Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Was Darwin a Socratic Philosopher?

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

The coincidence of this anniversary with the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday (February 12, 1809) has brought a wave of books and articles on Darwin and his intellectual legacy.

Although we today commonly identify Darwin as a scientist, Darwin in his own day was identified as a philosopher. When he sailed on the Beagle, the men on the ship referred to him simply as "the philosopher." When he died in 1882, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote the obituary for Nature, in which Huxley spoke of him as "a man of science" who was also a philosopher who led "the revolution in natural knowledge," and he compared him to Socrates:

"One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates. There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself; the same belief in the sovereignty of reason; the same ready humour; the same sympathetic interest in all the ways and works of men. But instead of turning away from the problems of nature as hopelessly insoluble, our modern philosopher devoted his whole life to attacking them in the spirit of Heraclitus and of Democritus, with results which are as the substance of which their speculations were anticipatory shadows."

Thus does Huxley put Darwin in a long line of natural philosophers who reversed the "Socratic turn" (described in the Phaedo) away from the philosophic study of nature. Huxley could have cited Aristotle's turn to biology as part of that tradition of natural philosophy that Darwin continued.

It is good to be reminded that until recently "science" and "philosophy" were not separated into distinct disciplines. Overcoming that separation is a goal of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jonathan Haidt's Darwinian Moral Psychology

Jonathan Haidt is one of the leading proponents today of Darwinian moral psychology. He takes up many of the themes that I have considered on this blog as he explains morality as rooted in the psychological propensities of evolved human nature. I have briefly mentioned Haidt previously in connection with Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory of the incest taboo.

Two major themes run through Haidt's work. First, he argues for the primacy of moral emotions rather than moral reasoning in shaping our moral judgments. Second, he explains the "culture war" between American secular liberals and religious conservatives as a dispute over the moral foundations of politics: while liberals see morality as primarily concerned with protecting individual autonomy, conservatives see morality as also concerned with binding people into groups through norms of communal loyalty, respect for authority, and religious purity. This same split arises globally in the contrast between modern cultures that emphasize individualist morality and traditional cultures that emphasize communal and religious morality.

Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. You can find links to many of his major writings at his home page.

The best brief statements of his general position are his essay for "The Third Culture" website--"Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion"--and his essay in Science--"The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology" (2007). The full sketch of his "Social Intuitionist Model" is in his article for Psychological Review--"The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail" (2001). His book chapter on "The Moral Emotions" (2003) distinguishes the various moral emotions. His book chapter on "Morality" (2009) is the fullest elaboration of his moral psychology. In some of his other papers, he surveys his research distinguishing liberals and conservatives in their moral judgments.

In Plato's Timaeus (69b-70b), we are told by Timaeus that the divine craftsman originally created the immortal soul, but then this immortal soul in the human head had to be joined to a mortal body as a chariot for carrying the head around. The divine reason in the head was separated by the neck from the rest of the body, so that immortal reason could securely rule over the mortal parts of the soul--spiritedness in the chest and appetites in the lower parts. This is the Platonic tripartite psychology that is elaborated in the Republic.

Haidt cites this Platonic psychology in the Timaeus as the beginning of a long rationalist tradition in moral philosophy, according to which the great moral drama of life is the striving of reason to exert its rightful mastery over the passions. Haidt rejects this Platonic rationalism in favor of Humean emotivism (2001, 815; 2003, 852). He endorses David Hume's provocative claim that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." The fundamental issue here is stated at the beginning of Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: "There has been a controversy started of late . . . concerning the general foundation of morals; whether they be derived from reason, or from sentiment; whether we attain the knowledge of them by a chain of argument and induction, or by an immediate feeling and finer internal sense; whether, like all sound judgment of truth and falsehood, they should be the same to every rational intelligent being; or whether, like the perception of beauty and deformity, they be founded entirely on the particular fabric and constitution of the human species."

Haidt agrees with Hume that moral judgments cannot arise by pure reason alone, because while reason can gather and process information about the world that elicits or directs our moral emotions, reason by itself could never motivate us to act if we were not moved by moral sentiments to care about ourselves and others. Most commonly, our moral judgments are caused by quick moral intuitions, and moral reasoning arises only later to rationalize the judgments caused by moral emotions. Less frequently, however, if one's moral intuitions are weak or contradictory, and if one has developed a philosophical bent towards reasoning with oneself and others, moral reasoning can directly cause a moral judgment (2001, 829; 2003, 866).

As distinguished from nonmoral emotions,Haidt identifies the moral emotions as "those emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent" (2003, 853). Although Haidt does not mention Westermarck, he is following Westermarck's idea that while human beings have evolved emotional dispositions to approve of whatever helps them and disapprove of whatever harms them, this emotional approval or disapproval becomes moral when extended to society in general, so that moral emotions show apparent impartiality.

Haidt shows how modern biological research confirms this Humean moral psychology. Evolutionary studies and primatology suggest that the moral emotions have evolved as social instincts to support cooperation based on ties of kinship, reciprocity, and group attachment. Behavioral game theory shows how moral emotions reinforce human dispositions to detect and punish cheaters while rewarding those who are trustworthy. Neuroscience shows the neural basis of reason and emotion in the brain and how practical decision-making is hindered by emotional defects. Psychopaths are moral strangers--apparently without conscience--because while their reasoning capacities are normal, if not superior, they lack the moral emotions necessary for a normal moral life. Psychopaths are dramatic manifestations of the failure of pure reason to sustain moral behavior.

But while the scientific evidence clearly supports a "dual-process" model of moral psychology as combining reason and emotion, Haidt concedes that the existing empirical evidence cannot resolve the current debate over the exact roles played by moral reasoning and moral intuition, with at least three positions represented by Haidt, Marc Hauser, and Joshua Greene. The debate is over the question of whether moral emotion is the master (Haidt), the servant (Hauser), or the collaborator(Greene) of moral reasoning (2009, 18-19).

According to Haidt, the complexity of moral experience comes not only from the interaction of reason and emotion, but also from the diversity of the five foundations of morality with distinct evolutionary origins. As animals bound together by ties of kinship, human beings evolved with natural inclinations to care for and avoid harming their kin. As social animals who engage in reciprocal relationships, human beings evolved to cooperate with those they trust and punish those they don't. These evolved dispositions support two foundations of morality--a concern for harm, care, and altruism, and a concern for fairness, reciprocity, and justice.

But while these concerns for harm and fairness would have supported the evolution of cooperation in small foraging societies based on face-to-face interactions, they would not have sustained cooperation in large groups of strangers. Cooperation within larger groups required an evolutionary process of group-selection in which, as Darwin saw, individuals cooperated within groups to compete with other groups. Through tribal warfare, the more successful groups would tend to be those whose members were loyal, submissive, and reverent towards their group. And thus the virtues of patriotism, obedience, and piety would be favored by natural selection working on instinctive traits and cultural traditions.

This, then, Haidt infers, supported the evolutionary emergence of three more foundations for morality: "These three we label as ingroup/loyalty (which may have evolved from the long history of cross-group or sub-group competition, related to what Joe Henrich calls 'coalitional psychology'), authority/respect (which may have evolved from the long history of primate hierarchy, modified by cultural limitations on power and bullying, as documented by Christopher Boehm), and purity/sanctity, which may be a much more recent system, growing out of the uniquely human emotion of disgust, which seems to give people feelings that some ways of living and acting are higher, more noble, and less carnal than others" ("The Third Culture").

There is a tendency for secular liberals in modern societies, Haidt suggests, to assume that the only concerns of morality are principles of harm and fairness, so that individuals should be free to live as they please as long as they are not harmful or unfair in their treatment of others. But Haidt points out that this liberal emphasis on the "individualizing foundations" of morality ignores the "binding foundations" emphasized by religious conservatives and by people in more traditional societies. In contrast to the "contractual approach" to morality taken by secular liberals and modern cultures, religious conservatives and traditional cultures take a "beehive approach." For the "beehive approach," group loyalty, respect for authority, and religious purity are moral virtues.

