Thursday, July 31, 2008

Kaebnick on Leon Kass's Humean Morality

I have often expressed my frustration with Leon Kass's failure to lay out a plausible line of reasoning for his positions on science, religion, and morality. Some of my comments can be found here, here, here, and here.

A big part of my frustration is that while much of Kass's writing points to the sort of moral naturalism that I have adopted in defending "Darwinian natural right," he almost never develops his arguments in any clear way, and he often expresses a scorn for modern natural science that is unwarranted.

Kass's famous--if not infamous--article "The Wisdom of Repugnance" illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of his writing. In defending the importance of moral emotion for moral judgment, he rightly invokes a tradition of naturalistic moral philosophy that stretches from Aristotle to David Hume to Adam Smith to Charles Darwin, and it is this tradition that I build upon in my writing. But Kass's article doesn't develop the reasoning behind this tradition. And thus he leaves many readers with the thought that Kass thinks moral judgments are nothing more than irrational expressions of feeling--the "yuck factor" as its derisively identified among bioethicists.

But now in the July-August 2008 issue of The Hastings Center Report, Gregory Kaebnick has an excellent article--"Reasons of the Heart: Emotion, Rationality, and the 'Wisdom of Repugnance'"--that develops an interpretation of Kass's article as implicitly grounded in the same view of moral judgment as that defended by David Hume.

Near the end of his article, Kaebnick notes that my Darwinian Natural Right follows closely the same line of thought that he defends. In fact, I would say that Kaebnick's article is a remarkably clear and concise statement of the main ideas in my naturalistic view of morality as rooted in moral emotions, moral reasoning, and the natural desires of the human species.

In defense of Kass's appeal to natural moral emotions, Kaebnick says: "I am interested only in the thought that there might be aspects of human nature that we do, in fact, value without being able to prove that we should. My goal will be to show that considering emotions integral to moral judgments is philosophically respectable." He does this by defending Hume's account of moral judgments as expressions of a natural moral sense. "Hume's point," Kaebnick rightly explains, "is not that morality is silly or unimportant, but only that logic and empirical investigation alone cannot generate moral judgments. In effect, morality is itself, for Hume, a matter of human nature."

Kaebnick shows that there are four major advantages to Hume's position. First, it is modest, in that it does not require extravagant metaphysical or logical constructions. Second, it shows completeness and unity in accounting for moral experience in an intelligible way. Third, it fits easily with modern natural science, and particularly Darwinian biology. Of course, this is a point that I have stressed. Finally, it fits easily with ordinary moral language.

Kaebnick then seeks to allay the two major fears about the Humean view of morality. To the fears that it promotes moral relativism and has no room for moral argument, he responds by showing how Hume's account of morality is open to moral debate between different moral views that can lead to moral reform and progress. Our moral sentiments are responses to how we see the world, and so we can examine and sometimes change our moral sentiments by scrutinizing our view of the world.

Kaebnick writes: "the Humean position can admit that moral judgments are formed, evaluated, and coordinated cognitively. Not only are they not whims, but they are not merely attitudinal. What the Humean position denies is that we can compel a person solely through force of reason to accept a given moral judgment. Further, the Humean position strongly suggests not only that reason is of limited use, but that much effective moral argument will consist in trying to get a person to share one's basic attitudes. We may rely on tone of voice, on stories, on imagery, even on the bonds of friendship, to try to win a person over. But this is just how moral argument actually is. Fortunately, discrepancies in attitudes are rarely chasms; differences are often a matter of emphasis."

Hume was a moral critic of slavery. And as I have often argued on this blog and elsewhere, studying the debate over slavery and Abraham Lincoln's statesmanship in handling the slavery issue supports Hume's account of moral experience as open to moral reform. Kaebnik mentions the emancipation of slaves as one example of how moral argument can lead to moral progress, but he doesn't elaborate.

The moral progress in abolishing slavery is so evident that even cultural moral relativists must recognize it. For example, Jesse Prinz--in his recent book The Emotional Construction of Morals--takes an emotivist and relativist view of Hume's moral philosophy, and from this, Prinz concludes that the cultural variation in morality shows that morality is so relative to each cultural group that there are no universal moral standards. Every moral system is a cultural construction, and none can claim to be morally better than any other. He recognizes, however, that such a radical moral relativism is implausible if it denies the very possibility of moral progress, as in the obvious moral progress that came with the abolition of slavery. In response to this problem, Prinz affirms that moral progress is possible, and he takes the abolition of slavery as a clear illustration of such moral progress. He surveys many of the arguments against slavery made in the United States and elsewhere as examples of how "standards of assessment" can persuade people to "moral conversion" leading to adoption of new moral systems. But, then, in order to show that such moral progress is compatible with his moral relativism, he asserts that "the standards by which moral progress is judged are not themselves moral standards," because they are actually "extramoral standards." So, for example, to judge slavery as bad because it subverts the norms of reciprocity that sustain social cooperation is an appeal to an "extramoral" standard. But this works only as a sophistical twisting of language in which standards of good and bad that lead to "moral conversion" and "moral progress" are not really moral!

Kaebnick's Humean interpretation of Kass helps to illuminate his writing and the writing of the President's Council on Bioethics. Kaebnick observes: "Much of the writing of the President's Council that has frustrated professional philosophers consists of rhetorical moves that seek to persuade rather than prove. To employ these moves is to admit that one's conclusion cannot be obtained solely by means of inferences. But so it is with morality."

The reader of Kaebnick's article should notice that his philosophical defense of Kass's writing does not depend upon agreeing with Kass's particular conclusions about restricting biotechnology. On the contrary, Kaebnick indicates how a Humean view of the "wisdom of repugnance" leaves us open to questioning and perhaps correcting our initial repugnance towards some biotechnological technique when we discover that our repugnance is not warranted.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Panels on "Evolution and Morality" at the APSA Convention

At this year's convention of the American Political Science Association, August 28-31, in Boston, the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy will be sponsoring a series of three panels on "Evolution and Morality." The ASPLP's program can be found at their website.

For one of the panels, I will be presenting a paper on "Biopolitical Science: Darwin, Lincoln, and the Deep History of Politics." The commentators will be Daniel Lord Smail, a historian at Harvard who is the author of On Deep History and the Brain, and Richard Richards a philosopher of biology from the University of Alabama.

My panel is at 10:15 a.m. on Friday, August 29th, in the Sheraton Boston (39 Dalton Street) in the Sheraton Independence Ballroom West.

