Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Response to John Hare's Kantian Critique of Darwinian Natural Right

One of the best critics of my "Darwinian natural right" is John Hare, a professor of philosophy at the Yale University Divinity School. (He is the son of the famous British moral philosopher R. M. Hare.) He is the author of The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance (Oxford, 1997), which is an excellent book that interprets Kant as a proponent of the divine command theory of ethics. As the title of the book indicates, Hare believes that human beings cannot be moral without God's assistance in overcoming their sinful nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hare rejects my argument for a Darwinian ethics rooted in human biological nature, because he denies that morality can be based on human nature.

Hare first developed his critique of Darwinian Natural Right in his paper "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Reduction of the Ethical Demand," which he presented in 2000 at a conference at Baylor University on "The Nature of Nature." I met him at that conference and at some subsequent conferences where we debated. He has restated his arguments from that paper in two books--Why Bother Being Good? (2002) and God & Morality: A Philosophical History (2007)--and in two book chapters--in Evolution and Ethics, ed. Philip Clayton and Jeff Schloss (2004) and in Religion in the Liberal Polity, ed. Terence Cuneo (2005).

I have written many posts on why I reject the divine command theory of ethics. One of those can be found here. So I won't add anything here on that point.

Here I will clarify the fundamental conflict between Hare's Kantian view of ethics and my Aristotelian/Darwinian view. I will answer some of his particular criticisms, and in doing that, I will have to admit that he has forced me to correct what I now see as a mistake in Darwinian Natural Right where I argue against Darwin's "moral idealism."

Kant's account of ethics rests on an a priori rationalism and a Gnostic dualism that I reject. Kant argues that ethics must be based on purely a priori reasoning that is independent of human nature or any natural experience. I think that such a purely rationalistic ethics that is not rooted in human nature and the natural human pursuit of happiness is impossible.

In Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he declares: "reason of itself, independent of all experience, commands what ought to be done." Thus, "all moral precepts have their seat and origin entirely a priori in reason." Consequently, "the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason." Moral duty, then, must be derived by pure logic from a moral law that is stated as a rule of purely formal self-consistency. Moreover, this a priori reasoning of morality belongs to a realm of freedom that is outside the laws of nature, which is what I identify as Kant's Gnostic dualism.

Such Gnostic dualism asserts that human nature is evil, and therefore that morality requires a transcendence of nature, so that morality demands a denial of all natural inclinations. For example, Kant says that people who do kind and benevolent deeds because they have a sympathetic nature that inclines them to take joy in the happiness of other people show "no true moral worth" at all. On the other hand, people who do kind and benevolent deeds for the sake of duty even though they have no sympathy at all for other people are truly moral.

To separate moral duty from natural human inclinations as Kant does is an error in human psychology, because moral duties always arise from natural inclinations or desires, which ultimately express the natural desire for happiness. Because this is so, Kant cannot consistently adhere to his a priori rationalism and Gnostic dualism. So when he speaks of the awe that human beings feel for the moral law, he implicitly appeals to the moral emotions of human nature, which he could not do if he were consistent in his a priori rationalism. Similarly, in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes two inconsistent claims. He says that "to have any end of action whatsoever is an act of freedom on the part of the acting subject, not an effect of nature." But then he also says that "it is unavoidable for human nature to wish for and seek happiness." The contradiction between these two statements shows the impossibility of maintaining a plausible view of ethics that consistently separates moral freedom from human nature and moral duty from human happiness. As some Kant scholars have noticed, Kant's "pure ethics" of a priori reasoning is not plausible unless it is combined with an "impure ethics" based on human nature, which means that Kant's radical separation between reason and nature cannot be sustained.

Moreover, as I have said in Darwinian Natural Right and in some of my posts on this blog, Kant's rationalism has been refuted by modern studies of the neurological basis of moral judgment. Deliberate choice requires the union of reason and emotion. People with brain damage that deprives them of the normal capacity for social emotions cannot live well as social animals. Ethical conduct as utterly free from emotion is neurologically impossible. We use reason to determine how best to satisfy our desires, how to manage our desires, and how to justify our actions. But abstract reason by itself would never move us to moral action without the motivation of our desires. Psychopaths have no moral sense, not because they lack intelligence or the ability to reason logically, but because they lack the social emotions (such as sympathy, shame, guilt, and love) that support morality in normal people.

That Hare thinks Kant's account of ethics is defensible, while I think it's indefensible, is the fundamental disagreement between us.

To respond to Hare's particular criticisms, I need to offer a clarification and a correction. Hare attributes to me the claim that "lifetime monogamy is unnatural, a frustration of natural desires, and therefore presumably bad." In the passage that he cites to support this claim, I say that there is no justification for an absolute ban on divorce, because there are circumstances where divorce might be the most desirable resolution of marital conflict. I cannot tell whether Hare agrees with this or not. In any case, he does not notice another passage in my book where I state that most men are better off in monogamous marriages that satisfy their desires for conjugal stability and parental care, which requires that they restrain their impulsive desire for sexual promiscuity.

On another point raised by Hare, I now see that I need to correct a mistake that I made in Darwinian Natural Right, and so I must admit that Hare is right in drawing attention to my mistake. Darwin sees a history of moral progress in which the natural human capacity for sympathy--sharing the feelings of others--has been extended from the family to small tribes, then to large nations, and eventually to all of humanity. The most recent advance of sympathy extends it even beyond humanity to include the lower animals, so that now we can see "the most noble attribute of man" in the "disinterested love for all living creatures." In my book, I reject this as showing a "utopian view of morality." Hare rightly criticizes me for refusing to consider the moral claims of such universal humanitarian sympathy. Now I think I was wrong, and Darwin was right.