This distinction between the "beehive approach" and the "contractual approach" corresponds to Ferdinand Tonnies's famous distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (civil society). "Gemeinschaft refers to the traditional and (until recently) most widespread form of human social organization: relatively small and enduring communities of people bound together by the three pillars (whether real or imagined) of shared blood, shared place, and shared mind or belief. People keep close track of what everyone else is doing, and every aspect of behavior (including clothing, food, and sexual choices) can be regulated, limited, and judged by others. But as technology, capitalism, mobility, and new ideas about individualism transformed European ways of life in the 19th century, social organization moved increasingly toward Gesellschaft--the kind of society in which individuals are free to move about, make choices for themselves, and design whatever lives they choose so long as they don't harm or cheat others" (2009, 6). Modern moral psychology and moral philosophy has been largely dominated by the psychology of Gesellschaft, Haidt observes, which creates a moral parochialism that is blind to the moral pluralism expressed in the full range of the five moral foundations.

Haidt acknowledges--although he does not stress it as much as he should--that what we really see in both cultures and individuals is not an absolute separation between Gesellschaft-psychology and Gemeinschaft-psychology, but mixtures that differ only in emphasis or ranking. Secular liberals and modern cultures emphasize the "individualizing foundations" of morality, while religious conservatives and traditional cultures emphasize the "binding foundations" of morality. But the full range of moral psychology is there on both sides of the divide. What distinguishes different individuals and different cultures is a "selective loss of intuitions." But that loss is never complete, because the complete spectrum of five moral foundations belongs to the universal moral psychology of the human species (2001, 826). The example of African women who have chosen to eliminate female circumcision, even when this has been a sacred custom, illustrates how people in traditional moral cultures can change cultural practices that harm their children.

I generaly agree with Haidt, although I think he quickly passes over some problems that need more thought. I agree with him in his empiricist view of moral psychology as grounded in human nature as opposed to any transcendentalist view that would appeal to Nature, Reason, or God as cosmic sources of the Good. As Hume said, the general foundation of morality in human sentiment is a foundation in "the particular fabric and constitution of the human species." This empiricist grounding in human nature is evident when Haidt writes: "Whether the moral emotions are ultimately shown to be the servants, masters, or equal partners of moral reasoning, it is clear that they do a tremendous amount of work in the creation and daily functioning of human morality. The capacity to feel contempt, anger, disgust, shame, embarrassment, guilt, compassion, gratitude, and elevation may or may not separate humans neatly from other animals, but it certainly separates us from Homo economicus. Morality dignifies and elevates because it ties us all to something greater than ourselves: each other" (2003, 866).

But doesn't Haidt himself recognize that when human beings strive for elevation by looking to something greater than themselves, they are often looking beyond their fellow human beings to some transhuman reality--Plato's Idea of the Good, Kant's Categorical Imperative, or the Biblical God? Like many traditionalist conservatives--from Cicero to Burke to Kirk--Haidt sees that belief in a transcendent order can bind a society together, even as he explains that social binding as a purely human disposition that does not have to be based on transcendent truth. Haidt speaks of "the socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking" (2007, 998). And he says that a Gemeinschaft "uses God as a coordination and commitment device" to reinforce group solidarity (2009, 43). But, of course, for the true believer, God is more than just "a coordination and commitment device"!

This "socially functional (rather than truth-seeking) nature of moral thinking" points to the conflict that one can see in the Platonic dialogues between the philosopher and the city. The Socratic philosopher questions the unexamined opinions and passions of his community and asks for rational justifications for morality. If morality really is based more on emotional intuitions than on rational proofs, such Socratic questioning is subversive of moral order and even impious, which is why Socrates was executed. Can any morally healthy society allow freedom for Socratic philosophers to question the moral traditions of society without thereby dissolving the moral bonds of society?

As Haidt indicates, Plato does present (in the Timaeus and other dialogues) stories about the transcendent grounds of moral order in cosmology and theology. But it is not clear that Plato or Plato's Socrates fully endorses these cosmic stories. (This has been the subject of previous posts.)

Haidt says that those few people who are intensively trained in philosophic reasoning might show the supremacy of reasoning over the emotions, at least for those few people like themselves (2001, 829; 2003, 866; 2007, 1000). Depending upon how one reads Plato, one might argue that Haidt actually confirms Platonic rationalism by showing that reason can rule in the souls of those few human beings capable of living a philosophic life. But then doesn't the passionate commitment to philosophy depend on emotion, on the erotic passion for ideas (as in Plato's Symposium)? Doesn't the very word philosophy--"love of wisdom"--suggest this?

Haidt's references to Plato's Timaeus as the beginning of a long tradition of moral rationalism suggest that this tradition was unchallenged until Hume. But one should notice that in his paper on the "Moral Emotions," Haidt repeatedly quotes from Aristotle's account of the moral emotions in his Rhetoric. In Aristotle's Rhetoric--and to some extent, in his Nicomachean Ethics--we can see the beginnings of a rhetorical tradition of moral philosophy and moral psychology that runs through Cicero to Hume.

That would explain why Hume (in the passage from the Inquiry cited above) saw his moral psychology as closer to the ancients than to the moderns: "The ancient philosophers, though they often affirm, that virtue is nothing but conformity to reason, yet, in general, seem to consider morals as deriving their existence from taste and sentiment. On the other hand, our modern enquirers, though they also talk much of the beauty of virtue, and deformity of vice, yet have commonly endeavoured to account for these distinctions by metaphysical reasonings, and by deductions from the most abstract principles of the understanding."

Like Haidt, Hume saw that religion could support morality. But he also saw that biblical religion could promote a dangerous moral fanaticism, as in the European wars of religion and the English Civil War. This points us to the dark side of religious and communitarian morality.

Haidt acknowledges this dark side when he says that "morality is not just about being nice" (2003, 857-58). If religious and communitarian morality is rooted in an evolutionary history of group selection, as Darwin argued, we can understand why such morality can be so cruel in the treatment of those outside the group. Haidt says that "religious prosociality should be targeted primarily toward co-religionists," and he refers to "the traitors and apostates who must be put to death in the name of the group" (2009, 35, 40). The three "binding foundations" of morality can be sources of immorality! "The binding foundations can certainly motivate horrific behavior. . . . Religion brings out the best and the worst in people" (2008, 17).

But except for these few passing remarks, Haidt never elaborates on this dark side of communitarian morality. Nazi Germany, for example, was a horrifying manifestation of communitarian morality where individual life was to be subordinated to the higher good of the ethnic Volk. Anyone who has seen Leni Riefenstahl's documentary film "The Triumph of the Will," about the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, has felt some of the powerful moral emotions that can be elicited by communitarian rhetoric and ritual that solidifies a group in its determination to fight against those perceived as threatening outsiders. The danger of the Nazi movement came not from its lack of morality but from the emotional depth of its fanatical morality. (This is made clear in Claudia Koonz's book The Nazi Conscience.)

So what's the answer to the dangers of communitarian morality? Haidt cites Thomas Sowell's analysis of the "unconstrained vision" of liberalism versus the "constrained vision" of conservatism as illuminating the differences between Left and Right. In Darwinian Conservatism, I call this the difference between the Utopian Vision of the Left and the Tragic Vision of the Right. This difference is reflected in the two possible answers to our problem. The utopian answer coming from liberals is what Haidt calls the "ideal Gesellschaft," in which everyone would give up their communitarian commitments and live purely as autonomous individuals. This is utopian because it's hard to see how human beings could be satisfied with such an atomistic individualism.

Extending this to the global level, the utopian solution would be a universal humanitarianism. Haidt seems to endorse this when he writes: "As technological advances make us more aware of the fate of people in faraway lands, our concerns expand and we increasingly want peace, decency, and cooperation to prevail in other groups, and in the human group as well" (2007, 1001). This reference to "the human group" sounds like David Sloan Wilson's claim that we can overcome group conflict by developing a "shared value system" that would make the "global community" a "moral community." But neither Haidt nor Wilson ever explain how exactly this "global community" would work. It is true, as I have suggested in some recent posts, that international human rights have emerged as something like a global morality of the human community. As Darwin indicated, we can extend our moral emotions of sympathy to ever wider circles of humanity, but we will always feel a stronger attachment to those close to us than to those far away.

