Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wight on Smith's Invisible Hand

The current economic crisis has provoked a lot of people into saying that this shows the failure of Adam Smith's metaphor of an invisible hand. For example, David Sloan Wilson has argued that the invisible hand is dead, because we have seen that the greedy behavior of individuals in unregulated markets does not promote the public good, and because research in evolutionary psychology has shown that human behavior is guided by moral sentiments that cannot be explained as the rational maximization of self-interest. In an earlier post, I responded to Wilson.

Wilson's rejection of Smith's idea of the invisible hand is based on a misunderstanding of Smith's idea and of its relationship to Darwinian evolution. Two good articles help to clear up this misunderstanding. On the relationship between Smith and Darwin, the article I have in mind is Toni Vogel Carey's "The Invisible Hand of Natural Selection, and Vice Versa," in Biology and Philosophy, vol. 13, 1998, pp. 427-442. I might comment on this article in a future post. But here I want to draw attention to another article--Jonathan Wight's "The Treatment of Smith's Invisible Hand," in the Journal of Economic Education, Summer 2007, pp. 341-58.

Here's the abstract for Wight's article:

"Adam Smith used the metaphor of an invisible hand to represent the instincts of human nature that direct behavior. Moderated by self-control and guided by proper institutional incentives, actions grounded in instincts can be shown to generate a beneficial social order even if not intended. Smith's concept, however, has been diluted and distorted over time through extension and misuse. Common misperceptions are that Smith unconditionally endorsed laissez-faire markets, selfish individualism, and Pareto efficiency. The author draws upon recent literature to clarify Smith's meaning and to discuss ways of improving its classroom presentation. The author argues that the invisible hand operates within a variety of institutional settings and that a number of arrangements are compatible with economic progress."

Wight concludes:

"The interpretation of Smith's invisible hand offered here is that it represents man's natural instincts channeled by institutions and self-command. A person's highest instincts are to persuade, to be believed, to sympathize, to fashion order, to truck and barter, and to better one's conditions in the surroundings. These are invisible passions that lead people, both in Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. Although self-interest is a dominant and necessary passion in the economic realm, it does not operate in isolation. Experiments show that even graduate students in economics have not lost an instinctual passion for reciprocity and justice."

I agree with Wight's interpretation of Smith's invisible hand as "man's natural instincts channeled by institutions and self-command." I also agree with Wight's rejection of five alternative interpretations that appeal to providence, selfishness, enlightened self-interest, efficiency, and laissez faire.

(1) Providence. Smith speaks of the human instincts as coming from nature. But he also speaks of nature as guided by the "Author of Nature." This has led some of his readers to conclude that the metaphor of the invisible hand points to a providential deity as the final cause of nature, including human nature. This might suggest some kind of intelligent-design argument. But it seems doubtful that Smith was in any way an orthodox religious believer. He appears to use the idea of God as a way of expressing the regularities of nature that are manifested in living things. Moreover, he might well have felt the need to use religious language to protect himself against religious critics.

(2) Selfishness. Although Smith certainly emphasized the need to recognize the power of selfish passions in human nature, he also emphasized that a good society requires both social and unsocial passions that sustain the human virtues. Greed is not enough. Indeed, Smith was quite clear in rejecting the Hobbesian egoism that dominated so much of early modern moral and social philosophy. So the research in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology showing the moral motivations of human nature that go beyond narrow self-interest confirms Smith's work.

(3) Enlightened Self-Interest. Even if narrow self-interest is insufficient, one might think that the invisible hand works through enlightened self-interest, in that human beings might see that their self-interest is best served by a rational calculation that acting for the good of others advances one's own good. But Smith saw sympathy or fellow-feeling as an instinct that arose spontaneously without rational calculation, and as arising from sympathy, the moral sentiments could not be explained as grounded purely in enlightened self-interest.

(4) Efficiency. Many economists today assume that the invisible hand is the idea that free markets promote efficient outcomes through a pricing mechanism. Although this does correspond with much of what Smith says, Smith was also concerned with the national welfare of Great Britain and with the institutional structures that might promote British interests rather than the abstract efficiency of global markets.

(5) Laissez-Faire. The most common misperception of Smith's invisible hand is that it rejects all governmental regulation of economies. It is true that Smith criticized governmental interventions that were harmful. But it is also true that Smith argued for many governmental activities in sustaining military defense, the rule of law, public works of various sorts, and an educational system that fostered the moral and intellectual development of the people.

