives from Pierre van den Berghe and Frank Salter, that ethnic affiliation is an evolutionary adaptation, in that those who favor their ethnic community over others are practicing an extended form of kin selection that advances their ethnic genetic interests. Some of the alt-right supporters of Trump have criticized me for not recognizing the evolved natural desire for ethnic genetic identity.
I am persuaded that evolved human nature is inclined to tribal thinking, so that we naturally categorize people as us and them, and we naturally favor our group over others. And while the social conditions of life have often predisposed people to make this in-group/out-group division along racial and ethnic lines, there is no evidence that this predisposition is an innate adaptation of the human mind.
On the contrary, there is lots of evidence that while we are innately inclined to look for cues of coalitional affiliation, the content of those cues depends on social learning; and people in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies can be taught to be cooperative without regard for racial or ethnic boundaries. In fact, Frank Salter implicitly concedes the truth of this point when he laments that ethnic nepotism is not instinctive, and therefore serving ethnic genetic interests requires artificial cultural strategies devised by modern scientific reasoning, and that no ethnic state has ever succeeded in securing an adaptive ethnic group strategy. I wrote a post on this in May.
A closely related issue is whether evolutionary psychology can explain the demographic transition (rising wealth linked to declining birth rates). I see the demographic transition as a natural expression of the prudent flexibility of human beings in adapting their parental desires to changing ecological circumstances. Because of the natural variability in human temperament, some human beings will choose to be childless. But most human beings in all societies will have a strong natural desire to care for children. In the socioeconomic circumstances of modern industrialized and technologically advanced societies, parents will want to have small families, so that they can invest resources in their own education, in their careers, and in the education of a few children, and so that those children can become socially successful adults. Most parents will desire to have no more than two or three children, and where mortality rates are low, this will be enough to sustain current population levels. I wrote a post on this in March.
In a liberal society, much of our economic life is organized through social exchange in markets that arise as spontaneous orders without central planning. But in a small family, the parents can have sufficient knowledge of the needs and capacities of their children and sufficient incentives to care properly for their children, so that parents can deliberately plan the organization of their family to achieve the shared ends of the family. This explains why abolishing the family is impossible: without the family organized around parental care of children, it's unlikely that anyone would have the knowledge and incentives to do as well as parents do in caring for their children. So while Hayek believes that spontaneous order is the best way to manage an economy, he also believes that deliberate organization is the best way to manage a family.
Steven Horwitz has written a book about the importance of family life for a Hayekian classical liberalism. I wrote a post on Horwitz's book in October.
Horwitz shows how in modern life in liberal societies, we must live in two different worlds with different rules. On the one hand, we live in families and other organizations (like firms and community groups) based on intimate, face-to-face relationships of moral concern for one another. On the other hand, we live in the extended order of anonymous exchange in complex market economies based on impersonal rules.
Socialists have argued that our social world would be more just if it were organized like a large family, so that everyone treated one another as brothers and sisters. But Hayek insisted that this attempt to turn the spontaneous order of the market into the deliberate organization of a family must fail in ways that will destroy the extended order of impersonal exchange that makes modern economic life possible.
The success of a liberal social order depends on the socialization of children in the family so that they learn the social norms and habits of a liberal society, in which people must live in two worlds at once, without applying the rules of one world to the other. Children must learn the bourgeois virtues necessary for living in a bourgeois liberal society.
With the full expression of bourgeois society in Europe and North America in the 19th century, many bohemian artists and intellectuals reacted with bitter scorn for the bourgeois life. Gustave Flaubert, for example, showed us how Emma Bovary was forced to have two adulterous affairs and then commit suicide as a heroic protest against the bourgeois mediocrity of her husband Charles. In a letter to George Sand, Flaubert proclaimed: "Axiom: Hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue."
Steven Smith quotes this in his chapter on Madame Bovary in his new book Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow. I wrote posts on Smith's book in September. Smith is a Straussian, and the influence of Leo Strauss permeates his book, including a chapter on Strauss. According to Smith, Strauss "fulfills the office of the philosopher to the highest degree."
Like most Straussians, Smith scorns bourgeois liberalism because, they insist, it lacks the human excellence, the heroic nobility, and the transcendent longings of life in the premodern world. As is characteristic of the Straussians, Smith presents his argument through textual interpretations of some books. As is also characteristic of the Straussians, he almost never looks at any of the empirical evidence that might sustain or deny the claims of the authors he interprets. He ignores the empirical evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, and others that shows the economic, moral, and intellectual progress achieved in bourgeois societies.
Smith also ignores the fact that even his own account of Ben Franklin as the American model of the bourgeois man contradicts the claims of the antibourgeois writers. Smith is silent about how McCloskey can look to Franklin as displaying the bourgeois virtues.
Human nature sets the standard for the human good. By nature the generic goods characterize the human species. By nature the individualized goods characterize human individuals. The virtue of prudence is required for judging what is best for each individual because of the uniqueness of each individual.
Actually, all animals show individual diversity in their personalities, and thus animal biologists must study the unique personalities of animals in their life history. As is the case for human beings, we must study not only the generic nature of each animal species and the cultural history of each animal group, but also the individual history of each animal. A biopolitical science of political animals must move at all three levels. I wrote a post on this in June.
A bourgeois liberal society conforms best to human nature, because a liberal open society will secure both natural liberty and natural virtue--the liberty of individuals to develop those moral and intellectual virtues that express that ranking of the generic goods of human nature that constitutes the best life for those individuals. In such a free society, someone like Strauss, who "fulfills the office of philosopher to the highest degree," will be free to live the philosophic life in friendship with other philosophers; and the rest of us will be free to live other kinds of life that best conform to our individual propensities and talents.
Smith concludes his book by declaring that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable." He believes this is true because antibourgeois intellectuals have said that it is true. He never reflects on the fact that this contradicts the reality of the life that most of us live today in bourgeois liberal societies. Because of market freedom, cultural pluralism, and the bourgeois virtues, our life today is generally more peaceful, more just, and richer in both material and spiritual goods than has ever been the case for human beings at any previous time in history. Does Smith really believe that that is not progress?
In November and December, I wrote a series of posts surveying the empirical evidence of global human progress due to the influence of bourgeois liberal ideas and institutions. Human life today is better than it has ever been in human history, because we enjoy the benefits of two centuries of human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment. Our time is the best of all times that human beings have ever known.
And yet most human beings around the world deny this. In surveys asking people whether the world is getting better, most people (94% in the United States, 96% in Great Britain and Germany) say no. Many of those Americans who believe everything is getting worse voted for Donald Trump, because he appealed to their fear that America and the whole world are in decline, and because he persuaded them that only the leadership of a strongman can save them.
This popular pessimism is contradicted by empirical data that shows more human progress in the past two hundred years than at any time in previous human history. The Earth today sustains more human lives (over 7 billion) than ever before in history. Moreover, those lives on average are longer and healthier than has ever been the case. Life is also more peaceful. Life shows more equality of opportunity. Life also shows more freedom--both economic freedom and personal freedom. Prior to 1800, almost all human beings lived in grinding poverty and mind-numbing ignorance. Today, only a very few people around the world live in absolute poverty, and most people are literate and have been educated far beyond the level attained by most people in history. Data collected by various international organizations provides empirical evidence for all of these claims about human progress from the Liberal Enlightenment.
Smith and other Straussians would probably respond to this by arguing that this ignores what they like to call "the problem of the bourgeois": bourgeois liberalism does improve the material conditions of life for almost everyone--life is healthier, wealthier, and freer--but it does not satisfy the human soul's transcendent longings for heroic excellence, particularly the intellectual excellence of the philosophic life.
But this seems hardly plausible if one notices how a proponent of bourgeois liberalism like Adam Smith defends the "wise and virtuous man" as the standard of moral and intellectual perfection as manifested in the life of philosophic friends. (See my posts in August and September of 2016 and August of 2012.) He observes that the division of labor in a commercial society allows for the intellectual commerce of philosophers "whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything." He presents the life of David Hume as showing how a commercial society provides the conditions for the philosophic life--a life that in Hume's case approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."
This language echoes the end of Plato's Phaedo. Describing the death of Socrates, Phaedo observes: "Such was the end of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most just man." Thus, Smith is suggesting that Hume shows how a Socratic life of philosophic inquiry is possible in a modern commercial society.
