Monday, October 29, 2007

Behavioral Game Theory and Smith's Moral Philosophy

Adam Smith is famous for his remark in The Wealth of Nations about how "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from a regard to their interest." This suggests that Smith would support the idea common in neoclassical economics that human beings are predominantly rational egoists who maximize their selfish interests. But then Smith is also famous for his teaching in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that no matter how selfish human beings might be, they are still moved by some fellow-feeling or sympathy with other human beings, so that they share in one another's pleasures and pains, and this is the ground of morality as rooted in moral sentiments that show a concern for others and for how we appear to others.

A lot of the scholarly commentary on Smith turns on the debate as to whether these two positions of Smith are contradictory or compatible. I agree with those who conclude that they are compatible because they manifest a complex view of human nature as both self-regarding and other-regarding. We are selfish animals who care for ourselves. But we are also social animals who care for others. Smith's social science is an attempt to account for that complex human nature that is both selfish and social. As selfish animals, we are inclined to exploit others for our own selfish advancement. But as social animals, we are capable of cooperating for the good of the group.

How do we decide the truth or falsity of Smith's position? It often seems that in moral and political philosophy, we must try to judge the relative plausibility of various positions without any possibility of experimental testing such as we find in the natural sciences. But there are ways of introducing experimental research into moral and political philosophy, and one is to employ behavioral game theory. In fact, the general movement in behavioral game theory research today is to confirm Smith's complex conception of human nature.

Almost 50 years of game theory experimentation has produced results that contradict the narrow conception of human beings as purely or predominantly rational egoists. For example, in the "ultimatum game," we can give some amount of money--say, $100--to a "proposer" who is asked to propose a split with a "responder" who is free to accept or reject the proposed split. If the responder accepts the offer, the split occurs. But if the responder rejects the offer, neither one gets any of the money. If the participants were rational egoists, then the proposer would offer $1 and keep $99 for himself, while the responder would accept this, because $1 is better than nothing. But this is not exactly what happens. Most proposers will offer something close to a 50/50 split, which is accepted. Those 15-25% of the proposers who offer an unfair split will usually have their offer rejected. This pattern of behavior has been replicated consistently, even across diverse societies around the world (with some cultural variation). It suggests that a substantial minority of people really are rational egoists. But a majority of people are "strong reciprocators" who are conditional cooperators (cooperating with others as long as they think others are cooperating) and altruistic punishers (punishing those who violate the norms of cooperation). Those who reject unfair proposals in the ultimatum game are willing to bear a cost to punish unfairness.

Other kinds of games--"dictator games," "public goods" games, "trust" games, and "charity" games--show a similar pattern of behavior. Much of this research is surveyed in Herbert Gintis, et al., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (MIT Press, 2005). The authors in that book conclude that this experimental research provides scientific support for Smith's understanding of human beings as other-regarding animals whose selfishness is checked by their concern for others.

As the authors in the Gintis book indicate, experimental game theory research needs to be combined with other kinds of research. We might wonder about "experimenter effects" in game-theory experiments: Are these rather contrived games creating behavior that we would not see in "real-world" behavior. But when this experimentation is combined with evolutionary theories of cooperation supported by historical, ethnographic, statistical, and other kinds of empirical research, we can gain growing confidence in our conclusion that human beings are by nature "strong reciprocators" whose motivations conform to Smith's account of human beings as guided both by the moral sentiments and by material interests.

This kind of work would support the sort of interdisciplinary research required for Darwinian political science. We need to explain the political universals of human behavior as reflecting our ambivalent nature as both self-regarding and other-regarding animals. We then need to explain how this ambivalent human nature is expressed in the cultural history of political institutions. And, finally, we need to explain how individual political judgments of political actors show the contingency and uncertainty of political history as constrained by both the genetic evolution of political universals and the social evolution of political cultures. So, for example, we might explain the history of American constitutionalism as a search for institutional structures to channel the ambivalent motivations of human beings so that they can cooperate for the common good, but without expecting them to become perfectly altruistic. And that constitutional history will reflect both the cultural history of constitutional republicanism and the individual history of political actors who must judge what should be done in particular circumstances.