The continuing conflicts over the interpretation and application of those human rights suggest that we are unlikely to ever achieve a fully impartial cosmpolitan morality. As examples of such conflicts, we might think of the debate over female circumcision, which has been the subject of some recent posts. Or we might think of how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has disrupted the human rights movement--with critics of Israel arguing that the Israeli treatment of Palestinians violates human rights, while the defenders of Israel arguing that Israel is just exercising its right to self-defense.

Even within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can see irresolvable conflicts. On the one hand, the Declaration is highly individualistic in its statement of rights. On the other hand, Article 29 is highly communitarian: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society."

The second way of answering our problem would look to the Tragic Vision, which works with the tragic imperfections of human nature with no expectation of utopian transformation. In taking this position, I would agree with Haidt that we need to recognize all five of the moral foundations as defensible and desirable. But we should see that the tension between these often conflicting foundations can be somewhat moderated but never completely eliminated.

Sometimes the conflicts will be so severe that there is no resolution except through violence and war. Nazi Germany was defeated not by moral arguments but by military force. Perpetual peace is impossible because whenever we face such unresolvable conflicts over matters worth fighting about, we will go to war to settle the conflict. As I have suggested in Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, and many posts on this blog, moral history often coincides with military history. In fact, as Haidt indicates, Darwin believed that tribal warfare was a major evolutionary source for human morality.

The tragic vision of this problem would suggest another way of mitigating the problem within social orders. As Haidt indicates, conservatives want to combine the "individualizing foundations" with the "binding foundations." They try to do this by promoting diverse Gemeinschaften within a single Gesellschaft. As members of the same nation, we can deal with one another as individuals bound together by moral principles of care and fairness. But as members of tightly organized social groups within that nation, we can enjoy deep communitarian and religious solidarity with our fellow group members. For example, Haidt often cites the experience of a fundamentalist Baptist church in Massachusetts as an illustration of traditional communitarian life (2009, 43). But the Gemeinschaft of a Baptist church in Massachusetts is very different from that of Nazi Germany or an Islamic theocracy. The members of the Baptist church can leave if they wish without fear of coercion, except for the punishment of social ostracism, because the church doesn't have totalitarian control over the whole nation.

Of course, this complex combination of social multiculturalism with political individualism creates problems of its own. So, for example, how far does a liberal democratic society go in tolerating the cultural practices of Islamic fundamentalists and other communitarian groups who want to enforce patriarchal authority over their women and children? In many parts of Europe and North America, such questions have provoked troubling debates. We can moderate but not abolish such conflicts.

What we know for sure, from historical experience, if we embrace the tragic view of human imperfection, is that human beings cannot be trusted to exercise absolute power in enforcing communitarian virtues on individuals without their consent, because we know that such power will be abused in tyrannical ways. We also know, however, that if human beings are free to join communitarian groups based on a shared morality of group identity, they will find their deepest satisfaction in doing so.

There are many posts on related themes, some of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gerry Mackie's Response

Gerry Mackie has written me an email message about my two recent posts on female circumcision. He has given me permission to reproduce it here: 

 "Thanks for the accurate account of my views! 

 "I also read your analysis of Fuambai Ahmadu. She is serious, and I respect her, although I think you identify, shall we say, the tensions in her argument. Sierra Leone is an outlier to my explanatory generalizations, and I think that FGC will last longer there than anywhere else in the world. FGC in its religious aspect is central to the female secret societies there. There are facets of her account worthy of attention. She chose FGC as an adult, and one reason she did is that her group, and her family, treated her as a child or a stigmatized outcast until she did so. Most, including in Sierra Leone, undergo it as children unable to give meaningful consent--and that is morally objectionable. (But what about male circumcision? Same answer, of moral concern, but less so because it tends to be less damaging.) Not Ahmadu's secret society, as far as I know, but others, have forcibly kidnapped and cut resisting girls. Also, although it may not reduce sexual capacity for some in its milder forms, that may be idiosyncratic, but more importantly, it is almost always intended to reduce sexual capacity or 'tame' the girl. 

 "FGC is highly variable in severity of treatment, and severity of harm, including harm to sexual capacity. It's fair to say that the ordinarily informed person in the United States has not a mistaken but an exaggerated view of its average severity and harms, perhaps biased by their emotional response. Also, as you note, people do this intending to help their children, just as parents in Illinois impose orthodontia on their daughters. Thus, insiders can be initially perplexed by outside opposition. Insiders sometimes feel a moral disgust for the uncut, such as what Ahmadu was subject to before cutting. And insiders are rightly offended when outsiders attempt to change their views with insults or imperial coercion. 

 "Martha Nussbaum's essay on FGC identifies the moral harm: the reduction of a valued human capacity in the absence of meaningful consent. 95% of it is for nonadults. If an adult such as Ahmadu wants to do it, who are we to stop her? 

 "I have less respect for other claims--see the relativist swamp I wade into in the article, 'FGC, A Harmless Practice?' 

 "For more consult my webpage, but I regret I cannot engage in colloquies on the topic."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gerry Mackie on Female Circumcision

When I first wrote about female circumcision in 1998 in Darwinian Natural Right, my thinking was decisively influenced by some writing by Gerry Mackie, who is now a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego. Now, twelve years later, one can see that developments in Africa have confirmed Mackie's analysis--both of the causal origins of female circumcision and of the practical strategy for abolishing it.

Most of Mackie's writing on female circumcision can be found at his webpage.

Mackie's original insight was seeing the similarities between Chinese footbinding and female circumcision. Both involve disabling young women physically so that they are believed to be less likely to be unfaithful to their husbands. Consequently, both have to do with marriageability--men are unwilling to marry women whose feet are unbound, in the one case, or who are not circumcised, in the other. Both became deeply rooted social traditions, such that any individuals who rejected the practice would be punished by society, because the daughters who had not undergone the procedure could not be married; and in these societies, unmarried women could not live successful lives.

Remarkably, although Chinese footbinding persisted for almost a thousand years, it was abandoned within two decades at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In 1996, Mackie suggested that female circumcision could be abandoned in the same way with the same strategy used with footbinding. Within a few years, his prediction seemed to be confirmed by the success of women in Senegal abandoning female circumcision through the strategy recommended by Mackie.

Mackie reasons that both Chinese footbinding and female circumcision are examples of self-enforcing social conventions, in which individuals cannot overturn the practice without punishment unless they can persuade a large number of others to join them in a collective commitment to stop the practice. Many individuals might recognize that footbinding or female circumcision is harmful to women. But if women have to be married to be successful, and if having bound feet or being circumcised is the condition for marriage, then women cannot resist the practice without suffering an unbearable cost. That's why parents who love their children will force them to undergo what they know is harmful because they see no good alternative if their daughters are to have a good life.

In the Chinese case, opponents of footbinding joined the "Natural Foot Society" and other groups campaigning against the practice. They took a pledge not to bind the feet of their daughters and not to allow their sons to marry girls with bound feet. These groups were large enough so that they could intermarry, and thus their daughters were not punished by being excluded from the marriage market.

Mackie surmised that the same could be done with female circumcision. Those recognizing how harmful female circumcision is could form groups of like-minded people who would pledge not to circumcise their daughters nor allow their sons to marry circumcised girls. If these groups then created marriage networks among themselves, their daughters would find mates without having to be circumcised.

Within a few years of publishing his analysis, Mackie discovered that what he predicted had actually happened in Africa, as some Africans discovered on their own with no knowledge of Mackie's work how collective action could allow them to abandon female circumcision.