The first panel will meet at 4:15 p.m., August 28, with Philip Kitcher giving a paper on "Naturalistic Ethics without Fallacies." Kitcher is a philosopher of biology at Columbia University.

The second panel is at 8:00 a.m. immediately preceding my panel, with Nita Farahany giving her paper on "Law and Behavioral Morality." She works on the intersection of criminal law, behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and philosophy. She's a law professor at Vanderbilt University who has advanced degrees in biology and philosophy as well as her law degree. Is that sick or not?

Eventually, all of these papers and commentaries will be published together as one of the books in the Nomos annual series that has been edited for many years by ASPLP.

All of the papers and commentaries will be available before the convention at a website open only to ASPLP members. But I will also upload my paper to the APSA convention website by the end of this week.

ASPLP has a fascinating format for their yearly gatherings. They select a common theme and have three panels organized around three papers presented by a law professor, a philosopher, and a political scientist. Then, for each of these three panels, they have two commentators, preserving the mix between the three disciplines. If the paper presenter is a political scientist, the commentators are a philosopher and a law professor, and so on. They then gather all of these papers and commentaries, along with other papers on the common theme, and publish them as an annual book published by New York University Press.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Krannawitter on Lincoln, Darwin, & Biblical Historicism

This is the fourth part of my comments on Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln.

In the first paragraph of his book, Krannawitter refers to Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species as influencing P. T. Barnum's exhibit at his American Museum on "Connecting Link between Human and Brute Creation." Krannawitter suggests that the evolutionary theories of Chambers and Darwin denied the equal moral dignity of human beings in a way that supported racist arguments for slavery. This is the first of many references in Krannawitter's book to Darwin, with the suggestion that Lincoln's defense of natural right as based on human equality and opposition to slavery was subverted by Darwinian evolution, which supported the historicism that led to the progressivist attack on natural right and limited government.

Krannawitter's writing on this point is strange. First of all, he says nothing about William Herndon's report that Lincoln read Chambers' book and was persuaded by it. Herndon wrote: "The volume was published in Edinburgh, and undertook to demonstrate the doctrine of development or evolution. The treatise interested him greatly, and he was deeply impressed with the notion of the so-called 'universal law'--evolution; he did not extend greatly his researches, but by continued thinking in a single channel seemed to grow into a warm advocate of the new doctrine." Later, Darwin acknowledged that Chambers' book anticipated many of the main elements of Darwin's own account of evolution. So here, as I have indicated in many previous posts, we see one of the many points of agreement between Lincoln and Darwin.

It is also strange that with all of Krannawitter's references to Darwin, he never cites any specific passage of any writing by Darwin. This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with Harry Jaffa. He criticized Darwin. I responded by quoting some passages from Darwin's Descent of Man. Jaffa then confessed that he had never read Darwin. Similarly, I see no evidence that Krannawitter has read Darwin.

Jason Jividen is a professor at the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, Indiana), who wrote a dissertation under me on the use and abuse of Lincoln in American political rhetoric, which I expect will soon be published as a book. Recently, he sent me an email message about Krannawitter's book, which included this comment:

"Despite the fact that they paint Darwin and Hegel as the twin evils for natural right, the Claremont/Jaffa types almost always delve much more deeply into historicism (Hegel, Wilson, FDR, etc.) than Darwin. . . . What is often lacking in the Claremont stuff here is an actual demonstration, even in brief, of Darwin's thought, using Darwin's own words, i.e. the method they claim most historians, politicians, and political scientists refuse to do when looking at Lincoln. Rather, there is always something linking Darwin to progressivism and the like using Wilson's words, or Dewey's words or something like that. But if that is all it takes to link Darwin to progressivism/modern liberalism, then we could just as easily link Lincoln with the left simply because they so frequently cite him. Even if they are right about Darwin, one would think that they would need to treat Darwin in the same manner they insist great thinkers should be treated."

I agree. If Krannawitter and the Jaffa followers were to read Darwin, the first thing they might notice is that he was a life-long opponent of slavery. Moreover, much of The Descent of Man is an attack on the theory of scientific racism that the human races are actually separate species. Against this, Darwin argued that all human beings were equal as members of the same species and thus endowed with the uniquely human capacities for language and the moral sense. Here then is the ground for Darwinian natural right as based in a universal human nature. I have elaborated these points on this blog and in various publications, especially the chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right.

Krannawitter might respond to this idea of Darwinian natural right by saying that there is no need for a scientific ground for natural right. He says that "human knowledge of human nature is prescientific and prephilosophic," because "our commonsense knowledge of human nature precedes all philosophic or scientific inquiry" (139). This might be so. But isn't it helpful to have modern science supporting our commonsense grasp of human equality? After all, Krannawitter says that "throughout history, few people have found it obvious that all human beings are equally human," which suggests that "common sense" is not enough.

Although Krannawitter refers often to Aristotle, he never mentions Aristotle's account of the natural slave. If he did, he would have to confront the fundamental issue in the whole debate over slavery: Are some human beings by nature adapted for slavery? Darwinian science supports the conclusion that despite the differences between individuals and races, all normal human beings have those minimal capacities for reason and speech that constitute the universal nature of the human species. The proslavery racists had to argue for a racial science that would deny this. Krannawitter never takes up this debate.

If Darwinian science is not the source of the historicism that subverted the idea of natural right, then where do we find the source? Krannawitter points to Hegel. But doesn't Hegel's philosophy of history ultimately derive from the biblical idea of history? In fact, Hegel acknowledged this when he wrote: "We transform the language of religion into that of philosophy."

This is pertinent to Lincoln and the slavery debate. As I have often noted on this blog, the Bible supports slavery, and so the debate over slavery in America created a theological crisis. Krannawitter recognizes this in his writing about pro-slavery Christian theology. He notes James Henley Thornwell's biblical historicism: "God is in history" (238). And he also comments on Fred Ross's biblical defense of slavery based on the claim that right and wrong are based completely on the will of God, and therefore any affirmation that right and wrong can be known naturally by human reason is atheism. Since the Bible clearly sanctions slavery and never condemns it as wrong, we know that slavery is morally right because God commands it (238-41).

Krannawitter says that "Lincoln proceeded to dismantle the pro-slavery theological arguments presented by Ross" (243). But when we look at Lincoln's remarks as quoted by Krannawitter, we see that Lincoln is actually evasive about the Bible on slavery: "The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation--the Bible--gives none--or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning." He then goes on to suggest that "Dr. Ross" is probably moved by selfish motives that detract from "perfect impartiality." Lincoln thus appeals to our knowledge of human nature as a ground for moral discussion rather than the Bible.