Moreover, Smith saw his account of virtue as compatible with Aristotle's teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics. This has led Ryan Hanley and other Smith scholars to interpret Smith as an Aristotelian virtue ethicist. My explanation of this is that Smith's commercial liberalism coincides most closely with Aristotle's teaching about friendship and philosophy in Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, which also happens to be one of the sections of Aristotle's moral and political writing that shows a propensity to liberalism, while also showing many references to his biology.
Aristotle thus manifested the liberalism of ancient Athens, which has recently been brought into view by classical scholars like Josiah Ober. (See my post in September.) Like McCloskey and Douglass North, Ober sees the evolution of liberalism as moving through three stages. In the foraging bands of the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherers lived as equally free in their autonomy, because anyone who attempted dominance over others would be punished by others in the band enforcing customary norms of resistance to dominance.
Then, in the agrarian states that came with agricultural settlements, social hierarchy and exploitation of non-elites by elites arose as the prevalent form of order--"natural states" as North calls them. But occasionally, after the collapse of these exploitative hierarchical orders, societies could fall back into the norms of rough egalitarianism that prevailed in the prehistoric foraging societies, which showed the human capacity for decentralized cooperation, which had evolved in the foraging environments of evolutionary adaptation. This is what happened in ancient Greece, after the collapse of the Late Bronze-Age-Mycenaean kingdoms (around 1177 BCE), and the Greeks moved from palace-centered regimes to citizen-centered regimes. Athens became an "open access society." But even so, such citizen-centered democratic regimes were rare in the premodern world.
It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that liberal democratic open access regimes became prominent in the world. Unlike the natural states, these modern open access regimes show greater adaptive flexibility, which leads to economic, social, and cultural flourishing, because such regimes are rooted in the naturally evolved human capacities for decentralized cooperation. Through a Darwinian cultural evolution, liberal social orders have emerged as more adaptive than the alternatives.
Ober is persuasive in surveying the evidence against the common assumption of many scholars that ancient Greece was poor and experienced little or no economic growth. In fact, Greece in the classical era (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) had rates of growth in both consumption and population that were much higher than the premodern normal and higher than any other period in Greek history until the middle of the 20th century. Ober offers a Northian institutional explanation for this: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a context of low transaction costs."
Ober notes that Athens allowed philosophical schools (like those of Plato and Aristotle) to organize themselves as voluntary associations in which philosophers could pursue the philosophic life in friendship with others, and thus the open access order of Athens applied to ideas as well as market exchanges.
Even Plato in The Republic recognizes that democracy is the only regime that secures the freedom that allows people like Socrates to study philosophy, and thus "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live." Some readers of The Republic have seen this as Plato's endorsement of liberal democracy.
As I have indicated in some other posts, this shows the Aristotelian liberalism of philosophic friendship in a free society that Smith and Hume saw as emerging in the modern commercial society of Scotland in the 18th century.
This evolutionary classical liberalism can be rooted in a universal history of cosmic evolution like that originally presented by Herbert Spencer and recently presented by Eric Chaisson, David Christian, Fred Spier, and others under the term Big History. I have written a long series of posts on this--in June 2008, March 2014, and January-March and June-July 2016. I have also written some posts on the ancient Epicurean history of cosmic evolution as presented by Lucretius--in January and June 2012, and November 2015.
Chaisson is an astrophysicist who sees the entire history of the Universe from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago to the present as showing an evolution from simplicity to complexity that passes through eight epochs: the Particle Epoch, the Galactic Epoch, the Stellar Epoch, the Planetary Epoch, the Chemical Epoch, the Biological Epoch, the Cultural Epoch, and the Future Epoch.
Ever since the emergence of human self-conscious awareness, human beings have wondered about how the world came to be, how humans came to be, and how the human place in the world illuminates the meaning of human life. To answer their questions, human beings have told themselves myths about cosmic history, and generally these myths have appealed to religious beliefs about the powers of supernatural beings.
Chaisson says that his story of cosmic evolution is also a "cultural myth" (Epic, 426). But it's a scientific myth that does not rely on beliefs about supernatural beings or philosophical speculation, because modern science as it began in the Renaissance can achieve true knowledge through the scientific method of gathering relevant data, formulating theories, and then testing those theories through rigorous observation and experimental testing and rejecting those theories that fail to be empirically confirmed. Without mentioning Karl Popper, Chaisson assumes Popper's standard of falsifiability for science: a theory is not truly scientific if it is not in principle empirically testable, and a theory is falsified when it's empirical predictions fail.
I wonder whether this is true, or whether any science of cosmic evolution must confront the ultimate limits to science in facing fundamental mysteries of nature that are not open to observational or experimental study. Herbert Spencer set forth a scientific account of cosmic evolution that is very similar to Chaisson's. Like Chaisson, Spencer saw a cosmic evolution from simplicity to complexity, from homogeneity to heterogeneity, which could be explained through natural laws. But unlike Chaisson, Spencer thought that increasing scientific knowledge reveals "the ultimate mystery of things," and thus provides "a firmer basis to all true Religion." Modern science shows the power of the human intellect in explaining everything that comes within the range of human experience. But it also shows the weakness of the human intellect in dealing with all that transcends human experience.
What happened before the Big Bang? Are black holes real? Is the universe that we see only one of an infinite number of universes? Are such questions answerable through observation and experimentation? Or do such questions arise from our symbolic imaginations about things that are forever beyond the range of human experience?
We must consider the possibility that the fundamental constituents of nature are either too small, too far away, or too far in the past to be observed directly by us or indirectly through our instruments, and thus nature's secrets are buried so deep or so far away that we have no way to test our theoretical speculations about them.
We must also consider the possibility that the Epic of Cosmic Evolution will not give human beings a privileged position, and that it will predict a future in which human beings and all other forms of life are gone forever, which will confirm the suspicion that the universe does not care for or about us. Can human beings live with that? This is what Strauss identified in the science of Lucretius as "the most terrible truth." Will human beings inevitably turn to religious myths that deny this truth in affirming that it's all about us?
Chaisson agrees that the empirical evidence of the cosmic evolution of complexity as measured by energy rate density shows that human brains and human cultures are some of the most complex systems in the Universe. And yet he sees no empirical evidence that cosmic evolution follows some grand design leading up to human life as having some privileged position. While we can hope that the human species will endure into the near future, the empirical evidence of how ordered systems evolve and of the rare conditions required for human life make it clear that human life is unlikely to last for long, and that the eventual death of the Sun will bring earthly life to an end.
In Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014), David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin argue that the scientific origin story of Big History can "give us a powerful sense of meaning," and if this new origin story is taught to high school students around the world, this could provide us with a shared global understanding of our human place in the universe that could help us confront the greatest threats to human existence on earth today--such as nuclear war and global warming.
Bill Gates has supported their project for providing material for high school teachers to teach Big History. So that, while previously children were taught the religious origin stories of their various societies, which explained the cosmic meaning of their lives within their social order, the new scientifically grounded Big History can teach children around the world an origin story that depends on scientific evidence rather than religious faith, and which can sustain a global ethics comprehensible to human beings in all societies, who otherwise disagree in their religious beliefs.
By contrast, some scientists today claim that science and religion are compatible, and that the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos, and of the human place within the cosmos, supports the cosmic teleology of the theistic origin stories. For example, Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and he argues that a scientific history of the cosmos shows evidence of divine purposefulness, because the physical and chemical constants of the universe seem to be fine-tuned for the emergence of a world hospitable to intelligent life. Thus, science can sustain a cosmic teleology in which human life gains meaning as the fulfillment of God's purposes.
To reach this conclusion, however, Gingerich's view of cosmic history must stop at the present moment, with human intelligent life dominant over the Earth, and thus he refuses to reflect on the cosmic future and the likelihood that in the distant future all life will almost certainly be extinguished, because in that case we might as well conclude that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for eternal death.
If we could look at the entire history of the cosmos, we might see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again. So now life, including intelligent life, would seem to be only a momentary event in cosmic history. Now, it would seem that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.
Many other prominent scientists have made claims like Gingerich about how the fine-tuning of the universe supports a theistic view of human life as the fulfillment of divine purposefulness. This is a new version of the old argument from design (first stated by Plato)--that if nature looks like it has been intelligently designed, then this must point to a divinely intelligent designer.
Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do not mention such scientific theism as an alternative to their position. Although they do not explicitly say so, they imply that modern science must be atheistic. They certainly make it clear that the Biblical origin story must be rejected as false.
