Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Biopolitical Science"--An APSA/ASPLA Paper

My APSA/ASPLA conference paper--"Biopolitical Science: Darwin, Lincoln, and the Deep History of Politics"--can be found here by searching under my name.

I warn you, however, that the paper is about 80 pages long.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nita Farahany on Law and Neuroscience

As I have indicated in a previous post, I will be participating in a series of convention panels on "Evolution and Morality" at the Boston convention of the American Political Science Association, August 28-31. These panels are sponsored by the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy.

One of the panels will be organized around Nita Farahany's paper on "Law and Behavioral Morality." Farahany is a law professor at Vanderbilt University who brings together law, philosophy, and biology in studying the fundamental assumptions about human nature in criminal law. In this paper, she considers how research in evolutionary science and neuroscience might influence our view of criminal responsibility and culpability.

She claims that as evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience provide biological explanations of human morality, this will strengthen the power of "behavioral morality--the idea that any behavior with a physical cause is either not blameworthy, or is less so." She seems to assume that "blameworthiness" presupposes "free will" understood as an uncaused cause. And, therefore, if we can show there is a physical cause for someone's criminal behavior, then that criminal's behavior "is either not blameworthy, or is less so."

If I have correctly interpreted what she is saying, then I disagree with her. As I have said in some previous posts, I see no reason to believe that legal responsibility and culpability must rest on the idea of "free will" understood as uncaused cause. The only possible uncaused cause is God. All other natural agents are subject to the causal order of nature. But we can still hold people responsible for their behavior as long as we understand moral responsibility correctly. The commonsense notion of liberty is power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice. Human freedom of choice is not freedom from nature but a natural freedom to deliberate about our natural desires so that we can organize and manage our desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. This is how Aristotle and Darwin understood moral choice.

Darwin would say that human behavior arises from a complex interaction of innate temperament, individual experience, social learning, external conditions, and deliberate reasoning. Although we are not absolutely free of the causal regularities of nature, 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. Darwin wrote: "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."

Against Farahany's "behavioral morality," I agree with Stephen Morse--a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who specializes in psychology and law--that the law's conception of responsibility does not require "contra-causal freedom." It requires only that human beings have sufficient practical rationality to understand their choices and to act on their deliberate decisions. When rationality is so diminished that someone cannot understand or act on his choices--a child or someone who is insane, for example--then we excuse their behavior and do not hold them fully responsible for their actions. But this conception of moral and legal responsibility as based on the capacity for practical deliberation or rationality does not require any transcendence of natural causality.

Under this commonsense conception of responsibility, research in evolutionary science and neuroscience could have some interesting implications for law, but it poses no fundamental challenge to the traditional understanding of legal responsibility.

Farahany thinks that neuroscience could radically challenge the legal standard of the "reasonable person." The standard of reasonableness is a prediction of what the normal or average person will do in a given set of circumstances. But while the criminal law now relies on a "fictitious concept of reasonableness," neuroscience, Farahany claims, could allow us to "define objective reasonableness by a scientifically robust understanding of human behavior." She writes:

"Suppose, for example, science is able to predict that all people with lesions of a certain size and shape in the frontal lobe who also have certain environmental triggers, such as childhood abuse, will become robbers as adults. Society may choose that given the distribution of normal human capacities, that such persons cannot be held as agents under criminal law when they later rob as adults. Or, society may also decide that because of the aspirational goals of the criminal law--to set norms of human behavior--that even those people will be held criminally accountable when they commit violent robberies, but not when they commit other robberies. Criminal law will have to balance its goals--promoting social welfare, reifying and setting social norms--with preserving its legitimacy. If, indeed, one hundred percent of individuals are unable to comply with a set norm in criminal law, and science can inform this, criminal law will likely need to reformulate this norm."

To "suppose" that biological science could ever give us such 100% predictability of behavior is unbelievable. Isn't this scenario far more "fictitious" than the traditional standards of reasonableness? Such absolute and precise predictability is not achievable for a historical science like behavioral biology. To imagine such a scenario is to ignore the distinctive traits of biological phenomena--individuality, particularity, contingency, plasticity, and historicity. Even genetically identical bacteria show individuality in their behavior. We can't even predict the precise behavior of fruit flies with 100% accuracy. Even identical twins are not really identical, because each will show individual traits. One of the prominent themes of contemporary neuroscience is the plasticity of the brain--because the brain is constantly being reconfigured by experience, and sometimes this reflects mental effort, when individuals consciously overcome abnormal neural circuitry by using mental concentration to change the circuitry. For example, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz has shown how this can happen with obsessive compulsive patients who are taught to use mental effort to change their brains.