Don't biblical religion and the idea that right and wrong depend ultimately on the will of God expressed over history through revelation provide the basis for historicist relativism? Doesn't a scientific grasp of the human nature of morality provide an alternative to biblical historicism?

For a few samples of my blog posts on Lincoln, Darwin, and Jaffa, you can go here, here, and here.

Krannawitter on Lincoln & Prerogative

This is the third part of my comments on Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln.

Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln initiated military responses without a declaration of war from Congress. He called for 75,000 military volunteers, he expanded the Army and Navy, he withdrew money from the federal treasury without congressional authorization, he ordered a blockade of Southern ports, and he authorized his generals in the field to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. This was the first and only time in American history that the writ of habeas corpus has been suspended. In effect, this meant a suspension of all individual rights, because it meant that military authorities could detain individuals in custody without specifying charges against them. In some cases, this was used against public speakers and newspaper editors who were criticizing Lincoln's policies. According to the libertarian and paleoconservative critics of Lincoln, this shows us clearly that Lincoln was a tyrant.

By contrast, progressive scholars defended Lincoln's exercise of power as benevolent dictatorship. Krannawitter quotes political scientist John Burgess as praising Lincoln as a "prototype of twentieth-century presidential government, ruling through rhetorical leadership of public opinion rather than an adherence to the text and forms of the Constitution" (318).

Krannawitter wants to defend Lincoln against the libertarian and paleoconservative charge of tyranny. But he wants to do this without embracing the progressive idea of "presidential government" outside the Constitution.

Krannawitter's rhetorical strategy is to employ Benjamin Kleinerman's argument that Lincoln properly exercised the "executive prerogative" defended by John Locke. But in doing this, Krannawitter never explains clearly how such Lockean prerogative can be compatible with American constitutionalism. In the British tradition of the divine right of kings, prerogative was at the core of the kingly power to act with unlimited discretion outside the rule of law. Challenging prerogative was therefore at the center of the British tradition of republicanism. It was important for the American constitutional framers that the American president should not have any prerogative powers allowing him to step outside the Constitution. On this point, they disagreed with Locke. In 1793, James Madison complained that Locke's "chapter on prerogative shows how much the reason of the philosopher was clouded by the royalism of the Englishman."

In adopting Kleinerman's argument, Krannawitter fails to clearly lay out the possible relationships between emergency powers and the Constitution. There are three possibilities. Emergency powers could be totally outside the Constitution, so that a President in times of emergency steps outside the constitutional framework to do whatever he judges best for the country. Or emergency powers could be inside and outside the Constitution, so that a President might invoke certain provisions inside the Constitution--like his oath of office, for example--as allowing him to step outside the Constitution in times of emergency. Or emergency powers could be totally inside the Constitution, so that the President and other officers of government have only those emergency powers specified in the Constitution itself. (Here I am drawing on some arguments that I have elaborated elsewhere, as in my chapter on Locke in Political Questions.)

Following Kleinerman, Krannawitter seems to take either the outside or the inside/outside position. Against them, I would argue for the totally inside position as the only position compatible with American constitutionalism. And, with the possible exception of one short passage in his Message to Congress of July 4, 1861, I think Lincoln followed the inside position. That is to say, Lincoln generally argued that he was able to meet the emergency of the Civil War by exercising powers specified in the Constitution so that it was not necessary for him to step outside the Constitution. In fact, Lincoln expressly denied that he was exercising "an arbitrary personal prerogative" (quoted by Krannawitter at p. 328).

In The Federalist, Hamilton and Madison argued that the Constitution did not contain, and should not contain, "parchment provisions" contrary to "public necessity." Rather, the national government should be given all the powers necessary for meeting every contingency, so that it would never be necessary in an emergency for officers of government to act outside the Constitution. To do otherwise--to force officers in times of emergency to step outside the Constitution--would set dangerous precedents of extraconstitutional action that would destroy constitutional government.

Lincoln's agreement with this stance is clear in his argument that suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is a clear example of an emergency power specified in the Constitution that makes it unnecessary to step outside the Constitution in an emergency like the Civil War. In Article I, sec. 9, the Constitution declares that "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." This means that the President has the constitutional power to suspend the writ in an emergency if he can show that there is a rebellion or invasion that requires suspension for the public safety. Although this provision is found in Article I, which is predominantly the legislative article of the Constitution, the provision does not specify that this suspension is exclusively a legislative power. Moreover, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, this provision originally was written with the specification that suspension would be "by the legislature." But this phrase was dropped later, leaving it open as to whom was to do the suspension.

Executive prerogative by Locke's definition is the power "to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it." Progressive scholars like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Imperial Presidency have argued that American presidents have Lockean prerogative, which allows them to step outside the Constitution in time of emergency.

Like Kleinerman, Krannawitter adopts the Schlesinger position. It is hard to see how this is consistent with American constitutionalism. Agreeing with Kleinerman, Krannawitter suggests "that it is better for the president to act without law and, in so doing, to explain and defend his actions by speaking openly to the people about the temporary necessities that require such actions" (333). Isn't this exactly what Burgess proposed--"twentieth-century presidential government, ruling through rhetorical leadership of public opinion rather than an adherence to the text and forms of the Constitution"? But doesn't this contradict Krannawitter's earlier claim that he rejects presidential government through rhetorical leadership as a progressivist distortion of Lincoln?

Isn't it contrary to American constitutionalism and the rule of law to suggest, as Krannawitter does, that "it might be less important to ask whether Lincoln's actions were legal or constitutional, and more important to ask if they were necessary to protect the public good" (325)?

The contemporary application of Krannawitter's promotion of presidential prerogative power is suggested by his embrace of John Yoo's defense of Bush's imperial presidency. I see here a disturbing tendency that Krannawitter shares with many of the Straussians towards elevating presidential leadership over the rule of law. This is evident, for example, in Harvey Mansfield's defense of George Bush's "one-man rule" and "imperial ambition" as an expression of the rule of the wise man. My response to Mansfield can be found here.

Krannawitter on Lincoln and Limited Government

This is the second part of my comments on Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln.

