Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (2): The Virtue of Prudence

In making their case for Aristotelian liberalism, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl revive Aristotle's claim that prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis) is the supreme virtue. Prudence is the intellectual faculty for judging conduct, for judging the best course of action for particular individuals in particular circumstances. From what we know about human nature, we can see that human beings generally pursue certain generic goods--for example, health, wealth, beauty, friendship, honor, and knowledge. But this general knowledge of the generic goods of human life cannot tell us how best to organize and integrate the pursuit of these goods in a manner that is appropriate for particular individuals. To do that, individuals must exercise prudence in deciding for themselves what form of life is best for them as most conducive to their happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). The primary purpose of a liberal regime as favored by Rasumussen and Den Uyl is to protect the liberty of individuals to exercise the intellectual virtue of prudence in their pursuit of moral virtue understood as their flourishing or self-perfection.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl take their account of prudence from Den Uyl's book The Virtue of Prudence (1991). This book has not received the attention it deserves. I don't know of any other book that covers so well the logic of prudence and the history of how prudence fell from being the preeminent virtue (for Aristotle) to being hardly a virtue at all (for Kant and many contemporary moral philosophers).

In the first part of his book, Den Uyl summarizes the logic of prudence. In the second part, he surveys the history of prudence in moral philosophy, concentrating on Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Kant. In the final part, he argues for reviving an Aristotelian conception of prudence.

Although I generally agree with him, I disagree on a couple of points. But with some slight modifications, Den Uyl's framing of the argument for prudence would be compatible with my argument for Darwinian natural right.

Den Uyl summarizes the main points in his reasoning in five "negative" theses on the positions that deny the importance of prudence and five "positive" theses on the positions that favor prudence (pp. 50-51).

Here are the five "negative" theses:

"Thesis I: The Polarity Thesis: When ethics is considered to be fundamentally concerned with the conflict between duty and self-interest, prudence will be unlikely to surface as a significant virtue.

"Thesis II: The Hedonic Thesis: Any moral theory which takes desire alone to be either motivationally or axiologically foundational will thereby fail to accord prudence the status of a virtue.

"Thesis III: The Impersonalist Thesis: A moral theory which understands duty in essentially impersonalist or agent-neutral terms will be inimical to the development of prudence as a virtue.

"Thesis IV: The Non-teleological Thesis: Prudence does not thrive in non-teleological contexts.

"Thesis V: The Communitarian Thesis: If our relations with others are given foundational importance in ethics, the virtue of prudence will, to the extent that the individual self is given secondary or derivative status, diminish in importance as a virtue."

Here are Den Uyl's five "positive" theses:

"Thesis I: The Self-Perfective Thesis: When the first concern of ethics is conceived to be the individual agent's own well-being or perfection, then prudence will flourish as a virtue.

"Thesis II: The Non-Hedonic Thesis: Any moral theory open to the possibility that desires alone are not motivationally or axiologically foundational will, ceteris paribus, also be open to the possibility of prudence being a virtue.

"Thesis III: The Personalist Thesis: A moral theory which takes agent-centeredness to be essential and foundational to moral obligation and moral propriety will, to the extent of its focus upon individual flourishing and well- being, encourage the virtue of prudence.

"Thesis IV: The Teleological Thesis: Prudence thrives in teleological contexts.

"Thesis V: The Individualist Thesis: Prudence maintains significance as a virtue when relations with others are grounded in principles that are either directly derived from, or shown to be compatible with, those principles or conditions that contribute to the agent's own well-being or self-perfection."

While I agree with these theses, I think some of them are stated in misleading ways that lead to some mistakes in Den Uyl's line of argument.

First, the "Hedonic" and "Non-Hedonic" theses are misleading in suggesting a false dichotomy as to whether "desires alone" motivate moral conduct. While "desire alone" is not sufficient, we need to see how conduct combines desire and reason, and so "reason alone" is not sufficient either.

Second, the "Communitarian" and "Individualist" theses are misleading in suggesting a false dichotomy between community and individuality. As Den Uyl indicates, human individuals are naturally social animals, and therefore one's individual good includes the social good.

Third, I agree with Den Uyl's "Impersonalist" and "Personalist" theses, but I don't agree with how he applies them to the case of Adam Smith. I don't agree with his criticism of Smith's appeal to the "impartial spectator" as "impersonalism."