Tostan is an international nongovernmental organization with headquarters in Senegal. (The word "tostan" means "breakthrough" in the West African language of Wolof.) Originally founded by a young woman who first came to Senegal as an American exchange student, Tostan organizes informal educational programs in hundreds of villages in Senegal and other parts of Africa. These programs allow women of the village to talk about their hopes for the future and how they might improve their lives. An important part of the education is instruction in human rights and conceptions of democracy. In 1997, the women who had participated in Tostan's classes in the village of Malicounda Bambara decided to apply what they had learned by organizing themselves in opposition to female circumcision. They publicly announced their pledge to abandon the practice for the good of their daughters. Initially, there was opposition from surrounding villages, but they persuaded these other villages to join them in the pledge. Eventually, thousands of villages have joined this movement. Consequently, girls in these villages can intermarry without being forced to be circumcised.

The remarkable story of Tostan is told in various documents available at the Tostan website.

What is crucial here is how the Mackie/Tostan strategy for reforming harmful traditional practices respects the people who live in these societies and allows them to act for themselves. Mackie writes: "Parents love their children and want to do the best for them. That is why parents arrange FGC for their children: in the circumstances they encounter that is how they advance the marriageability and future welfare of their daughters. Once it is discovered that a community can be organized to collectively abandon the practice, most parents would be happy to do so, again, out of love for their children."

So we should assume that parental care is a universal desire of evolved human nature. Parents around the world want to do what is in the best interests of their children. The naturalness of family life of human beings allows us then to formulate the human rights of parents and children. But the cultural diversity in the circumstances of marriage and family life can create social situations where parents are caught in a cultural trap, and they have to enforce harmful practices on their children for what they perceive to be their greater good. In such cases, parents can escape their cultural trap only if they understand the true costs of their practices and if they can organize themselves collectively to reform their cultural traditions.

But how do societies get caught in cultural traps like Chinese footbinding or female circumcision? Mackie suggests that in the case of footbinding, the practice originated in ancient imperial practices of polygynous hypergamy--that is, powerful men at the top of highly stratified societies controlled the resources that made them attractive mates for women from the lower strata of society. Such men worried about the faithfulness of their multiple wives, because men can never be completely confident of the paternity of their children. They devised various methods to cloister and guard their wives. Footbinding seemed to provide them such security, because women with bound feet were less able to stray. This created pressure on lower-status women to compete in footbinding to win the best mates in their effort to marry up the hierarchy. Although this original cause for footbinding disappeared, the practice continued.

Similarly, Mackie surmises that female circumcision might have originated in central Africa in highly stratified societies where women competed to marry up the pyramid. The practice could then have diffused across Africa as female circumcision was perceived to be a sign of status, faithfulness, and purity.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fuambai Ahmadu on Female Circumcision

In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long section on female circumcision (149-60). I use the debate over whether female circumcision should be condemned as a violation of human rights to illustrate the dangers of multicultural relativism in denying human nature and moral naturalism. From the perspective of Darwinian natural right, we can judge that female circumcision is an unjustified interference with the natural functioning of women's bodies in a way that denies their natural desires for health, sexual identity, and sexual mating. But if the multicultural relativists are right that human sexuality is a purely cultural construction, and different cultures choose to practice female circumcision as part of their cultural construction of female sexuality, then there is no natural biological standard of female sexuality that we can use to condemn female circumcision. On the one hand, many feminists support a global campaign to abolish female circumcision as a violation of the universal human rights of girls and women. On the other hand, multiculturalists denounce this campaign as cultural imperialism, because the Western feminists are imposing their cultural biases about female sexuality on African women who have embraced female circumcision as part of their cultural identity.

So what has happened to this debate since I wrote about it in 1998? First, we need to clarify what is meant by female circumcision. Here we can go to a fact sheet of the World Health Organization (WHO) on "female genital mutilation" (FGM).

The use of the word "mutilation" points to the fundamental issue. The idea of "mutilation" evokes moral emotions of disapproval, because it suggests some harmful distortion of the normal human body. WHO declares: "FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and womens' bodies." This language of "natural functions" implies a biological standard of normal human functioning, so that to interfere with that biological functioning can elicit moral emotions of repulsion.

With a Darwinian/Westermarckian understanding of moral experience, we can see the importance of both cognition and emotion in the WHO's moral condemnation of female circumcision as "mutilation." There's a cognitive assessment of what constitutes the "natural functions" of a healthy, normal human body. Then, there's an emotional response of moral disgust when we perceive that female circumcision interferes unjustifiably with the natural functioning of a woman's body. To counter that moral judgment, the multicultural relativists must deny the cognitive assessment of natural bodily functioning and allay the emotional response of moral disgust.

But what exactly are we talking about here? WHO distinguishes four major types of FGM. 1. Clitoridectomy is the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 2. Excision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, sometimes also the labia majora, which are the "lips" surrounding the vagina. 3. Infibulation is the sewing up or sealing of the vaginal opening, either with or without removing the clitoris, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. 4. The fourth category of "other" includes all other kinds of cutting or scraping of the genital area.

As the WHO fact sheet indicates, there are rough estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world today have had undergone this. Most of them are in central and northeastern areas of Africa. But some are in areas of the Middle East and Asia.

This practice exists as a "social convention" or "cultural tradition." People can believe that this is a necessary part of becoming a mature woman. Sometimes, it is part of the initiation rituals for girls to become women. It is associated with ideas of feminine modesty, cleanliness, and beauty. Typically, mothers have this done to their daughters. The most common justification is that female circumcision is necessary for a girl to become marriageable, because no man will consent to marry an uncircumcised woman. Men and women believe that uncircumcized women cannot properly control their sex drive, and thus they cannot be faithful wives and good mothers.

Many international agencies and non-governmental organizations have joined together in the attempt to abolish all forms of female circumcision. Some governments have adopted laws against it. Under a 1996 federal statute of the United States, it is a crime for girls under the age of 18 to be circumcised. In Canada, it is even a crime for parents to take their daughters to Africa for the purpose of circumcising them.

One notable development over the past decade is that some circumcised African women have taken opposing sides in debating this issue. For example, on one side, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was circumcised as a girl in Somalia, has become internationally famous for denouncing the practice of circumcision as an abhorrent mutilation of girls sanctioned by fundamentalist Islam. She has condemned the multicultural argument for tolerating this as a cultural tradition. My earlier post on Hirsi Ali can be found here.

On the other side of this debate is Fuambai Ahmadu, who was born in Sierra Leone and reared in the United States, and became an anthropologist who has studied female circumcision among her native Kono ethnic group in Sierra Leone. At age 22, she decided to travel back to her native village so that she herself could be circumcised. She now provokes intense controversy by writing and lecturing in which she criticizes the feminist campaign against female circumcision as Euroamerican cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism. She claims that she herself has not felt any impediment to her sexual life or any other harm from her circumcision, which was an excision of her clitoris. Moreover, she insists that most circumcised African women find deep satisfaction in their circumcision, which refutes all of the reports about the supposed harms from female circumcision.

When I was at the University of Regina, in Canada, a few weeks ago, I heard about a lecture that Ahmadu gave there last April. The professors I spoke with said that her lecture was explosive, because the feminists were outraged that any woman would say what she was saying, and some even questioned whether she should be permitted to speak. Those sponsoring the lecture rightly (I think) argued that a university should be open to such controversial speakers.

The best statement of Ahmadu's position is her book chapter--"Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision"--in Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds., Female "Circumcision" in Africa (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000). Two short statements from her can be found here and here.

In the "TierneyLab" statement, Ahmadu protests the "vilification of female circumcision." "Much of the horror expressed seems to be based on erroneous presumptions about the clitoris and female sexuality." So, to allay the emotional "horror," she must challenge the cognitive assessments of the functioning of the clitoris in female sexuality. She notes the variability in women's sexual experiences. Many circumcised women--like Ahmadu herself--report that circumcision has not impeded their sexual pleasure and orgasms at all. But some circumcised women report, on the contrary, that their circumcision has diminished their capacity for sexual enjoyment. The same is true for uncircumcised women, because some enjoy orgasms, while others don't have that experience. From this, Ahmadu concludes: "(female) sexuality is as much a cultural construct as ideas about sex and gender." If female sexuality is a "cultural construct," then different cultures can construct different patterns of female sexuality. The Kono can construct a culture in which women find their deepest satisfaction as women in circumcision. There is, then, no universal, natural standard of female sexuality to which one can appeal in judging culturally constructed standards of female sexuality, and therefore any condemnation of one culture by those in another culture is cultural imperialism. As she says in her Patriotic Vanguard article, each culture should be judged by its own cultural interpretation of female sexuality and not by some "Euroamerican universal prototype."

