Thursday, February 02, 2006

Leo Strauss, Charles Darwin, and Natural Right

Those influenced by Leo Strauss cannot agree on how to solve what he identified as the fundamental problem of natural right. The problem is that the ancient Aristotelian idea of natural right seems to depend on a teleological conception of the universe that has been refuted by modern natural science.

I have argued--in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism--that a Darwinian natural science can support an Aristotelian conception of natural right. But many, if not most, of those under Strauss's influence would reject this position, because they believe that Darwinism must deny the fundamental premises of natural right in denying the uniqueness of human beings as set apart from the rest of animal nature and in denying the cosmic teleology that sustains human purposefulness.

In the Introduction to Natural Right and History, Strauss claimed that the most serious problem for the ancient Greek idea of natural right is that it seems to have been refuted by modern natural science. Natural right in its classic form requires a teleological view of nature, because reason can discern what is by nature good for human beings only if they have a natural end. Strauss thought Aristotle had the clearest view of this dependence of natural right on natural teleology. Modern natural science, however, seems to deny natural teleology by explaining natural phenomena as determined by mechanical causes that act without ends or purposes. This creates a dilemma. If the science of man is to be a part of a nonteleological science of nature, then human action must be explained by reduction to physical impusles, which seems inadequate to explain human ends. The only alternative appears to be "a fundamental, typically modern, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man," but this rejects the comprehensive naturalism of the premodern exponents of natural right such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Neither reductionism nor dualism is fully satisfactory.

Strauss concluded: "The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved." "Needless to say," Strauss then added, "the present lectures cannot deal with this problem," because the lectures published as Natural Right and History are "limited to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences."

The two unsatisfactory alternatives identified by Strauss are what I would call "reductionist monism" and "transcendentalist dualism." According to reductionist monism, everything should be ultimately reducible to physical mechanism. But this cannot adequately explain the evident purposefulness of human thought and action. According to transcendentalist dualism, human beings are uniquely free as spiritual beings to transcend the nonteleological realm of natural causes. But this typically modern dualism denies us the comprehensive science that we need to make the whole intelligible as a whole. Strauss sometimes spoke of a "dualism of the sciences: the sciences of nature and the sciences of man as man" as a "convenient practical solution." But he regarded this as only "provisionally indispensable," because he thought the final goal should be a "comprehensive science."

As an escape from this dilemma that would move towards a "comprehensive science," my conception of "Darwinian natural right" rests on what I would call "emergentist naturalism." Unlike the transcendentalist dualist, I recognize the continuity of nature and the integration of human beings within the natural order. Unlike the reductionist monist, I recognize the irreducible complexity of nature in which novel properties emerge at higher levels of organization that cannot be reduced to lower levels, so that the uniqueness of human beings comes from the emergent properties that distinguish the human species--most notably, the size and complexity of the frontal lobes of the human brain as a product of primate evolution. I have elaborated this point in Darwinian Conservatism in the chapter on "emergence."

Strauss recognized that the ultimate source of the modern dualistic separation of nature and culture is Hobbes., Despite the monism of Hobbes's materialism, his political teaching presupposes a dualistic opposition between animal nature and human will or reason: in creating political order, human beings use their rational will to transcend and conquer nature. This Hobbesian dualism was explicitly developed by Kant, who originally formulated the modern concept of culture as that uniquely human realm of artifice in which human beings escape their natural animality to express their rational humanity as the only beings who have a "supersensible faculty" for moral freedom. Through culture, human beings free themselves from the laws of nature.

To overcome the intellectual crisis created by this Hobbesian-Kantian dualism, Strauss hoped for a comprehensive science of nature that would reconcile modern natural science and Aristotelian natural right. But he was resigned to accepting a dualism between nature and humanity until his hope for a comprehensive science could be fulfilled.

One reason for why Strauss found dualism unsatisfactory is that it was one of the fundamental themes in Martin Heidegger's philosophic endorsement of Nazism. Arguing against "biologism," which treats human beings as rational animals rooted in the natural world, Heidegger believed that National Socialism would vindicate the spiritual freedom of the German people as "world-building" historical beings who transcend their natural animality. This dichotomy between the freedom of human history and the determinism of animal nature supported Heidegger's historicist nihilism as unconstrained by natural right.

In contrast to such dualistic separation between humanity and nature, I argue for the sort of comprehensive science that Strauss sought as manifested in a scientific naturalism rooted in Darwinian evolution. In such a science, morality could be studied scientifically as an expression of natural moral sentiments, which are natural in the sense that normal human beings in normal circumstances are born with natural propensities to learn the moral emotions necessary for living as social animals. And yet the specific content of moral rules will vary according to individual temperament and social circumstances. Judging what is right for particular people in particular situations will require practical judgment or prudence. This way of understanding the science of morality as part of a comprehensive science of nature would seem to come close to what Strauss sought.