Farahany speaks of "certain environmental triggers, such as childhood abuse." How exactly would she specify this precisely enough to enable 100% predictability? Do these "environmental triggers" include all of the cultural history and life history experience of each individual? And how would she specify "childhood abuse"? Does this imply some generic conception that would abstract from all the particularity of concrete cases of abuse? If so, wouldn't this ignore the uniqueness of each case that would create individual variation and thus prevent 100% predictability?

Rather than foreseeing that neuroscience will some day develop deterministic models of human behavior that will replace traditional commonsense psychology, as Farahany suggests, I foresee that neuroscience will, at best, only confirm that commonsense psychology in all of its uncertainty.

Here I am building on some previous posts on the neuroscience of human behavior, which can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Religious Transcendence and Natural Evolution

As I continue to write my response to the seven commentators for the second edition of Darwinian Conservatism, I see a fundamental division between those who look to natural evolution and those who look to religious transcendence.

Neil Blackstone, Lauren Hall, and Timothy Sandefur seem to agree that we can fully understand human beings as products of natural evolution, and so we can base our moral and political reasoning on evolved human nature. Carson Holloway, Peter Augustine Lawler, Richard Sherlock, and John West seem to agree that no evolutionary account of human nature is sufficient, because we need to see that human beings have a supernatural or transcendent end, and that's why we need religion to reveal that cosmic end.

I argue that our evolved human nature includes at least 20 natural desires that constitute the range of universal or generic human goods for all human beings in all societies throughout history. The concrete expression of these goods varies for different individuals in different circumstances. Prudence or practical judgment is required for individuals to judge how best to rank and integrate the generic goods of life in an individualized way that fits the contingent and particular circumstances of each individual.

One of those natural desires is the desire for religious understanding. But the individual expression of this desire as balanced with other natural desires will vary across individuals. A crucial issue is the balance between the desire for religious understanding and the desire for intellectual understanding. For some individuals, the desire for ultimate explanation will be satisfied with taking nature as the uncaused cause for all explanation. But others will move beyond nature to some supernatural uncaused cause. This choice between reason and revelation--Athens and Jerusalem--runs throughout intellectual history.

There are moral and political implications to this issue. While I believe religious longing has to be recognized as part of evolved human nature, and while I think religious belief often supports morality, I think that natural morality as rooted in the generic goods of our 20 natural desires can stand on its own natural ground without religion. Here is where the "transcendent conservatives" disagree with me, because they deny that any healthy morality is possible without the support of some "religiously-informed cosmic teleology" (Holloway's phrase).

After all, they ask, how do we settle conflicts between the natural desires? Doesn't this require some ranking of those desires in some hierarchical order? To do this, don't we need some cosmic teleology of transcendent ends in the light of which we can determine the summum bonum or best life for human beings? Once we can identify the best life as conforming to the transcendent end or purpose of human life in the cosmos, then, they argue, we can resolve our moral conflicts by ranking our human goods from lowest to highest.

Here we come to a fundamental disagreement. My critics assume a dominant-end conception of human goods--the idea that all human goods and ways of life can be hierarchically ranked with one human good or way of life at the top. We might think of Aristotle's claim in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics that the highest and best life for human beings is the contemplative life of the philosopher, because this is the human life that is the most divine. Christian theologians saw this as a pagan intimation of the teaching of revelation that the highest life--the ultimate end for which all human beings strive--would be eternal contemplation of God.

Against this dominant end conception of human goods, I argue for an inclusive-end conception. There is a range of human goods that correspond to my 20 natural desires--goods such as familial bonding, friendship, social status, political rule, wealth, health, aesthetic pleasure, intellectual understanding, and so on. Human flourishing or happiness is constituted by these goods, so that any life without one of these goods would be less than fully happy. For example, a life without any deep friendships would not be a fully flourishing human life. But the importance of friendship as balanced against all the other goods will vary in the lives of different individuals. How one should combine and rank the goods of life requires that each individual exercise prudential judgment in deciding how to arrange and integrate these goods in a way that is appropriate for the contingent and particular circumstances of the individual and for that individual's propensities, abilities, and history. In this view, the end of human life is inclusive of all the human goods, and the ranking of goods will properly differ for different individuals with different forms of life.

