Friday, June 24, 2022

The Three Waves of Adam Smith's Darwinian Liberal Moral Theory

 In the middle of July, I will be in Bogota, Columbia, for the 2022 Conference of the International Adam Smith Society.  I will present a paper entitled "The Three Waves of Adam Smith's Darwinian Liberal Moral Theory."  Here is a short summary of a long paper:

          I have argued that we should see Charles Darwin, Edward Westermarck, and Edward O. Wilson as the three waves of Adam Smith’s Darwinian liberal theory, because each of them initiated a new turn in the evolutionary moral psychology that has confirmed and deepened Smith’s liberal theory of the moral sentiments.

          I have identified this as a liberal moral theory for three reasons.  It assumes a liberal individualism that recognizes the natural separateness of individuals and the moral claims that individuals make.  It asserts the liberal no-harm principle of justice as a “negative virtue” that hinders individuals from any unprovoked harming of others.  And it employs the liberal idea of society as a largely self-regulating and spontaneous order arising from the social interaction of individuals seeking to satisfy their individual desires.

          I have defended this as an empiricist moral anthropology that arises from the coevolution of human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  This revives an ancient Greek liberal evolutionary tradition that is set against the traditional Platonic idea that moral order must conform to some transcendentalist moral cosmology of a cosmic God, a cosmic Reason, or a cosmic Nature. 

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith did often invoke the transcendentalist moral cosmology of a moral divinity enforcing a divine moral law through eternal rewards and punishments.  But as Smith made clear in his praise of Hume as “a perfectly wise and virtuous man,” Smith was an esoteric writer whose public teaching of religious morality had concealed from most of his readers his philosophic teaching that irreligious skeptics like Hume could be wise and virtuous.

I have shown how evolutionary moral psychology supports Smith’s theory of moral sentiments through seven ideas:  the four grounds of evolutionary morality, the evolutionary roots of morality in primates, the expression of the instinctive moral sentiments in human children, the moral psychology of the impartial spectator in evolutionary game theory, the evolutionary science of the universal moral rule condemning incest, the evolutionary morals of markets, and the evolutionary history of trade as expressing the natural human “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.”

I have replied to the two most common objections to evolutionary ethics.  One objection is that evolutionary moral psychology is ultimately nihilistic in promoting the idea that morality is a fictional creation of the human mind that does not conform to any eternal reality of moral facts inscribed in the cosmic order of the world.  My response to this objection has been to argue that while an evolutionary sentimentalist morality is created by the human mind, that does not make morality arbitrary or fictional.  The human morality of the natural moral sentiments is real:  although it is not an eternal reality, it is an enduring reality that will endure for as long as our evolved human nature endures. 

The second objection is that evolutionary ethics commits the “naturalistic fallacy” by assuming that moral values can be inferred from natural facts.  My reply has been to argue that there is no fallacy in understanding moral judgments to be factual judgments about the species-typical pattern of moral sentiments in specified circumstances:  it is natural for human beings that certain moral feelings of approbation or disapprobation tend to be aroused by certain facts, and the experience of such feelings is the only ground for our moral judgments.

          From all of this, we can see that a Darwinian liberal theory of the Smithian moral sentiments offers us one way of understanding our human place in nature.  We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, shaped by our natural evolutionary history as primates, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique species of animal, but our distinctively human traits—such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought—are emergent elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are emergent extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home.


Kent Guida said...

Great piece. Will be very interested to hear about the reactions at the conference. Any idea when the full paper will be published?

Larry Arnhart said...

I have no idea about publishing it. It's way too long to be published as an article, and too short to be published as a book. If it's well received at the conference, someone might suggest some route to publication.

Roger Sweeny said...

"So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it. We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home."

Not as poetic as "there is grandeur ..." but pretty good and a nice summary.