My position falls somewhere in between Gingerich and the Big History folks. I agree with Gingerich that modern science does not dictate atheism, because scientific answers to questions about how things work fall short of answering questions about why they work that way, which are the questions that open up the possibility of divine purposefulness. Questions about first causes point to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained. All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation. To the question of why nature exists, or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers. Either we say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we move beyond nature to nature's God as the creator of nature, but then we cannot explain why God is the way He is. In looking for an ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.
If we could imagine ourselves somehow--billions of years into the future--being there to observe the end of all life and the approaching darkness of cosmic death, we might say: Well, it was good while it lasted.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
In the spring semester, I taught my undergraduate course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature." This course was cross-listed in the course schedule at NIU for both the political science and the biology departments. So there were biology majors as well as political science majors in the class. This is good, because it is good for students from different departments to learn how to talk to one another about common topics.
And in this case, the course brings together the social sciences and the life sciences through Darwinian evolutionary biology as a unifying framework of thought. So this illustrates what I call "Darwinian liberal education" (see the post in December of 2006).
Like all of my courses, this course was organized around reading intellectually challenging texts, peer-response writing about those texts, and class discussion stimulated by the reading and writing (see the post in February of 2008 on "Liberal Learning Through Peer-Response Journal Writing").
Many of my blog posts in the spring were related to what we were doing in this class. I also included some of my earlier blog posts as assigned readings for the class.
The course was a study of four debates. For each debate, there were readings on opposing sides. The students were free to make up their own minds, as long as they were able to support their positions with good evidence and arguments.
1. THE DEBATE OVER EVOLUTION, CREATION SCIENCE, AND INTELLIGENT DESIGN
The assigned readings were by Duane Gish ("Summary of the Scientific Evidence for Creation"), William Dembski ("Intelligent Design"), and me ("On the Evidence for Evolution," a blog post in January of 2011, and "Can We See Evolution in the Beak of the Finch?", a blog post in July of 2013).
Some of my students were religious believers who saw evolutionary science as a denial of their faith in God as the Creator. This first set of readings allowed us to debate the evidence for divine creation, intelligent design, or natural evolution. We also considered the possibility of theistic evolution.
Some of the biology majors were creationists who did not accept the idea of biological evolution. When I asked them what happened when evolution was brought up in their biology classes, one student answered: "We keep our mouths shut!"
2. THE DEBATE OVER HUMAN NATURE
The two main texts were my book Darwinian Natural Right, defending the idea of a biological human nature, and Jesse Prinz's book Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind, which argues against a biological human nature.
There were other readings by Carson Holloway, Anne Fausto-Sterling ("The Five Sexes"), Deirdre McCloskey, and John Hare, along with some of my blog posts.
The topics included the possibility of Darwinian natural right, whether there are more than two sexes among human beings, whether biological conceptions of human nature are sexist and racist, whether male and female brains are different, whether the importance of culture shows that there is no biological human nature, and whether the incest taboo is purely cultural and not natural.
3. THE DEBATE OVER LAW AND EVOLUTIONARY NEUROSCIENCE
The main reading was Morris Hoffman's The Punisher's Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury. Other readings were by Joshua Buckholtz, et al. ("The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment") and Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld (Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience).
The debate here was over whether Judge Hoffman was correct in explaining law--and particularly the work of judges and jurors--as rooted in evolved human nature, and particularly in the neural circuitry of the brain that supports the human propensity to punish cheaters.
4. THE DEBATE OVER ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND TRANSHUMANISM
The two main readings were Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and James Barrat's Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. Other readings were by Alan Turing ("Computing Machinery and Intelligence") and John Searle ("What Your Computer Can't Know").
The debate here was whether human thinking and consciousness could be achieved in a computer and whether artificial intelligence could ever surpass human intelligence. If human intelligence was produced by the biological evolution of animals, could artificial intelligence be produced by the technological evolution of machines? And if so, what would this mean for law, morality, and politics?
In January, my post on Carson Holloway's "Strauss, Darwinism, and Natural Right" was the first post coming out of this class. Leo Strauss thought the crisis of natural right arose because the teleological view of the universe that supported classic natural right has apparently been refuted by modern natural science. I have argued, however, that a Darwinian understanding of the immanent teleology of life, including human life, can resolve this crisis by supporting a Darwinian conception of natural right. Holloway has criticized my argument for failing to recognize that any conception of natural right depends on a "religiously informed cosmic teleology" that is denied by Darwinian science. He suggests that Strauss himself agreed with him on this.
Although I disagree with Holloway's general argument, I do think he has correctly pointed to a strange kind of religious or quasi-religious teleology in Strauss's writing about natural right.
Holloway notes the "certain otherworldliness" in Strauss's "transcendent" conception of the philosopher as standing at the peak of a cosmic hierarchy. But Holloway does not reflect on how strange this is. How can this "transcendent" conception be consistent with Strauss's denial of Platonic metaphysical dualism and his insistence that Plato was not a Platonist? It is true that in some of the passages cited by Holloway, Strauss does seem to endorse the cosmology of the "Great Chain of Being" that dominated Western culture for two millennia through the influence of Plato's Timaeus. But this contradicts Strauss's claim that this Platonic cosmology is Plato's exoteric teaching, not his esoteric teaching. If there is a "benevolent cosmic intelligence," as Holloway indicates, would Strauss say that this is the philosopher?
Strauss sometimes suggested that the unnaturalness of slavery--shown by the natural resistance of the slave to his enslavement--is a good illustration of natural right. In February, I wrote a post arguing that this does not require a "religiously informed cosmic teleology," because it expresses the immanent teleology of human nature.
This writing on Strauss and Darwinian natural right has gone into the Strauss chapter of Political Questions.
Another challenge to my argument for Darwinian natural right that we considered in class was the objection that the fact of there being as many as "five sexes," as argued by Fausto-Sterling, seemed to deny my claim that there was a natural desire for sexual identity as a male or female.
In some posts (in October of 2007 and November of 2010), I have responded by indicating that even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female, I recognize the variation from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites, who combine both sexes, or those who cross from one to the other. It is natural for human beings to have a sexual identity that is either male or female. But the biological nature of sexual differentiation sometimes deviates from this central tendency.
Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter of cultural tradition and prudential judgment. But the fact that biological nature throws up such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female
In February and March, I wrote posts on Jesse Prinz's book. I was interested in studying his book, because some of my critics have claimed that his book refutes my Darwinian natural right. But I must say that Prinz's arguments are remarkably shallow, sophistical, and contradictory. Oh, well, nobody's perfect!
Two contradictions run throughout Prinz's argument for going "beyond human nature." The first contradiction is that he begins his book by saying that biological determinism is a straw man, because almost none of the naturists defend biological determinism; but then throughout the book, he criticizes the naturists as biological determinists.
The second contradiction is that he insists that he never denies the importance of biology, because explaining human traits always requires that we see the interaction between biology and culture; but then he says that culture can eliminate biology.
An example of the first contradiction is that he criticizes Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray as biological determinists in their account of IQ in The Bell Curve, even though they clearly and emphatically reject biological determinism and acknowledge the importance of environmental factors.
Both of these contradictions arise in Prinz's account of gender differences. First, even though he has said early in his book that naturists are not biological determinists, he declares: "Naturists tend to be biological determinists. They tend to think that gender differences are indelibly etched in our genetic building blocks."
He also shows the second contradiction. He insists: "An adequate theory of gender differences in cognition must implicate both biology and socialization." But then two paragraphs later, he declares: "Culture can also erase biological differences."
Prinz argues for emotivism and cultural relativism in his account of human morality. In doing this, he employs the sophistical technique of deceptive silence. In presenting the research relevant to his topic, he picks out those findings that seem to support his arguments, while passing over in silence those findings that contradict his arguments.
For example, he sets up a stark debate between Kantian rationalism and Humean emotivism in explaining the basis of human morality; and he argues that empirical research supports emotivism by showing that moral judgment is purely emotional and not rational at all. This is deceptive in two respects. First, he does not tell his readers that Hume argued for a combination of reason and emotion in explaining moral judgment.
The second deception is in Prinz's reporting of the experimental research on moral judgment. He correctly reports that the research shows the power of emotion in motivating moral judgment. But he is silent about how that research--for example, as presented by Joshua Greene--shows the complex interaction of reason and emotion in ways that confirm Hume's position.
According to Prinz, "every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait," because "every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment." Consequently, "there is no sharp contrast between nature and nurture." "Nurture depends on nature, and nature exists in the service of nurture."