Unfortunately, such serious topics raised by Strauss have been obscured recently by the silly journalistic commentary on the political influence of Strauss in American government. Now there is even some reporting about the Straussians
invading Canada! The opponents of the Straussian conspiracy in Canada are led by Shadia Drury, who once told a friend of mine that I was the only "reasonable" Straussian. Hmm . . .

I have written a series of posts on teleology.  The links can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,
Thank you for this article. It reminded me of one of your classes. This article reminds me of one of the basic problems I have run into with Strauss--he is a great critic of modern rights based theoris but does not really give us much of a solution to the problem. Thank you for pointing to a possible solution.

Mark Griffith

Anonymous said...

I love that you have all these wonderful ideas, but my head is aching.

How do you feel, in your own work, about how you've met the standard for what political philosophy should aspire to: discovery of the human things, as opposed to being consumed by our power?

Kent Guida said...

Thanks for this excellent summary. I took the liberty of posting it on the Leo Struauss email list, where the subject of evolution, natural right, and Strauss's statements in NRH recently surfaced.

I have a question. You and Roger Masters have done brilliant work in this area, and I am convinced it is the most exciting idea to arise in political philosophy in a long time. But you get the cold shoulder almost everywhere, especially from students of Strauss. How come? What do you think is the biggest stumbling block? Why is it no one can get to first base with this? Or at least that has been my experience over the last ten years.

I appreciate your tenacity, among other things. But what does it take to get a hearing?

Best regards,
Kent Guida

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Arnhart,

Does it seem to you that Strauss thought there was no ground for natural right absent the achievement of this comprehensive science? He was awaiting
or anticipating a grounding of natural right through the future acquisition of this comprehensive science?

Doesn't Strauss suggest that the absence of such a comprehensive science actually supplies the ground for Socratic natural right, e.g. (NRH, pp. 35-6)?

Is the dualism identified in the introduction not implied in the very discovery of nature (p. 82)? And must we not understand the limitation announced on p. 8 of NRH in light of Socrate's manner of inquiry, presented at p. 123?

I thank Mr. Guida for bringing your work to my attention. My questions emerge just from what you've written here. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of your book, which I am sure goes into these questions in much greater detail.

My best,

Dan Foley

Larry Arnhart said...

To Kent & Dan:

Would it help this discussion to give some attention to the possibility of an immanent teleology--as opposed to a cosmic teleology--as the ground of natural right?

Even if the universe as a whole is not purposeful, the beings that arise in that universe can be purposeful. That is particularly true for biological phenomena in which any full explanation requires some account of functionality. Living beings act for purposes. Each species of life has distinctive purposes. And for animals that move and think, these natural purposes can be expressed in voluntary movement.

Strauss points to such an immanent telelogy in NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY (pp. 94-95): "For, however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions. . . . We must . . . distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are natural and those which originate in conventions. Furthermore, we must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad. We are thus led to the notion of a life, a human life, that is good because it is in accordance with nature."

My argument is that if the good is the desirable, then Darwinian science supports natural right by providing a scientific account of those natural desires of the human species that constitute the human good. Specifically, there are at least 20 natural desires that distinguish the human species. So, then, we can judge ways of life as better or worse depending on how well they conform to those natural desires.

Unfortunately, the students of Strauss are inclined to dismiss the very idea of "Darwinian natural right" as nonsense, because they start with an overstated Ancients/Moderns dichotomy, and then they place "natural right" on one side of that dichotomy, and Darwin on the other.

When Darwin developed the idea of a natural "moral sense," he relied on the Scottish moral sense philosophers, such as Smith and Hume. Darwin's contribution was in showing how the "moral sentiments" could have emerged through the natural evolution of the human species.

The students of Strauss see Smith and Hume as "Moderns," and so they fail to see how the ethical naturalism of Smith and Hume is closer to Aristotle than to Hobbes. In fact, both Smith and Hume were explicit in developing their thought in opposition to Hobbes. Through his reading of Smith and Hume, Darwin joined the Aristotelian tradition against the Hobbesian tradition.

This tradition of ethical naturalism--from Aristotle to Hume to Smith to Darwin--continues today in the work of Darwinian theorists who account for the moral sentiments as rooted in the evolved desires of the human animal.

Anonymous said...

"And whereas in this succession of men's thoughts there is nothing to observe in the things they think on, but either in what they be like one another, or in what they be unlike, or what they serve for, or how they serve to such a purpose, those that observe their similitudes, in case they be such as are but rarely observed by others, are said to have a good wit, by which, in this occasion, is meant a good fancy. But they that observe their differences and dissimilitudes, which is called distinguishing, and discerning, and judging between thing and thing, in case such discerning, be not easy, are said to have a good judgment.... In a good history the judgment must be eminent, because the goodness consisteth in the method, in the truth, and in the choice of the actions that are most profitable to be known. Fancy has no place, but only in adorning the style."