Far from being a dead idea, as Wilson has argued, Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand is the single most fruitful idea for unifying the social sciences and the life sciences.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Burke's Two Kinds of Conservatism

In some previous posts, I have indicated how the debate over Darwinian conservatism reveals the conflict between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism. Metaphysical conservatism is transcendentalist in viewing social order as grounded in a transcendent realm of cosmic design. Evolutionary conservatism is empiricist in viewing human social order as grounded in common human experience as shaped by human nature, human custom, and human judgment.

In the history of modern conservatism, this split was manifested in the metaphysical conservatism of Russell Kirk and the evolutionary conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. For Kirk, the first canon of conservative thought was belief in "a transcendent moral order" set by divine design, and thus Darwinian science was scorned insofar as it seemed to subvert belief in this transcendent order. Since Hayek was a religious and metaphysical skeptic, he disagreed with Kirk about this. In fact, this was one of the reasons why Hayek did not even want to be called a "conservative" rather than a "liberal" in the classical sense.

Hayek elaborated his view of Burkean liberalism as belonging to a British empiricist evolutionary tradition contrasted with a French rationalistic design tradition. In the evolutionary tradition of Hume, Smith, and Burke, Hayek explained, "it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility--the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution." He then suggested that Darwin's theory of biological evolution was derived from the theories of social evolution developed by the Scottish philosophers.

That both Kirk and Hayek saw themselves in the intellectual tradition of Burke suggests that the tension between them might be found in Burke. In fact, Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution--the founding text of modern conservatism--shows this tension between the metaphysical conservatism of religious belief and the evolutionary conservatism of skeptical naturalism. Burke does seem to have a metaphysical conception of transcendent moral order in which human society is bound up with the order of the universe. Burke writes of "the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place." Here we see the metaphysics of Burke--a religious metaphysics in which the moral and political order of human society is situated within a cosmic order designed by God to conform to His eternal purposes.

But much of the argument of Burke's Reflections works against such a metaphysical view of morality as dependent on the cosmic structure of the universe. Burke wrote his Reflections as a reply to the Reverend Richard Price, who was a Christian Platonist. Arguing against the moral naturalism of Hume and the Scottish moral sense philosophers, Price rejected the idea that morality was rooted in moral sentiments, and he contended instead that moral knowledge was a rational activity of the mind grasping the eternal and immutable metaphysical truths of God's nature.

Burke rejected Price's appeal to the metaphysical abstractions of the "rights of man." "In proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false." Earlier in his life, Burke had expressed his skepticism about metaphysical causes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. He had explained that in looking for the "efficient cause" of sublimity and beauty, he did not pretend to explain the "ultimate cause," because he was pursuing a purely empirical inquiry into sense experience. "That great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours. When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depths. All we do after, is but a faint struggle, that shows we are in an element which does not belong to us."

This reliance on sense experience rather than metaphysical causes is also evident in Burke's understanding of morality. Against Price's metaphysical morality, Burke in the Reflections evoked those "natural feelings" and "moral sentiments" that show "the natural sense of right and wrong" and "the moral constitution of the heart" as the foundation of moral experience. In doing so, Burke indicated his agreement with Hume and Smith in their account of morality as grounded in the moral sentiments of human nature. In fact, Burke had praised Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as "one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory that has perhaps ever appeared."

When Darwin developed his evolutionary theory of morality, he was guided by the moral philosophy of Smith and the other Scottish moral sense philosophers. Darwin showed how this moral sense could have evolved from social instincts and human reason.

Much of the reasoning for Darwinian conservatism turns on the intellectual links between Smith, Burke, and Darwin. While libertarian conservatives look to Smith as their intellectual founder, traditionalist conservatives look to Burke. The intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke shows the fundamental compatibility of libertarian and traditionalist thought. (Some folks--Timothy Sandefur, for example--disagree with this because they see libertarianism as fundamentally opposed to traditionalist conservative thought.) Darwin explained how the moral thought of Smith and Burke could be confirmed by an evolutionary science of morality. This continuity between Smith, Burke, and Darwin manifests the moral philosophy of conservatism as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings as moral animals.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Government Sachs" & the Corruption of Power in the Financial Bailout

In Darwinian Conservatism, I have a chapter on limited government. I suggest that the realist conception of human nature as imperfect supports the need for limited government with a balance of powers under the rule of law. Some of my readers have told me that they don't see the need to make such an argument because, after all, this hardly seems very controversial.

But notice what is happening in the American financial bailout. The U.S. Congress was persuaded that in a time of economic crisis, they should trust Henry Paulson and others from Wall Street firms to exercise virtually unlimited discretion in managing the $700 billion bailout. Now, in an article by Julie Creswell and Ben White in The New York Times, there's a report on what Paulson has done so far--he has given most of the major positions of power over the bailout to his friends from Goldman Sachs. The title of the article--"The Guys from 'Government Sachs'"--comes from the fact that people have coined the nickname "Government Sachs" to describe what has happened. One of the main people appointed by Paulson to direct the bailout is Neel T. Kashkari, who is a 35-year-old protege of Paulson who has no special experience for such a job.