My earlier rejection of Darwin's appeal to universal sympathy arose from a mistaken reading of what Darwin says. I interpreted Darwin as taking a position similar to that of Peter Singer. Singer argues that the logic of ethical reasoning leads us to one fundamental principle--the impartial consideration of the similar interests of all sentient creatures. This means that we are morally obligated to care for all human beings equally without showing any partiality towards those close to us, such as family and friends, that would put them ahead of strangers. In applying this principle, Singer has argued that Americans are morally obligated to give away all their yearly income over $30,000 to help needy strangers around the world. He has also confessed that he acted immorally by spending money on special care for his mother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, because that money should have been given to needy strangers. He is also famous for arguing that favoring the lives of human beings over the lives of nonhuman animals is "speciesism," because it shows an immoral partiality for those creatures who belong to our own species. I rejected Darwin's morality of universal sympathy because it seemed to be moving towards Singer's principle of impartiality.

But as I now read Darwin, I think he would disagree with Singer. Our moral sympathy can expand to ever-wider circles to include our extended kin, or clan, or group, our nation, all of humanity, and perhaps even all life forms. But the the expansion to the wider circles will occur only in those cases where our provisioning of the inner circles is secure. We care first and most strongly for ourselves and for those bound to us by ties of kinship, friendship, and citizenship. Our sympathy for human strangers, or even for animals, can be strong. But generally, it will be weaker than our attachments to those close to us. Humanitarian sympathy does not eliminate the preferential treatment motivated by love of one's own. That this is Darwin's position is made clear in his comments on the treatment of animals. he campaigned against the cruel treatment of animals, and yet he defended the killing and dissection of animals for scientific research. He recognized that when human interests and animal interests were in conflict, human beings might properly prefer human interests over animal interests.

Darwin's extension of sympathetic emotion to support the Golden Rule requires an impartial concern for all of humanity, but this impartiality is not indiscriminate or impersonal. What is good for me is good for similar people in similar circumstances, but this allows for love of one's own. If it is good for me to care for my own children more than I care for my neighbor's children, then humanitarian impartiality demands that I see that it is good for my neighbors to care for their own children more than they care for my children. (As I have often observed on this blog, this was Adam Smith's understanding of sympathy as the foundation of moral sentiments, and this was adopted by Darwin in his account of the natural moral sense.)

For Singer to think that it is immoral for him to spend money on his sick mother rather than to give that money to need strangers, he must deny natural human emotions as morally worthless. This is consistent with Kant's a priori rationalism, but it is not consistent with the moral experience of human beings.

Darwin's understanding of how we extend sympathy to all of humanity would also explain his opposition to slavery, which has been a frequent topic for this blog. Darwin appeals to moral emotions of sympathy in insisting on the mental similarity of the races as manifesting the unity of the human species. he thus calls up that sense of fellow-feeling that people have toward those like themselves, a fellow-feeling that arouses indignation against masters who exploit their slaves and compassion for slaves who suffer this exploitation. This natural capacity for sympathy supports the principle that slavery is wrong because it means treating some human beings as if they were not human. Kant's a prior rationalism would not permit this appeal to natural sympathy, because he would have to reject this reliance on sympathetic human nature as having "no true moral worth at all." By contrast, I think the opposition to slavery and other evil practices is necessarily motivated by moral sympathy as expressed in moral emotions of compassion and indignation.

Moreover, relying on divine command as the ground of morality--as Hare argues we must do--does not give us reliable guidance in the moral debate over slavery. If we look to the Bible as a revelation of divine command, we might conclude that slavery is sanctioned by God. As I have argued in some previous posts, the biblical morality of slavery challenges any divine command theory of morality.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obama and Lincoln

There is nothing remarkable in American politicians invoking the words and deeds of Abraham Lincoln as rhetorical support. But as I indicated in my earlier post on Barack Obama's Lincolnian rhetoric, it is remarkable to notice that Obama apparently really has thought about the deeper meaning of his Lincolnian rhetoric. Obama really does understand Lincoln's rhetorical appeal to the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence and the legal principles of the Constitution as the core beliefs of American politics. Also like Lincoln, Obama sees the principles of equal liberty as setting a standard of perfection that can be constantly approximated over the course of American history.

The Civil War was a test of whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality could long endure. The final test would require a new birth of freedom. Supported by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the early period of the Reconstruction of the South showed a movement towards biracial equality based on an equality of citizenship--including the equal right to vote. But then the formation of white racist paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan challenged this move to biracial equality. And once Northern politicians and citizens lost their patience in using federal power to secure a republican form of government for the Southern states, Reconstruction failed, and racial segregation in the South brought about a re-enslavement of black Americans in the South. The renewal of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s brought about a Second Reconstruction that finally carried out Lincoln's promise of a new birth of freedom and equality.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Obama's policy positions--I don't--one can see that his election shows the fulfillment of America's founding principles of equal liberty and thus a fulfillment of Lincoln's vision of republican government. Obama indicated this in the first sentence of his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

It is noteworthy that people from opposite sides of the ideological divide--the political Left as well as the political Right--are denigrating Obama's Lincolnian rhetoric. For example, Stanley Katz speaks as an "aging liberal": "I was one of the thousands of protesters in Grant Park during the Democratic convention in 1968, so you can imagine my feelings watching the victory event in Chicago last night. I thought the only false note in President-elect Obama's very moving remarks was his opening reference to fulfilling the 'dreams of the Founders.' He knows, of course, that a person like him was the furthest thing from the minds and dreams of the Founders. But no matter."