Much of what Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric seems to support this inclusive end view. According to this view, the philosophic life might be the best life for someone like Socrates. But for other human beings, with different temperaments, abilities, and circumstances, a different kind of life might be best. And yet, since intellectual understanding is a generic good for all human beings, any individual who would be utterly ignorant and lacking any intellectual understanding would not have a fully happy life.

Abraham Lincoln was a deeply intellectual man. This was evident in early years when he engaged in long, philosophical discussions with his friends, and he wrote a long essay questioning the authority of the Bible and its theology. But he did not devote himself to the philosophic life. Instead, he became a lawyer and politician. His love of honor drove him to a life of striving to do something great enough for his country that he would be remembered for ever.

Those like Leo Strauss and his students who think the philosophic life is the highest life for all human beings would say that Lincoln's life was inferior to Socrates', and that the goodness of any human life is to be measured by how far it approximates the life of a Socratic philosopher. Or they might say that the merely moral and political lives of people like Lincoln are good only instrumentally insofar as they serve to secure the conditions for the contemplative life of those few people like Socrates.

This makes no sense to me. Why can't we say that both Lincoln and Socrates led flourishing lives insofar as they satisfied a wide range of natural human goods, even though they ranked and integrated those goods into two different kinds of life?

My inclusive end view of human flourishing is close to what Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen would call "individualistic perfectionism." Den Uyl develops this idea in his book The Virtue of Prudence (1991). Den Uyl and Rasmussen develop it in their book Norms of Liberty (2005). Like my account of "Darwinian natural right," their "individualistic perfectionism" recognizes both human nature and human individuality. Human flourishing manifests human nature in the generic goods of human life. It also manifests human individuality in that human flourishing is the individual flourishing of particular individuals. The basic or generic goods of life--such as health, wealth, friendship, honor, and knowledge--constitute the natural end of human life. Full flourishing requires all of these goods in some form. But the ranking and integration of these goods must properly vary for different individuals, and that's why prudence becomes the supreme moral virtue because it must judge how best to rank and integrate these goods for each individual life. This supports a moral and political argument for societies of ordered liberty as securing the conditions in which human individuals are most likely to achieve humanly flourishing lives.

Transcendent conservatives like Holloway, Lawler, Sherlock, and West reject such a view of morality. According to West, we need some "transcendent standard of morality" rooted in the cosmic order of an intelligent designer or eternal nature. According to Holloway, we need "revealed religion" to provide a transcendent ranking of goods so that we can see one particular form of life as conforming to the cosmic end of all human striving.

For this to work, the transcendent conservatives would have to persuade us to accept a transcendent, religious conception of the universe that is authoritative, clear, and reliable in its moral teaching. How would they do that?

Holloway has appealed to Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life in Book 10 of the Ethics. He has suggested that Aristotle's arguments show the influence of "revealed religion." But is it clear that Aristotle believed in "revealed religion"? He does invoke some conception of divinity in the Ethics in saying that philosophy is the most divine activity--the human activity most loved by the gods--but it's not clear what exactly he means by this, or even whether he is really serious about it.

Holloway also invokes the tradition of Christian religion. But then it's not clear whether he thinks all human beings can be persuaded to embrace this religion. At times, he speaks of "Catholic Christianity" as though this would be his favored form of religion. But, again, how does he expect to persuade everyone to adopt this religion?

As an alternative to Holloway's appeal to Christian religion, transcendent conservatives might turn to West's argument for an intelligent designer. But as West himself indicates, the intelligent designer is not necessarily the same as the biblical god. And even if we were to accept West's arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer, he never explains why we should attribute any moral authority to this intelligent designer. In fact, Behe worries about the apparent immorality of the intelligent designer in deliberately designing living mechanisms--like malaria, for example--to kill millions of innocent people. But then Behe decides that we cannot know "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity," and after all, "from the bare conclusion of design, I see no necessary major implications for our daily lives." So if Behe is right, recognizing the intelligent designer is not going to give us any moral guidance.

If we are left, then, with Holloway's Christian religion--and perhaps, more specifically, Catholic Christianity--as the only way to provide the transcendent hierarchy of cosmic goods that we seek, how exactly do we enforce this morally and politically? Does this point us to theocracy as the only answer? If so, then transcendent conservatism must reject any free society in which individuals have religious liberty. This seems to be exactly what Sandefur fears in traditionalist conservatism.