Needless to say, the decisions made by these Goldman Sachs people will directly influence the economic fortunes of Goldman Sachs.

Of course, this is exactly what one should expect to happen when ambitious people are given unlimited power. One observer is quoted in the article as saying:

"Paulson put Goldman people into these positions at Treasury because these are the people he knows and there are no constraints on him not to do so. The appearance of conflict of interest is everywhere, and that used to be enough. However, we've decided to dispense with the basic principles of checks and balances and our ethical standards in times of crisis."

In recent weeks, many people have been saying that the financial crisis shows the need for more intense government regulation of the economy. But isn't it strange to use this argument to support a bailout program that gives unregulated power over the spending of taxpayer money to Wall Street financial managers who created the very crisis that they now say they should be trusted to resolve?

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Emergent Freedom of the Mind in the Brain: A Reply to Stephen Craig Dilley

In the 2008 issue of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Stephen Craig Dilley--a philosopher at St. Edward's University--has an article on "Enlightenment Science and Globalization." He attacks my Darwinian conservatism because of its "Enlightenment claim that the laws of nature and material causes are sufficient to produce 'emergent' human minds capable of the kind of free will consistent with moral responsibility." The problem, he warns, is that this "implies determinism of the mind and the disintegration of morality."

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that the human mind or soul can be explained as a product of the emergent evolution of the brain. The evolution of the primate brain shows a trend towards increasing size and complexity of the neocortex, which allows for greater behavioral flexibility in these animals. This trend reaches its peak in the human brain. Larger and more complex frontal lobes give animals the capacity for voluntary action, in the sense that they can learn to alter their behavior in adaptive ways. In human evolution, the growth in the size and complexity of the frontal lobes passed over a critical threshold allowing human beings to use words and images to compare alternative courses of action through mental trial and error. Consequently, human beings are capable not just of voluntary action but of deliberate choice, by which they self-consciously choose present courses of action in the light of past experiences and future expectations to conform to some general plan of life.

Against this, Dilley develops two kinds of criticism. First, he complains that my account of the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain is too vague, because it does not explain the specific details of how exactly the evolution of the primate brain gives rise to the human mind. Second, he argues that since I never explain "how mental events and properties can transcend the limits of physical causation," but rather assume "the sufficiency of purely natural causes to account for all things in heaven and on earth," I must implicitly accept that all human actions are causally determined by material causes and natural laws. This assumption that all mental activity has natural causes leads to the "disintegration of morality," Dilley insists, because it denies the possibility of free will and thus denies that people can be held morally responsible for their actions.

To the first charge, I plead guilty. I don't provide a detailed explanation for exactly how the human mind arises from the evolution of the brain, because as far as I know, no one has yet worked out such an explanation. Lots of evidence points to the evolutionary history of the primate brain as passing over some kind of critical threshold at which fully human mental capacities appear. But it's hard to say how exactly that happens. Our situation is comparable to our ignorance prior to the 1950s of how exactly genes work. We knew a lot about the outcomes of these genetic mechanisms. But we didn't know exactly how these mechanisms worked. In fact, even today, genetics is still shrouded in great mystery. The same is true for explaining how human self-conscious thinking and willing arises in the brain as shaped by a history of genetic evolution. But even so, we can say that the evidence supports the general conclusion that the mind arises in the brain by some kind of natural causality.

Does Dilley have his own detailed explanation of how exactly the human mind originated? If he does, he does not lay it out it in this article. It's hard to know how to respond to his criticism of my account of the evolutionary emergence of mind, because he offers no alternative explanation of his own.

Similarly, it's hard to respond to his criticism of my account of human mental freedom, because he never explains his alternative. At one point, he complains that in my reasoning, "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes are out of the picture." But then he never explains exactly how "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes" create human mental freedom.

Against the Kantian account of moral freedom as freedom from nature, I argue that our moral experience requires a notion of moral freedom as freedom within nature. The uniqueness of human beings as moral agents requires not a free will that transcends nature--as Dilley seems to believe--but a natural capacity to deliberate about one's desires.

We hold people responsible for their actions when they act voluntarily and deliberately. They act voluntarily when they act knowingly and without external force to satisfy their desires. They act with deliberate choice when, having weighed one desire against another in the light of past experience and future expectations, they choose that course of action likely to satisfy their desires harmoniously over a complete life. Such deliberation is required for virtue in the strict sense, although most human beings most of the time act by impulse and habit with little or no deliberation.