A leftist like Katz cannot imagine how any liberal could disagree with the position of Stephen Douglas and Roger Taney (in the Dred Scott decision) that the Founders were racists who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to perpetuate their racism. He cannot imagine that Obama would really agree with Lincoln's argument that the Founders meant what they said about equal liberty for all human beings, although they saw a prudential necessity to compromise temporarily with slavery in the South.

Similarly, speaking from the conservative side,Charles Kesler has written an article on Obama for the Claremont Review of Books that tries to explain away Obama's adoption of Lincoln's arguments. According to Kesler, Obama is not really serious about his Lincoln references, because he rejects Lincoln's ideas in that "he regards both the Declaration and the Constitution as racist documents originally."

Kesler admits, however, that Obama doesn't actually say this. In fact, Obama often writes of the Constitution as containing an "ideal of equal citizenship" that "promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time."

Kesler asserts that such comments are contradicted by one comment in Obama's Adacity of Hope where he wrote that "that spirit of liberty didn't extend, in the minds of the Founders, to the slaves who worked their fields, made their beds, and nursed their children" (95). Kesler doesn't acknowledge, however, that Obama goes on in this passage of his book to speak about his struggle to decide whether the Founders were hypocrites who betrayed "the grand ideals set forth by the Declaration of Independence," or whether the constitutional compromise with slavery was a necessary requirement for the formation of the Union that would eventually lead to slavery's extinction. Nor does Kesler acknowledge that Obama finally concludes in favor of Lincoln's position in recognizing the "absolute truth" that slavery is wrong and in undertaking a Civil War to vindicate that "absolute truth."

There is a kind of historical "progressivism" in this Lincoln/Obama rhetoric, because history is understood as the progressive unfolding of the principles of equal liberty in the founding documents--particularly, the Declaration and the Constitution. But this is not a radically relativistic progressivism, because the original principles are understood as simply true.

The danger, however, is that the messianic ambition of people like Lincoln and Obama can become a Caesaristic form of leadership that destroys the principles of checks and balances and limited powers necessary for republican government.

Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian has written a good article on Obama's rhetoric as showing him to be "the new Cicero."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Darwinian Evolution of Financial Crises

In response to the current financial crisis, many people assume that this shows a lack of proper planning and regulation by government, and they demand that political leaders should resolve the crisis and create new plans and regulations to prevent future crises. This intelligent design theory of political economy assumes that political and economic leaders have the knowledge and virtue to plan out and regulate the future of the global economy to avoid economic disasters.

I reject this as a foolishly utopian view of human knowledge and virtue in managing the future. Against this intelligent design theory of economics, I would offer a Darwinian evolutionary theory. Much of modern economic theory is based on formal, mathematical modeling comparable to the physical sciences. The idea of economic "equilibrium," for example, is borrowed from physics. But this ignores the historicity and contingency of human social behavior. If the social sciences are sciences, they are historical sciences like evolutionary biology rather than ahistorical sciences like physics. Economics is an evolutionary science, and economic history is an evolutionary process in which the future is unpredictable and unplanned because it always brings novel events that no human being could have anticipated. The best that we can do is to allow for economic survival of the fittest.

This evolutionary theory of economics has a long tradition. Adam Smith and other philosophers of economics in the Scottish Enlightenment saw the history of economic institutions as an evolutionary history that emerged by human action but not by human design. Darwin's theories of organic evolution (in The Origin of Species) and moral evolution (in The Descent of Man) were inspired by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Later, economists like Joseph Schumpeter (in the Austrian School tradition of economics) showed how capitalism could be understood as an evolutionary process in which novel developments in economic life bring about "creative destruction"--firms adapted to the new circumstances succeed, while those that are maladaptive fail. Just as most biological species have gone extinct, most firms vanish because they cannot survive in their competitive environments.

Historian Niall Ferguson applies this evolutionary approach to economics in his new book--The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (Penguin Press, 2008). He shows that the current financial crisis is only the latest development in a five-thousand-year evolutionary history of money and finance regularly punctuated by financial disasters.

Against the common assumption that we should be able to avoid economic crises if only we had the right planning and regulation, Ferguson argues that there are three reasons why economic catastrophes are inevitable.

First, the future is always uncertain. This is not the measurable uncertainty that we associate with risk but the unmeasurable uncertainty that cannot be reduced to any calculable probability. "To put it simply, much of what happens in life isn't like a game of dice." We can calculate probabilities for the rolling of dice. But we can't do that for our economic future, because we cannot predict future economic history at all. That's one reason why all those fancy economic forecasting models used by the Wall Street bankers failed to predict our current financial collapse.

The second reason for the instability of financial systems is the imperfection of human knowledge and behavior. As psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown, human beings do not make their decisions based on a purely rational calculation of probable costs and benefits. In fact, human beings are very bad at calculating probabilities, because their judgments are shaped by innate biases of the human mind as shaped by evolutionary history.