Oddly, in saying this, Prinz does not realize that he is endorsing E. O. Wilson's sociobiological argument that the necessary interaction of genes and culture constitutes human nature. If human culture is part of human nature, then it's hard to see how Prinz's argument for the importance of human culture takes us "beyond human nature." Strangely, only a few sentences after stating that "nurture depends on nature," Prinz concludes his book by declaring that through nurture, "we transcend nature" (368).
Here we see the fundamental contradiction that runs throughout Prinz's book--first rejecting the nature/nurture dichotomy as a false dichotomy, but then embracing the dichotomy and insisting that nurture transcends nature.
In contrast to Prinz's transcendentalist dualism, one of the best illustrations of the gene-culture coevolution of human nature is the incest taboo as explained by Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory. Prinz's attempt to refute that theory shows the incoherence and deceptiveness of his reasoning.
In April, I wrote a post on Hoffman's book and his fundamental claim that "evolution built us to punish cheaters." Hoffman explains our punishment of cheaters as moving through three levels. Through first-party punishment, we punish ourselves with conscience and guilt. Through second-party punishment, we punish our tormentors with retaliation and revenge. Through third-party punishment, we act as a group in punishing wrongdoers with retribution. Judges and jurors are acting as third-party punishers. Hoffman's argument is that the human brain has been shaped by biological evolution to have the instinctive propensities for punishment at all three levels.
Moreover, he argues, at all three levels, we are guided by three rules of right and wrong rooted in our evolved human nature to secure property and promises. Rule 1: Transfers of property must be voluntary. Rule 2: Promises must be kept. Rule 3: Serious violations of Rules 1 and 2 must be punished.
Hoffman interprets "property" in a broad sense as starting with self-ownership and encompassing one's life, health, and possessions, as well as the life, health, and possessions of one's family and others to whom one is attached. (Although he does not mention John Locke, Hoffman here echoes Locke's argument for self-ownership as the ground of property rights. Indeed, it seems to me that Hoffman's whole argument for the evolution of punishment supports Locke's account of how the instinctive propensities for punishment sustain social order.) Understood in this broad way, Rule 1 embraces criminal law and tort law, while Rule 2 embraces contract law.
Classical liberals or libertarians could embrace this as a good statement of their claim that the primary purpose of law is to punish force and fraud and secure the liberty of individuals to live as they please so long as they do not harm others.
I largely agree with Hoffman, because most of what he says I see as the application of Darwinian natural right to the study of law. My only disagreement is that in relying on neuroscience, and especially brain-scanning experiments, he does not acknowledge, much less respond to, the many criticisms of what Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have called "mindless neuroscience"--the exaggerated claims for brain-scanning as mind-reading that ignore the problems in inferring the thoughts and feelings of the mind from neural correlates in the brain.
I have written posts on the "brain-imaging fallacy" (March 2007, June 2008). The fundamental problem is the mystery of consciousness--that our only direct access to conscious thoughts and feelings is through our own internal subjectivity, and that any inference of what's happening in the mind from what is happening in the brain must always be uncertain and imprecise. Hoffman could have acknowledged such problems in neuroscience and brain-scanning without weakening his general argument, which is supported by many different lines of reasoning.
Hoffman is a trial judge in Denver. Much of the attraction of his book for my students was from his anecdotes about his experiences as a judge. But some of my students were disturbed by his conclusion that the evolutionary science of punishment confirms his personal experience that his judgments of criminal blameworthiness are ultimately based on "gut feelings."
If that is so, could we someday replace Judge Hoffman with a judicial robot programmed with the right gut feelings and the knowledge of the law, so as to judge blameworthiness and set the appropriate punishment? Or is it impossible for even the most artificially intelligent robot to replicate human judgment? If Judge Hoffman's mind is the product of a natural evolutionary process, as he believes it is, then why could we not produce an artificially intelligent mind through a mechanical evolutionary process?
We raised these questions in class, and I wrote a series of posts on this in April. Some of this writing went into my chapter on Descartes in Political Questions.
I have argued for explaining the human mind as an emergent property of the human brain once it passed over a critical threshold of size and complexity in the evolution of the primate brain. If that is true, then one might wonder whether technological evolution could do for robots what biological evolution has done for humans. Is it possible that once computer technology passes over a critical threshold of complexity, comparable to the complexity of the human brain, could a mechanical brain equal or even surpass the intelligence of human beings?
And if that is possible, what moral, legal, and political questions would this raise? Must we soon be ruled by robots who are smarter than us? Or will we use this technology of artificial intelligence to extend our human intelligence, so that we will be as super-intelligent as our machines? Will our super-intelligent robots demand to be treated as persons with rights? Will they have a morality like ours? Or will they be moved by a will to power that is beyond human good and evil?
We can anticipate that such questions about advances in artificial intelligence will become the deepest political questions of the twenty-first century.
Many years ago, when I first began thinking about this, I was persuaded by Searle's famous Chinese Room argument against the Turing Test for human-level intelligence in a machine. But now, I think Kurzweil is right in arguing that Searle's Chinese Room doesn't refute the Turing Test.
The Turing Test is the common name today for what Turing originally called the Imitation Game. He proposed this as the best test of whether a digital computer has achieved intelligence comparable to human intelligence. (Actually, Descartes proposed a similar test for machine intelligence in his Discourse on Method.) Put a computer and a human being in separate rooms. Ask a human being to try to detect which one is the computer by asking questions typed onto pieces of paper slipped under the doors of the rooms. The computer and human being will answer the questions on pieces of paper, with the computer pretending to be a human being, and the human being trying to show that he is the human being. If the computer has the intelligence for communicating in language in ways that a good human speaker of the language would interpret as showing human intelligence, then the computer has passed the test. Writing in 1950, Turing thought that digital computers would begin to pass the test by the year 2000.
IBM built the chess-playing machine Deep Blue that defeated Gary Kasparov, the reigning world champion in chess, in 1997. This was impressive, but it did not show that AI machines are capable of general intelligence and flexible judgment comparable to that of human beings. Chess is a restricted domain with clear rules and a clear objective (capturing the King). By contrast, success in playing the television game Jeopardy! requires general knowledge of history, culture, literature, and science. It also depends on flexibility in interpreting puns, metaphors, and other nuances of language.
The IBM scientists decided that if they could build an AI machine that could defeat a Jeopardy! champion like Ken Jennings, this would show that artificial intelligence was finally moving towards general intelligence like that of human beings. In 2011, Watson did indeed defeat Jennings in playing the game.
From his experience in competing against Watson, Jennings decided that Watson was a lot like the human players of Jeopardy. “Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy player,” Jennings observed. “It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.”
But does Watson really think? John Searle answered no, the day after Watson won the Jeopardy competition. “IBM invented an ingenious program—not a computer that can think,” he declared. “Watson did not understand the questions, nor its answers, nor that some of its answers were right and some wrong, nor that it was playing a game, nor that it won—because it doesn’t understand anything.”
In November, I wrote a post on a movie Ex Machina that raises the question--Can robotic love pass the Turing test? Could a young man be seduced by a beautiful robot--knowing that she is a robot--into believing that she feels love for him? I suspect that Ava, the robot, has no moral emotions, and so she's a psychopath who can cheat without conscience.
In March, I wrote a post on the neural basis of psychopathy. Hoffman says that pure psychopaths do not experience first-party punishment, because they do not feel guilt or shame. And so, since they don't punish themselves for cheating, they will become successful cheaters, unless they suffer the second-party punishment from retaliation and revenge or the third-party punishment from retribution.
Kent Kiehl has shown that while the intellectual intelligence of psychopaths can be high, as indicated by high IQ, their emotional intelligence is low; and he can show that this low emotional intelligence is correlated with low activity and low gray matter density in the paralimbic and limbic systems of the brain, which include bilateral parahippocampal, amygdala, and hippocampal regions, bilateral temporal pole, posterior cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. Deficits in these parts of the brain are associated with deficits in emotional processing, which could explain why psychopaths lack the moral emotions of guilt, shame, love, and empathy that sustain the moral sense of most people. (Does this cast doubt on the argument of Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer for a "moral Flynn effect"--the idea that increases in IQ can bring moral improvement?)
This is why in Darwinian Natural Right, I identify psychopaths as "moral strangers" who are not open to moral persuasion, because they lack any natural moral emotions. This refutes any Kantian rationalist conception of morality as based on pure a priori reasoning freed from emotion or desire. This topic of psychopathy stirred lively discussions in class.
After the spring semester was over, I turned to working on a paper for the convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco--"The Biopolitical Science of Locke's State of Nature." Some of my thinking for this paper came from Hoffman, because Hoffman's argument for the naturally evolved propensity to punish cheaters largely confirms what Locke says about the natural right to punish in the state of nature. Many of my posts from May to August went into this paper.