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

I reject any contrast between free will and determinism as a false dichotomy. Moral freedom should be identified not as the absence of determinism but as a certain kind of determinism. We are free when our actions are determined by our deliberate choices. I doubt that we ever have any real experience of people acting outside the laws of nature. Moral judgment assumes a regular and predictable connection between what people desire and what they do. To hold people responsible for their actions, we must assume that their beliefs and desires causally determine their actions.

I reject the idea of free will as uncaused cause. I agree with Jonathan Edwards that whatever comes into existence must have a cause. Only what is self-existent from eternity--God--could be uncaused or self-determined. In fact, the very idea of free will as uncaused cause comes from the biblical conception of God, and so, as Martin Luther observed, "free will is a divine term and signifies a divine power." Against the absurd idea that human beings could have such a divine power of free will as uncaused cause, I would say--like Edwards--that the common-sense notion of liberty is the power to act as one chooses regardless of the cause of the choice.

So what is Dilley's alternative? It's not clear. He refers to "agent causes." He never explains what that means. But since he rejects my idea that in human choices, our beliefs and desires causally determine our actions, I can only infer that he is implicitly appealing to free will as uncaused cause.

If that's what he is doing, then I would respond to him as I have to Denyse O'Leary. Like O'Leary, Dilley seems to adhere to a Gnostic dualism that insists on an absolute separation of mind and body. This Gnostic scorn for the natural world as incapable of embodying spiritual freedom denies both Christian orthodoxy and common sense.

Is Dilley implying that we cannot explain the emergence of the human mind without invoking "God, spiritual beings, or non-material causes"? If so, could he explain how exactly this works? And could he explain why God was either unable or unwilling to create the human soul through natural evolution?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Economics and the Sociobiology of the Social Sciences

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Vernon Smith on Bush's financial bailout plan. At one point, he wrote:

"During a bubble buyers are everywhere. Then suddenly, they disappear, waiting, watching, delaying, reluctant to buy assets that others might not. That buyers will disappear in a bubble is predictable, what is never predictable is the timing. In his 1933 Inaugural Address, President Franklin Roosevelt said 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Yes, but the return of fearful buyers is just as unpredictable as the timing of their disappearance. And only the most arrogant will pretend to know what public policies will restore buyer 'confidence.'"

Vernon Smith is a Nobel-Prize-winning economist. And yet he says that his science of economics has little predictive power. It can predict only broad patterns of human behavior, such as the disappearance of buyers when a housing price bubble bursts. It cannot predict the precise movement of economic events, and it cannot predict which public policies will work best in times of crisis.

This is not what I was told in graduate school. In my first graduate course in political science at the University of Chicago, I was told by my professor (David Easton) that economics was the "Queen of the Social Sciences," and that our job as political scientists was to make political science as much like economics as possible. The reason for this, the professor told us, was that economics was becoming a rigorous and predictive science comparable to physics and chemistry. And, after all, economics was the only social science to have its own Nobel Prize.

But a few years after I heard that, Friedrich Hayek received the Nobel Prize in economics, and his Nobel lecture was entitled "The Pretence of Knowledge." Hayek pointed out that the econometric models so prized by mathematical economists were not working well in predicting economic behavior. In fact, he argued, economic science has very little predictive power, because while we can predict general patterns of human social behavior, we cannot predict the events of human history in any precise way.

Hayek saw economics as a historical and evolutionary science that studied unique and contingent events, in contrast to the ahistorical sciences of physics and chemistry. Hayek--and the other Austrian School Economists--rejected the tendency of neoclassical economics to seek the mathematical precision of the physical sciences. Historical sciences like economics can formulate probabilistic regularities of human behavior, but not deterministic laws.

That's why I believe that economics and all the other social sciences need to be understood as branches of biology. As Ernst Mayr argued, biology can be divided into mechanistic biology and historical biology. Mechanistic biology deals with the physiology of living organisms, and much of this can be understood mechanistically in terms of physics and chemistry. But historical biology--including animal behavior and evolutionary biology--depends on historical narratives and probabilistic regularities that cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry.

Historical biology is much closer to the social sciences than anything in physics and chemistry. Social sciences rooted in the historical biology of human nature would generalize about natural propensities of human social behavior as shaped by genetic evolution. But they would also study the highly variable behavior of human beings as shaped by cultural traditions and individual judgments.