- from Hobbes, Leviathan, Chp. 8

You could say, of course, that this has nothing to do with philosophy, that observation of the differences between things only matters for those who are engaged in more practical endeavors.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your response, Mr. Arnhart--I do think this is helpful. We do mean by voluntary motion, purposeful motion. When voluntary motion is denied, (as it is by mechanical determinists--Stephen Hawking, e.g., in A Brief History of Time, p. 12) so is purposeful motion. (Calvin's determinism apparently denies neither.)

But I do have trouble with the suggestion that each species of life has distinctive purposes. I don't see what distinguishes a lion's distinct
purpose from a tiger's, e.g. Or a lion's from a bear's, or a tiger's from a
camel's, etc. I see distinct means of pursuit of common purposes, (purposes
pursued by the members of all species in different ways) but I don't see
distinctive purposes for each species. That motion which is distinctive of
each species is growth into distinctive forms. But this motion is not
voluntary motion. A baby lion does not choose to grow into an adult lion,
as it chooses to pursue this gazelle, or that zebra. But this takes us back
to a cosmological, rather than an immanent teleology. Unless the connection
is reproduction. That is, the distinct purpose of a male lion is to mate
with a female lion. To the extent that lions are distinct, and animals
discriminate in this way (for the most part) when it comes to reproduction,
this would be a distinct purpose of the members of a species.

Furthermore, the immanent teleology of Strauss's, to which you point, does
not necessarily settle the problem of the dualism you attempt to solve. The
immanent teleology you refer to is explicitly limited to human nature, and
it is contrasted with nature in general, i.e., it comes to sight as
dualistic. There is the human, the immanently teleological, and there is
nature in general, the apparently unteleological, or at least, the teleology
of which is not considered.

The discovery of nature, as Strauss presents it in NRH, consists in the
distinction between man, and the rest of nature, does it not? Man is the
only being which separates itself unnaturally, i.e., conventionally. As
Strauss presents it, at first the distinction between the way of one tribe
and the way of a foreign tribe seems the same as the distinction between the
way of men and the way of dogs. But the different level of distinguishing
these groups, tribe from tribe, man from other beings, was immanently
visible, and eventually came explicitly into view. Differences among the
ways of foreign tribes are experienced as conflicting. Our way is the right
way, the way of the other tribe is wrong,. The different way of dogs is not
experienced as wrong.

This means, it seems to me, that the dualism might be overcome by going in
the opposite direction. If there is natural right, a right which is behind
all distinction between man and man into tribes, or which is behind all the
conventional differences, then convention disappears, or at least proves to
be accidental, and with it goes the dualism of nature and convention, or the
dualism of human nature and nature in general.

Or, to bring in another reference, it is not clear that Strauss leaves the
problem of cosmology out of account when considering human nature (WIPP, p.

My best,

Dan Foley

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Foley,

Your thoughtful comments deserve a long response. But right now I can only give you a brief reply.

I agree with Leo Strauss's observation that "the difference between Plato and Aristotle is that Aristotle believes that biology, as a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man, is available" (correspondence with Kojeve).

This points to the influence of Aristotle's biological writings on his writings in moral and political philosophy.

In his biologlical works, Aristotle studies the teleological or functional structure of animal behavior in which animals learn how to adjust their behavior to complex and changing environments to better satisfy their natural desires. Thus, animal behavior is inherently normative or value-laden.

The good for animals varies according to the nature of each species. So, for example, some animals are solitary, and some are gregarious. Of those that are gregarious, some are political. And of those that are political, some have leaders and others do not. Humans, ants, bees, wasps, and cranes are all political in this way.

Similarly, parental care differs across different species. Some animals provide little care for their offspring. But the more political and more intelligent animals provide extensive care for long periods. This means that different species have different social needs depending on the character of parental care.

Some non-human animals are capable of voluntary action insofar as they are capable of gathering and assessing information that allow them to adjust their behavior to their environments. But adult human beings are capable of deliberate choice insofar as they can act deliberately to satisfy some conception of a whole life well lived.

Modern studies of animal behavior confirm Aristotle's observations about the animal capacity for individual and cultural learning and the normative structure of animal behavior as aiming to satisfy natural desires.


You can see now why Frans de Waal (in THE APE AND THE SUSHI MASTER) says that I should be credited with having discovered "Darwistotle." Actually, I think Roger Masters discovered this creature long before I did.

Anonymous said...


To what degree the debate with the students of Strauss on this issue reflects the many faces of Strauss. On one level Strauss is very much a partisan of Plato (who on this issue of biology is in significant disagreement with Aristotle which might explain their political disagreements as well) yet there is also the Aristotlian Strauss.. as seen in his Epilogue, his liberal education pieces.. and comments here and there.

Clearly the Epilogue is Strauss at his most Aristotlian, yet it is from this that many of the Straussians will attack you and Roger Master's attempt to turn political science to the evidence of biology.. to help give political science a firmer ground to scientifically understand human action.