Ahmadu argues that the cosmetic surgery sought by many people in Western societies is not that different from African female circumcision. Some Western women are even undergoing genital surgery in the quest for "designer vaginas."

And yet Ahmadu exposes the weakness in her cultural relativist position by showing that she can't consistently adhere to her fundamental assumption that female sexuality is a "cultural construct" unconstrained by biological nature. She admits that some circumcised African women oppose the practice of circumcision, which suggests that at least some members of African cultures with circumcision can escape from their "cultural construct." Still, Ahmadu insists, that "the vast majority of circumcised women" find their cultural traditions to be satisfying. If so, then one might assume that Ahmadu is arguing for preserving female circumcision wherever it exists, because it is fully satisfying and not at all harmful for at least the vast majority of women. On the contrary, Ahmadu proposes that the most serious forms of circumcision should not be imposed on children by their parents. Instead, women should be free to decide whether they want to be circumcised, once they have reached a proper age of consent. Moreover, Ahmadu suggests, African women should be free to organize themselves collectively to ban all forms of circumcision. So, now it seems that Ahmadu sees something in human experience across cultures that allows people to call into question a practice like female circumcision, even when it has been a deeply rooted cultural tradition.

In the Patriotic Vanguard essay, Ahmadu observes: "I have written about the differences (as well as similarities) between western cultural interpretations of female sexuality and the symbolic/psychological meanings associated with the external clitoris noting that these meanings have nothing to do with its actual biological functioning in sexual pleasure and orgasm in women." It certainly is true that women's sexual pleasure can't be reduced to the "biological functioning" of the clitoris. Vaginal orgasms might be possible even without the clitoris at work. And the most powerful human sexual organ is the brain, with all the "symbolic/psychological meanings" that it can create, and these "meanings" are certainly influenced by cultural learning. But is it really true that female orgasm has nothing at all to do with the "actual biological functioning" of the clitoris?

Ahmadu reports: "the bulk of the clitoris is beneath the vaginal surface and along with other parts of the genitals and other areas of women's bodies remain very sensitive and perfectly functioning for most women after excision." Now we see a likely explanation for why some circumcized women like Ahmadu feel no lessening in their sexual pleasure. There is such a wide variation in excision that in many cases, most of the clitoral tissue remains and thus, along with other parts of the genitals, it can be "very sensitive and perfectly functioning."

So while Ahmadu begins by assuming that female sexuality is a purely "cultural construct" with no connection to "biological functioning," she concludes by recognizing that sexual pleasure really does have something to do with "perfectly functioning" genitals.

The clitoris seems to be the only human organ that has no purpose other than pleasure. And yet evolutionary theorists disagree about the evolutionary history of the clitoris. Some (like Sara Hrdy) stress the importance of clitoral orgasm as a functional adaptation in the evolution of female sexuality, which suggests that interfering with that part of female nature will frustrate women in ways that can only be harmful to men as well as women. But even if one agrees with those evolutionary theorists (like Donald Symons and Elisabeth Lloyd) who think clitoral orgasm is not an evolutionary adaptation for the female but an incidental effect of penile orgasm as a functional adaptation for the male, this would not change the fact that clitoral organism is now a potential of female nature that cannot be denied without emotional cost. Even if circumcised women are capable of vaginal orgasms, few women would find this to be sufficient compensation for the painful consequences of clitoridectomy or excision.

Perhaps because she does recognize the importance of "perfectly functioning" genitals for women's sexual happiness, Ahmadu ends up proposing the abolition of female circumcision in contradiction to her initial defense of the practice. At the end of her book chapter, Ahmadu suggests that "ritual without cutting" might be a "reasonable middle ground"--that is, African women might be persuaded to continue traditional practices of ritual initiation into womanhood, but without any actual physical cutting of the girls' genitals. She also proposes educational programs that would include information about the "possible negative health effects" of cirumcision, which would be directed to "preparing young girls to make informed choices about their futures and the futures of their own female children" (308-309).

In the last sentence of her book chapter, Ahmadu concludes: "through more culturally sensitive and appropriate 'education' as well as limited medicalization strategies, the 'death' of female 'circumcision' could be more gradual, more natural, and a lot less painful for millions of future African women and girls" (310).

As I indicated in Darwinian Natural Right, I agree with this strategy of allowing women to discover for themselves that there are alternatives to circumcision, and that by collectively organizing themselves to abolish circumcision, the women can change their cultural practices. This strategy--which Ahmadu seems to accept--has been well worked out by Gerry Mackie, and it has already succeeded in some parts of Africa. That will be the subject of another post.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Rights from Wrongs: The Sense of Injustice

From its first publication in 1975, Edward O. Wilson's book Sociobiology has stirred disputes over his claim that ethics is rooted in human biology. Our deepest intuitions of right and wrong, he asserted on the first page of the book, are guided by the emotional control centers of the brain, which evolved by natural selection to help the human animal exploit opportunities and avoid threats in the natural and social environment. In 1998, Wilson's book Consilience renewed the controversy as he continued to argue for explaining ethics through the biology of the moral sentiments. Human nature is not a product of genes alone or of culture alone, Wilson insisted. Rather, human nature is constituted by "the epigenetic rules, the hereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction rather than another, and thus connect the genes to culture" (164). The biology of the moral sentiments would be the study of the "epigenetic rules" of moral experience as shaped by the complex interaction of genetic propensities and cultural learning. Wilson has often used Edward Westermarck's theory of the incest taboo as a good example of this. (Westermarck's theory has been the subject of various posts on this blog.)

When I first read Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975, I initially rejected his biological explanation of ethics as being too crudely reductionistic in its appeal to mere emotion as the ultimate ground of ethical experience. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago writing a dissertation on Aristotle's Rhetoric, and I noticed that Aristotle invoked a natural moral sense as expressed in moral emotions such as anger, indignation, shame, kindness, and pity, which made me think that Wilson's reliance on the moral emotions might be more defensible that I had at first believed. I also became interested in Aristotle's biological writing and in how his biological reasoning influenced his moral and political philosophy. Like Wilson, Aristotle explained the natural sociality of human beings by comparing them with other social animals such as the social insects. When Aristotle spoke of "natural right"--natural standards of right and wrong--he appealed to the biological propensities of human nature. Eventually, I changed my mind about Wilson's argument and concluded that his Darwinian explanation of ethics could be defended as a modern biological restatement of a tradition of ethical naturalism that began with Aristotle. Later, I began to see how the rhetorical tradition of studying the moral psychology of the emotions, which began in Book 2 of the Rhetoric, was renewed by David Hume and Adam Smith, in their moral philosophizing on the moral sentiments, which then shaped the moral philosophy of Darwin and Westermarck.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests that natural justice or natural law is enforced by moral passions such as anger and indignation. The fearful inclination of human beings to commit injustice is balanced by the fearful desire of the victims of injustice for retribution. Natural justice is expressed most clearly and powerfully not as a sense of justice, but as a sense of injustice.

This Aristotelian idea has been elaborated in two recent books--Edmond Cahn's The Sense of Injustice (1964) and Alan Dershowitz's Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origin of Rights (2004). Both are lawyers--and thus following in Aristotle's tradition of legal rhetoric--and both see the sense of injustice forcefully expressed in the revulsion against Nazism and the Holocaust. Both find the sense of justice unreliable because perfect justice is too abstract to be practically applicable and too vague to be generally comprehensible. Our direct conception of justice requires some contemplative or theoretical grasping of the mind that cannot move us to action. As Aristotle said, thought by itself moves nothing. But our response to some real or imagined act of injustice is passionate and active. Rather than philosophizing about justice, which requires a top-down deductive reasoning, our experience with injustice moves through a bottom-up inductive process of emotional engagement, in which justice becomes the active process of preventing or remedying whatever evokes moral emotions of disgust. As practicing lawyers, both Cahn and Dershowitz are dissatisfied by legal philosophizing about perfect justice abstracted from the realities of human experience. But both see a passionate sense of injustice in human beings that animates law. (Is this what Leon Kass means by the "wisdom of repugnance"?)