Vernon Smith is one of my favorite economists because he recognizes the potential contribution that human biology can make to economics and the social sciences. In particular, he sees the importance of evolutionary game theory in confirming Adam Smith's account of morality and economics. Like the work of Smith, an evolutionary social science would allow us to understand and predict the generic patterns of human behavior while recognizing the inescapable contingency and uncertainty of that behavior as it evolves in history.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

George Bush as Herbert Hoover--The Coming Depression

The experts in the Department of Treasury have changed their minds over the last few days about how to save the U.S. financial system. Now, the idea is to partially nationalize the biggest American banks. The front page story on this in the New York Times is about how this has a "basis in history." The clearest historical precedent for this is the Reconstruction Finance Corporation of the 1930s, which made loans to troubled banks and bought stock in thousands of banks. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was chartered in 1932 during the administration of Herbert Hoover. As we know, this and other actions initiated by Hoover and continued by Franklin Roosevelt turned an economic crisis into a prolonged depression that lasted for 10 years or more. So, at least now, we know where we're headed.

The alternative--allowing free markets to adjust over a year or two with great pain for many of us--is politically unacceptable. Because of the federal government promoting artificially low interest rates and encouraging home mortgages for people who could not pay for them, housing prices were inflated into a bubble that had to burst. As a consequence of human imperfectibility--that human beings are imperfect in their knowledge and their virtue--one can predict that human beings are inclined to go deeply into debt to cover their luxuries with the hope that in the future they will be able to repay their debts. Free markets reflect these human imperfections, and that's why markets tend to produce cycles of boom and bust. In the bust, people are punished for their imperfections, and eventually readjustments are made, but only with great pain.

Another manifestation of human imperfection is that political leaders believe that people need not suffer the consequences of their mistakes, if only central planners take control to manage the economy. And so it is, in the present Presidential election, both of the two major candidates agree with Bush's bailout plans. Except for a few sentences in Sarah Palin's comments in her first debate with Joe Biden, no political leader is willing to say that the present economic crisis is the consequence of our human failing in taking on more debt that we can realistically handle, and that the only solution is for us to suffer the consequences of our bad financial decisions until the economy corrects itself. Most politicians cannot say that because that would require holding people morally responsible for their mistakes.

Instead, the government will intervene. But those in government are just as imperfect in knowledge and virtue as the rest of us. After all, no one really knows how to plan out a modern economy into the future. Yet the attempt to do this will prolong what otherwise would be a short period of painful adjustment.

Moreover, with Henry Paulson and others in the Treasury Department having almost unlimited discretion in the spending of almost a trillion dollars, we can assume that there will be massive corruption. Again, given the imperfect virtue of these people, it would be silly to think these people will not be corrupted by their power.

We can also expect that these people are intoxicated with their feelings of glory as they think of themselves exercising such extraordinary power in remaking the global financial system during a historic crisis. Even more than greed, their love of glory is dangerous in its corrupting effects.

If Bush, Obama, and McCain continue in supporting the bailout and following the path blazed by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, we can anticipate a very deep and very long depression.

Have a nice day, everybody!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

E. O. Wilson's Darwinian Ethics of Natural Law

In Consilience, Edward O. Wilson recognizes that crucial for his unification of all knowledge is a biological account of ethics as rooted in evolved human nature. He rightly notes that in doing this, he is following in the tradition of naturalistic ethics that stretches from Aristotle to David Hume to Adam Smith and, finally, to Charles Darwin. He is also right to see this naturalistic tradition of ethics as being "empiricist" in contrast to the "transcendentalist" ethics of those thinkers like Immanuel Kant who look to a transcendent realm of moral freedom beyond the natural world of human inclinations and experience. But in rejecting Thomas Aquinas's natural law ethics as transcendentalist, Wilson fails to see the common ground shared by Thomistic natural law and Aristotelian natural right.

Wilson shares with Aquinas--and Aquinas's teacher Albert the Great--the belief that nature is a rational order of causal regularities that can be understood by human observation and reasoning. This scientific study of nature includes biology--as manifested in Albert's zoology, which continued Aristotle's biology and passed it on to Aquinas. Just as Albert and Aquinas sought to explain the natural moral law as rooted in human biological nature, Wilson wants to explain the natural moral sentiments as part of a comprehensive science of nature. Wilson's quest for "consilience" shows how the tradition of natural law reasoning can be extended and deepened through a modern science of human nature.

Human nature, Wilson insists, is not a product of genes alone or of culture alone. Rather, human nature is constituted by "the epigenetic rules, the hereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to another, and thus connect the genes to culture" (164) For example, the rules of human language are not strictly determined by either genes alone or culture alone, but instead arise from the interaction of genetic mechanisms and cultural learning. Genes initiate a process of development that endows the human brain with neural mechanisms for acquiring language, so that in normal circumstances, a normal human child is prepared to learn whatever language in spoken in the social environment. Despite the diversity of human languages as shaped by diverse cultural traditions, there is a natural pattern of regularities: all normal human beings are prepared to learn a language, and the languages that they learn have universal traits that reflect the human brain's adaptation for learning language (132-33, 161-63). Such regularities of gene-culture interaction are what Wilson means by "epigenetic rules."

