Wednesday, June 08, 2022

The Darwinian Liberalism of Adam Smith and Edward Westermarck: Another Reply to Antti Lepisto

 Six years ago, Antti Lepisto published a paper criticizing my argument that Edward Westermarck's ethics supported what I called Darwinian conservatism (Lepisto 2017).  At that time, I wrote a reply.  Recently, while writing my paper on "The Three Waves of Adam Smith's Sociobiological Morality of Liberalism," in which I identify Westermarck as the "second wave," I have reread Lepisto's paper; and I decided I should write a second reply.

As I have often said, what I call Darwin conservatism is a very liberal conservatism, because it combines both the Smithian liberal and Burkean traditionalist strands of conservative political thought in affirming the common element of both--the idea of spontaneous order.  Classical liberals follow Smith in stressing the spontaneous order of morality and markets, while traditionalists stress the spontaneous order of customary practices.  Both sides see spontaneous order as the only way in which social order can be achieved in a manner that is compatible with individual liberty.  A Darwinian science explains how that spontaneous order of social life could have emerged through biological and cultural evolution.  Westermarck develops that Darwinian science of social order in his moral theory as confirming Smith's theory of moral sentiments.

The new Darwinian social science supports 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," which allows "every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN, 664, 687).  

That the evolution of unintended order is the unifying theme of all of Smith's writing has been well stated by James Otteson.  He argues that Smith applies a "market model" to explain the origin, development, and maintenance of all extended human institutions as unintended orders.  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" (270). 

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.

Westermarck's intellectual project--particularly, in The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906)--was to provide an empirical test of this Smithian theory of morality as a spontaneous order emerging from the evolution of the moral sentiments.  Westermarck began one of his earliest writings in this way: "That the various predicates of moral judgments are ultimately based on emotions of either indignation or approval seems to me to be a fact which ethical intellectualists have in vain attempted to deny."  That one sentence states the main idea of Westermarck's account of morality.  After thus stating this idea, he immediately identified it as derived from Smith, and he indicated that he wanted to develop a Darwinian theory of morality that would confirm this idea: "A comprehensive study of the moral ideas of various nations and in various ages confirms the ingenious hypothesis set forth by Adam Smith, that resentment and gratitude belong to the root-principles of the moral consciousness--a circumstance all the more satisfactory to the student of psychical origins as anger towards an ill-doer and friendliness towards a well-doer are mental facts easily explicable as results of natural selection" (1900, 184-85).  

Otto Pipatti (2019) has provided a good account of the Smithian roots of Westermarck's moral theory. In one of Westermarck's unpublished lectures on Smith quoted by Pipatti, he said: "I recognize with gratitude that of all moral philosophers or moral psychologists there is none from whom I have learned anything like as much as from Adam Smith" (122).

Amazingly, Lepisto does not attempt to refute my claim that what we see here is Westermarck defending a Darwinian science of morality that will confirm Smith's liberal understanding of how moral order evolves spontaneously as an unintended order from the moral sentiments of evolved human nature.  Lepisto writes: "I will here leave open the question of whether one should call Westermarck a 'spontaneous order theorist' on the basis of his notion of moral norms as arising from emotions rather than from reason alone" (206).  But in doing that, he refuses to challenge my main point!

That Westermarck did indeed embrace Smith's "liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" is especially clear when he affirms the truth "as Adam Smith observes, that 'we may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing,' and that the man who barely refrains from violating the person or estate or reputation of his neighbours so far does justice to them" (ER, 131).  Smith calls this the "negative virtue" of justice that "only hinders us from hurting our neighbour."  This negative virtue of justice can be "extorted by force."  By contrast, the virtue of beneficence "is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil."

Smith explains the emotional basis for this distinction between justice and beneficence: "Resentment seems to have been given us by nature for defence, and for defence only.  It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.  It prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done. . . . But the mere want of the beneficent virtues, though it may disappoint us of the good which might reasonably be expected, neither does, nor attempts to do, any mischief from which we can have occasion to defend ourselves" (TMS, 78-82).

This liberal principle of justice as a negative virtue that leaves people free from coercion as long as they do not harm others was restated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, and Westermarck agreed with this:

"Some degree of reflection should lead to the thought that antipathies are no sufficient ground for interfering with other individuals' liberty of action either by punishing them or subjecting them to moral censure.  Nobody has more vehemently denounced such interference than Stuart Mill.  He insisted on 'liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong'" (ER, 258-59).