If the transcendent conservatives are not implicitly arguing for theocracy, then how exactly do they expect a free society to foster a healthy moral order without a shared devotion to a revealed Christian religion that enforces a cosmic hierarchy of goods?

The inclination of transcendent conservatives towards theocracy was suggested last year in Dinesh D'Souza's book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. D'Souza is trying to persuade American conservatives that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims" (287). He claims that the moral debate today is divided sharply between two positions. On the one side, conservatives believe in a religious morality rooted in "an external moral order" and "external commands." On the other side, liberals believe in a secular morality of the inner self, "the morality of self-fulfillment" (18-20). The liberals' secular morality of self-fulfillment promotes moral corruption through hedonistic self-indulgence and materialism. Traditional Muslims believe that this liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life. American conservatives, D'Souza insists, should admit that they are right. America really is morally corrupt insofar as liberal morality has prevailed in American life. American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against the corruption of such secular morality.

Do the transcendent conservatives--like Holloway, Lawler, Sherlock, and West--think D'Souza is wrong? If so, why? If we need "revealed religion" to support a transcendent, cosmic hierarchy of goods, why doesn't Islamic theocracy provide what we need?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ross, Lincoln, and the Biblical Morality of Slavery

In response to my arguments for Darwinian natural right and Darwinian conservatism, the most common objection is that a morality rooted in human nature fails if it is not supported by religious belief. This is the major objection coming from religious conservatives like Carson Holloway and John West. The same objection comes from philosophical theologians like C. Stephen Evans and John Hare.

Evans and Hare are both leading proponents of the divine command theory of morality, based on the idea that ultimately the only reliable standard of morality is God's command. They criticize my evolutionary naturalism, because they believe a purely natural morality cannot work if it is not sustained by religious belief in God as the source of all moral standards. Holloway and West seem to make the same argument, although they are not quite as explicit in adopting the divine command theory.

All of these critics look to the moral debate over slavery as illustrating the failure of natural morality without religion. I argue--particularly, in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right--that slavery manifested a conflict between the natural desire of the slaveholders to exploit their slaves and the natural desire of the slaves to resist exploitation. Slavery was wrong because it violated the natural moral principle of justice as reciprocity. The resistance of slaves was a reminder to slaveholders that their slaves were not naturally adapted to their enslavement, and that to treat them as slaves was to treat some human beings as if they were not human. But still the self-interest of slaveholders made it hard to immediately abolish slavery without great costs. And the natural tendency to tribalism made it hard for former slaveholders and former slaves to live together as equals. All of these factors--combined with the constitutional status of slavery in the United States--made the debate over slavery the deepest moral crisis in American history.

But according to my critics, such an analysis fails to explain the abolition of slavery, because it fails to see that human beings would never have recognized the immorality of slavery through their natural experience if they had not been taught that slavery was contrary to God's law. According to these critics, we know that slavery is wrong only because we know that slavery contradicts the the moral principle of universal love taught in the Bible. The teaching of Jesus that we should love our neighbors sustains a universal and disinterested love of all human beings equally, and all morality is rooted in this one divine command. The biblical teachings about the universal moral dignity of all human beings as created in God's image and about the Golden Rule as dictating that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us support this universal love teaching. Only in the light of this religious morality of the Bible could human beings finally see the immorality of slavery and then work to abolish it.

I have written about various facets of this topic many times on this blog. But recently I was reminded of it in reading the Rev. Fred A. Ross's book Slavery Ordained of God, which was first published in 1857 and reprinted this year by BiblioBazaar (Charleston, S.C.). Ross was a leading Presbyterian minister and theologian in Huntsville, Alabama, who defended Southern slavery as supported by the Bible. As Mark Noll and other scholars have noted, this was a popular position, because many Christians in the United States read the Bible as sanctioning slavery as commanded by God.

Part of the special interest that Ross's writing has is that Abraham Lincoln wrote a brief response to Ross's proslavery theology. As I noted in my recent posts on Thomas Krannawitter's new book on Lincoln, Krannawitter claims that "Lincoln proceeded to dismantle the pro-slavery theological arguments presented by Ross." But when we look at Lincoln's note on Ross, 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." Lincoln 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.

But my critics--the proponents of the divine command theory of morality--would say that we cannot recognize the immorality of slavery by purely natural experience. After all, if the slaveholder is satisfying his natural desires for dominance and wealth by exploiting slaves, why should he not think slavery is moral? To see the immorality of slavery, we must move beyond nature to some supernatural morality--the morality of divine command as expressed in the Bible.