This debate over whether human beings are predominantly rational egoists or strong reciprocators has implications for the possibility of liberty, and thus it's a crucial issue for Darwinian conservatives. Sometimes, it is said that conservative political thought is Hobbesian in its pessimistic assessment of human nature. But this is wrong. Conservatives are not utopians, because they recognize the imperfectibility of human nature, and part of that imperfectibility is the power of self-interest in motivating human behavior. But to assume--as Hobbes does--that human beings are by nature rational egoists and nothing more is contrary to conservative thought, because this Hobbesian view of human nature would say that there is no natural basis for morality. In this respect, Hobbes prepares the way for Kant, for whom morality requires a transcendence of Hobbesian human nature. The Hobbesian conception of human beings as rational egoists would also subvert the case for liberty, because it suggests that the only way for individuals to solve collective action problems is coercive central planning by a Leviathan state. By contrast, conservatives assume that human beings are naturally social animals who are capable of solving collective action problems by establishing norms of trust and reciprocity, and punishing those rational egoists who violate such norms.

Some good illustrations of this point come out in the chapter by Elinor Ostrom in the Gintis et al. book. It has been common for public policy analysts to assume that the management of common pool resources--for example, fisheries, grazing lands, and irrigation systems--requires a national bureaucracy to enforce a top-down plan for the efficient management of resources. But Ostrom's research has shown that local communities can develop their own arrangements for collective management of common resources that are far more effective than any bureaucratically devised and enforced plan.

Here we see the superiority of Hayekian spontaneous order over bureaucratic central planning. The possibility of such spontaneous order assumes a natural human disposition to cooperation based on reciprocity and trust, as well as moralistic punishment of cheaters. This rests on a view of human nature that is neither cynical nor utopian but Darwinian in its realism.

Some of these issues will be discussed in a few days at a Liberty Fund conference in Charleston, South Carolina, that I am directing. We will be reading selections from Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments along with the book edited by Gintis, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests. From my experience, Liberty Fund conferences are a wonderful way to explore such topics with a great collection of people.  This group includes a Nobel-Prize-winning economist (Vernon Smith), a distinguished evolutionary biologist (David Sloan Wilson), a leading scholar of Adam Smith (Ryan Hanley), and a prominent libertarian journalist (Ron Bailey).   It also helps to have lots of good food and drink in a beautiful location.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Five Sexes?

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. The legislation has provoked a debate between gay-rights activists who support the bill and transgender activists who oppose it. Originally, the bill had language protecting people who are born one sex but live as another sex. This language was removed to enhance the chances of passage. Protecting gay rights is more popular than protecting transgender rights.

The idea of being "transgender"--being neither male nor female or passing from one to the other--would seem to challenge my claim that "sexual identity" is one of the 20 natural desires. Here is how I describe it in Darwinian Conservatism (28): "Human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female. Sex is the single most important characteristic of personal identity. It is the first question we ask about a newborn infant. It is the first thing we notice about a person and the last thing we forget. In all human societies, sex terminology is fundamentally dualistic. Male and female are the basic sexes. Others are either a combination of the basic sexes (hermaphrodites) or a crossover from one to the other (men who act as women or women who act as men). All human societies have some sexual division of labor. And although different societies assign somewhat different sex roles, there are some recurrent differences that manifest a universal bipolarity in the pattern of human desires. For example, women in general (on average) tend to be more nurturing as manifested in a greater propensity to care for children, and men in general (on average) tend to be more dominant as manifested in a greater propensity to seek high-status positions. Yet while this average difference is true for most men and women, for some it is not: some women have manly desires, and some men have womanly desires."

One should notice 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--as well as the manifestation of manly women and womanly men. One dramatic way to speak of this variation would be to consider Anne Fausto-Sterling's claim in a famous article that there are actually five human sexes. In addition to males and females, there are three other sexes. True hermaphrodites ("herms") have one testis and one ovary, and they might have a vagina with a large clitoris that at puberty grows to the size of a penis. Female pseudohermaphrodites ("ferms") have ovaries and female chromosomes (XX), but they might have beards, what looks like a penis, and other apparently masculine traits. Male pseudohermaphrodites ("merms") have testes and male chromosomes (XY), but they might have a vagina, a clitoris, and breasts. In fact, there is a long history of intersexuality that can now be explained as products of biological disorders.