The gene-culture coevolution of morality is similar to that of language. The genetic evolution of the human species has endowed human beings with an instinctive propensity to learn morality. Human morality shows universal patterns shaped by the natural desires that constitute human nature. But the specification of those patterns will be shaped by human cultural traditions and by individual judgments as constrained by both the natural desires and the cultural traditions. This similarity between morality and language as based on instinctive capacities for social learning is a fundamental theme in Marc Hauser's recent book--Moral Minds--surveying the evidence for the biology of morality. My blog post on Hauser can be found here.

Wilson argues that since morality is ultimately rooted in the moral sentiments of human nature, a natural science of morality requires a biology of the moral sentiments. Although Wilson concedes that we are a long way from achieving such a biology, he has repeatedly throughout his writings used Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of the incest taboo as the prime example of how biology can explain the moral sentiments. My blog post on Westermarck's theory can be found here.

All moral rules might ultimately be explained in the same way that Westermarck explains the incest taboo. Morality, at the deepest level, depends on gut feelings that some things are right and others are wrong. The precise content of these feelings depends on what human beings learn through social experience, and this experience varies greatly across different cultural traditions. Yet the regularities in these moral feelings manifest the natural inclinations of a universal human nature that is prepared to learn some things more easily than others.

Wilson argues that social cooperation was advantageous for survival and reproduction during the evolutionary history of intelligent social animals like human beings. Natural selection favored those genetically heritable dispositions that promoted cooperative behavior, which included innate propensities to social emotions such as sympathy, love, guilt, shame, and indignation. Eventually, the highly developed intellectual faculties of human beings allowed them to formulate customary norms of conduct that expressed these social emotions of approval and disapproval. For example, the natural dependence of children on adults favored the emotional attachment of parent-child bonding. This dependence came to be expressed as social rules approving of parental care and disapproving of parental neglect. Similarly, the benefits of cooperating for mutual advantage in evolutionary history favored dispositions that enforce reciprocity--emotional approval of fairness and emotional disapproval of cheating. The innate disposition to learn such emotions would then be expressed as social rules that rewarded cooperators and punished cheaters.

Citing the research of neurologists like Antonio Damasio, Wilson infers that the innate propensity to experience moral emotions, which has been shaped by natural selection, is etched into the neural circuitry of the human brain (112-15). To live successfully as social animals, human beings must make practical decisions guided by the emotional control centers of their brains. Our brains incline us to feel sympathy and concern for the pleasures and pains of others, to feel love and gratitutde toward those who help us, to feel anger and indignation toward those who harm us, to feel guilt and shame when we have betrayed our family and friends, and to feel pride and honor when others recognize our good deeds. Insofar as these moral emotions are felt generally across a society, they support seocial rules of love, loyalty, honesty, and justice.

It might be, however, that a few human beings suffer from abnormal circuitry in their brains that prevents them from feeling, or feeling very strongly, the moral emotions that sustain morality. This seems to be the case for psychopaths, who feel no obligation to obey moral rules because they apparently do not feel the moral emotions that support such rules. If so, we must treat them as moral strangers (as I suggest in my chapter on psychopaths in Darwinian Natural Right).

If we saw Wilson's biology of moral sentiments as part of the natural law tradition, we might see that much (if not all) of what Aquinas said about the natural inclinations supporting natural law would be confirmed by modern biological research. For example, we might conclude taht the biological study of the social bonding between male and female and between parents and children provides a modern, scientific way of understanding what Aquinas identifies as the natural inclinations towards conjugal bonding and parental care. Aquinas's reasoning about marriage--that monogamy is completely natural, polygyny only partly natural, and polyandry completely unnatural--makes sense in the light of modern biological theories of human mating and parenting. Aquinas explained the natural inclinations by appealing to Aristotle's biological account of human nature compared to the natures of other animals. Wilson's biology of the moral sentiments continues in that same tradition of Aristotelian biological naturalism.

Wilson is certainly right in thinking that Aquinas regards the natural law as ultimately an expression of God's will, because he believes in God as the Creator of nature. But Wilson is wrong in thinking that Aquinas must therefore be an ethical "transcendentalist" who believes that moral knowledge comes only from some supernatural source beyond the natural experience of human beings. After all, Aquinas distinguishes the natural law, as known by the human mind's grasp of the natural inclinations, from the divine law, as known by God's revelation of His will through the Bible. Natural law conforms to the natural ends of human beigns as directed toward earthly happiness. Divine law, by contrast, conforms to their supernatural ends as directed toward eternal happiness.