But what about the Bible? Is the Bible clearly against slavery? If we look at the "squabble" over the Bible's meaning, can we be sure that Ross is wrong in claiming that the Bible shows God commanding that slavery is right?

Like my critics, Ross espouses a divine command theory of morality. To say that standards of right and wrong exist as natural facts independently of God's will is, Ross insists, atheism. Ross's alternative is that right and wrong are contingent products of God's will. We know what is right or wrong only because, and to the extent that, we know whether God has declared it right or wrong. And for this, we must turn to the Bible as God's revelation of His will. Therefore, we cannot know whether slavery is right or wrong except by seeing what the Bible teaches about God's will as to slavery.

And what does the Bible teach about God's will concerning slavery? The Old Testament clearly sanctions slavery. The ancient Hebrews practiced it, and God commanded it. Similarly, in the New Testament, the Christians accept slavery as practiced by the ancient Romans. Paul teaches slaves to obey their masters, just as he teaches children to obey their parents, and wives to obey their husbands. Ross goes over all the relevant biblical passages to show the endorsement of slavery.

But what about the biblical arguments of the abolitionists--arguments that appealed to the teachings about being created in God's image, about universal love, and about the Golden Rule? Ross responds to each of these arguments by showing that the Bible clearly teaches that human beings are commanded to conform to relationships of authority in which some people are to submit to the authority of their superiors. Children must submit to parents. Wives must submit to husbands. Subjects must submit to government. Slaves must submit to masters. So the teaching of universal love must be interpreted in the light of these moral obligations to submit to authority. That we are all created in God's image does not mean that we are all the same. Children need to submit to the authority of their parents, because the circumstances of children make them dependent on parental care. Such relationships of inferiors and superiors run throughout society, and they are sanctioned by God.

This leads Ross to denounce the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independence as an atheistic teaching of Thomas Jefferson that contradicts the Bible. The Bible does not teach that all human beings are born absolutely equal in their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This teaching comes not from the Bible but from the "social compact" tradition of John Locke as adopted by atheists like Tom Paine and Jefferson.

To me, this shows how religious morality--especially biblical morality--can be unreliable, which forces us to fall back on our natural moral sense as rooted in our evolved human nature. Against this, my critics appeal to what they take to be the moral universalism of biblical religion. But this appeal to biblical morality is always vague. They never explain exactly how the Bible specifies our moral norms. And in the case of slavery, they just assume without argument that the Bible is clearly opposed to slavery, and so they never respond at all to those like Ross who support their pro-slavery position with meticulous biblical exegesis.

Lincoln saw this problem with great clarity. In the theological crisis of the Civil War, "both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

For just a few samples of the many posts I have written on this topic, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Fred Ross's book can be found at various places online. For example, here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Response to Seven Commentaries, Part 2

I am continuing my response to seven commentators--Blackstone, Hall, Holloway, Lawler, Sandefur, Sherlock, and West.

Sherlock and West come to the defense of "intelligent design theory" as a scientific alternative to Darwinian biology.

Their remarks confirm my claim that the case for intelligent design relies almost entirely on negative rhetoric. The proponents of intelligent design win the debate only if they can put the burden of proof on Darwinian science--a burden of proof that they themselves cannot satisfy in proving intelligent design as a positive alternative. They ask for clear, step-by-step explanations for evolutionary history confirmed by empirical observation. Because evolutionary science is a historical science relying on indirect evidence of the past, this is often hard to achieve. That's why Darwin emphasized the "difficulties" for his theory. But the proponents cannot provide any positive alternative explanation of their own. To do that, they would have to explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer intervened to create the "irreducibly complex" mechanisms of life. Advocates for intelligent design cannot do this, and they carefully avoid even trying to do it.

Even if there is an intelligent designer, it is hard to understand why He is unable or unwilling to work through a natural evolutionary process. In fact, many religious believers see no conflict between theistic belief and evolutionary science. After all, isn't there more grandeur in having the intelligent power to design laws of nature so that they carry out the designer's plan through natural evolution than in having to repeatedly intervene in the history of nature to fill some gap in nature?

In fact, the leading biologist promoting intelligent design--Michael Behe--actually suggests that theistic evolution could make a lot of sense. In The Edge of Evolution, Behe writes: "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws. The purposeful design of life is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent, one important facet of Darwin's theory" (232). He also writes: "although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up" (166).