Den Uyl (like Rasmussen) has been influenced by the exaggerated rationalism of Ayn Rand, and consequently he is inclined to play down the importance of desire or emotion in moral life. Den Uyl comes close to making Kant's mistake of insisting on an absolute separation of reason and desire (147-57, 246).

No serious thinker (not even Hume) believes that "desire alone" is "motivationally or axiologically foundational" for moral conduct. Surely, "reason alone" is not a sensible position either, despite Kant's insistence that morality is a matter of pure reason. Rather, what we need is a combination of reason and desire.

This is Aristotle's position. Oddly, Den Uyl is almost completely silent about this. But in two passages, he does very briefly acknowledge this. So, for Aristotle, the good life was "equally affective and rational" (155). Moreover, "Kant always found it 'risky' to allow emotions to creep into motivations, whereas Aristotle did not" (298).

As I argued in Darwinian Natural Right (chap. 2), Aristotle thought that in the striving for a good human life, reason and desire were mutually dependent. "Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle insisted, because any human action that is deliberately chosen requires a union of reason and desire. A deliberate choice manifests either "desiring reason" or "reasoning desire" (NE, 1139a36-b6).

I use the word "desire" to translate the Greek word orexis. Aristotle coined the Greek noun orexis from the Greek verb orego, which means "to reach out." Orexis is the soul's "reaching out" for something in the world. For Aristotle, it is a general term for all kinds of longing or striving, including physical appetites, social emotions, and intellectual yearnings (DA, 433a9-b31). I use the word "desire" in the same way as a general term for all kinds of psychic impulse or inclination. With that sense in mind, I defend an ethics of desire: the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in a manner that is coherent and harmonious over a whole life, which is the work of prudence.

Den Uyl obscures this point by sometimes suggesting that prudential reason somehow works without desire, but then at other times he says that reason "expresses itself through desire" or "directs" desire (64-65).

Den Uyl rightly argues that the primary purpose of prudential reasoning is to integrate the generic goods of human life in a way that is appropriate to an individual life. Den Uyl takes his list of generic goods from Aristotle's Rhetoric. This list corresponds closely to my list of twenty natural desires, which supports my idea that the good is the desirable. But Den Uyl is reluctant to identify these goods as desires. He says that while prudence manages the mixture of the goods, the goods themselves are "essentially givens" (81). "Aristotle says that practical wisdom deliberates about means and not about ends, for the ends are given" (284). Given by what? I would say they are "given" by desire.

Den Uyl speaks of the generic human goods as "basic attractions" or "natural inclinations," as objects of human "aspiration" or "longing" that exert "teleological pull" (168-70, 188). As far as I can tell, such language is circumlocution for desires.

In Norms of Liberty, Den Uyl and Rasmussen are more open in acknowledging the generic goods as desires. They write: "Human flourishing is an object of desire. Yet, in terms similar to Socrates' question to Euthyphro, flourishing is an object of desire because it is desirable and choice-worthy, not simply because it is desired or chosen. In other words, it is desired because of what it is" (127). The desirable is an objective fact of human existence because it is rooted in human nature. But the right mix of these generic goods for an individual human being requires prudential judgment. "The desirable and choice-worthy elements of flourishing need to be achieved, maintained, and enjoyed in a coherent manner, and this involves a consideration of generic, individuative, and circumstantial factors" (147).

This moves towards my position. The good is the desirable. The generic goods of human life correspond to the natural desires of human biological nature. But prudence is required to judge how best to manage those desires in the life of any individual human being (Darwinian Natural Right, 17-49).

Because of the influence of Ayn Rand, Den Uyl (as well as Rasmussen) tends to play up "the virtue of selfishness"--that is, understanding ethics as self-perfection. So the good is always good for someone. Although we can by abstraction see the generic goods of human nature, we should see that the actualization of the human good is always the individualized good of particular human beings.

As a consequence, Den Uyl is suspicious of modern moral philosophers who define ethics as other-regarding conduct, and who therefore dismiss self-regarding conduct as non-moral. I agree with Den Uyl about this. But I don't agree with him that Adam Smith is guilty of this mistake.