The libertarian and paleoconservative critics of Lincoln--people like Thomas DiLorenzo, Charles Adams, Thomas Woods, Walter Williams, Murray Rothbard, and Clyde Wilson--argue that the crucial turn away from limited government and towards modern "big government" came with Lincoln. Following the lead of Harry Jaffa, Krannawitter responds by claiming that Lincoln continued the philosophic and political tradition of limited government coming from the American founding, and that the turn to the modern administrative state that began with the American progressives was a break from Lincoln.

The libertarian and paleoconservative opponents of Lincoln defend the secession of the Southern states as an exercise of a constitutional right essential for limiting the oppressive power of the central government. Therefore, they charge that Lincoln's leadership of the North against the South was an unconstitutional denial of the right of the states to secede.

Krannawitter does a good job of refuting this argument. His main point is the distinction between the natural right to revolution, which Lincoln accepted as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the legal right of secession, which Lincoln denied. The states of the Confederacy could not justify their actions as an exercise of the natural right of revolution, and therefore they had to appeal to some presumed constitutional right of secession. Krannawitter rightly shows that there is little support for such a legal right of secession under the Constitution as ratified in 1789. In fact, the antifederalist opponents of the Constitution complained that the appeal to "We the People" as the ultimate source of national power deprived the states of their sovereignty. In effect, John C. Calhoun and the other proponents of secession were actually antifederalists who were trying to overturn the Constitution that was ratified in 1789.

The weakest part of Krannawitter's argument is that he passes quickly over Madison's Virginia Resolutions and Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which provided the primary evidence for Calhoun's position. Krannawitter's claim is that Madison and Jefferson pulled back from this position after the election of 1800. More needs to be said about this.

The leading proponents of the centralized administrative state of the 20th century--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, Franklin Roosevelt, and others--repeatedly praised Lincoln as pointing the way to the modern expansion of national power. The libertarians and paleoconservatives agree with this rhetorical use of Lincoln for liberal progressivism, but for them, this is a reason to condemn Lincoln as the father of big government.

Krannawitter responds to this by criticizing the progressives for misusing Lincoln, charging that if they had read Lincoln's writings carefully, they would have seen that Lincoln's defense of natural right differed radically from the ideas of historicist progressivism.

Krannawitter agrees that Lincoln led the way to the most massive expansion of federal power in American history up to that point. But he argues that Lincoln understood that this was all a temporary response to the extraordinary emergency of the Civil War that would end with the end of the war. It is true that much of the expansion of federal power under Lincoln was reversed after the war, but Krannawitter leaves the reader wondering why Lincoln should get credit for what happened after his death.

The reader must wonder about this since Krannawitter admits that Lincoln's Whig economic policies--"internal improvements," a national bank, paper currency without backing by gold or silver, and protective tariffs--were not good policies, although these were exactly the policies that the progressives saw as pointing ahead to the administrative state. In the late 1830s, Lincoln supported a massive program of internal improvements in Illinois that led the state government to the edge of financial collapse. Krannawitter prefers to play down Lincoln's economic policies by insisting that after 1854 Lincoln was more concerned with slavery than with economics. But this rhetorical strategy doesn't work if one sees that the issue of slavery was necessarily intertwined with the economic policies associated with "free labor." It might have been better for Krannawitter to compare Lincoln's economic policies with the teachings of Adam Smith and show that most of the governmental policies Lincoln supported--with the exception of protective tariffs--were regarded by Smith as within the proper realm of government.

In my next post, I will take up the debate over Lincoln's exercise of prerogative power.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Krannawitter on Lincoln & Slavery

Much of American political rhetoric turns on the assessment of Abraham Lincoln. Although many consider Lincoln the greatest American president who is the model for American statesmanship, the many critics of Lincoln say this elevated reputation arises from a falsification of history. Some leftists condemn Lincoln as a racist. But Barack Obama and other liberals praise Lincoln and argue that liberal progressivism follows in the tradition of Lincoln. Many libertarians and paleoconservatives denounce Lincoln as a Machiavellian tyrant who destroyed the American tradition of limited government. But some conservatives--particularly, those influenced by Harry Jaffa--insist that Lincoln's statesmanship was founded on the natural right principles of the American founding and provides a model for political reasoning today. The followers of Jaffa say that Lincoln's natural right statesmanship was subverted by the historicism and relativism of modern Darwinian science. But, as I have argued on this blog, this shows an ignorance of the fundamental agreement between Lincoln and Darwin and of how evolutionary science supports "Darwinian natural right."

Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield, and it helps us to think about this debate. Recently, Allen Guelzo's favorable review of the book appeared in The Claremont Review of Books.

This is a good book, perhaps even the best single book for those who want to understand the philosophic character of Lincoln's statesmanship. Although most of the main ideas in the book can be found in the writings of Jaffa, the clarity and precision of Krannawitter's presentation helps the reader to think through the reasoning for Jaffa's account of Lincoln.

I have found this book so intellectually stimulating that I want to offer my comments on the book in a series of posts. I generally am persuaded by most of what Krannawitter says. But I do find some points in his writing either obscure or weak, which I will explain. And yet, even where I disagree with him, I find that he forces me to deepen my thinking.

Of course, what one thinks about Lincoln depends ultimately on one's assessment of his handling of the slavery issue. Krannawitter defends Lincoln's stance on slavery as philosophically and politically correct. To do this, he must respond to many objections. Some critics say Lincoln was a racist. And certainly there are many passages in Lincoln's writings that sound racist--for example, when he says (in his debates with Stephen Douglas) that "there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality." Krannawitter's response is to argue that although Lincoln believed in the moral and political equality of whites and blacks, he had to employ "an esoteric manner" and "rhetorical strategies" in expressing his beliefs, because as a politician he could not directly challenge the racist opinions of many Americans in his day (18-21).

Although I agree with this, I would like to have seen Krannawitter go more deeply into this. He rightly makes the point that "physical difference" could just mean the obvious difference in skin color, so that Lincoln could be saying that as a matter of sociological observation, blacks and whites will find it hard to live together as equals because of the prejudices of color. But did Lincoln ever use the phrase "physical inferiority" or "inferior races," as Douglas said Lincoln did? The newspaper transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates sometimes use slightly different language for the same speeches. According to the Chicago Tribune, Lincoln in the fifth debate at Galesburg used the phrase "inferior races." According to the Chicago Daily Times, he spoke of "physical inequality." But as far as I can tell, Lincoln uses "physical difference" as his phrase in all the other passages.

Lincoln's "esoteric manner" is perhaps conveyed by what he says in the sixth debate in Quincy: "I am altogether unconscious of having attempted any double dealing anywhere--that upon one occasion I may say one thing and leave other things unsaid, and vice versa; but that I have said anything on one occasion that is inconsistent with what I have said elsewhere, I deny."