The third reason for the unpredictability of financial history is that it really is like Darwinian evolution. In the financial world, business practices are inherited through cultural evolution. Innovations in such practices constitute mutations that compete with customary practices. By competition, some practices are more productive than others, and some go extinct. What we are seeing today in the global financial crisis could turn out to be a mass extinction event, in which many business practices and firms will disappear as new ones emerge triumphant. This is what Schumpeter called "creative destruction."

The problem, however, is that political leaders feel pressured to intervene to stop such destruction. Surely, some firms are "too big to fail." That's the thinking that has led us to the governmental bailouts favored by Bush, McCain, and Obama. It's hard to accept the harsh truth that economic failure and bankruptcy is a normal part of economic innovation. So we are tempted to assume that Wall Street bankers like Henry Paulson must know how to plan out our economic future so that we can avoid the painful consequences of economic dislocations. But that assumes more knowledge and virtue than we can realistically expect from human beings.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2009, will be the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809. Only a few weeks before this date, Barack Obama will be inaugurated President of the United States. There is some powerful symbolism in this coincidence. But there's more here than just a coincidence of events. The intellectual and historical connections between Obama, Lincoln, and Darwin bring up many of the themes that I have pursued on this blog. I have been thinking about this while teaching my graduate seminar on Lincoln this semester.

Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency on February 10, 2007, two days before Lincoln's birthday. Speaking in Springfield, Illinois, before the Old State Capitol, Obama repeatedly referred to Lincoln and his ideas, while also echoing words from his best speeches--particularly, the House Divided speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural. Just as Lincoln united the forces against slavery to fight for a more perfect Union based on the shared values of equality of opportunity under law, Obama declared that he would lead a similar battle to restore and perfect those values. Using phrases from Lincoln, Obama concluded: "Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth."

The influence of Lincoln on Obama is both practical and intellectual. An example of the practical influence is how Obama's planning for his Cabinet follows the lead of Lincoln. In winning the Republican presidential nomination, Lincoln had to defeat some powerful rivals--particularly, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. When he was elected, Lincoln appointed them to his Cabinet, because he wanted to bring his opponents together so that he could benefit from their talents and sharpen his judgment in response to their critical advice. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her great book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Obama has said this is one of his favorite books on Lincoln. He talked with Goodwin during his campaign. And now he is following Lincoln's example by planning to bring his rivals into his administration. Lincoln appointed Seward as his Secretary of State. Now, there are reports that Obama has asked Hillary Clinton to consider becoming his Secretary of State.

The intellectual influence of Lincoln on Obama is evident in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. In the opening of the Prologue, Obama echoes the language of Lincoln's First Inaugural and Gettysburg Address in stating the primary theme that runs through the whole book and all of Obama's rhetoric--"the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done" (2).

To explain "what binds us together," Obama follows Lincoln in appealing to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence as expressing our "shared values" or "the substance of our common creed." These truths concern the primacy of individual freedom and equality of opportunity as rooted in "eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought." But these individualistic values are combined with communal values, because any healthy society requires a balance of individuality and community. Moreover, as the Declaration of Independence indicates, we need to consent to government to secure our individual rights (52-56). Both liberals and conservatives in the United States agree to these shared values, although they disagree sometimes in how exactly they want to balance individual rights and social solidarity (57-63). Although Obama puts himself on the side of the liberals, he repeatedly indicates that the conservatives have some good points that liberals need to understand, and he argues that he will stress the common values that allow liberals and conservatives to engage in persuasive argumentation.

Obama's stress on persuasion manifests the "deliberative democracy" that he sees established by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration states the common values that all citizens share. The Constitution provides a framework in which citizens can deliberate about how to put those common values into practice.

For a politics based on deliberation and persuasion, Obama sees the value of Lincoln's "mastery of language and law," and obviously, Obama's own career has turned on his skills in language and law (122-23).

According to Obama, the "deliberative democracy" established by the Constitution assumes a "rejection of absolute truth." "After all, if there was one impulse shared by all the Founders, it was a rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority, or anyone else who claims to make choices for us" (93).

But Obama also recognizes that sometimes the "absolutists" are correct, as when the opponents of slavery declared that slavery was absolutely wrong. Like Lincoln, Obama reads the Constitution in the light of the Declaration of Independence, and thus he sees the Constitution as implicitly anti-slavery. This is clear at the beginning of his "More Perfect Union" speech of March 18, 2008: "the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution--a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law."

Obama admits that the debate over slavery challenges his denial of absolutism. "I am robbed even of the certainty of uncertainty--for sometimes absolute truths may well be absolute" (97). And yet he worries about the destructive consequences of moral fanaticism.

"I'm left with Lincoln," Obama concludes, "who like no man before or since understood both the deliberative function of our democracy and the limits of such deliberation" (97). The limits were reached when Lincoln saw that with the failure to resolve the dispute over slavery through persuasion, the dispute would have to be settled by force of arms. Here we see the dilemma in balancing pragmatism and absolutism. "The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice. Lincoln, and those buried at Gettysburg, remind us that we should pursue our own absolute truths only if we acknowledge that there may be a terrible price to pay" (98).