Whether one becomes a theistic evolutionist or not depends on how one resolves the problem of ultimate explanation. If one looks to nature as the unexplained and uncaused cause of everything, then one could be an evolutionary naturalist without being a theist. But if one looks to nature's God as the unexplained and uncaused cause behind nature, then one might be a theistic evolutionist. Darwinian conservatism is open to both.

Sandefur endorses my position by saying, "this is nothing more than good old-fashioned teleological natural law theory, updated with the discoveries of modern science." Against this idea, Sherlock insists that "we cannot have natural law without divine or eternal law." Similarly, West and Holloway say that a natural moral law based on natural science is impossible, because there can be no natural moral standard without some religious or eternal standard of right.

I agree that religious belief can be important in reinforcing a natural morality. But still a natural morality must stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief. After all, as Thomas Aquinas and other proponents of traditional natural law have indicated, the very distinction between natural law and divine law turns on the distinction between natural experience and divine revelation.

Moreover, Holloway, Sherlock, and West are all remarkably vague about how exactly religion resolves moral issues clearly and precisely. For such a religious morality to work, it would have to have moral authority, moral clarity, and moral reliability. But on each of these points, religious morality often falls short.

To have moral authority, we would have to agree on which religious tradition has preeminent authority. Atheists will reject any religious authority. But even religious believers will disagree about which religious source is authoritative. Are Holloway, Sherlock, and West open to just any religious tradition as morally authoritative? Or would they insist on just biblical religions? If it's the biblical religions, how would they resolve differences between Judaism, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism?

To have moral clarity, the statements of religious morality would have to be clear enough to resolve disagreements. Consider, for example, the case of slavery. Throughout the history of slavery, biblical religious believers have noticed that the Bible endorses slavery and never recommends its abolition. But some believers have tried to interpret the Bible as condemning slavery. This split arose in the United States and made the Civil War a theological crisis. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln dramatically depicted this split over the Bible: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

To have moral reliability, we would have to recognize the moral teachings of religion as reliable. But when religious texts like the Bible teach slavery, polygamy, infanticide, and genocidal warfare, we are forced to question whether these teachings are reliable or not.

We might try to resolve these difficulties by saying--as Holloway, Sherlock, and West sometimes do--that the entire moral teaching of the Bible is reducible to the principle of the equal moral dignity of all human beings as created in God's image and the practical principle of the Golden Rule. Surely, we can all agree to this? In fact, Darwin recognizes the Golden Rule as the "cornerstone of morality" by which we can judge moral progress.

But then it's not clear that this really is the Bible's teaching, or whether it's the teaching that we have read into the Bible based on our modern understanding of humanitarian universalism.

And even if we take this disinterested humanitarianism as the foundation of religious morality, we are still left with insuperable problems that require practical wisdom and natural human experience to resolve. For example, Sherlock identifies himself as "a strict pacifist on religious grounds." But then he adds: "I admit that war has always been and will always be part of human existence." And he endorses the "just war" tradition. But didn't the idea of "just war" arise in Christian tradition as a way of correcting the pacifism of Jesus? An absolute pacifism of "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" does not work in natural human experience, because human beings are naturally divided by group against group conflict in which war is unavoidable. This creates tragic moral conflicts that cannot be overcome by absolute principles of universal humanitarianism. We need prudence or practical judgment working on our natural experience in the world.

Consider the following comments from West: "I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certain moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--but only if we have reason to assume that these biological desires are somehow normative. If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or that they represent permanent truths inherent in the nature of the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality."

So does this mean that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work? If we believe the biblical God to be the intelligent designer, does that mean that whatever that God commands must be obeyed, even if it seems immoral? How can we judge that the intelligent designer or unchanging nature is good if we do not already have some independent standard of goodness derived from our natural moral sense? Is it possible that the intelligent designer used the evolutionary process to create the human species and its moral sense? Is it possible that "unchanging nature" produced human beings and human morality through an evolutionary process? If so, would that make our biological desires as shaped by evolution normative for us?

I have much more that I need to say in response to the seven commentators. But I will save that for my text to be published in the new edition of Darwinian Conservatism.

For some of my previous posts responding to Holloway, go here, here, here, and here.

For Lawler, go here, here, here, and here.

For Sandefur, go here and here.

For West, go , here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The new edition of Darwinian Conservatism will also reprint Michael Shermer's Scientific American article "Darwin on the Right" and Patricia Cohen's New York Times article on the AEI debate on the book. My blog posts on these articles can be found here and here.