In deciding whether Lincoln was a racist or not, the testimony of Frederick Douglass--the eloquent ex-slave abolitionist--would seem to be decisive, because he knew Lincoln and engaged in a continuing debate with him about emancipation. In his Freedmen's Memorial speech of 1876, Douglass spoke of Lincoln as "preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men." Unfortunately, Krannawitter does not quote this part of Douglass's speech. In his vehement attack on Lincoln as a racist, Lerone Bennett does quote this passage. But then Bennett never quotes the passage praising Lincoln's statesmanship: "measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." Douglass also declared: "Measuring the tremendous magnitude of the work before him, considering the necessary means to ends, and surveying the end from the beginning, infinite wisdom has seldom sent any man into the world better fitted for his mission than was Abraham Lincoln." Although Bennett refers to the Freedmen's Memorial speech as "one of the greatest orations on Lincoln by any African-American," he never quotes any of these passages where Douglass praises Lincoln's statesmanship, because this would subvert Bennett's intemperate denunciation of Lincoln.

Krannawitter rightly emphasizes that Lincoln consistently adhered to the principle that while protecting slavery in the Southern states was a constitutional obligation, prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the Western territories was within the constitutional powers of Congress. I do wish, however, that Krannawitter had noted the one big problem with Lincoln's argument that this was the intent of the Founders--both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison thought that it was unconstitutional for Congress to restrict the Western movement of slavery. It has always been baffling to me that Stephen Douglas didn't bring this up as evidence against Lincoln's position. Krannawitter ignores this point. He refers to Jefferson's remark about the debate over the Missouri Compromise of 1820 being a "fire bell in the night." But he doesn't notice that Jefferson used this phrase in a letter criticizing the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional.

The libertarian and paleoconservative critics of Lincoln often assert that the Civil War was not about slavery at all but about the economic policies of the North in imposing unfair protective tariffs and other economic measures that punished the South. Kannawitter is good in surveying all the evidence showing the falsity of this assertion by showing that the leaders of the secessionist South repeatedly affirmed that protecting slavery was their primary motivation in breaking away. He is especially effective in raising one powerful question, "Why did Southern Democrats oppose Stephen Douglas for the presidential nomination in 1860?" The answer, of course, is that the Southern Democrats split away from the party because Douglas would not guarantee federal protection for slavery in the Western territories even where the majority of the citizens wanted to prohibit slavery.

There's more to come in future posts.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aristotelian Regime Analysis and Darwinian Group Selection

In Moral Minds, Marc Hauser tries to explain the evolution of human morality from traits shared with other animals. Although he does show how many of the components of human morality can be seen in other animals that cooperate with one another, he recognizes the uniqueness of human cooperation and morality: "We are the only animal that cooperates on a large scale with genetically unrelated individuals and that consistently shows stable reciprocity" (378, 411).

Hauser concludes that explaining the evolution of human morality requires group selection. Here he follows in the tradition of Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man: "It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe . . . an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." The problem, then, is that a social group cannot succeed unless its members cooperate for the good of the group, and yet within the group, it is almost always advantageous for individuals to become cheaters who advance their selfish interests at the expense of the common good. The solution to the problem arises when competition between groups is more intense than competition within groups. Although selfishness beats altruism within groups, altruistic groups beat selfish groups.

While the idea of group selection has been out of favor among most evolutionary theorists over the past 40 years, recently there has been a revival of group selection thinking. David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson have written an article for The Quarterly Review of Biology surveying the recent research supporting group selection and arguing that group selection should provide the theoretical foundation for sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. An abridged version of this article appeared in the New Scientist.

My interest here is in considering the common ground between this Darwinian group-selection explanation of human morality and Aristotle's account of political regimes.

As Hauser indicates, other animals show differences between groups based on differing cultural traditions. But with other animals these cultural differences don't carry much emotional weight. With human beings, by contrast, cultural differences carry the weight of competing moral conceptions of what is good and right. Human beings don't just cooperate as do other animals. Human beings cooperate based on explicit recognition of rules and procedures of cooperation that have moral authority. Thus, groups form around distinctive symbolic markers that constitute moral communities based on some shared conception of what is good and right. Human group selection arises from the competition between these symbolically constituted moral communities. With language, cultural group selection can operate on cultural variation.

Similarly, Aristotle saw that human beings were not the only political animals. But he also saw that human beings were more political than other political animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech--logos. Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good. Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals. Through speech human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" as the criterion of justice. Political communities can be distinguished as different kinds of regime based on how they structure the order of rule to conform to some moral conception of the way of life of the community. A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common advantage of all of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its ruling faction. The political problem, then, is that although people are naturally inclined to cooperate for a common life, they are also thrown into factional conflict by their selfish desires. In the long run, Aristotle suggests, the more just regimes tend to be more stable because they avoid or at least moderate factional conflict.

Could the Darwinian evolution of morality through group selection be understood as an Aristotelian evolution of regimes? Could we see this in the history of government? Certainly, American statesmen like Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln believed that the modern republican regime based on limited government by consent of the governed, the rule of law, and private property promised a major advance in political history. For Lincoln, the Civil War was a test of whether such a regime, conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality, could long endure. Do we see here a ground for moral progress through the evolutionary group selection of political regimes?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Natural Right and Biology: Marc Hauser on The Moral Instinct

As Leo Strauss showed in Natural Right and History, one can view the entire history of political philosophy as turning on the question of whether there is any natural right. Some people would say there is no natural right, because all right is determined by custom or convention, and what is customarily right or wrong varies radically across different societies and across history. Others would say that despite this variation in customary standards of right, there are some principles of right by nature that are universal, because they are rooted in a universal human nature. As Strauss indicates, in the central section of his book (156-63), Aristotle would seem to be the best exponent of natural right, and yet Aristotle's teaching is unclear. According to Aristotle, in Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, there is something that is right by nature, and yet "all is changeable." How can there be a universal standard of natural right if all conceptions of right are changeable according to variable moral traditions?

Aristotle was a biologist who studied human beings as moral and political animals. One way of explaining his account of natural right is to say that for him natural right is a universal biological propensity of the human species that is diversely expressed in the variable circumstances of individual habituation and social learning. All social animals have natural instincts for social learning. Social life emerges as a joint product of nature and nurture. Just as human beings have a natural instinct for learning language, but the specific languages they learn will depend on their social circumstances, so too do human beings have a natural instinct for judging right and wrong, but the specific content of their moral rules will depend on their social learning.