Lincoln's opposition to slavery is understood by Obama as part of Lincoln's support of a capitalist economic system based on "free labor." But even as he promoted free-market capitalism, Lincoln also saw the need for energetic government in securing the conditions for successful capitalism. Obama points to Lincoln's support for governmental sponsorship of infrastructure projects like the transcontinental railroad, the opening of public land for settlement through the Homestead Act, and the system of land grant colleges supported by the Morrill Act. According to Obama, this shows that Lincoln understood "that the resources and power of the national government can facilitate, rather than supplant, a vibrant free market" (152). Here, then, Obama sees Lincoln as supporting a prudent middle ground between the free markets favored by conservatives and the governmental regulation favored by liberals. The general principle here is taken from Lincoln's "Fragment on Government," which Obama states as a "simple maxim"--"that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately" (159).

Like Lincoln, Obama has been criticized by his political opponents for not showing proper devotion to a biblical religious faith. When Lincoln ran as a Whig in 1846 for a seat in the U.S. Congress, his Democratic opponent was Peter Cartwright, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher. Cartwright accused Lincoln of being an "infidel" or atheist. Lincoln was forced to respond by admitting that he had never been a member of any Christian church, and that in his youth he had argued for some deistic ideas contrary to Christian orthodoxy. But he insisted that he had never openly denied the truth of Scripture. Lincoln observed: "I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live."

Obama faced a similar situation when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and his Republican opponent was Alan Keyes. (In this year's presidential election, Keyes ran as the candidate of "America's Independent Party.") Applying his literal reading of the Bible as the revealed moral law of God, Keyes argued that "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama, because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved." Obama admits that "his readings of Scripture put me on the defensive," and that he was bothered by Keyes' accusation "that I remained steeped in doubt, that my faith was adulterated, that I was not a true Christian."

In responding to such arguments coming from the religious right--particularly, in the opposition to homosexuality and abortion rights--Obama argues that a literal reading of the Bible is not a good moral guide for politics, because democratic politics requires rational persuasion and moral compromise rather than religious faith and moral absolutism. In support of this, Obama surveys some of the teachings of the Bible that would not be acceptable in American society today (209-224).

But at the same time, Obama also criticizes many of his fellow progressives for scorning religious belief. After all, American politics and morality has long depended on the values and language of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Obama believes that secularists make a big mistake by trying to drive religious language from the public sphere, because this would drive out the language of Lincoln's Second Inaugural and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

And yet even as Obama reminds liberal progressives about the importance of religious belief in inspiring moral and political reform--as in the civil rights movement--he also stresses that morality does not require religious belief. "Organized religion doesn't have a monopoly on virtue, and one need not be religious to make moral claims or appeal to a common good" (214).

Obama admits that he is uncertain about many religious claims--including the immortality of the soul and divine rewards and punishments in an afterlife. When his daughter Sasha told him, "I don't want to die, Daddy," he had no good response except to say, "You've got a long, long way before you have to worry about that." He admits that "I wasn't sure what happens when we die, any more that I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang" (226).

But he insists that he is absolutely sure about "the Golden Rule, the need to battle cruelty in all its forms, the value of love and charity, humanity and grace" (224).

It should also be said that not only is Obama sure about these principles, he is also sure about himself--that he is the man to transform America just as Lincoln transformed America. In other words, he shows the same intense ambition that Lincoln showed. Actually, Obama is remarkably honest about his Lincolnian ambition and about his fear of the absolute humiliation that comes from losing an election (104-108). Like Lincoln, Obama has been criticized for the messianic character of his ambition--the kind of "towering ambition" that Lincoln warned about in his Lyceum Speech.

As I have indicated in previous posts, Lincoln had much in common with Charles Darwin--and not just their being born on the same day. This includes the idea of evolution, which Lincoln adopted from his reading of Robert Chambers' book The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Obama agrees. He separates religion and science and indicates that science rightly supports the idea of evolution rather than creationism or intelligent design, because these ideas depend on faith rather than reason. Obama recognizes, however, that this puts him in disagreement with those many Americans who accept biblical creationism (92, 198, 201, 203, 219).

The November 17th issue of The New Yorker has a beautiful cover picture of the Lincoln Memorial at night. The picture is surely intended to remind the readers of Obama's Audacity of Hope of the closing pages of that book.

At the end of the book, Obama admits that sometimes he worries that his political activity is "an exercise in vanity, useful to one one." When he falls into such a mood, he takes a run around the Mall in Washington, and occasionally he will run up to the Lincoln Memorial.

"At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King's mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol dome."

"And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation's founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams."

"It is that process I wish to be part of."

"My heart is filled with love for this country."

This is moving language. But isn't it also disturbing in the way Obama offers himself as the one leader of the country? Previously, I have written a post on how presential greatness subverts republican government.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Brizendine's Darwinian Feminism

"Darwinian feminism" might sound like the caption for a Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon. But it's not a joke.

Of course, many feminists would regard the idea of Darwinian feminism as a ridiculous contradiction in terms. Many feminists assume that Darwinian accounts of the biological nature of men and women support the patriarchal oppression of women by men. The liberation of women, they say, requires a radical dualism of biological nature and cultural construction. Although sexual identity is a biological trait that human beings share with other animals, gender identity is a cultural construction that is uniquely human. Men and women show biological differences in their reproductive anatomy comparable to that of other animals. But the gender identity of men and women--their psychosocial identity as male or female--is created by human beings through culture or social learning in a manner that has nothing to do with biology. Human sex differences come mostly from being raised by our parents as a boy or a girl. At birth, our brains are not male or female, but our unisex brains are channeled by parental rearing into either a male or female path of socialization. Consequently, we could change our gender identities by changing our cultural norms of socialization. In a feminist utopia, we could rear our children to be unisex or androgynous beings so that there would be no difference in the psychological propensities of men and women, which would support a radical form of sexual equality.