Aquinas contends that the "moral precepts" of the Mosaic law--such as the rules against murder, theft, and adultery--belong to natural law, and, consequently, that they can be known by natural experience even without being revealed as divine commandments. These precepts belong to natural law, Aquinas says, because they derive their force from "natural instinct." The Mosaic law incorporates natural law insofar as it secures the conditions for satisfying the natural human desires for life, sexuality, familial bonding, and social order generally. Unlike the moral precepts, the "judicial" and "ceremonial" precepts of Mosaic law--such as the Jewish dietary restrictions and procedures of worship--could not have been known if they had not been revealed as divine law. These precepts derive their force from being instituted for the people of Israel. Before they were instituted, it was arbitrary whether the matters covered by these precepts were arranged in one way rather than another.

The contrast between Aquinas's "empiricist" view of natural law and his "transcendentalist" view of divine law is clear in his account of marriage. Aquinas believes that marriage belongs to natural law insofar as it serves two natural ends--the parental care of children and conjugal bonding. A Darwinian scientist like Wilson can accept this moral claim because it depends upon the observable nature of human beings. Aquinas believes, however, that marriage also serves a supernatural end that goes beyond natural experience. As a sacrament of the Catholic Church, marriage symbolizes the supernatural mystery of Christ's union with the Church. If this religious doctrine strenthens the marital commitment of those who believe it, then it reinforces the natural moral sense associated with marital bonding and thereby promotes the earthly happiness of human beings. Yet the sacred meaning of the doctrine points beyond nature to the eternal happiness that Aquinas believes to be the final end of human longing. This sacred meaning of marriage comes from a divine law that transcends human understanding and is beyond the realm of natural science. Yet the secular meaning of marriage comes from a natural law that can be known by natural experience and is open to scientific study. This secular meaning is compatible with Wilson's "empiricist" view of morality.

This should allow proponents of Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics to see Darwinian science as providing a scientific foundation for their ethics. One can see this, for example, in the writing of Alasdair MacIntyre. In his After Virtue (1981), he defended an Aristotelian and Thomistic account of morality as rooted in the moral and intellectual virtues, but he rejected any appeal to Aristotle's biology. Some years later, however, he indicated in Dependent Rational Animals (1999), that he had changed his mind--partly through reading my Darwinian Natural Right--because he had concluded that his Aristotelian/Thomistic ethics could be rooted in a Darwinian account of evolved human nature.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls is my textbook on the history of political philosophy. It is now in its third edition. Over the next year, I will be revising it for a fourth edition. I would be pleased to hear from anyone familiar with the book who might have suggestions about revisions.

The book is designed to stimulate thought and discussion among undergraduate and graduate students reading the classic texts of political philosophy for the first time. Each chapter is organized around a series of questions linked to specific texts.

Another feature of the book is that I tie many of these political questions to scientific research in biology, psychology, anthropology, and behavioral game theory.

I open the book with a chapter on the Declaration of Independence suggesting that the questions raised in that document come up throughout political history and the history of political philosophy.

In the present edition, I have chapters on 13 political philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Rawls. Should I add new chapters on others?

I would be particularly interested in hearing from people who have used this as a textbook.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

E. O. Wilson's Religion of Consilience

I am now re-reading Edward O. Wilson's Consilience in preparation for leading a discussion of it at a Liberty Fund conference. It's good to look back at the book now that 10 years have passed since its publication.

Wilson argues that the final aim of all science is the complete unification of knowledge, which he calls "consilience," based on the idea that everything in the universe is governed by laws of nature that can be known by science. The problem, of course, is overcoming the divisions between the fragmented disciplines in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Wilson lays out a program for using the biology of human nature to unify those disciplines. Obviously, this vision has influenced my arguments for a "Darwinian liberal education."

But while I generally agree with Wilson, his book raises questions that he does not resolve to my satisfaction. I see six big questions.

1. Does consilience rest on strong reductionism or emergent complexity?

2. Does consilience rest on religious belief?

3. Can there be a science of historical contingency, including the historical contingencies of human culture?

4. Can the natural sciences fully explain human self-consciousness?

5. Can the natural sciences fully explain human deliberate choice?

6. Can science explain human life without relying on the common-sense human experience embodied in "folk psychology"? Or does a science of human nature arise from a refinement of common sense?

As I have written in Darwinian Conservatism and in some previous blogs--here and here--I think Wilson should look to emergent complexity rather than strong reductionism as the ground for consilience.