A Response to Seven Commentaries on DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM

Imprint Academic will be publishing a new expanded edition of Darwinian Conservatism edited by Kenneth Blanchard (Northern State University, Aberdeen, South Dakota). This new edition will reprint the original text for Darwinian Conservatism. It will also include critical commentaries on the book by seven authors: Neil Blackstone (Northern Illinois University), Lauren Hall (Rochester Institute of Technology), Carson Holloway (University of Nebraska at Omaha), Peter Augustine Lawler (Berry College), Timothy Sandefur (Pacific Legal Foundation), Richard Sherlock (Utah State University), and John West (Discovery Institute). I will write a response to the commentaries. Blanchard will write a survey of the debate.

On this blog, I have already some responses to Holloway, Lawler, Sandefur, and West. In my response for this book, I will incorporate and elaborate some of the points I have made here in some of my previous posts.

I expect to organize my response under four categories: (1) conservative thought, (2) individuals and groups, (3) intelligent design, and (4) natural law and religion.

Hall and Sandefur agree with me that the evolutionary biology of human nature supports libertarian or classical liberal thought. But they sharply distinguish libertarianism from traditionalist conservatism, and so they don't agree with me that Darwinian science supports a fusion of classical liberalism and traditionalist conservatism. Hall and Sandefur seem to agree in defending a purely secular libertarianism that is suspicious of any religious conservatism that might threaten individual liberty and scientific rationalism.

I will respond by reiterating my claim that Darwinian biology supports ordered liberty as the central idea that unites classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives. Classical liberals look back to Adam Smith. Traditionalist conservatives look back to Edmund Burke. But Burke and Smith were intellectual friends. Burke praised both of Smith's books--The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Burke was a Whig, and the Burkean conservatives recognize themselves to be "liberal conservatives" in the sense that they share Burke's devotion to the Whig tradition of liberty.

Darwin drew heavily from Smith, particularly Smith's theory of moral sentiments. And like both Smith and Burke, Darwin recognized the importance of cultural tradition for moral and political order. Darwin's idea of evolution was derived from the idea of spontaneous order coming out of the Scottish and British Enlightenment.

Although Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk were often personally critical of one another, they agreed on a lot. After all, Hayek identified himself as a Burkean Whig, and Kirk shared Hayek's fear of statist coercion. As Sandefur indicates, some of Kirk's remarks can be interpreted as favoring statist coercion in the enforcement of traditional norms. But Kirk generally recognized that moral order came best from the spontaneous orders of civil society.

The libertarian's devotion to individual liberty and the traditionalist's devotion to social order can be properly combined in that trichotomy of order that I develop in my book--natural order, customary order, and deliberate order. Darwinian explanations of social life must stress all three. As social and political animals, our social life manifests our natural propensities as diversely expressed in customary traditions and as subject to rational deliberation.

I agree with Hayek in stressing the importance of spontaneous order as custom or tradition. But I also argue that this customary order is constrained by nature, and reason can stipulate order within the constraints of both nature and custom.

Much of the discussion from the commentators turns on the relationship between individuals and groups. Sandefur contrasts conservatives who see society as a value in itself and libertarians who see society as a value only to individuals. Blackstone contrasts my "tragic vision" of human nature as based on individual-level selection and the "utopian vision" based on group-level selection. On the other hand, Lawler says that my Darwinian science cannot account for the radical individuality of human self-consciousness, which manifests an obsessively self-centered longing for love and fear of death. According to Lawler, Darwinism stresses the importance of the species while denying the individual's insistence that "it really is all about me."

In this discussion, I would agree with Hall who says that Darwinian science shows a "mixed human nature, both social and selfish." As selfish animals, we do think "it really is all about me." But as social animals, we live for the sake of others. The "tragic vision" of Darwinian conservatism sees human nature as showing a conflict between individual-level selfishness and group-level altruism.

It is hard for me to respond to Lawler, because I cannot figure out exactly what he is saying. At times, he seems to be affirming a radical individuality and criticizing Darwinism for failing to respect such individuality. But at other times, he seems to reject this individuality as narcissism and praises Darwinism for showing that our true happiness comes from social engagement. On the one hand, he insists that to be human is to be utterly self-centered. On the other hand, he dismisses such self-centeredness as "the modern error."

I don't understand Lawler's claim that "Arnhart denies that love and death are essential to our being," and that I cannot account for "the fact of our deep loneliness or of our deep longing to be known and loved by other persons." It is odd to say this considering that I stress the natural desires for friendship, conjugal love, parental care, and familial bonding as manifestations of our naturally social animality.

