Sunday, July 16, 2006

Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Charles Darwin

I have been reading The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith, edited by Knud Haakonssen and just published by Cambridge. The concluding essay by Haakonssen and Donald Winch, "The Legacy of Adam Smith," confirms some of my thinking about how Darwin and evolutionary ethics (particularly in the work of Edward Westermarck) fits into the Smithian tradition of thought.

One of the strongest arguments for Darwinian conservatism turns on the intellectual links between Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Charles Darwin.

While libertarian conservatives look to Smith as their intellectual founder, traditionalist conservatives look to Burke. The intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke shows the fundamental compatiblity of libertarian and traditionalist thought. When Darwin worked out his theory of the social evolution of morality, he relied on the moral philosophy of Smith (as well as others in the Scottish Enlightenment). This continuity between Smith, Burke, and Darwin manifests the moral philosophy of conservatism as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings as moral animals. The work of conservative thinkers like James Q. Wilson (in The Moral Sense) builds on this ground.

Burke's first letter to Smith (September 10, 1759)can be found here. He wrote to praise Smith's book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. "I have ever thought that the old Systems of morality were too contracted and that this Science could never stand well upon any narrower Basis than the whole of Human Nature." He thought Smith's book had done that. "A theory like yours founded on the Nature of man, which is always the same, will last, when those that are founded on his opinions, which are always changing, will and must be forgotten." In his review in the Annual Register, Burke observed: "The author sseeks for the foundation of the just, the fit, the proper, the decent, in our most common and most allowed passions; and making approbation and disapprobation the tests of virtue and vice, and shewing that those are founded on sympathy, he raises from this simple truth, one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared." Burke then quoted the entire first chapter of the book entitled "Of Sympathy."

In The Descent of Man, Darwin elaborated his evolutionary theory of morality, which can be found here. He was guided by Smith's moral philosophy, and he quoted the opening remarks about sympathy as the natural power of the human mind for sharing the feelings of others as the ground of moral experience. He then showed how this natural human capacity and the moral sentiments could have evolved from social instincts and human reason.

So as I argue in Darwinian Conservatism, this shows us how a conservative defense of traditional morality can be rooted in a Darwinian science of evolved human nature.

The moral sense is not a product of pure reason alone but is rather a humanly unique capacity for moral judgment that combines social emotions and rational reflection. As social animals, human beings have evolved to feel social emotions and to seek social approbation. As rational animals, human beings have evolved the cognitive ability to reflect on present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations. Consequently, human beings can plan their actions to satisfy their social desires for living well with others.

Recent research in neuroscience is uncovering the neural basis of moral experience in the brain, and it confirms the moral philosophy of Smith, Burke, and Darwin in showing how morality requires a combination of moral emotions and moral deliberation in the service of our social instincts.

Contrary to those conservatives who fear Darwinian science as a threat to morality, Darwinism actually shows the natural grounds of human morality in the nature of the human animal. In this way, Darwinian science supports the conservative commitment to traditional morality.

1 comment:

Memetic Warrior said...

Hi Mr Harnhart,

I really appreciate this blog. I also have read many of your books with great interest as I judge crucial your line of though to give public awareness of conservative values as a logical result of Natural Sciences.

A different source of conservative and libertarian thinking apart from Burke, Smith and Darwin is what is usually called "the Austrian School of Economics" that, in fact, was focused on more than strict economics but in the whole nature of human action.

I know your appreciation of Hayek, but the Austrian school start two generations before, with Carl Menger and even before; This school, you know, is deeply related with the Aristotelian philosophy. This Aristotelian tradition of thinking is surely tied to the catholic scholastics since Saint Thomas Aquinas. There are many scholastics that anticipate, at the XVII century, the laws of Austrian school of economy (and, of course, the moral nature of the human beings).

There are sharp contrast between the practical spirit, focused on accountability, of the Anglo-Saxon thinking at the time of Adam Smith, for one side, against the thinking based of first principles of the Austrian school. A very important example is the Austrian “subjective theory of value” (the price depends on the subjective appreciation of the good by the consumer) contrary to the Smith, Ricardo (and Marx) theory of objective price based on the quantity of labour spent on creating the good.

The labor theory of value open the door for state planning while the subjective theory of value keep the decisions of economy in the hands of every unique individual. This erroneous depart from common sense, for the shake of calculation, by the English school paved the way to nihilistic Utilitarism, Fabian Socialism as well as to communism trough Marx, that was deeply influenced by David Ricardo, another influent English economist.

No doubt the English thinkers were mainstream for conservative and libertarian ideas, but at the end, some flaws in their economic theory went to produce a less free society than expected by the original thinkers.

Maybe this adds nothing to the subject, but for me illustrates how critical the philosophical roots are.