I have developed this Aristotelian biology of morality and politics in Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (1998), and I have argued there that modern Darwinian science supports this Aristotelian understanding of natural right.

Although Marc Hauser shows no knowledge of Aristotle or the history of political philosophy, Hauser's Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006) provides support for my argument. He surveys the recent research on the biological evolution of morality. He concludes that morality is grounded in biology in a manner similar to the biological grounding of language. Human beings are born with a natural capacity for learning language, which Noam Chomsky has explicated as an innate universal grammar, but the specific content of language varies across different languages within the broad constraints of universal grammar. Similarly, Hauser argues, human beings are born with a natural capacity for learning morality, which depends on a universal moral grammar that belongs to the human species as a product of evolutionary history, but the specific expression of that morality will vary across different moral systems within the constraints set by the innate moral instinct.

Last January, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Steven Pinker on "The Moral Instinct," which surveys the reasoning of Hauser and others on the biological roots of morality. I wrote a post on Pinker's article.

Although I generally agree with Hauser's argumentation, I find some of his reasoning vague and confusing. Here I will indicate a few points where I find it hard to follow what he is saying.

In my book Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls, I noted that John Rawls often appealed to conceptions of human nature rooted in evolutionary biology. In particular, he argued that the very capacity for any sense of justice requires a psychological disposition for reciprocity that must have been shaped by human evolutionary history. He also suggested that we might see this innate propensity to morality as analogous to language as understood by Chomsky: there might be an innate moral grammar underlying our moral experience. A few years ago, John Mikhail wrote a philosophy dissertation at Cornell on "Rawls' Linguistic Analogy: A Study of the 'Generative Grammar' Model of Moral Theory Described by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice." Hauser has organized his book around Mikhail's account of the Rawlsian linguistic analogy.

The problem, however, is that in arguing that the moral instincts show the judgments of a "Rawlsian creature," Hauser never explains how this supports Rawls' argument that justice is based on the principles that human beings in the "original position" would choose behind a "veil of ignorance." One of the most controversial of Rawls' principles is the "difference principle" that inequalities in economic resources are permitted only as long as they benefit the least advantaged. When Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer put some people in a laboratory setting with the rules specified by Rawls, they selected principles of justice that were not exactly as Rawls predicted. In particular, they did not embrace the difference principle. They prescribed that the worst off should not fall below a set level of income, but then they allowed all others to have whatever higher incomes they might earn by contributing more to society. When Rawls was told about this, he responded: "If the results hold up it may be that the difference principle cuts across the grain of human nature." Oddly enough, Hauser tries to save Rawls from refutation by asserting that his difference principle might be embraced by all human beings unconsciously (90-91). But then Hauser never explains how human evolution would have favored an unconscious difference principle as an innate component of the moral instinct, and in fact, he says almost nothing about the difference principle as a fundamental principle of moral judgment.

What Hauser says about the "Rawlsian creature" depends on his contrast with the "Humean creature" and the "Kantian creature." But his cartoonish depictions bear little resemblance to their philosophic proponents. Hauser quotes Hume's famous declaration that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." But he does not notice the context of this remark that makes clear that Hume believes that reason can direct but not motivate action. Hume writes: "Reason and judgment may, indeed, be the mediate cause of an action, by prompting, or by directing a passion." Ignoring what Hume actually says, Hauser depicts the "Humean creature" as a purely emotivist being with no need for reason at all. Thus, Hauser never considers that the "action analysis" that he attributes to the "Rawlsian creature" was a crucial part of Hume's explanation of moral judgment.

Throughout much of the book, Hauser suggests that morality can best be explained as the work of the "Rawlsian creature" rather than the "Humean creature" or the "Kantian creature." But sometimes he suggests that morality is generally a continuing struggle between all three (418). Unless I am missing something fundamental in this book, he never resolves this confusion.

To test the claims of competing positions in moral philosophy, Hauser relies on research that depends on presenting people with moral dilemmas framed in artificial scenarios--such as the famous "trolley problem." Hauser admits that these scenarios are so artificial and abstract in their distance from everyday experience that they are little more than "toy examples." And yet he insists that the scientific method requires such abstract simplifications. He admits, however, that these "artificial examples" will not be persuasive if they are not combined with "real-life cases" (34-35). He often refers to real historical cases in his book. But he never develops any of these cases beyond a few sentences. For example, he refers to the American debate over slavery. But his remarks are so brief that they cannot capture the complexity of that debate (106, 167, 187). To speak of Abraham Lincoln as a moral "visionary," as he does, misses the reality of Lincoln as a statesman exercising prudence in making compromises that rejected the extremes of the abolitionist and proslavery positions. To say that applying the scientific method to morality requires "toy examples" begs the crucial question of whether there can be a science of morality that is not a historical science of irreducible complexity and uncertainty.

Hume sought to turn moral philosophy into a natural science. But he doing that, he relied as much on historical narrative--like his History of England--as on abstract theorizing. Doesn't a science of morality require such a combination of theory and history?

As I have argued here and elsewhere, a full science of morality would have to move through three levels of study--moral nature, moral culture, and moral judgment. We need to understand the universal moral principles of human nature as they interact with the variable cultural traditions of moral history. And we need to understand how individual moral judgments--like Lincoln deliberating about the Emancipation Proclamation--manifest the peculiarities of individual agents in particular circumstances as constrained by universal moral nature and specific moral traditions. Occasionally, Hauser recognizes this, as when he remarks: "What we need is a better sense of what real people do in real situations in real cultures" (131). But, unfortunately, in this book, we rarely see real people in real situations in real cultures.

If Hauser had devoted more attention to real historical cases, he might have clarified how exactly the universal moral instincts constrain particular moral traditions and individual moral judgments. As it is, Hauser's book leaves us in a fog on this crucial point. This was the problem that Richard Rorty stressed in his review of Hauser's book in The New York Times.

Hauser's problem is Aristotle's problem: if there is a universal, natural standard of right, then why do judgments of right and wrong across individuals and societies show so much variation? The general answer is that this variation is not arbitrary or unlimited, because it shows recurrent patterns that manifest the universal propensities of the natural sense of justice. On the one hand, Hauser explains, the "Weak Rawlsian" would say that the human species has "the capacity to acquire morally relevant norms, but nature hasn't provided any of the relevant details" (298). On the other hand, the "Staunch Rawlsian" would say that human beings are "equipped with specific moral principles about helping and harming, genetically built into the brain and unalterable by culture." Against these two opposing extremes--cultural determinism and genetic determinism--Hauser looks for middle ground: "A Temperate Rawlsian is equipped with a suite of principles and parameters for building moral systems. These principles lack specific content, but operate over the causes and consequences of action. What gives these principles content is the local culture. Every newborn child could build a finite but large number of moral systems."