This feminist dichotomy between animal sex and human gender assumes a cultural creationism. Just as biblical creationists assert that human beings have been created with a spirit or soul that transcends the biological nature of other animals, cultural creationists assert that human beings create their psychological identity through human culture as a transcendent realm of human freedom beyond the natural world.

Against this cultural creationism popular with many feminists, Louann Brizendine--in her book The Female Brain--surveys the evidence for the conclusion that there is no unisex brain, because girls are born with female brains, and boys are born with male brains. To be sure, these brains are sensitive to the social environment, and so their development over the human life span will manifest the effects of cultural learning. But because of the natural differences in their brains and in the biological phases of their lives, men and women will on average differ in their natural desires. Consequently, any attempt to create a totally unisex world will fail, because the natural differences between men and women will assert themselves.

And yet what Brizendine says about the choices that women face in satisfying their natural desires over their lifespan shows a feminist concern for the freedom and equality of women in seeking to satisfy their natural desires. For example, Brizendine describes the neurophysiology of the "mommy brain." Women are naturally adapted to undergo a rewiring of the brain and endocrine system during pregnancy and nursing to sustain their maternal bond with their children. Consequently, it's natural for mothers to want to be close to their children, and this will create hard choices for them if they have to balance child care with work outside the home. But there are natural ways to be a working mom. "Allomothering"--finding substitute moms--is common not only in human societies but among other mammals. Human beings probably evolved to be cooperative breeders so that mothers can rely on allomaternal care from others. Here Brizendine rightly cites the work of Sarah Hrdy in Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (2000).

Brizendine concludes her book with a chapter on "The Future of the Female Brain." She declares: "Understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future. Now that so many women have gained control over their fertility and achieved economic independence, we can create a blueprint for the road ahead. That means making revolutionary changes in society and our personal choices of partners, careers, and the timing of our children" (159). "Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account" (163).

Here Brizendine falls into a tradition of Darwinian feminism, which can be seen in Sarah Hrdy's work, in Patricia Gowaty's edited book Feminism and Evolutionary Biology (1997), and in Griet Vandermassen's Who's Afraid of Charles Darwin? Debating Feminism and Evolutionary Theory (2005). The idea here is that the distinctive needs of women will not be respected if we ignore the ways in which women are naturally different from men.

Furthermore, feminist culturalism harms women. If we cannot look to human nature to judge the natural desires of men and women, if the needs of men and women are arbitrary cultural constructions, then we fall into a cultural relativism in which we cannot judge cultural practices as better or worse in satisfying human desires. We cannot say, for example, that female circumcision--clitoridectomy and infibulation--frustrates the desires of women in oppressive ways. If female circumcision is deeply rooted in the cultural life of some societies, then we cannot criticize it without being guilty of "cultural imperialism." In fact, this has become a big debate among feminists whose cultural relativism deprives them of any natural standard of judgment.

Wouldn't it be better for women to adopt a feminist naturalism based on the idea that women have evolved natural desires that constitute a standard for judging cultural traditions as better or worse in satisfying those desires? That's my argument in Chapter 6 of Darwinian Natural Right.

A Darwinian feminist naturalism would recognize the natural differences between men and women, while allowing those differences to express themselves by securing an equality of opportunity under the rule of law. In this way, Darwinian conservatism respects the natural desires of both men and women.

Many conservatives, however, are ambivalent about the Darwinian account of sex differences as rooted in evolved human nature. Conservatives generally agree that there are natural biological differences between male and female that need to be respected by any social order. But some conservatives are suspicious of Darwinian science, because they fear that it promotes a reductionistic materialism. This is clear in Harvey Mansfield's defense of manliness, which was the subject of a previous post.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Brizendine and the Natural Desires of the Female Brain

In a previous post, I have written about Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain.

I am now using that book as one of the readings for my undergraduate course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature." The other books for the course are my Darwinian Conservatism and Darwinian Natural Right along with de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics, James Watson's DNA: The Secret of Life, John West's Darwin's Conservatives, and Alan Mazur's The Biosociology of Dominance and Deference.

Brizendine's book complements Mazur's, because Mazur concentrates largely on male behavior, while Brizendine stresses the female side of human nature.

Brizendine's book is by far the most engaging of the readings for my students. Of course, any book with an entire chapter on orgasms is probably going to be popular with undergraduates! But beyond the obvious sex appeal, my students say that the book helps them to understand the biological causes for their common experience with the differences between men and women.

Brizendine writes in a clear and pleasing way, particularly because of her use of anecdotes about the women who have come to her Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic. She uses the anecdotes to illustrate the scientific research on the female brain and endocrine system.

The research surveyed by Brizendine supports my claims about some the twenty natural desires. I speak of the desire for a complete life that is expressed as changing desires over the human life cycle. Brizendine distinguishes ten phases in a female's life--fetal, girlhood, puberty, sexual maturity, pregnancy, breast feeding, child rearing, perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. She organizes her book around these phases. And for each phase, she shows how the desires of women change in response to changes in their biochemical nature and in their social and physical environment.