Some libertarian anarchists see Locke's state of nature among foraging bands as showing how human beings for most of their history have lived in anarchy without government. Some anarchists think that much of human life even in modern states is still anarchic in being organized by private governance--through private police, private arbitration of disputes, and private courts. Does this show how individual liberty is best secured through the evolution of spontaneous order without any need for government? Or does an anarchic state of nature tend to fall into feuding and war if there is not at least a limited government to keep the peace? Do government agents (politicians, regulators, police, and courts) always have the knowledge, incentives, and ability to solve public problems in a low-cost way? Or is private governance generally better at solving public problems?
I raised these questions about anarchism in some posts in January and December. Much of this writing went into my chapter on Smith in Political Questions. My post on Edward Stringham's Private Governance has been published in the Review of Austrian Economics (2017).
In the fall semester, I taught my course on "Natural Right and Law," which included Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on Law." From June to November, I wrote a long series of posts on the theme of Thomistic natural law as Darwinian natural right.
This began in June with posts on Thomistic natural law in Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision--Obergefell v. Hodges.
I am not convinced that Mike Huckabee was right in condemning the Supreme Court for trying "to unwrite the laws of nature and the laws of nature's God" in upholding gay marriage as a constitutional right. Although he does not explicitly appeal to Thomistic natural law, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges implicitly engages in Thomistic natural law reasoning.
"The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just," Kennedy observes, "but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest." So what seemed natural and just can now be understood to be unnatural and unjust. Natural justice requires extending the right to marry to same-sex couples.
The dissenters in this case insist that the only standards for determining constitutional rights come from "history and tradition," and therefore there can be no constitutional right for same-sex marriages, because "history and tradition" restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. But Kennedy argues that in exercising "reasoned judgment" about how choices about marriage express "our common humanity," "history and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries." Once we understand that sexual orientation is part of our "immutable nature," and that homosexuals have the same natural desires for marital love and parental care of children that heterosexuals do, then we can see that same-sex marriage is rooted in human nature.
According to Thomas Aquinas, marriage is natural insofar as it satisfies two natural ends--securing the parental care of children and securing the conjugal bonding of male and female in the household. Kennedy agrees with this, although he sees same-sex marriages as securing the same two natural ends.
Aquinas accepts the biblical teaching (in Paul's Letter to the Romans, 1-2) that homosexuality is "contrary to nature." By contrast, Kennedy believes that homosexual inclinations express the "immutable nature" of homosexuals. Aquinas concedes that in their sexual desires, human beings differ in their "temperamental nature," in that a few human beings will naturally choose to be celibate, such as those (like Aquinas himself) who choose to take religious vows of celibacy. But he never concedes that homosexuality might also express "temperamental nature." So here is the one fundamental point of disagreement between Aquinas and Kennedy.
As I noted in posts in October, Aquinas thought that
homosexuality must be unnatural for two reasons. Nonhuman animals do not engage in homosexual conduct. And homosexuality does not lead to procreation and parental care of children.
We now know, however, that Thomas was mistaken about both of these points. Scientists have observed homosexual behavior in 471 animal species. Scientists have also observed that same-sex pairs have successfully reared young in at least 20 species. In some cases, one or both partners are the biological parent(s) of the young they raise together. In other cases, the partners adopt and care for young without being the biological parents. Moreover, in some cases, the same-sex couples seem to be more successful in their parenting than opposite-sex parents.
We also now know that homosexuality is biologically natural in that it arises through the interaction of many biological factors in the early development of fetuses and children--genes and sex hormones shape the body and the brain in early life so that people are naturally predisposed to become heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. And while there is no single "gay gene," there are probably many different genes interacting with one another in various ways that influence sexual orientation.
In defending the natural law of gay marriage, I continue my argument against the claim of Robert George and Ryan Anderson that only heterosexual marriage can be "real marriage." In October, I wrote a post challenging Anderson's critique of the Obergefell decision.
Natural law reasoning is an empirical science insofar as it makes falsifiable predictions about the failure of laws that deny human nature. So, for example, if one agrees with George and Anderson that the monogamous marriage of a man and a woman is the only kind of marriage that can secure the two natural ends of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care of children--and that same-sex marriage is not real marriage because it cannot secure these two natural ends, then one can predict that legalizing gay marriage will fail because it cannot satisfy the natural human desires for marital bonding and parental care. Justice Kennedy agrees that marital arrangements are to be judged by whether they can achieve these two natural ends, but he argues that same-sex marriages can be as successful as opposite-sex marriages in securing these two ends.
Now that Obergefell has established gay marriage as a national constitutional right, we can begin to accumulate the evidence for deciding between these two falsifiable predictions--George's prediction that gay marriage will fail and Kennedy's prediction that it will succeed. But in the responses to the Obergefell decision that I have seen, I have not seen many people making this point.
Thomas agrees with Aristotle that the end of all human action is happiness. Natural law is about how we pursue happiness by satisfying our natural inclinations. So, for example, marriage naturally contributes to our happiness by securing two natural ends--the parental care of children and the spousal bonding of husband and wife in a household. These natural ends are achieved most fully, Thomas argues, in a heterosexual life-long monogamous marriage. In principle, Thomas's claim that monogamous marriage is naturally conducive to happiness is empirically testable.
Some of my students in my fall class disagreed with Thomas's claim. They thought it was obvious that unmarried people were just as happy as married people, and that the children of unmarried single parents were just as happy as the children of married parents.
To provoke some discussion, I distributed some excerpts from Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, presenting data about rates of marriage, divorce, and reported happiness among white Americans between the ages of 30 and 45. In 1960, almost everyone was married, divorce rates were close to zero, and most people reported being "very happy" in their lives. Forty years later, most of those in the upper class were still like this and still happy; but many of those in the lower class were unmarried and unhappy. Murray worries about the condition of this new white underclass in America. Some of the students criticized Murray's presentation and analysis of his data. But we did agree that this does suggest ways in which Thomistic natural law might be empirically testable. I wrote a post on this in September.
In January and July, I wrote posts on Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (2014), which provides massive evidence and argumentation in defense of Leo Strauss's claim that political philosophers have written esoterically for thousands of years, which was necessary to protect philosophy and society from mutual harm, although in the past two centuries, this has been largely forgotten.
And yet, Melzer's book also suggests that modern liberalism's success over the past two centuries shows that esoteric writing is not necessary or desirable in a liberal open society, which appears to refute Strauss's core teaching that the philosophic life of the few as the only naturally good life must be in conflict with the miserable life of the many that depends on moral, religious, and political delusions. That the philosophic life as based on truth must threaten the social life based on opinion is perhaps true for the traditional societies that have dominated most of human history, but it is not true for the modern liberal societies that have emerged in many parts of the world over the past two centuries.
In January and July, I wrote posts on
Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (2014), which provides massive evidence and argumentation in defense of Leo Strauss's claim that political philosophers have written esoterically for thousands of years, which was necessary to protect philosophy and society from mutual harm, although in the past two centuries, this has been largely forgotten.
According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times."
If Strauss agreed with this, then that would mean that he thought that liberalism must be a dangerous delusion, and that he must write esoterically to hide his opposition to liberalism. As Strauss wrote, "if I know that the principles of liberal democracy are not intrinsically superior to the principles of communism or fascism, I am incapable of whole-hearted commitment to liberal democracy." We would then have to wonder what kind of alternative he had in mind--what kind of illiberal closed society he would prefer.
Melzer is completely silent about Will Altman's argument that Strauss did engage in esoteric writing in promoting an illiberal alternative to liberal democracy. He is also silent about Strauss's professed devotion to "fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles" and his refusal to crawl to the cross of liberalism (in a letter to Lowith in 1933). (See my post on this letter in March 2014.)
So far, I have not seen anyone who can clear up this apparent contradiction in Strauss's writing. Nor have I seen anyone who can plausibly deny that modern liberalism really has succeeded in creating a largely open society with no need for esoteric writing. In such a society, the philosophic life is not the only naturally good life restricted to a few, but it is rather one of the natural goods of life that is open to all human beings.
Where's Strauss's demonstration that the life of philosophy or science is the only good life for a human being? If the philosophic life is the life of relentless questioning and inquiry where one accepts nothing as true unless it has been proven to be true based on what we can see and know for ourselves, rather than relying on faith in what others have told us, then it is self-contradictory to choose such a life as the best life without demonstrative proof that it is so.