Den Uyl rightly sees that if we understand the human good as self-perfection or self-regarding conduct, we can then recognize that insofar as we are naturally social animals, we extend ourselves into others. We love our families, our friends, and our fellow citizens. We can even see a friend as "another self."

I think this is Smith's position. Den Uyl criticizes Smith for appealing too much to social sentiments as a foundation for morality, because he thinks Smith thus denigrates the self-regarding character of morality. I disagree, because it seems clear to me that Smith's moral sentiments are simply expressions of the social nature of human beings by which their self-regarding concerns extend to a concern for others who are attached to them. As individuals who are social animals, we can extend our sympathy outward from ourselves to embrace an ever wider circle of people. But our attachments will tend to be stronger to those near the center of the circle than those farther out.

Den Uyl seems to acknowledge this when he writes that "the moral virtues are largely social in character," and therefore "a type of theory of moral sentiments, which Adam Smith analyzed perhaps better than anyone else, comes into play. For the particular manner in which one's liberality or magnificence is demonstrated will largely be a function of the social sentiments present in one's society" (205-206).

It would be good if Den Uyl noted that much of what Smith and Hume said about the moral sentiments or emotions comes out of the rhetorical tradition begun by Aristotle, particularly in Book 2 of the Rhetoric.

Moreover, as I have often argued on this blog, the importance of the moral emotions for moral experience has been confirmed by research in biological moral psychology, particularly in neuroscience.

Den Uyl criticizes Smith for his idea of the "impartial spectator"--the idea that we adjust our moral sentiments to conform to what we imagine would be felt by an impartial observer. This can look like the sort of "impersonalism" evident in the moral philosophy of Kant and others in this tradition, in which the universal rules of morality require a "view from nowhere."

But in fact, as I have already suggested, Smith's "impartial spectator" is not absolutely impartial, if that means a total denial of any individual self-regarding perspective. What Smith has in mind, I think, is close to what Den Uyl suggests when he speaks of the "detached perspective" as a "necessary tool of prudence" by which we see ourselves as others see us, or as some fully informed spectator might see us (222-23). This does not deny the primacy of the individual. Rather, it's a way by which an individual satisfies his social desires for interpersonal life.

The discovery of "mirror neurons"--a subject of some posts on this blog--indicates how the evolution of the brains of social mammals has shaped cognitive abilities for entering into the thoughts and feelings of others in order to better satisfy natural desires for social engagement.

Ultimately, then, I see Den Uyl's account of prudence as fully compatible with my account of how a naturalistic view of morality can be rooted in human biological nature.

A couple of my posts on Ayn Rand can be found here and here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rhetorical Moral Psychology: Reasoning with the Emotions

In the latest issue of Nature, Paul Bloom has an essay on the scientific study of morality. As he indicates, recent biological studies of moral psychology seem to converge on the conclusion that morality is mostly an expression of emotions, so that what looks like rational deliberation is only a rationalization of what people have already decided emotionally. Bloom argues that this total rejection of reason in moral experience is a mistake. In particular, he argues that to explain how morality has changed over time--for example, in attitudes towards slavery--we have to see the role of rational persuasion in changing moral culture.

I agree with Bloom. But what I find surprising is that he apparently does not realize that he has rediscovered rhetoric. Beginning in ancient Greece--with Aristotle's Rhetoric--there is a long tradition of rhetorical moral psychology that sees moral experience as a complex interaction of reason and emotion.

To move their audiences, rhetoricians must appeal to the moral emotions. That's why Book Two of Aristotle's Rhetoric lays out a meticulous study of the moral emotions. But, as Aristotle indicates, the emotions depend upon judgments about the world, and therefore rhetoricians change the emotions of their audiences by changing the judgments on which emotions depend. Rhetorical persuasion requires a combination of reason and emotion.

As I have indicated in my previous post on Jonathan Haidt, he occasionally refers to Aristotle's Rhetoric in his account of the moral emotions. But, unfortunately, most of the scientists studying moral psychology today seem to be ignorant of the rhetorical tradition of moral psychology.

My account of Aristotle's moral psychology of the emotions is laid out in my commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric. One of the best studies of this is Marlene Sokolon's book Political Emotions: Aristotle and the Symphony of Reason and Emotion (2006), which originated as a dissertation that she wrote under my supervision.