Although Cahn does not cite Westermarck, he follows a Westermarckian line of thought in suggesting that this sense of injustice could be rooted in a biological nature shaped by evolutionary history in which animals are naturally inclined to resist attack. In social animals, this natural resistance to attack can be extended by sympathy or empathy to one's fellow animals, so that one perceives an attack on others as an attack on oneself. The intellectual capacities of human beings allow them to extend this sympathetic concern to ever wider circles of human community and to formulate rules of justice as generalizations of our experience of retributive emotions directed against aggressors and cheaters.

Consequently, this sense of injustice requires a blending of reason and emotion. Marlene Sokolon develops this point well in her reading of Aristotle in Political Emotions: Aristotle and the Symphony of Reason and Emotion (2006). Marlene also shows how Aristotle's moral and political psychology of reason and emotion in combination as shaping political judgment has been confirmed by recent research in neuroscience and evolutionary theory. The human brain as a product of evolutionary history serves the needs of the human animal through a complex interaction of cognitive reasoning and affective responsiveness. (Marlene originally wrote her book as a dissertation under my direction at Northern Illinois University, where she combined the fields of political philosophy and biopolitics.)

Cahn captures this same point when he writes:

"The sense of injustice now appears as an indissociable blend of reason and empathy. It is evolutionary in is manifestations. Without reason, it could not serve the ends of social utility, which only observation, analysis, and science can discern. Without empathy, it would lose its warm sensibility and its cogent natural drive. It is compounded, indissolubly, of both and can subsist on neither alone. For sheer rationality without an empathic fundament would usually degenerate to extreme skepticism and doubt; while empathy, uninformed by reason, would serve up only the illiterate gropings of animal faith. Together reason and empathy support our juridic world. Through them men may learn to identify their own interests with those of an unlimited community, no longer doubting in philosophy what they do not doubt in their hearts" (26).

Like Cahn, Dershowitz argues that there is less agreement about perfect justice than there is about gross injustice. He conveys his thought through the snappy title of his book--"rights from wrongs." Rejecting both natural law theory and legal positivism as inadequate, he summarizes his position in this way:

"Rights do not come from God, because God does not speak to human beings in a single voice, and rights should exist even if there is no God.
"Rights do not come from nature, because nature is value-neutral.
"Rights do not come from logic, because there is little consensus about the a priori premises from which rights may be deduced.
"Rights do not come from the law alone, because if they did, there would be no basis on which to judge a given legal system.
"Rights come from human experience, particularly experience with injustice. We learn from the mistakes of history that a rights-based system and certain fundamental rights--such as freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion, equal protection of the laws, due process, and participatory democracy--are essential to avoid repetition of the grievous injustices of the past. Working from the bottom up, from a dystopian view of our experiences with injustice, rather than from the top down, from a utopian theory of perfect justice, we build rights on a foundation of trial, error, and our uniquely human ability to learn from our mistakes in order to avoid replicating them.
"In a word, rights come from wrongs" (8-9).

As distinguished from "natural rights" and "positive rights," Dershowitz is concerned with "nurtural rights," because he explains the need for moral rights as something that human beings have discovered by experience over history. Human beings have discovered by painful experience that they need to secure certain rights--life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on--to protect themselves from the gross injustices that human beings have experienced when those rights are not secured. The very idea of "rights" is a historical invention. (The Straussians would say it was invented by the early modern political philosophers.) And for that reason, Dershowitz identifies himself as a historical relativist. Rights are not discovered as inherent within nature or as commands of God. There are no external sources of rights, because rights arise within human historical experience.

But still Dershowitz does not see these rights as capriciously arbitrary. Rights work to protect us against injustices only if they are stable over time. But they do change over time. And unlike most of his fellow liberals, Dershowitz notes that historical experience can lead not just to the expansion of rights but also to their contraction, because we can decide that excessive concern for rights has made us less secure. For example, the experience of facing great emergencies, such as terrorist attacks, might push us towards contracting some individual rights in order to make government more effective in capturing and punishing our enemies. The process of learning by trial and error the lessons of history as to resolving conflicts of rights and the balance between liberty and security is fallible. But there is no infallible alternative. And because learning from historical experience with rights is so fallible, there will always be some honest disagreement.

In effect, Dershowitz is restating what Aristotle recognized as the inescapable uncertainty and variability in practical affairs for which we need prudence or practical judgment where demonstrative proof is impossible. That's why rhetorical argumentation is so important. With its appeal to both reason and emotion and its reliance on historical experience and common opinions, rhetorical persuasion prevails where abstract logic would fail. That's why it's so hard to understand why political theorists and political scientists pay so little attention to rhetorical theory. By contrast, lawyers like Dershowitz and Cahn understand from their legal practice the primacy of rhetorical persuasion in practical life.

Dershowitz admits that there is no absolute line of separation between rights and preferences. Rights are just strong preferences, and the strength of those preferences can change over time. But still we can identify rights as "those fundamental preferences that experience and history--especially of great injustices--have taught are so essential that the citizenry should be persuaded to entrench them and not make them subject to easy change by shifting majorities" (81).

Slavery and the Holocaust are paradigms of injustice. And so the modern consensus that slavery and genocide violate human rights is strong. But this emerged only through historical experience. After all, for thousands of years, many people thought slavery was naturally rooted or divinely commanded or both. But eventually, the sense of the injustice of slavery evoked by empathy for the slaves and antipathy towards the slavemasters convinced most people that freedom from slavery should be a human right. Actually, the fight against slavery continues today, because while the open practice of chattel slavery has mostly disappeared, various kinds of disguised slavery continue.

In his effort to avoid the mistakes of both the absolutist natural law position and the absolutist positive law position, Dershowitz sometimes suggests a culturalist relativism that would provide no stable ground at all for justice or rights. If rights are nothing more than cultural preferences that arbitrarily change across time and across cultures, then it's hard to see that rights have any compelling force.

Dershowitz would benefit from adopting the three-leveled analysis that I have defended on this blog, by which moral and political order can be seen as requiring natural law, customary law, and positive law. From the position of Darwinian natural right, we could say that human moral experience arises from the complex interaction of moral instincts, moral traditions, and moral judgments. Contemporary scientific research on Darwinian moral psychology supports this. For example, neuroscience is uncovering the neural bases for these three levels of moral experience. As a product of evolutionary history, the human brain is instinctively endowed with natural propensities to moral emotions such as anger, indignation, love, and empathy. The human brain is also adapted for social learning in which our moral emotions are specified with social content reflecting our individual and cultural history. The human brain is also adapted for individual judgment by which we respond as unique individuals to unique circumstances constrained by our moral instincts and our moral traditions.

Moreover, the neuroscientific study of moral experience confirms the Darwinian and Westermarckian understanding of moral life as requiring a combination of cognitive reasoning and emotional response. Behavioral game theory provides experimental evidence for this biological moral pscyhology.

Actually, Dershowitz himself comes close to this Darwinian understanding when he concedes that although he wants to avoid the "naturalistic fallacy" of inferring a moral "ought" from a natural "is," he also wants to avoid the "nurturalistic fallacy" of assuming that nurture determines the content of morality without any influence from nature (35). He notes that moral experience requires the interaction of nature and nurture. After all, his general argument about "rights from wrongs" assumes a natural human propensity for moral emotions of disapproval or disgust in response to gross injustices (8-9, 17, 31-32, 35, 62-63, 79, 112, 121-25, 134-36).

Dershowitz is famous for being one of the most vigorous defenders of Israel. In books like The Case for Israel and The Case Against Israel's Enemies, he has argued that those who have turned the international human rights movement against Israel fail to see that the human rights record of Israel is far superior to that of its Islamic enemies.