Although Strauss generally assumes that the philosophic life is superior in dignity to any moral life, I cannot think of any place in Strauss's writing where he carefully lays out a demonstrative proof that the philosophic life is the only truly good life for a human being. (See my post on this in July 2011.)
Most of this writing on Strauss and esotericism has gone into my Strauss chapter in Political Questions and into an article in Perspectives on Political Science (July/September, 2015), which has a symposium of articles on Melzer's book.
According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times."
Friday, June 23, 2017
As has often been the case, some of my writing in 2014 reflected the courses I was teaching--in the spring, a course on "Hobbes, Kant, and Pinker: War, Peace, and Declining Violence," and in the fall, a course on Adam Smith. Although I retired from NIU in 2012, I continued to teach one course a semester, until my last course in the spring of 2016.
As I reached the end of my teaching career, I thought about the wide diversity of topics that I had been able to teach. I was grateful to the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University for the freedom I had there to teach almost anything I wanted to teach. I began to wonder whether there was any topic that I wished I had taught but did not.
I thought about two topics--intelligence and race. I had thought often about teaching a course on the scientific study of intelligence, IQ, and race, including the moral and political implications of such research. I must have begun thinking about this in 1994 when I read Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve and saw the intense academic and public controversy this provoked. I thought about having a set of readings that would represent all sides of the debate. But then I could never imagine how I could teach such a course without creating an emotional explosion in the classroom that would be too disruptive to manage. This explains why few universities even have courses on the scientific study of intelligence: professors are afraid to teach such courses for fear that they will be branded as racists.
I was able, however, to introduce these topics into some political philosophy courses. In a class on John Rawls' Theory of Justice, for example, we read some articles on IQ testing and on the argument of Herrnstein and Murray that a society with equality of opportunity might produce a cognitive meritocracy with a class structure based on IQ. We could then ask: Should we seek equality of opportunity but not equality of result, even when that allows a cognitive elite to become the ruling class? I introduce this question in my chapter on Rawls in the 4th edition of Political Questions, which allows for a discussion in the book of the debate over Murray's claim that gaps in average IQ contribute to the separation between upper classes and lower classes, and that this is not just a racial problem, but also a problem in white America, because a large portion of the American white population with below average IQ has become a disadvantaged underclass.
This debate came up in some of my posts in 2014 on IQ, race, and human biodiversity (May, June, July, and September). Many of these posts on the biodiversity of races were connected with Nicholas Wade's book--A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History--which provoked a fierce controversy when it was published in 2014. One of the critical reviewers of Wade's book concluded: "So: race is real, and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is 'really' genetic." If that's as confusing to you as it was to me, look at my post on this in September.
There were also posts on the Flynn effect--James Flynn's observation that average IQ scores have been rising over the past century--and on Steven Pinker's argument that there might be a moral Flynn effect: increasing intelligence from a culture of scientific Enlightenment might lead to moral progress (such as declining violence) from better moral reasoning. Pinker has even suggested that the more intelligent people might be more inclined to classical liberalism or libertarianism (May and June).
Charles Murray was one of the speakers at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in the Galapagos in 2013, and my post on his lecture on human nature and human biodiversity (July 2013) was one of my first posts on this issue. While Murray rejected the idea of equality understood as the sameness of all individuals or as requiring equality of outcomes in life, he affirmed equality of opportunity--that all individuals should have an equal opportunity to pursue their happiness, with the expectation that such free and equal pursuit of happiness will produce different outcomes for different individuals that will manifest their natural human diversity.
Murray's lecture reminded me of the last chapter of The Bell Curve, which is entitled "A Place for Everyone." He opens the chapter with a question: "How should policy deal with the twin realities that people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?" He answers this with a classical liberal argument for equal liberty. He rejects the answer that government should create the equality of condition, because this would require an egalitarian tyranny contrary to human nature. "People who are free to behave differently from one another in the important affairs of daily life inevitably generate the social and economic inequalities that egalitarianism seeks to suppress." But a free people are equal in their equal rights for pursuing happiness in ways that do not coercively interfere with the rights of others pursuing their happiness. In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities. In such a society, equal liberty provides the conditions for everyone to find valued places for themselves.
This debate over whether liberal democratic societies that affirm equality of rights can tolerate social and economic inequality was intensified in 2014 by the publication of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argues that rising inequality in Western Europe and North America has become so stark that by the middle of the 21st century, the top 1% will own over 90% of the wealth. To avoid this, we need to expand governmental welfare systems and increase tax rates on the rich to redistribute the wealth, so as to at least moderate the level of inequality. I wrote a series of posts responding to Piketty's argument in July.
In the evolution of inequality, I see five stages: simple foraging societies, complex foraging societies, agrarian states, capitalist liberal states, and capitalist welfare states. In none of these social orders, does one see absolute equality. Even in the most egalitarian foraging societies, there is inequality, in that some people have a little more status, power, or wealth than others. If one were serious about achieving something close to equality of condition, one would have to embrace Marxist proposals for abolishing private property, abolishing free markets, abolishing the family, and putting all of economic life under governmental central planning. Piketty is quite clear in rejecting this as unworkable.
Moreover, Piketty passes over very quickly the possibility of "good inequality"--where there is a lot of mobility into and out of the top ranks of wealth and status, where those in the top ranks have earned their ranking (through advanced education, assortative mating with other highly educated people, entering stable marriages, and so on), and where most of those in the bottom rank are not living in true poverty. I wrote about this in January and September of 2016.
Piketty seems to be proposing a strong form of democratic socialism like that of the Nordic countries. But as I have indicated in a post (in June), many Marxist socialists have seen this as a betrayal of true socialism.
The economic success of the Nordic countries has been due not just to their welfare state policies, but crucially to their economic freedom. In the international indices of economic freedom as formulated by libertarian think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute, all of the Nordic countries rank high, and some rank higher than the United States. Countries with low levels of economic freedom are not successful. We can explain this as manifesting the natural human desire for freedom as rooted in evolved human nature.
I was impressed by one piece of academic work coming out of a Nordic country in 2014. Jon Anstein Olsen successfully defended his dissertation for his Ph.D. at the University of Oslo (Norway), which is entitled Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States. This is a fascinating work, and not just because I play a prominent role in it! It is a thoughtful history and assessment of the argument for a Darwinian conservatism as it has developed in the United States over the past 40 years.
He identifies me first as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian conservative pessimism," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Thomas Sowell called the "constrained vision" of social life as opposed to the "unconstrained vision." He also identifies me as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian natural right," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Leo Strauss called "natural right."
Olsen suggests at least eight possible criticisms of my reasoning.
1. Straw men. Olsen charges that in my criticisms of the Left, I loosely associate modern liberalism with socialism, communism, and utopian thinking, which is a straw-man argument, because modern liberals today are not socialists, communists, or utopians.
2. Moral progress. He also charges that in my conservative pessimism and in my insistence on how imperfect human nature constrains what we can do, I ignore the moral progress in history that has been brought about by the Left.
3. The naturalistic fallacy. Olsen says that my project is "fundamentally and essentially guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy," in trying to infer normative values from descriptive facts.
4. Emotivism. He criticizes me for trying to ground all morality on mere feeling or emotion, and thus ignoring the necessity for moral reason to rule over the "vulgar passions."
5. The interpersonal dimension. He also criticizes me for saying nothing about the "interpersonal dimension" of human life and thus failing to see that morality is always about the interests or perspectives of more than one individual.
6. Contemporary issues and human rights. He claims that I never apply Darwinian natural right reasoning to "issues that are at least remotely controversial in liberal democracies today," and I never consider the possibility that Darwinian natural right might apply to contemporary thought about human rights.
7. Religion and Darwin. He emphasizes that the most common criticism of Darwinian conservatism by conservatives is that Darwinian science subverts religious belief and thus subverts the morality that depends on religious belief, and he implies that I have given no good answer to that objection.
8. Human Biodiversity. Olsen has a good chapter on the history of American conservatives who argue that the evolutionary science of human biodiversity supports scientific racism and xenophobic nationalism; and although he does not state it as a criticism, some readers might wonder whether I have any good response to this argument for the evolutionary psychology of race differences. Some of the scientific racists and nationalists that Olsen mentions have recently become prominent as leaders of the "alt-right" movement supporting Donald Trump.
In July, I wrote a series of posts responding to these eight criticisms.