In the future, I might have something to say about the last four questions. But here I will comment briefly on the second question, which concerns the place of religion in Wilson's work. (In my references to the book, I will give the page numbers from both the hardbound and the paperback editions.)

At the beginning of his book, Wilson indicates that as a young man, he turned away from his Southern Baptist rearing when he turned towards evolutionary science. Throughout this book--as well as many of his other writings--he seems to reject any kind of religious belief as contrary to science. But he also repeatedly speaks of science as either founded on religious beliefs or satisfying religious longings. Consequently, he leaves the reader with a sense of ambivalence about whether science and religion are compatible or not. To some extent, this looks like his own personal struggle. But it also seems to point to a fundamental question about the relationship between modern science and religion--particularly, biblical religion.

Wilson speaks of the belief in the unity of knowledge as "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws" (4). He also speaks of the belief in consilience as a "trust" or "faith" or "metaphysical world view" (9-10, 45/49). But then he also denies that science is a "belief system" (45/49).

He also speaks of science as "religion liberated and writ large," as "another way of satisfying religious hunger," because it "aims to save the spirit" by allowing us to "understand who we are and why we are here" (6).

More specifically, Wilson endorses Joseph Needham's conclusion that the Chinese did not experience a scientific revolution like that of the Western world because they did not have a biblical religious belief that the universe was created by a Divine Mind, and thus that the universe was governed by general laws that could be known by reason (31/33).

Wilson also agrees with Eugene Wigner that the mathematical order in the universe is mysterious, miraculous, and beyond any rational explanation (48-49/52-53).

We wonder, then, whether modern science rests on a biblical faith that the universe is intelligible because it is the product of a rational Creator.

In a dialogue between a transcendentalist and an empiricist, the transcendentalist asks, Where do the laws of nature come from if not from the Creator? Why is there something, why not nothing? Wilson seems to concede this point as indicating the need for at least a "cosmological God" who would be the First Cause. But Wilson still rejects any "biological God" who would intervene in evolutionary history or in human life (241/263).

This would explain why Wilson identifies himself as a deist, but not as a theist Questions about ultimate causes push us back to some first uncaused cause. We cannot comprehend or test the character of that First Cause. But it seems to be presupposed in our scientific assumption of the intelligibility of the universe as governed by natural laws.

Wilson also insists on the importance of maintaining sacred ceremonies and sacred phrases (like "under God" and "so help me God") because of their emotional power (247/270-71).

In fact, Wilson seems to believe that religious belief is instilled in human nature by evolutionary history. "The idea of the mystical union is an authentic part of the human spirit" (261/285). "The human mind evolved to believe in the gods" (262/286). Because of that, Wilson wants to appeal to those religious instincts through his evolutionary science--"the true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic" (265/289).

At the end of his On Human Nature, Wilson wrote that the science of the future should construct "the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed."

Contrary to those like Richard Dawkins, who scorn religion as opposed to science, Wilson suggests that at some fundamental level science and religion come together. First, questions of ultimate explanation point to at least some deistic conception of God as First Cause. Second, evolved human nature shows a religious hunger that is satisfied by the scientific desire for understanding the order and meaning of the whole.

I am on Wilson's side rather than that of Dawkins. That's why I have argued for the desire for religious understanding as one of the 20 natural human desires.

I have written many posts on issues of science and religion. Two can be found here and .here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why the Bailout Won't Work

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel-Prize-winning economist at Columbia University. In the October, 2008 issue of The Economists' Voice, he has a short article--"We Aren't Done Yet: Comments on the Financial Crises and Bailout"--that summarizes some of the reasons why the bailout of Wall Street won't work. Other articles in this journal are helpful in providing clear analysis of the situation. Unfortunately, I doubt that anyone in Congress is reading such articles.

Stiglitz makes a number of points. The bad housing loans made in recent years were based on rising house prices. Those prices are going to continue to fall, and throwing money at Wall Street is not going to fill that hole. The American economy is contracting, and the economic slowdown will continue to create more financial problems. The bailout does noting to stop this contraction.

It is likely that the banks will want to pass on their lousiest loans to the American taxpayers. Henry Paulson says he will hire the best people from Wall Street to make sure this doesn't happen. But this assumes that these Wall Street people hired by the government will work for the public good and not for the good of Wall Street. How realistic is that? Moreover, we should keep in mind that the whole logic of this bailout is based on trust--we are being told we should trust the same people from Wall Street who got us into this mess to get us out of it!

Stiglitz concludes that it is highly unlikely that this bailout will work. And he remarks: "In environmental economics, there is a basic principle, called the polluter principle. It is a matter of both equity and efficiency. Wall Street has polluted our economy with toxic mortgages. It should now pay for the cleanup. How can Paulson oppose such a proposal?"