I will be writing some future posts on this, because this illustrates how human rights become contested. Originally, the modern human rights movement was unanimous in its moral revulsion against the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, which favored the establishment of Israel. But now the enemies of Israel try to evoke a similar moral revulsion against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as a violation of human rights. The disagreement in this debate is both rational and emotional--rational in so far as it turns on a disagreement about the relevant facts and emotional in so far as it turns on differing emotional responses. Even if we cannot resolve such disagreement through demonstrative reasoning, we can arrive at some judgment through rhetorical debate between the advocates on both sides.

For a small sample of the many posts pertinent to this topic, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Did Darwin Naturalize Genocide?--Or Does Right Make Might?

The longest chapter in my book Darwinian Natural Right is on slavery, because the history of the debate over slavery illustrates how a Darwinian understanding of evolved human nature supports moral judgment. We can see that slavery is wrong because it violates a natural moral sense rooted in human biology.

Part of my argument in that chapter concerns Darwin's moral condemnation of slavery and how he saw his science of the biological unity of the human races as subverting scientific racism. The evidence for that interpretation of Darwin is now strengthened by a new book--Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution (2009). Desmond and Moore show how Darwin's life-long opposition to slavery influenced his science, and in particular, how his evolutionary science of Homo sapiens as one species refuted the scientific racism of those who claimed that the human races were actually separate species, and that the inferior races were naturally adapted for slavery.

And yet there's an ambiguity in the message of the Desmond and Moore book. On the one hand, their dominant theme is how Darwin's opposition to slavery manifested his humanitarian morality. On the other hand, they occasionally suggest that Darwin's theory of evolution could be interpreted as a "biologizing of genocide" (147-55, 318, 326, 337, 344). The problem is indicated in the full title of Darwin's most famous book--The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Does this mean that the extinction of the "lower races" by the more "favoured races" must be accepted as part of nature's evolutionary "struggle for life"? If so, then was Adolf Hitler correct to see this as scientific support for his Nazi ideology as based on the the triumph of the Master Race in the struggle against inferior races? Would this confirm Richard Weikart's "Darwin-to-Hitler" thesis?

During his trip on the Beagle, Darwin saw the brutality of European colonists in enslaving others and extinguishing aboriginal peoples in warfare. Near the end of his Voyage of the Beagle (Doubleday, 1962), Darwin recounts that every time he hears a "distant scream," he is reminded of his painful feelings from hearing slaves being tortured in Brazil. He describes in vivid language some of the "heart-sickening atrocities" he observed, and he concludes:

"Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;--what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children--those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own--being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin" (496-98).

Darwin's reference at the end--to British efforts "to expiate our sin"--is to the acts of the British Parliament in outlawing the slave trade in 1807 and abolishing slavery in the British colonies in 1833. Most importantly, the outlawing of the slave trade was enforced by the Royal Navy sailing the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas capturing slave ships and liberating their human cargo. This anti-slavery policy was induced through an extended campaign by anti-slavery societies that wrote up reports with detailed descriptions of the cruelty of slavery, reports that were widely published to provoke moral emotions of revulsion. Thus, these groups employed the same rhetorical tactics as are used today by human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Darwin's writings contributed to the moral rhetoric of abolitionism in three ways. The first way is by expressing his own moral outrage at the atrocities of slavery, which he did in his Voyage of the Beagle book and elsewhere. Desmond and Moore stress this.

But they don't recognize a second way in which he supported abolitionist morality. From the notebooks that he began after returning from his voyage, we can see that in explaining the evolution of morality, he relied on those theories of morality promoted by David Hume and Adam Smith that emphasized moral emotions or moral sentiments based on sympathy or fellow feeling. By extending ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others, we mirror their emotional experiences, and thus feel disapproval when they are unfairly harmed by others. In the Descent of Man, Darwin elaborated his theory of how this natural moral sense could have evolved. He thus supported the moral rhetoric of abolitionism by showing that the abolitionist appeal to moral emotions of repugnance towards slavery based on our sympathy for the slaves expresses the emotional roots of moral experience. Later, Edward Westermarck elaborated this theory of morality as founded on moral emotions. And, most recently, biological research on the emotional character of morality--including the neural bases of moral emotions--has deepened the science of Darwin's theory. Desmond and Moore don't see the importance of this Darwinian account of morality in sustaining the moral case against slavery.

Desmond and Moore stress the third way in which Darwin's writing supported abolitionism--his argument for the unity of the human races. Through much of the nineteenth century, there was an intense scientific debate between the polygenists who argued that the human races were actually separate species and the monogenists who argued that the races were varieties of the same human species. The polygenists provided scientific support for the proslavery claim that black slaves belonged to an inferior species, while the monogenists sustained a scientific basis for the unity of the human species as one human family. As Desmond and Moore show, the leaders of the Confederacy in the American Civil War understood the moral and political implications of this scientific debate, because they sent paid Confederate agents to England to support the Anthropological Society of London, founded in 1863, which sponsored the pro-slavery arguments for polygenism.

But then Desmond and Moore admit that their story of Darwin as the humanitarian opponent of slavery and racial bigotry is apparently undermined in two ways. First, in the Origin of Species, Darwin devotes a long passage to his study of the "slave-making instinct" in some ants, which was interpreted by some readers as suggesting that slavery could be justified as natural. In fact, as Desmond and Moore indicate, the discovery of ant slavery by Pierre Huber early in the nineteenth century was cited by pro-slavery authors as a clear example of natural slavery. Desmond and Moore worry that Darwin was "naturalizing the slave-making instinct" (302). But they are reassured that Darwin refers to this as "so extraordinary and odious an instinct." They don't acknowledge, however, that in later editions of the Origin, Darwin dropped the words "and odious." Did Darwin decide that it is not appropriate to morally condemn the behavior of animals that have no moral sense? Desmond and Moore suggest this when they argue that only humans are "reasoning moral beings" who can be held morally responsible for their behavior, and therefore there is no moral analogy between ant slavery and human slavery (303-304). They might have reinforced this point if they had referred to a passage in the Descent where Darwin speculates on how bees might have developed a different moral sense from that of humans if the bees had developed intellectual faculties comparable to those of humans, which suggests that without such intellectual capabilities, there is no moral experience.

In DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, I have a long section on ant slavery. I argue that considering the similarities and differences between ant slavery and human slavery illuminates the biological nature of slavery. The similarities suggest that slavery among ants and humans is rooted in a natural inclination to exploitation. The differences suggest that the uniquely human opposition to slavery is rooted in a natural moral sense that resists exploitation.

There's a second, and more pervasive, way in which Darwin's writing seems to weaken the story of his humanitarianism. Although in his early notebooks, he wrote a note resolving never to use the words "higher" and "lower," he did often distinguish the "civilized races" from the "lower races." He also described the military success of the "civilized races" in extinguishing the "lower races," which he presented as crucial for moral evolution, because those groups that were more loyal and courageous in fighting for their group would be favored by natural selection in defeating those groups that were less loyal and courageous. Desmond and Moore attribute this to the influence on Darwin of Thomas Malthus's depiction of how human beings are driven to compete for scarce resources, and they worry that this pushed Darwin towards "rationalizing the darker side of tribal contacts" (147).

In his Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin writes:

"Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the East Indian archipelago, thus driven before him the dark-coloured native. The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals--the stronger always extirpating the weaker. It was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine energetic natives saying, that they knew the land was doomed to pass from their children" (433-34).

He describes in gruesome detail the war he observed in Argentina as General Juan Manual Rosas tried to exterminate the Indians.

". . . This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he answered, 'Why, what can be done? they breed so!'

"Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?" (102-103).

In his Beagle Diary (ed. R. D. Keynes), Darwin wrote:

"If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be gained for the production of cattle: & the vallies of the R. Negro, Colorado, Sauce will be most productive in corn. The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper-coloured Indians. The former being a little superior in civilization, as they are inferior in every moral virtue" (181).

Should we worry, as Desmond and Moore do, that this shows Darwin "biologizing colonial eradication" (149)? Is it immoral to teach that the natural history of humanity shows "the stronger always extirpating the weaker"?