For me, this is all part of Westermarck's Smithian and Darwinian liberalism.  But then Lepisto argues that Westermarck does not actually support three elements of my argument.

First, he denies my argument that Westermarck's Smithian and Darwinian moral theory of the moral sentiments conforms to what I have called "Darwinian natural right."  He says this cannot be so since Westermarck identified himself as a moral relativist.  

My argument, however, is that Darwinian morality is relative to the biological nature of the human species, in that it is grounded in a moral anthropology, but not in a moral cosmology.  Contrary to the claims of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, morality cannot be rooted in any objective cosmic truth--a Cosmic Reason, Cosmic Nature, or Cosmic God.  But morality still has a species-specific truth in being grounded in the evolved moral psychology of the human species, and therefore morality is true for as long as the human species endures.  Here I agree with Westermarck in rejecting Kantian rationalism and embracing the moral sentimentalism of David Hume and Adam Smith as understood by a Darwinian science of human nature.

Second, Lepisto doubts that Westermarck supports my defense of human marriage and family life as rooted in evolved human nature, because Westermarck often took a "liberalizing" or reformist position on marriage and family life, as in his arguing for liberalizing marriage and family law to make divorce easier.  Westermarck was also one of the first people to argue for tolerating homosexuality.

One should note, however, that Lepisto agrees that "Arnhart and others are right to assert that Westermarck saw marriage and the family as rooted in biological instincts" (206).  If that is true, I have argued, then we can rely on those biological instincts to preserve heterosexual marriage and parental care while liberalizing the marriage laws to allow for divorce, same-sex marriage, and homosexual adoption of children.  We might even privatize marriage as a purely contractual relationship without any governmental licensing of marriages.  We might also recognize, as Westermarck did, that animal homosexuality is natural, so that it is natural for some human beings to be moved by homosexual desires that need not threaten heterosexual marriage.  (I have written about this hereherehere, and here.)

Third, Lepisto says that "Westermarck did not draw similar libertarian-leaning, pro-civil society, and antigovernmental political conclusions from his moral theory," as I have (206-207).  In particular, Lepisto doubts that Westermarck would have agreed with the libertarian questioning of the modern welfare state.

In assuming that I totally reject the modern welfare state, Lepisto is silent about what I have written about "Nordic Social Democracy as the Capitalist Welfare State."  There I argue that a Smithian liberal could support the sort of capitalist welfare states that one sees in the Nordic social democracies and elsewhere.  As measured by various rankings of "human freedom," these countries have the highest levels of individual liberty in the world, because their limited welfare-state policies leave plenty of room for the liberal spontaneous orders of morality and markets (Arnhart 2016, 420-24).


Arnhart, Larry. 2016. Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Lepisto, Antti. 2017. "Darwinian Conservatives and Westermarck's Ethics: A Political Dimension of the Late Twentieth-Century Westermarckian Renaissance." In Olli Lagerspetz, Jan Antfolk, Ylva Gustafsson, and Camilla Kronqvist, eds., Evolution, Human Behavior, and Morality, 194-208.  London: Routledge.

Otteson, James. 2002. Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pipatti, Otto. 2019. Morality Made Visible: Edward Westermarck's Moral and Social Theory. London: Routledge.

Smith, Adam. 1981. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Smith, Adam. 1982. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Westermarck, Edward. 1900. "Remarks on the Predicates of Moral Judgments." Mind 34: 184-204.

Westermarck, Edward. 1906. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan.

Westermarck, Edward. 1932. Ethical Relativity. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

In the "James Otteson" link (to a post from August 5, 2012!), you say, "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 was recently reading Paul Heyne who seems to say that both those Smiths are untrue to the actual Smith. One striking passage:

"Perhaps this would be the proper occasion to add that Smith never thought of himself as laying the foundations for a new science of economic systems. He did not recognize the existence of any "economic" system that could be distinguished from the total social system and that was governed by laws of its own. Economic goods, economic motives, economic problems, economic factors--these are all anachronisms when we use them to describe social thought prior to the nineteenth century. Smith does not speak of economic goods but of 'necessaries and conveniences.' He knows nothing of economic motives, though he does know about desires to enhance our reputations, to augment our fortunes, to avoid irksome labor, to obtain present ease and enjoyment, to advance complex projects, to dominate over others, and to enjoy the merited respect of our fellows." (p. 63 "Can Homo Economicus Be Christian?" pp. 49-80 in Are Economists Basically Immoral? and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, Liberty Fund, 2008)