But by itself, this general answer provokes more questions than it answers. "A finite but large number of moral systems"? How large? What are the finite limits? Sometimes Hauser says the natural moral instinct sanctions only "a narrow range of possible moral systems" (420). At other times, he says it would support "any of the world's moral systems" (426). Does this mean that the universal moral grammar does not allow us to judge any specific moral system as better or worse than others? If so, then moral progress is impossible, because we have no ground for ranking moral systems. So would this mean that moral systems prohibiting slavery are no better or worse than moral systems favoring slavery?

What we need--and what Hauser does not provide--is Darwinian moral history. We need to apply the Darwinian explanation of morality to human history to see how exactly the logic of that explanation works in the complex interaction of moral nature, moral culture, and moral judgment.

Two possible examples are the cases of incest and slavery. Edward Westermarck's Darwinian account of the incest taboo is one of the best examples of Darwinian moral history, because we can see how an evolved natural propensity to avoid incest is diversely expressed in different cultures and different individuals. Although Hauser often mentions the Westermarck theory of incest, he never elaborates it as an example of how a natural moral sense constrains the moral diversity of cultures and individuals (22-23, 166, 199-200, 299, 301). A couple of my blog posts on incest can be found here and here.

I have commented on Abraham Lincoln and the slavery debate many times on this blog. In Chapter 7 of Darwinian Natural Right, I extend my argument for Darwinian natural right by applying it to the history of slavery. I begin with a comparison of ant slavery and human slavery, in which I argue that while slavery among ants and human beings manifests a natural inclination to exploitation, the uniquely human opposition to slavery shows a natural moral sense that resists exploitation. I then argue that throughout the history of the debate over slavery--from Aristotle to Hume, to Thomas Jefferson, to Charles Darwin, to Lincoln--one can see the natural moral sense expressed as a joint product of emotional capacities for feeling moral passions like sympathy and anger and rational capacities for judging moral principles like kinship and reciprocity.

Hauser looks forward to the development of a "science of morality," in which "inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences, but a shared journey with the natural sciences" (425). I agree with this aspiration towards a unification of knowledge--or "consilience" as Ed Wilson would call it--which would unite the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Darwinian moral history would be an important part of this project. In a previous post, I have called this "Darwinian liberal education."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: Prudent Statesmanship or a Big Mistake?

I have argued that a Darwinian view of morality explains the moral sense as expressed at three levels of human experience: moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. To illustrate this, I have offered a Darwinian assessment of Abraham Lincoln's handling of the moral debate over slavery. Lincoln appealed to those natural moral sentiments that recognize the evil of slavery. He also appealed to the moral traditions of the United States--particularly, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence--as denying the moral claims of slavery, even as he recognized that the legal traditions of the Constitution would not sanction the immediate abolition of slavery in the South. As constrained by these moral sentiments and moral traditions, Lincoln had to exercise practical moral judgment in deciding how best to handle the slavery issue in the particular circumstances he faced.

He judged that he had no constitutional power to abolish slavery in the South, and he reassured the proslavery Southerners that he would abide by the constitutional compromises protecting slavery in the South. But he never wavered in his affirmation of the wrongness of slavery and his commitment to promoting the ultimate extinction of slavery as quickly as circumstances permitted. By the summer of 1862, he concluded that he could constitutionally emancipate slaves in those regions of the nation in rebellion, although this could be justified only as an act of military necessity exercised by the Commander in Chief in time of war. He believed that the permanent and complete abolition of slavery would require the passage of the 13th Amendment, which he supported.

The problem with such a practical moral judgment, however, is that it is always contestable and uncertain. A prudential judgment about practical circumstances can never be proven by pure logical demonstration from abstract principles. So there will often be deep controversy as to whether a judgment in complex, contingent circumstances is correct or not.

That is true for Lincoln's judgments about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. We still debate the wisdom of what he did. This continuing debate is clear in two recent books--Michael Knox Beran's Forge of Empires, 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made and Jim Powell's Great Emancipations: How the West Abolished Slavery. Comparing the statesmanship of Lincoln, Tsar Alexander II, and Otto von Bismarck, Beran argues that Lincoln's leadership in the Civil War to defeat the Southern rebellion and abolish slavery saved free government against the threat of a new philosophy of authoritarian coercion. Powell argues, on the contrary, that the Civil War was a big mistake, because slavery could have been peacefully abolished in the United States, which would have avoided the Southern resentment that slowed the progress toward racial equality. Powell's criticisms of Lincoln are made by many paleoconservatives and libertarians who scorn Lincoln and show their sympathy for the "lost cause" of the South. Beran and Powell have briefly summarized their arguments in essays found here and here.

In this debate, I am on the side of Beran. The major weakness in Powell's book is that he never shows any understanding of Lincoln's reasoning about slavery, and therefore he never really responds to Lincoln's position.

Powell insists that abolishing slavery peacefully--as was done in much of South America and the Caribbean--is much better than trying to abolish it through war. But he doesn't realize that Lincoln agrees! Throughout his career up to the end of 1862, Lincoln argued for peaceful, gradual emancipation of slaves with compensation for slaveholders and voluntary colonization in Africa for freed slaves who would consent to this. But the proslavery leaders of the South repeatedly rejected this. In fact, as early as 1833, the Virginia legislation rejected a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves, the same kind of plan that Powell thinks worked so well elsewhere.

Powell notes that although compensation for Southern slaveholders would have been expensive, the Civil War was much more expensive. But this is exactly what Lincoln argued in his 1862 Annual Message to Congress! And yet the Southerners rebuffed his proposals.

Powell speculates that if the Southern states had been permitted to leave the Union in 1861, they eventually would have abolished slavery on their own. This shows one of the fundamental problems with moral judgment: we can never know for sure how history might have turned out if some judgments had been made differently. In 1861, Lincoln could have yielded to the demands of many to allow the Southern states leave without war. We don't know what would have happened. But Lincoln judged that this would have jeopardized the cause of freedom in the world, because he saw a powerful move in the South towards authoritarian coercion and away from the libertarian principles of the Declaration of Independence. Beran sees this as well, and he suggests that if Lincoln had not done what he did, the American South would have joined the forces of authoritarian paternalism in other parts of the world, and history might have shifted in that direction. Proslavery Southerners had dreamed of joining with slaveholders in the Caribbean to promote a growing empire of slave societies to challenge the free societies based on free labor. Powell does not explain why this would not have been a realistic possibility.