This phenomenon of intersexual ambiguity creates legal and moral problems. For some time, doctors have advised parents with intersexual infants to authorize surgical and hormonal treatments to force sexually ambiguous infants to look more clearly male or female. Fausto-Sterling argues that this is an attempt to force a culturally constructed sexual dualism on a biological nature that resists such dualism. She recommends that children should be free to grow up as intersexuals, and then at the age of reason, they can decide for themselves whether they want medical treatment to assign them more clearly to one sex or the other.

What we see here is an ambiguity about nature recognized by Aristotle in his biological works. Aristotle studied the natural causes that created hermaphrodites (History of Animals, 589b30-90a5; Generation of Animals, 770a25-71a15). In one sense, he reasoned, hermaphrodites are "contrary to nature," because they deviate from what naturally happens "for the most part." But in another sense, hermaphrodites are "natural," because they arise from natural causes. So 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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Problem of Free Will and John West

A few weeks ago, I posted a statement on John West's new book--Darwin Day in America. I indicated that I thought the book was a good survey of the bad effects of a crude scientific materialism in some areas of American public policy. But I also explained why West's attempt to trace this crude scientific materialism back to Darwin was implausible. I wrote a blurb for the publisher (ISI Books) praising the book, while also indicating my disagreement with West's attack on Darwinian science. Now, the Discovery Institute has set up a website for the book, which quotes my blurb. People who know about my continuing debate with West (on this blog and elsewhere) have questioned me as to why I wrote the blurb. My answer is laid out in my post of September 16th.

West's new book is designed to carry out the original "wedge strategy" of the Discovery Institute. A copy of the "wedge document" can be found here. As Barbara Forest and Paul Gross show in their book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, this document was prepared in 1998 as a secret plan for the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. West was one of the original founders of the Center, and he is now the Associate Director. As the wedge document indicates, the Center was established to lead a public relations strategy that would transform modern culture by defeating scientific materialism and reviving the traditional religious conception of human beings as created in God's image. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud were identified as the major sources of the scientific materialism that would have to be defeated. But Darwin has become the primary enemy for those following the wedge strategy.

West's Darwin Day in America carries out that strategy by claiming that all of the bad consequences of scientific materialism come from Charles Darwin. What's good about West's book is his broad survey of the deleterious effects of scientific materialism on American public policy. But what's bad about the book is his ridiculously contrived efforts at connecting all of this to Darwin.

Consider, for example, Chapter 3 of the book--"Criminal Science." The chapter opens with Clarence Darrow's famous argument that to hold Leopold and Loeb fully responsible for their murder would be unscientific in denying the scientific knowledge that all human behavior is determined by heredity and environment. West then shows how such shallow reasoning corrupted much of the putatively scientific criminology of the twentieth century.

But where's the connection to Darwin? Well, West establishes the connection with one sentence: "In his notebooks, Charles Darwin struggled with the serious consequences that scientific materialism posed for free will and responsibility, but for the most part he chose to keep his misgivings to himself." That's it! That one sentence is all that West ever says about Darwin in this chapter. He never even explains exactly why and how Darwin "struggled" with "free will and responsibility." Nor does West ever explain or defend his own conception of "free will."

In Darwinian Natural Right (83-87), I have defended a conception of "natural freedom" as compatible with a Darwinian naturalism in accounting for moral responsibility. West doesn't respond to such a conception.

In his notebooks, Darwin endorsed the idea that "every action whatever is the effect of a motive," and for that reason he doubted the existence of "free will." Our motives arise from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, and external conditions. Still, although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, Darwin believes, we are morally responsible for our actions because of our uniquely human capacity for reflecting on our motives and circumstances and acting in the light of those reflections. As he wrote in The Descent of Man, "a moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who certainly deserves this designation is the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals."

If "free will" means "uncaused cause," then God is the only being with "free will," because whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from all eternity could be uncaused or undetermined. So instead of attributing "free will" to human beings, we should say that human beings have the moral freedom to act as one chooses, regardless of the cause of the choice. (Here I am following the reasoning of Jonathan Edwards.)

I agree with Aristotle, who never speaks of "free will." Aristotle believes we hold people responsible for their actions when they act voluntarily and deliberately. They act voluntarily when they act knowingly and without external force to satisfy their desires. They act with deliberate choice when, having weighed one desire against another in the light of past experience and future expectations, they choose that course of action likely to satisfy their desires harmoniously over a complete life. Such deliberation is required for "virtue in the strict sense," although most human beings most of the time act by impulse and habit with little or no deliberation.

Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action. But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice. Thus, for Aristotle, being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible, one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. One must do this to become happy as a human being, which is the ultimate end of all human action.

This Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding of moral responsibility is supported by a modern scientific understanding of human nature. In Darwinian Conservatism, I indicate how modern neuroscience might explain the emergence of human freedom through the evolution of the primate brain.

West doesn't explain what's wrong with such a naturalistic understanding of human moral freedom. Nor does he explain how he would defend a conception of "free will" as "uncaused cause." It seems that thinking through such things is not part of the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy."

Friday, October 05, 2007

Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Chimpanzee Natural Law

Quoting Ulpian, Thomas Aquinas declared that "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." Developing this thought, his account of natural moral law as rooted in natural inclinations draws ideas from Aristotle's biology and from Albert the Great's elaboration of Aristotle's biology. Although there is no idea of Darwinian evolution in this biology, the reasoning about natural moral law as rooted in biological inclinations is similar to Darwin's explanation of the natural moral sense.

Against this Thomistic/Darwinian naturalism, much of modern moral philosophy has adopted a Kantian dualism that views morality as belonging to a transcendental realm of freedom beyond nature. Heidegger manifested this Kantian tradition in dismissing natural law as "biologism." Contemporary Heideggerian existentialists like Peter Lawler continue this tradition by insisting that the transcendental freedom of human beings make them all "aliens" in the universe. Hans Jonas identified this tradition of thought as essentially Gnostic, and he saw that Darwinian science refuted Gnostic dualism.

Under the influence of Aristotle's biology, Thomas concluded that, although only human beings act from "free" judgment, other animals act from "estimative" judgment about what will satisfy their desires. Thus all animals have a natural capacity for practical judgment that shows a certain "participation in prudence and reason" and a certain "likeness of moral good" (ST, I, q. 83, a. 1; q. 96, a. 1; I-II, q. 11, a. 2; q. 24, a. 4; q. 40, a. 3). The influence of this biological psychology on the Thomistic understanding of natural law is evident in the account of marriage in the Supplement to the Summa Theologica (q. 41, a. 1; q. 54, a. 3; q. 65, a. 1-3; q. 67, a. 1).

Thomas explains that something can be natural to human beings in different ways (ST, II-II, q. 46, a. 5; q. 51, a. 1; q. 63, a. 1). The natural dispositions can be considered either as generic (shared with other animals), or as specific (shared with other human beings), or as temperamental (the unique traits of human individuals). This trichotomy of the natural dispositions comes from Aristotle's theory of biological inheritance (Generation of Animals, 767b24-69b31).

So although human politics is uniquely human, we might still learn something about the natural roots of politics by looking at chimpanzee politics. This would be in the tradition of Thomas and Albert (Thomas's teacher at the University of Paris). Albert wrote a massive survey of the whole field of zoology, building upon Aristotle's biology. Albert's work in biological science was part of his larger project to vindicate the scientific study of natural causal laws through reason, observation, and experimentation. The end result of this was to establish science as a source of knowledge independent of theology. Albert stressed the uniqueness of human beings as the only animals endowed with the powers of intellect and speech. Yet he also observed that other animals "are not entirely without the power of thought," which shows that nature "progresses gradually through many intermediates." Some nonhuman animals do have "experiential knowledge" that manifests "a sort of prudence" and a "capacity for instruction," which thus shows that these animals have at least "a shadow of reason." Many animals have some "estimative power" by which, while deciding how they should act to satisfy their desires, they judge the intentions of other animals. The most intelligent of the nonhuman animals are simians--monkeys and apes--and pygmies, which belong to a species that is intermediate between simians and humans. The simians and pygmies, Albert says, show a "human likeness beyond all other animals," and "seem to have something like reason." (All my references are to the translation of Albert's zoological work published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1999.)