I speak of the desire for sexual identity as the desire to identify oneself as male or female. Brizendine confirms our common experience of the natural differences between men and women, and she shows how these differences arise in the brain. Contrary to the claims of radical feminists, there is no "unisex brain." The male brain is not the same as the female brain, because they have been differently adapted by natural selection in human evolutionary history. But against the traditional patriarchal claim of male superiority, Brizendine indicates those many respects in which the female brain might be considered superior.

I speak of the natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding. Brizendine shows how these desires are inscribed in a woman's neural circuitry.

And yet Brizendine's book suggests a potential problem for my position in the debate with critics like John West and Carson Holloway. West and Holloway say that biological science cannot support traditional morality, which depends on religious belief. For example, the biological science of sexuality might suggest that human beings are naturally inclined to sexual promiscuity and infidelity. West and Holloway say that we need religious morality to teach us that monogamous fidelity is good, and that promiscuous infidelity is bad.

And, indeed, Brizendine does seem to suggest that women often experience a conflict between their desire for monogamous bonding and their desire to enjoy extramarital sexual pleasure. She never mentions religion, and she never indicates the need for religious morality. One might wonder, then, whether her scientific view of mating and marriage becomes morally subversive in its implicit hedonism, because she seems to assume that women's only concern--from a purely scientific point of view--is how best to calculate the satisfaction of their appetites, without regard for moral norms.

But my response would be to point out how far she goes in recognizing the importance of monogamous fidelity. Again and again, she deals with clients who long for the satisfaction of faithful bonding, even as they feel the conflict with temptations to cheat. Here we see that common human experience in which we see how our deepest and most enduring needs for familial bonding override our momentary appetite for lustful pleasure. Our natural capacity for deliberate judgment about how best to organize the fullest satisfaction of our desires leads us to make difficult tradeoffs.

Religious morality will often help many people to suppress their momentary promiscuous appetites for the sake of securing their more enduring desire for monogamous fidelity. But the religious teaching only reinforces what we know by natural experience.

Moreover, the Bible suggests that a religiously based morality often fails to do the job. The story of David and Bathsheba illustrates this.

I would also point out that in the Bible the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) celebrates erotic love. When I was a child growing up in Texas, I noticed that many family Bibles had had the Song of Songs ripped out of them by parents disturbed by the remarkably explicit descriptions of the lustful activity of the lovers in this book. God is never mentioned in the book. There is no theological teaching at all. Because the book is totally devoted to a poetically beautiful depiction of erotic love as good in itself. There is not even any indication that the lovers are married.

Since many readers of the Bible have been uncomfortable with the literal meaning of the Song of Songs, there is a long tradition of interpreting this poem as an allegory depicting the love of God by the believers. But this allegorical reading has to be imposed without the support of evidence within the book itself.

My conclusion, then, is that the desire for sexual mating as erotic love is so natural to human beings that no healthy religious tradition can ignore it. But struggling to balance such erotic desire with other desires for monogamous fidelity and parental care becomes part of the human condition.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Turning Point in McCain's Losing Campaign

The turning point in John McCain's losing campaign for the presidency was when he supported Bush's bailout of Wall Street.

Barack Obama's successful strategy was in making the election a referendum on the policies of the Bush administration. If McCain had opposed the bailout, he would have put Obama in the awkward position of supporting the Bush economic policies and the Wall Street power elite.

Moreover, McCain could have exploited a widespread popular resentment against the transfer of wealth and power to Wall Street. The Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives who initially defeated the bailout proposal represented this popular resentment against the claim that the very Wall Street power brokers who had created the financial crisis should be trusted with taxpayer money to solve the crisis. McCain could have led these people against Obama, Bush, and Paulson.

McCain did not do this, because like many Republicans he has been converted to the Herbert Hoover position that the best way to resolve such economic crises is through massive federal interventions into the economy. Hoover's interventions were adopted and extended by FDR, and these policies transformed an economic panic into a prolonged depression. We are now headed in the same direction.

The history of how Hoover's interventionism set the path for FDR's New Deal is covered in Murray Rothbard's book The Great Depression. In the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Wilson has written a short article on this.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Chief Rabbi on Darwin and Covenant

The Lambeth Conference is an assembly of Anglican bishops convened every ten years by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The last two conferences have received lots of publicity because of the debate in the Anglican Church over homosexual clergy and homosexual marriage. Another noteworthy event at last summer's conference was the plenary address by Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is the Chief Rabbi for Great Britain. (I thank Lewis Slawsky for drawing my attention to this.)

Rabbi Sacks spoke about the biblical idea of covenant, and in doing that, he argued that this idea has been scientifically confirmed by Darwinian evolutionary reasoning. This supports the claim I have often made on this blog that Darwinian science and biblical religion can be rightly understood as compatible in explaining the natural grounds of morality and cooperation.

Rabbi Sacks begins his address by recognizing the significance of a Jew speaking to such Christians. "Many centuries ago, the Jewish sages asked, who is a hero of heroes? They answered, not one who defeats his enemy, but one who turns an enemy into a friend. That is what has happened between Jews and Christians: strangers have become friends."

This leads him into his topic of covenant as a way of answering the question: "what is the role of religion in society, even in a secular society like Britain?"