In January, I continued to challenge Hayek's Freudian theory of civilization by looking at two groups of foraging bands that live in the tropical rainforests of South America--the Kayapo in Brazil and the Waorani in eastern Ecuador. The Kayapo engage in what Hayek would call the "extended order of civilization," because they have trade relations with the commercial towns near their villages. Thus, as Hayek said, they must "live in two worlds at once." But I see no evidence here that the Kayapo have had to suppress their genetically evolved instincts for tribal life to embrace the purely cultural traditions of civilization. It seems clear that their instinctive desire to better their conditions of life has led them to participate in the market order of exchange and specialization while preserving as much of their small village life as they can.
Both the Kayapo and the Waorani have historically been extremely violent people, but coming under the control of government has reduced the violence, which seems to confirm Pinker's argument about the success of the "Hobbesian pacification process" when stateless foragers come under the legal system of a government.
Against this Hobbesian logic, some anarchists have argued that the liberty of living in anarchy is better than a predatory government, as illustrated by countries like Somalia. But then, in many countries around the world today--such as Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan--the weakening or failure of central state power has promoted not individual liberty but the rule of clans that deny individual autonomy. When there is no powerful central government to enforce law and order and provide public goods, people will not live as free individuals; rather they will revert back to an ancient tribal form of social order in which people are treated not as individuals but as members of their extended kinship groups. There are good Darwinian reasons for this, having to do with the evolved instincts for kinship, nepotism, and tribalism based on extended real or fictive kinship.
The moral codes of these clan societies will enforce group honor and suppress individual liberty. For example, clan societies will enforce the blood feuds, the honor killings, and the attacks on infidels that liberals abhor. The social order of liberal individualism will not prevail unless there is a powerful liberal state that will deny the customary legal systems of clan groups and protect the autonomy of individuals from coercion by clans.
That's the message of a brilliant new book--Mark Weiner's The Rule of the Clan. Although he never directly mentions Hobbes, Weiner's argument is Hobbesian in making the case for a Liberal Leviathan. He disputes the common libertarian assumption that liberty is strongest when the state is weakest or even absent. While conceding that the state can be used for illiberal ends, he insists that individual freedom cannot exist if it is not enforced by a powerful liberal state. He develops this argument by showing how weak or failed states have often created a vacuum of power that has been filled by the rule of clans that deny individual liberty.
In January, I wrote about this debate between the anarchists and the Hobbesians. In June, I wrote about the Marxist critique of socialist anarchism. I have written other posts on anarchism in 2010 (June) and 2015 (January and December).
The possibility of anarchism is an important issue for any biopolitical science that must explain the evolution of government. My argument is that every human society has some form of governance. Even stateless foraging bands without the formal institutions of government and law have informal governance by leaders and customary law. Classical liberals strive for limited government with a lot of private governance in civil society and the economy.
Part of the classical liberal argument for limited government is that there should be no governmental enforcement of religious belief, which should be a private matter left up to individual free choice. And yet we might wonder whether Hobbes was right in arguing that no matter how much religious liberty and toleration is allowed, any government dedicated to keeping the peace must have the ultimate power to reject religious doctrines that promote violence, and thus to that extent the sovereign must be the "supreme pastor." This argument was part of the second half of Hobbes's Leviathan that was devoted to interpreting the Bible, as if this was a political question.
In his interpreting the text of the Bible, Hobbes began a scholarly tradition of studying the Bible according to what would later be called the "historical-critical method" or "higher criticism." In their history of this tradition of Biblical scholarship, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker argue that this was a political interpretation of the Bible to advance classical liberal politics by secularizing politics and privatizing religious belief.
In February, I wrote a post on this, arguing that this might in fact be a correct interpretation of the Bible--or at least of the New Testament--and this would support Roger Williams in his claim that the New Testament teaches religious liberty and separation of church and state. In wrote a post on Williams in December of 2012. Some of this writing went into my chapters on Hobbes and Locke in Political Questions.
But still Hobbes might have been right that the sovereign must always have the authority to act as "supreme pastor" in interpreting religious texts in ways that would keep the peace. So, for example, after the 9/11 attack in 2001, President George W. Bush declared that the teachings of Islam in the Quran "are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah." Remarkably, Bush--a "born-again Christian"--was claiming to teach the truth of Islam and the Quran! Bush seemed to be acting as the "supreme pastor."
But how far can a liberal government properly go in enforcing religious doctrine? For example, would it be proper to enforce belief in the immortality of the soul with the reward of Heaven for the good and the punishment of Hell for the bad? Is it plausible, as Locke argues in The Reasonableness of Christianity and as Plato argues in the Republic and the Laws, that belief in a final judgment by God with eternal rewards and punishments will motivate virtuous conduct, and therefore that the atheistic denial of this religious doctrine will subvert virtue?
I have written a series of posts on the evolution of Heaven and Hell (in April and May of 2010) and on the various forms of immortality (in October and November of 2013). Although I have been generally skeptical about life after death, I recognize that there are good arguments for believing in such a possibility.
The best statement of those arguments that I have seen is Dinesh D'Souza's Life After Death: The Evidence (2009). What is most interesting for me is that D'Souza claims to rely primarily on purely rational scientific and philosophic thinking that does not depend on religious faith. In April, I wrote a series of five posts responding to his arguments. I consider his reasoning based on near death experiences, Kantian dualism, the neuroscience of consciousness and free will, and the cosmic justice of Heaven and Hell as necessary for morality.
As I have indicated in my blog post on Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning," we should consider the possibility that living forever is not desirable, because living timelessly and changelessly would not be really living, and that in living the lives that we have, "death is the mother of beauty." In another post (October of 2016), I suggested that the natural human lifespan--no more than about 115 years!--is enough.
Also in April, I wrote some posts on whether Steven Pinker has distorted the evidence for prehistoric war and for declining violence in modern history. Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature has over 115 figures--an average of one for every 6 pages of text. Many of these figures are visual presentations of data to support his arguments for prehistoric war and for a historical trend towards declining violence from the Stone Age to the present. These figures are based on data found in thousands of cited sources. This is one of his most impressive rhetorical techniques for persuading his readers that his reasoning is based on a meticulous statistical analysis of data.
Most readers will not take the trouble to read the sources for each figure to see whether Pinker is being accurate in his presentation of the data. But some of his critics have done this for some of the figures, and they are accusing Pinker of manipulating the data to make it look more supportive of his argument that it really is. Having looked into this myself, I think this is a fair criticism, although it's not fatal to his argument. If Pinker had been totally honest about the gaps and uncertainties in the data, he could still have made a plausible argument for his conclusions.
Some of my writing here went into my chapter on Pinker in Political Questions. Some of these issues were discussed in March of 2014 at a Liberty Fund conference that I directed on "Liberty and Violence: From Auberon Herbert to Steven Pinker" at the Westward Look Resort in Tucson.
In March, I wrote some other posts on the questions that came up at the Liberty Fund conference. Is there a mutual relationship between increasing liberty and declining violence? Does the history of violence show a pattern of decline? If so, is this history of declining violence largely explained by a history of increasing liberty? If so, is this a Darwinian process of biological and cultural evolution towards liberty and away from violence? And if all this is so, does this provide historical confirmation for classical liberalism?
We saw that Auberon Herbert begins with the first principle of classical liberalism--self-ownership. (In some previous posts, I have traced this liberal principle of self-ownership back to Richard Overton and John Locke.) Herbert then defends the principle of liberty as opposed to the principle of force by arguing that liberty respects each person's ownership of himself and his property, while force allows some people to own the persons and property of others. The fundamental question in human life is the choice between liberty and force--between a social life based on individual self-ownership and voluntary cooperation or a social life based on some people owning others and enforcing compulsory cooperation. (In some previous posts, I have indicated how Abraham Lincoln's reasoning in the debate over slavery manifests this choice between liberty and force, and how Lincoln's choice for liberty of self-ownership constitutes his classical liberalism.)
As I have argued in some previous posts, this Lockean conception of individual personhood as embodied self-conscious awareness of, and emotional concern for, the survival and well-being of the body can now be confirmed as manifest in the human nervous system as a product of mammalian evolution. If we follow Antonio Damasio's "somatic marker hypothesis" and Bud Craig's neuroanatomical explanation of conscious self-awareness in human beings, we can identify the self-ownership of the person as the activity of the anterior insular cortex of the brain in constituting the subjective awareness of the individual in caring for one's self and for others to whom one is attached.