Albert also observed that as political animals, human beings are like other social animals such as ants, bees, wasps, and cranes. Human society is unique, however, insofar as it can be based on formal laws or customary rules formualted deliberately by reason. Similarly, ethics in the strict sense is uniquely human to the extent tht it requires some rational deliberation in formulating a plan of how to live. Albert notes, however, that some other animals do exhibit "some natural inclination to a likeness of virtue," because their natural instincts and cognitive capacities incline them to act according to a "plan of life." On each of these points, Albert reiterates a biological teaching of Aristotle that is later adopted by Thomas.

Despite this, many of the most influential scholarly commentators on Thomas give little attention to the biological foundation of Thomas's understanding of natural law. John Finnis, for example, has led a recent revival of interest in Thomistic natural law, yet he largely ignores the importance of biological reasoning in Thomas's account. Finnis's natural law is actually "natural law without nature," because he accepts the Kantian dualism of natural law and moral freedom. In contrast to those like Finnis, I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre that the Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition of ethical naturalism is rooted in a biological understanding of human nature that has been confirmed by modern Darwinian biology. MacIntyre makes this point in his Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Machiavellian Biopolitics of Assassination and Conspiracy

It appears for now that the military dictators of Burma have suppressed the public protests against their rule led by Buddhist monks. But now there are reports that the rebel groups in the countryside are plotting to overcome their ethnic differences so that they can successfully launch an assault on the government.

This is a reminder of how political rule depends ultimately on violence and military force. And although the appeal to violence might seem to favor tyrannical rule, just the opposite is true. Tyrants are more vulnerable to violent attacks than are rulers with some claim to justice. This is as true for chimpanzee politics as it is for human politics.

Studies of chimpanzee groups both in captivity and in the wild show that becoming the dominant ruler or alpha male is not just a matter of physical strength. Dominant chimps must have the personality traits that allow them to manage the complex social life of a chimpanzee society. When adult males are fighting for dominance, their fights are ritualized through bluffing displays that minimize violence, even though the canine teeth of an adult male are powerful enough to kill with one bite. But the threat of physical violence is always there, and both Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall have reported a few cases of lethal violence in fights for dominance.

The same is true for human beings fighting for political dominance. The fighting can generally be ritualized in ways that prevent actual violence. But the threat of violence runs throughout political life.

The longest chapters in Machiavelli's Prince (ch. 19)and his Discourses (III, 6) are on the danger that princes face when--being hated by their people--they are exposed to conspiracies, and particularly conspiracies for assassination. In fact, these chapters are actually little treatises on how to assassinate or otherwise conspire against tyrants. This explains why Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, coauthored with Voltaire a book--Anti-Machiavel--attacking Machiavelli's Prince as a handbook for regicide.

There is some empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that tyrannical leaders who become hated are more likely to suffer a bad end than are democratic leaders. Arnold Ludwig's book King of the Mountain (2002)supports the claim of Aristotle and Darwin that male dominance of politics is rooted in human biological nature. He argues that the male desire to be the supreme political ruler expresses the same biological propensities that support the dominance of alpha males among monkeys and apes. He develops his argument through a meticulous analysis of the 1,941 chief executive rulers of the independent countries in the twentieth century. He illustrates his points with anecdotes from the lives of the 377 rulers for whom he had extensive biographical information. He shows that the struggle for social dominance is a "dangerous game" (chap. 4). A tyrant is much more likely to be victimized by assassination plots or to be overthrown by violence than is a leader of an established democracy. "Tyrants, by far, are most likely to suffer a bad outcome, with half of them being deposed, one-fifth being ousted after having lost a war or being voted out of office, and another 15 percent being assassinated or executed. That is a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket" (120).

As Machiavelli indicated, the history of politics is largely determined by the history of war and violence. But this harsh reality of political violence does not necessarily favor tyranny, because tyrants who become hated are likely to be assassinated, executed, or overthrown. This favors republican or democratic politics. For example, the execution of Charles I in 1649, which opened the way for the English Republic, was a dramatic illustration of how popular violence can check the power of a tyrant. Similarly, the American and French Revolutions showed the vulnerability of would-be tyrants to revolutionary violence.

Republican institutions supporting limited government are designed to so limit power that recourse to political violence will be minimized. But when political conflicts of interest and principle become so deep that persuasion cannot resolve the dispute, then there is no final settlement except by force of arms--as was the case, for example, in the American Civil War.

A Darwinian political science recognizes that political order always rests on a natural rivalry for power and dominance that must be resolved either by persuasion or by force.