But notice, first of all, how Darwin's language conveys a sense of moral tragedy and revulsion--"melancholy," "a dark picture," "shocking," "inhuman," "atrocities," "butchered." Because their advanced agrarian society based on farming and herding gives them economic superiority over aboriginal peoples, those "a little superior in civilization" are also superior in military power although "inferior in every moral virtue."

We might read Darwin as pointing to a problem clearly captured in Pascal's Pensees (fr. 192):

"It is just that what is just should be followed; it is necessary that what is stronger should be followed. Justice without force is impotent, force without justice is tyrannical. . . . We must therefore combine justice and force; and to do this, what is just should be strong, or what is strong should be just."

We might be reminded of Thucydides' famous account of the Melian dialogue, where the Athenian envoys tell the Melian envoys: "you know as well as we do that justice in human arguments is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (5.89). They go on to declare: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessity of their nature, they rule wherever they can" (5.105).

We miss the deep lesson in the Melian dialogue, however, if we see it simply as the triumph of the strong over the weak. The Athenians failed in their attempt to persuade the Melians to surrender without a fight. The Melians fought to the death, forcing the Athenians to suffer casualties during a long siege. So even though the Melians were defeated, their just resistance to unjust aggression inflicted great harm on the Athenians.

Nietzsche presents this lesson in his Darwinian account of morality in Human, All Too Human (92-93). Justice originates as reciprocity between approximately equal powers. But there can also be a "right of the weaker." "If one party, a city under siege, for example, submits under certain conditions to a greater power, its reciprocal condition is that this first party can destroy itself, burn the city, and thus make the power suffer a great loss. Thus there is a kind of equalization, on the basis of which rights can be established. Preservation is to the enemy's advantage."

The natural propensity to take vengeance against injustice through physical violence is a powerful check on injustice. This is conveyed in one of the first moral laws of the Bible: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6). The natural human propensity to murder is countered by the natural human propensity to kill murderers. The sense of justice is most clearly manifested in the sense of injustice--the desire to right a wrong by taking vengeance on the wrong doer.

It's an uncomfortable truth that moral history is often decided by acts of violence and war. That's particularly true in the modern history of the debate over moral rights. John Locke's teaching about natural rights begins with his assertion of the natural human right to use force and violence to protect one's life and property. A just government is to secure rights. But when justice is perverted, the people have "no appeal but to Heaven," as in the Old Testament case of Jephtha and the Ammonites, and that means war. The ultimate check on an unjust government is the threat of revolutionary violence.

Similarly, we think of the American Declaration of Independence as a noble expression of the moral principles of rights. But, of course, this was a declaration of war in which the moral and legal debate over rights would be settled by force of arms.

Likewise, when the debate over slavery in the United States reached an impasse, the Civil War resolved the issue by military force. Abraham Lincoln concluded his Cooper Union speech in 1860 by declaring: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." Then, in 1863, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke of the U.S. as "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." But then he immediately warned that "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Lincoln must hope that the moral superiority of freedom over slavery can be expressed as military superiority--this is his "faith that right makes might."

Some religious believers say that the only conclusive way to resolve great moral disputes is by appealing to God's moral law as revealed in the Bible. But we should note that the Bible itself is a remarkably bloody book: from the Old Testament to the last book of the New Testament (Revelations), God leads His people in war. Moreover, the Bible didn't resolve the debate over slavery because biblical believers couldn't agree as to whether the Bible supported or condemned slavery. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln observed that in the division between North and South: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

In fact, as Mark Noll has observed, the Civil War became a theological crisis for biblical believers who could not find in the Bible clear resolution of the moral question of slavery. Noll writes:

". . . The country and the churches were both in trouble because the remedy that finally solved the question of how to interpret the Bible was recourse to arms. The supreme crisis over the Bible was there existed no apparent biblical resolution to the crisis. . . . it was left to those consummate theologians, the Reverend Doctors Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, to decide what in fact the Bible actually meant."

And, in fact, we now know, as a result of the Civil War, that the Bible must condemn slavery as immoral.

This combination of justice and force--so that "right makes might"--continues in the modern history of human rights. The brutal power of Nazism seemed to show the same dark power in human history that Darwin had seen--"the stronger always extirpating the weaker." But ultimately the Nazis were defeated not by force of moral argument but by force of military arms. And then, the moral revulsion against Nazism and the Holocaust led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declared that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." Here, then, are the instinctive moral emotions of repugnance against injustice that Darwin and Westermarck saw at the base of all moral experience. Our revulsion against great "wrongs" leads us to assert the "rights" that we want to defend.

The Universal Declaration also states: "it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law." There was a long discussion among the drafters of the Universal Declaration as to whether they should declare a human right to revolution. Some of them were nervous about openly endorsing such a right as encouraging anarchy and subversion of legal government. But they finally agreed that this statement should clearly acknowledge "rebellion against tyranny and opppression" as as "last resort." This statement also implies that we can identify human rights as those conditions for human life that cannot be tyrannically denied without eventually provoking violent rebellion.

We can say, then, that human rights are natural rights in so far as they are enforced by the natural human propensity to take vengeance against, and feel revulsion towards, great injustices.

If this is so, then right does make might.

A few of the many posts that take up related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, here., here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Evolution for Everyone--Even Biologists?

Those defending the importance of teaching evolutionary science often like to quote a famous remark by Theodosius Dobzhansky (an evolutionary biologist): "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Some of us would like to expand that claim to read: "Nothing in any of the academic disciplines--the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Opponents of evolution--including the proponents of creationism and intelligent design--like to challenge such claims. In fact, they argue, evolutionary ideas are not essential to biological research, and they certainly contribute nothing good to the social sciences and humanities.

Oddly enough, it really is true that many biologists have no great interest in evolution, and they certainly don't see evolution as a bridge across all of the intellectual disciplines.

This point comes up in the first issue of the EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium. One of the articles is by Neil Blackstone. Neil is a colleague of mine at Northern Illinois University. He's an evolutionary biologist in the biology department. We have team-taught a course on evolutionary topics that is cross-listed in the political science and biology departments. He has complained to me that his fellow biologists often show little interest in evolutionary reasoning. In this article, he illustrates his point by showing how molecular cell biologists fail to see how evolutionary thinking could help them in their research. In particular, he argues that research on the functioning of the STAT3 protein could be illuminated by considering the evolutionary history of mitochondria as originally bacteria that entered into a symbiotic relationship within eukaryotic cells.

Such thinking is rare, Neil indicates, because evolutionary theorists tend to study genetics and organisms without studying cell biology, while cell biologists often pay no attention to evolution. A similar kind of narrowness is indicated in another article in this same issue of EvoS. The article by Fisher et al. is a report by young evolutionary psychologists on how their careers have developed. One of them--Aaron Goetz--says that while he developed an early interest in evolution in high school, he was not so interested in other areas of biology. "I was (and still am) fascinated by whole organism biology and absorbed in macroevolution but turned off when zooming in to the cellular level. Golgi bodies and ATP transport systems (whatever those are) never excited me" (13). This is remarkable because ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the primary source of energy for almost every process in the cell requiring energy. As Neil indicates, the STAT3 protein contributes to this vital generation of ATP. But evolutionary psychologists don't think this has any interest for their evolutionary studies, just as many cell biologists have no interest in evolution.

Similarly, another one of the evolutionary psychologists--Karol Osipowicz--reports that many neuroscientists don't apply the principles of evolution to cognition (20). And Steven Platek expresses shock that many biologists don't accept the reasoning of evolutionary psychology (25).

The fundamental problem is that career paths in higher education today often tend to be highly specialized, so much so that even within the same academic department, faculty can hardly talk to one another. Consequently, extending evolutionary reasoning across all areas of biology and then even across other disciplines in a university meets resistance.

But as the EvoS program at Binghamton University shows, the intellectual excitement generated by such expansion of evolutionary ideas will attract thoughtful students and faculty. After all, what can be more exciting than the prospect of that ultimate unification of all knowledge that has always been the seductive promise of liberal education?

For some of my posts on "Darwinian liberal education," go here, here, here, here, here, here, and .here.