Herbert sees the history of liberty and force as a progressive evolutionary history towards declining force and increasing liberty, because he thinks that liberty allows the free development of individual energy and genius through spontaneous enterprises of voluntary cooperation, which will be more productive than coercive systems based on force. Thus, cultural evolution by natural selection favoring greater human survival and well-being will generally favor liberty over force. This shows the "universal law of progress." James Payne's History of Force develops this conception of history, and Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature elaborates Payne's history of declining violence and increasing liberty and peace.
This sort of thinking was most fully developed by Herbert Spencer. In March, I wrote a post on Spencer, indicating that I had finally become convinced that modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and that the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Shermer, Paul Rubin, and Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence.
If evolutionary classical liberalism is correct, then liberal societies must be evolutionarily more adaptive, more functional, or more productive--economically, morally, and intellectually--than illiberal societies. And, consequently, despite the occasional turns towards illiberal social orders, the arrow of history in the long run points to liberty.
Another post in March ("Classical Liberalism as Evolutionary Niche Construction") came out of the Liberty Fund conference. At the conference, Frances White--the leading observer of bonobos in the wild--explained that in the wild, bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.
She also observed that bonobos--like all primates--show a range of personality types, so that some individuals have more violent temperaments than others, and consequently the occurrence of violence can depend on the contingency of whether there are such violent individuals in the group. She said that many of the deaths of the males comes from "testosterone poisoning"--young males vigorously displaying their virility in the forest canopy can kill themselves by slamming into a tree.
She also said that if dominant males are grouped together in zoos without females who can moderate their male conflicts, then nasty fighting is likely to break out. She explained then that what the females are doing in the wild groups in pacifying conflicts is "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.
In response to her comment, I suggested that the history of classical liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, and that this is a big part of Pinker's argument: the history of classical liberal philosophy has created a cultural moral environment of liberalism in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive. This is what Deirdre McCloskey would identify as the work of rhetorical entrepreneurs in the marketplace of ideas who have used moral persuasion to create a liberal culture that honors the bourgeois virtues.
I have claimed that the arguments for evolutionary classical liberalism have recently been confirmed by the experimental evidence for evolutionary moral psychology. As I indicated in a post in August, the experimental testing of how people respond to the famous "trolley problem" illustrates this.
These stories about the runaway trolley headed towards killing five people tied to the track might seem too cartoonish to be taken seriously as moral dilemmas. But in recent decades, ever since they were first proposed by philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, they have become some of the most debated thought experiments among moral philosophers. They have also been introduced into scientific experimentation conducted by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists to test whether our moral intuitions about the trolley problem manifest an innate and universal moral sense shaped by human evolution and written into the neural circuitry of the brain. This shows how a fundamental question in moral and political philosophy can be translated into experimentally testable propositions. This trolleyology (as it has been called) has become a crucial part of the recent movement towards "experimental philosophy."
Of the hundreds of thousands of people all around the world who have participated in formal trolley problem surveys, most people (up to 90% in some studies) would divert the trolley in the Spur case, but they would not push the fat man in the Footbridge case. What is most striking about this is that most people react differently to the two cases although pulling the switch and pushing the fat man have identical consequences--one person dies to save five.
Peter Singer concedes that the reluctance to push the fat man probably shows a naturally evolved emotional predisposition against intentionally and directly killing an innocent person, even when such killing will save more lives. (This is Thomas Aquinas's principle of "double effect.") But for Singer that only shows that moral reason should overcome the irrationality of our evolved psychology. The fact that most people would not push the fat man is irrelevant to the normative question of what they ought to do. Unlike the empirical sciences (such as the evolutionary science and neuroscience of human nature), Singer insists, normative moral and political philosophy belongs to a realm of pure reason that transcends the natural world of observable experience. For these reasons, Singer rejects John Rawls's claim that moral theory must be rooted in a moral psychology of moral intuitions. Here is another manifestation of the contrast between the Aristotelian empiricist tradition of ethics (represented by the experimental philosophers) and the transcendentalist tradition (represented by Singer).
Most of the writing for this post went into my chapter on Rawls in Political Questions.
Similarly, much of my writing on Adam Smith and on how evolutionary moral psychology supports Smithian liberalism, in a series of posts from August to December, went into my chapter on Smith in Political Questions.
The scholars of Adam Smith have long debated the Adam Smith Problem--the problem that Smith apparently contradicts himself by assuming in The Wealth of Nations that human beings are moved only by self-interest, while arguing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that human beings are moved by their concern for others to act virtuously so that they can enjoy a mutual sympathy of sentiments.
I have argued, however--in some posts in August of 2012--that the new Darwinian social science overcomes the Adam Smith Problem by supporting the fundamental idea running through all of Smith's writing--the evolution of unintended order--and in doing that, it supports Smithian liberalism, or what Smith calls "the system of natural liberty." That the evolution of unintended order is the unifying theme of all of Smith's writing has been well stated by James Otteson. He contends that Smith applies a "market model" to explain the origin, development, and maintenance of all extended human institutions as unintended orders, which includes morality, the economy, law, and language. What he calls "unintended order" is what Michael Polanyi and Friedich Hayek call "spontaneous order" and what Vernon Smith and others call "emergent order." Otteson defines "unintended order" as "a self-enforcing, orderly institution created unintentionally by the free exchanges of individuals who desire to satisfy their own individual wants."
An unintended order is contrasted with an intentional order that has been rationally designed by some mind or group of minds for a deliberately planned purpose. The contrast between these two kinds of order underlies a fundamental debate in social theory between the constructivists and the evolutionists: between those who think that a good social order must be deliberately and rationally designed for some foreseeable end-state and those who think a good social order arises through a process of free exchanges between individuals acting for individual ends with no overall end in mind. Since the success of unintended order depends on individual liberty constrained only by rules of justice protecting life, liberty, and property, the idea of unintended order is the fundamental idea of classical liberalism in the Smithian tradition.
My posts on Smith in the fall of 2014 included posts on the debate over mirror neurons, Jonathan Haidt's libertarian moral psychology, Joshua Greene's "dual process theory" of moral reason and moral emotion in the brain, Joseph Cropsey's Straussian attack on Smith, Joe Henrich's use of cross-cultural experimental games in the "Roots of Human Socialtiy Project," the cultural evolution of Big Gods that made humans moral, "how Adam Smith predicted the financial crisis of 2008," and Deirdre McCloskey on the evolution of the bourgeois virtues.
Similarly, we can see the natural desire for intellectual understanding expressed in bourgeois societies. Scottish philosophers like Hume and Smith saw that the modern commercial society would provide the conditions for people like themselves to satisfy their longings for intellectual inquiry and philosophic friendship. Socratic philosophy arose in the commercial empire of Athens. And the arts and sciences are more widely available to more people in our commercial societies today than ever before in human history.
While McCloskey recognizes Smith's affirmation of the moral and intellectual virtues in the modern commercial society, Straussian scholars like Cropsey insist that for Smith commerce takes the place of virtue.
But while most capitalist economists point to these material achievements of capitalism in securing longer, healthier lives for more human bodies, McCloskey also sees a third achievement: the bourgeois virtues have made us better people by deepening our human souls.
Some readers of Smith might object that insofar as he seems to root virtue in self-love--in our concern for our good reputation in the eyes of others--this does not show the self-denial required for true virtue. One of the common assumptions of the modern social sciences, biology, and moral philosophy is the distinction between self-love and altruism and the claim that true morality must be altruistic in its selflessness and thus free from any motivation by self-love. In November, I wrote some posts explaining why I doubt this. Having evolved to be both naturally selfish and naturally social animals, it seems to me, we extend ourselves into others for whom we feel some attachment. Thus, our concern for ourselves includes a concern for others who have some connection to us. Our other-regarding dispositions are extensions of our self-love. This also means that absolutely disinterested, indiscriminate, and universal love is impossible.
Smith would seem to agree with this. After all, in the index of The Wealth of Nations, self-love is identified as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society." And the reference for this is the famous passage about how we persuade the butcher, the brewer, and the baker to provide us our dinner.
This suggests to me that Smith is implicitly drawing on the ancient Aristotelian teaching that the good man loves himself and loves his friends as reflections of himself (Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a29-1170b20). If so, then Smith is rejecting the Christian teaching of virtue as self-denial and affirming the virtue rooted in self-love that is taught by Bernard Mandeville. Although Smith explicitly criticizes Mandeville, I see ways in which Smith implicitly agrees with Mandeville in his satirical rejection of Christian and rationalist conceptions of virtue as ascetic self-denial of all passions and desires.
All of this went into my chapter on Smith in Political Questions.