He suggests that politics and economics manifest two ways to get people to do what we want. In politics, we force people to do what we want. In economics, we pay them to do what we want. But there is a third way--we can appeal to people through love, friendship, or trust. This third way is the way of covenant. While the state and the market belong to the logic of competition, covenant belongs to the logic of cooperation.

Asserting that societies cannot exist without cooperation, Rabbi Sacks then explains how the Darwinian account of the evolution of cooperation through something like an iterated prisoners' dilemma shows the importance of trust or reciprocity in cooperation, which corresponds to what he would call covenant.

Rabbi Sacks says:

"It turns out that the very things that make Homo sapiens different--the use of language, the size of the brain, even the moral sense itself--have to do with the ability to form and sustain groups: the larger the brain, the larger the group.

"Neo-Darwinians call this reciprocal altruism. Sociologists call it trust. Economists call it social capital. And it is one of the great intellectual discoveries of our time. Individuals need groups. Groups need cooperation. And cooperation needs covenant, bonds of reciprocity and trust.

"Traditionally, that was the work of religion. After all, the word 'religion' itself comes from a Latin root meaning 'to bind.' And whether we take a conservative thinker like Edmund Burke, or a radical like Thomas Paine, or a social scientist like Emile Durkheim, or an outside observer like Alexis de Tocqueville, they all saw this, and explained it, each in their own way. And now it has been scientifically demonstrated. If there is only competition and not cooperation, if there is only the state and the market and no covenantal relationships, society will not survive.

He then declares that the waning of religion brings a disintegration of society. But how can the religious idea of covenant be revived in societies that are either secular or divided into conflicting religious faiths?

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks offers interpretations of the three covenants in the Hebrew Bible--the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, and the covenant with the Israelites under Moses in Exodus 19-24.

He suggests that the last two covenants are covenants of faith based on shared religious beliefs. But the first covenant is a covenant of fate, which arises when people come together for mutual protection against a common enemy. The covenant of Noah came after all of humanity had faced the threat of extinction in the Flood.

Rabbi Sacks explains:

"The covenant of Noah has three dimensions. First: 'He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God, He created man.' The first element is the sanctity of life.

"The second: Read Genesis 9 carefully and you will see that five times God insists that the covenant of Noah is not merely with humanity, but with all life on earth. So the second element is the integrity of the created world.

"The third lies in the symbol of the covenant, the rainbow, in which the white light of God is refracted into all the colors of the spectrum. The rainbow symbolizes what I have called the dignity of difference. The miracle at the heart of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here. These three dimensions define the covenant of fate."

He speaks of this as "the global covenant of human solidarity." And he goes on to argue that we can all join in this global covenant by facing the threats that come from poverty, hunger, disease, hate, and environmental catastrophe.

Although he does not say so, Rabbi Sacks' appeal to the covenant with Noah as a universal moral law belongs to an old tradition of interpreting the laws given to Noah as a natural law that all human beings should understand regardless of their religious faith or lack of faith. David Novak has written about this in his books on natural law in Judaism.

God's command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7), for example, shows the natural human need for reproduction and family life. And God's command about murder--"He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6)--shows the natural human need to retaliate against homicidal violence. But notice that this is natural law because regardless of whether we see these as divine commands, we can recognize them as natural needs. That's why I say that while religion can reinforce our natural moral sense, that moral sense can also stand on its own natural ground independently of any religious faith. It's not clear to me as to whether Rabbi Sacks would agree with this.

Another problem is that cooperation is inseparable from competition. We evolved to cooperate with other members of our group to compete with those outside our group. Rabbi Sacks recognizes this when he speaks of the covenant of faith as dividing one faith against another, and when he speaks of the covenant of fate as uniting people who face a common enemy. In this way, cooperation seems to depend on a xenophobic propensity based on helping one's friends and harming one's enemies.

Of course, human language and symbolism allow us to create ever larger communities based on abstract, symbolic markers. We can thus expand the circle of cooperation to ever wider groups. And, in fact, much of the moral and political history of humanity can be understood as the expansion of non-zero-sum cooperation to wider circles. That's the theme Robert Wright's book Nonzero.

But I suggest that in expanding the circle of cooperation, we naturally tend to feel a stronger attachment to those closest to us--our family, our friends, our fellow-citizens--than to those farther away. And, consequently, we will always tend to fall into tragic conflicts of interests, in which we must cooperate with some people to compete with others. That's why I include the desire for war as one of my 20 natural desires.

Many of my readers have objected to my claim about the natural desire for war. Some seem to agree with David Sloan Wilson that we could achieve a "shared value system" to support a "global village" as a "moral community" in which we could live in perpetual peace. Rabbi Sacks seems to take this position in speaking of "the global covenant of human solidarity."

I am skeptical about this, because I don't see how human beings could ever escape from tragic conflicts of interest that lead to war. In fact, the Hebrew Bible supports this conclusion, because it's the story of how the people of Israel must fight bloody wars with their enemies. Even the global covenant with Noah at the beginning of Genesis 9 is followed by the division of humanity in the second part of the chapter into conflicting groups descended from Noah's sons. The descendants of Ham are cursed, and they will be the slaves of the descendants of Shem (the line of Abraham). Later, this curse of enslavement on the descendants of Ham was interpreted as biblical authority for the enslavement of blacks. Rabbi Sacks does not mention this or reflect on its implications.

I have written many posts on religion, the Bible, and Darwinism. Three of them can be found here, here, and here.