In fact, Powell never confronts the growing intellectual movement in the South toward a proslavery paternalist philosophy of coercion. In his book, Powell devotes one paragraph to the philosophical defense of slave society coming from John Randolph and John C. Calhoun (124). But he never says anything more about the pervasive Southern philosophy of paternalism based on the claim that all great civilizations required the rule of a few over the forced labor of a subordinated class--John Henry Hammond's "mud-sill" society. Lincoln saw this as a fundamental challenge to principles of a free society. Powell does not see this because he never really examines it. Beran shows how this kind of thinking was part of a world-wide counterrevolutionary movement of grandees to preserve their dominance against the revolutionary challenge of modern liberty.

At the end of his 1862 Annual Message to Congress, Lincoln claimed that the American Civil War would be a turning point in world history:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save it. We--even we here--hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honoring alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

Similarly, of course, at the end of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln hoped that the Civil War would bring a "new birth of freedom" so that popular government "shall not perish from the earth."

To many readers today, this sounds like rhetorical exaggeration. But the whole point of Lincoln's view of the debate over slavery and Union was that this really was a critical historical moment in which the modern principles of the free society were being challenged by the ancient principles of authoritarian paternalism. Beran's book brings this out very well by putting Lincoln's statesmanship into the world-wide historical setting of 1861-1871.

For Lincoln, this great historical debate would turn on whether the principles of the Declaration of Independence would be taken seriously or not. In his speech of July 10, 1858, Lincoln warned that the arguments of Douglas for denying the equal liberty of all human beings would tend "to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this government into a government of some other form."

"They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of kingcraft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn it whatever way you will--whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent."

Similarly, in his letter of April 6, 1859, Lincoln affirmed that the principles of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence are "the definitions and axioms of a free society."

"And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

"One dashingly calls them 'glittering generalities'; another bluntly calls them 'self-evident lies'; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to 'superior races.'

"These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect--the supplanting of the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the vanguard--the miners and sappers--of returning despotism."

David Christian's book The Maps of Time--the subject of a recent post--allows us to see that Lincoln understood that the modern commercial republic was a radical break with five thousand years of human history dominated by agrarian, tributary states in which a ruling few lived by exploiting the labor of the many. The Southern "mud-sill" theory of government, based on the idea that human civilization required a ruling elite exploiting the labor of a subordinate class, was a restatement of the argument for the agrarian state based on class privilege.

Beran's book shows that the various modern expressions of authoritarian paternalism--in the proslavery South, in Bismarck's welfare state, in Russian autocracy, or in Marxist socialism--were all extensions of the premodern agrarian state tradition.

In resisting this tendency to return to the ancient tradition of statist authoritarianism, Lincoln's statesmanship in the Civil War really did preserve the principles of a free society as the "last best hope of earth."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Bicentennial of Darwin and Lincoln

Next year will bring the bicentennial of the birthday of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, who were born on February 12, 1809. There are many programs scheduled to celebrate either the Lincoln bicentennial or the Darwin bicentennial, but there are few programs bringing the two together. The only program that I know of that explores the link between Lincoln and Darwin is a program over the academic year--2008-2009--sponsored by the Center for Critical Inquiry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on the theme "Identity, Race, and Human Rights: Social Authority and the Legacies of Lincoln and Darwin."

The current issue of Newsweek has a cover article by Malcolm Jones on "Who Was More Important: Lincoln or Darwin?. There's a new book comparing Lincoln and Darwin by David Contosta entitled Rebel Giants. In January, Knopf will publish Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Making of the Modern Age.

On this blog, I have often written about the points of intellectual contact between Darwin and Lincoln. Some of these posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. These blog posts along with my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right convey my thoughts about the links between Darwin and Lincoln in their thinking about morality, politics, religion, and the place of human beings in nature.

Here I have one point to add. Lincoln had a remarkably deep understanding of human cultural evolution that follows the pattern of Darwinian universal history set forth by Darwin and by David Christian in the book that was the subject of my last post.

In his "Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, his "Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society," and in his meeting with some American Indian chiefs, Lincoln laid out his conception of cultural evolution as moving through three stages of society--from foraging societies to agrarian societies to societies based on commercial exchange and free labor. Like Darwin and Christian, Lincoln believed that what made human beings unique in the animal world was the human capacity for symbolic speech, which allowed for collective learning in the artful domination of nature for the material, moral, and intellectual improvement of human life. Originally, all human beings lived by foraging--gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Some of the native American Indians manifested this way of life. The invention of agriculture--based on the cultivation of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals--supported human civilization as an advance beyond the savage life of foragers. But despite the advance in civilization in agrarian states, such states were founded on slavery and other forms of coerced labor so that rulers lived by exploiting peasant labor. Lincoln saw that the Industrial Revolution based on commercial exchange and free labor was bringing a new revolution in human cultural evolution that promised the physical, moral, and intellectual liberation of labor. He saw the abolition of slavery as the crucial move towards this new state of society that would bring a "new birth of freedom," in which all human beings would have a fair chance in the "race of life."

Darwin saw this same revolution in the cultural evolution of humanity. That's why he followed with great interest the news reports of the American Civil War. We can see this in his correspondence with Asa Gray in the 1860s. Like Lincoln, Darwin was a life-long opponent of slavery who looked forward to its abolition. But like Frederick Douglass, Darwin was frustrated by Lincoln's slowness in attacking slavery, because he did not fully comprehend Lincoln's prudence in working for the "ultimate extinction" of slavery over time. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation illustrates his prudence, because he justifies the emancipation of slaves in the rebellious territories as a military necessity in time of war, while recognizing that the final and complete abolition of slavery would require the 13th Amendment. Here we see the complexity and contingency of moral judgment. It is not enough to appeal to some abstract principle of absolute morality. We must be able to judge what can be done and should be done in the circumstances of action. And since such practical judgment can never be exercised with certainty or precision, we can never be sure that our decisions are correct.

We see here how a Darwinian science of morality and politics would have to account for the complex interaction of natural evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.

Many of these points will surely come up in my seminar on Lincoln this fall at Northern Illinois University.