As an Heideggerian existentialist, Lawler believes that existential anxiety in struggling with the meaning of life and death defines our human identity. But contrary to what Lawler says, Darwinian science recognizes this. Darwin observed that human beings were unique in their self-conscious reflection on life and death. Moreover, Darwinian conservatism supports the free society as necessary for securing the conditions in which individuals are free to associate in families, social groups, and churches to answer the transcendent questions of the meaning of life.

I will contine this in a second post.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How Presidential Greatness Subverts Republican Government

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is one of the best books on Lincoln. It's a collective political biography of Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, and Edward Bates, which shows how Lincoln brought his political rivals into his presidential cabinet so that he could draw from their intellectual and political strengths even when they disagreed with him. Recently, Barack Obama has said that he would like to follow Lincoln's example by bringing his opponents into his administration to create "the best possible government." In the August 3rd New York Times, Goodwin has an oped piece arguing that while this would be hard to do in today's political environment, our need for good government to meet the crises of our times would be well served by a President surrounded by people willing to disagree with him.

What bothers me about all of this--and what should bother any citizen who favors a republican form of government--is the unstated assumption that the "best possible government" is a purely presidential government. The concern with promoting good deliberation in the White House implies that this is the only place in the government where deliberation occurs and policies are made. The silence about the Congress is remarkable.

This cult of the presidency is the primary threat to the American republic. This cult is evident in our preoccupation with presidential "greatness" and "leadership." We assume that good government requires central direction from the White House. This is very far from the republicanism of the U.S. Constitution. In the Constitution, the first and longest article is the article on the powers of Congress, and those congressional powers are clearly meant to be the center of the government. But now, we have effectively elevated the presidency to the top. Rather than the original constitution, we now live under the sort of regime favored by the Progressives--a regime of presidential leadership overriding the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Speech of 1838 that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from the rise of ambitious men who would seek the glory and distinction of becoming the national leader--men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. But now, far from worrying about Caesarism as a threat to republican government, we assume that good government requires it.

We can see this in the historical ratings game: Who are the greatest presidents? Historians and political scientists play the game by ranking the presidents in terms of their greatness. The latest contribution to this game is Alvin Felzenberg's The Leadership We Deserved (And a Few We Didn't): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. He ranks the presidents in six categories: character, vision, competence, economic policy, promoting liberty, and foreign policy. Lincoln ranks at the top as the greatest president based on these criteria. But notice, again, the assumption that the whole government and all its policies depend on the President. This is not republican government. This is the presidential government of the Progressives.

Oddly enough, many conservatives have been taken over by such thinking. For example, neoconservatives like Harvey Mansfield have praised George Bush for his "one-man rule" and "imperial greatness." Like many Straussians, Mansfield thinks the best form of government would be the arbitrary rule of the one wise man, and he implies that this supports executive prerogative as superior to the rule of law. As I have indicated in my posts on Mansfield, this shows a dangerous fascination with what Mansfield calls "manly nihilism." Standing behind much of this Straussian scorn for limited government and the rule of law is Carl Schmitt's "decisionism."

As I have indicated in my recent posts on Thomas Krannawitter's new book on Lincoln, Krannawitter falls into the same trap. On the one hand, he rightly criticizes the Progressives for turning all government over to the "vision" and "leadership" of the President. On the other hand, he seems to endorse presidential government by agreeing with Benjamin Kleinerman's suggestion "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." This idea that the president should circumvent the Congress and appeal directly to the people for his authority is the core of the Progressive conception of presidential government.

As I have suggested previously on this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism, republican government based on checks and balances and the rule of law conforms to a realistic view of human nature. There is a natural human inclination to look to one man as the ruler, and some men are ambitious enough to seek the glory of such rule. (This reflects a primate evolutionary legacy of social groups organized around a dominance hierarchy with an alpha male.) But no man can be trusted with unchecked power. And there's a natural human inclination to resist exploitative dominance by one or few individuals. That's why a constitutional republic is designed to balance the powers of the one, the few, and the many.

Presidential government, by contrast, is based on a utopian view of human nature--the idea that the leadership of one wise man is the best government. This is the Fuhrer principle--Schmitt's "decisionism"--that stands against constitutional republicanism.

As citizens in a republic, we should not demand "greatness" from our presidents. We should demand service to a republican structure of government in which deliberation on policy is found primarily in the legislative branches.