A couple of related posts can be found here and here.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Discussion with Peter Lawler at RIT

Tomorrow, I will be at Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, New York, for a public discussion/debate with Peter Lawler, sponsored by the Department of Political Science. The advertised topic for the discussion is "Darwin and the Evolution of America."

Lawler is a political scientist at Berry College in Georgia. Over the years, we have had a continuing friendly debate. Some of this has appeared in many posts on this blog over the past four years. Lawler is one of the contributors to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.

There are many points of dispute between us. But in my opening statement at RIT, I will suggest that one primary question in our debate is this: Does the health of the American moral and political order depend on a religious cosmology that is subverted by Darwinian natural science?

The religious cosmology of the American regime is manifest in the Declaration of Independence. Here Jefferson declares his self-evident truths about the equality of rights as rooted in a religious cosmology governed by a divine Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge who exercises providential care over human beings. As created in God's image, human beings have a moral dignity and an eternal destiny that sets them apart from all other creatures.

Charles Darwin seems to deny this. Darwin once wrote in a notebook that "man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals." Many Americans--and especially, American conservatives--worry that considering human beings as "created from animals" rather than created by God in His Image denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as spiritual creatures with an immortal soul that makes them more than mere animals.

And yet, my argument is that Darwin's understanding of human beings as "created from animals" poses no threat to the American moral and political order. In fact, Darwinian science actually supports the moral and political thought of American conservatism by showing how that conservative thought can be rooted in a biological understanding of evolved human nature.

Lawler disagrees. Although he concedes that the Darwinian account of human nature is at least partially true, he complains that it's not the whole truth, because it fails to see that human beings are not just "clever chimps," because unlike all other animals, human beings feel themselves to be aliens in the universe, creatures with transcendent longings for another world where they will be eternally loved and cared for by the God who created them.

Lawler shows himself to be a conservative who is ambivalent about Darwinism. On the one hand, he welcomes Darwinian science as supporting the conservative view of the natural sociality of human beings. On the other hand, he scorns Darwinian science for promoting what he assumes to be a reductionistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of human nature that denigrates the transcendent longings of the human soul.

Lawler is bothered by the closing sentences of my book Darwinian Natural Right: "We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home." I put those sentences at the end of the book to provoke the Heideggerians. And it worked. As a Heideggerian existentialist, Lawler thinks human beings really were "thrown" into nature from some place far away, and so they properly long to escape from their alienated captivity in nature. They want to return to that mysterious Being beyond nature that is the source of their being. He believes that this longing to escape from nature is what makes us uniquely human in a way that sets us apart from and above all other animals, who have no such longing.

So when he sees me apparently denigrating that transcendent longing as illusory, he rejects this as a "reductionistic" claim that human beings are just animals--"clever chimps"--who differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals. This is what he calls the "Darwinian lullaby," because it seems to teach us to relax like other animals and give up those illusory longings for the transcendent that only create unnecessary anxiety.

Do I believe that we human beings are just "clever chimps"? Well, no, I would be a little more precise than that. I would say that we are very clever social mammals.

As social mammals, we are social animals by nature, and our life is defined by our nature as children, parents, friends, and citizens. As the very clever animals that we are, we want to understand what and who we are; we want to understand the causes for everything. And that desire to understand causes leads us to probe into the deepest mysteries of life and the universe.

The Darwinian science of our human nature as very clever social mammals is far from being "reductionistic," as Lawler says. Quite to the contrary, a Darwinian science of human nature teaches us that we are uniquely complex in having diverse natural desires that are often in tension with one another. For example, the natural desire for the "intellectual understanding" of causes can lead to the sort of scientific or philosophic understanding of nature that Lawler scorns as the "lullaby" that denies the existential anxiety of transcendent longings.

Lawler fails to notice that I have also identified the natural desire for the "religious understanding" of causes. This is the desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this religious longing to make sense of one's place in the universe. Here I agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their natural desire for religious transcendence.

But, unlike Lawler, I see this desire as coming into conflict with the desire for a purely intellectual understanding of causes, the sort of intellectual desire that Lawler attributes to Socrates and Socratic philosophers and scientists, including Leo Strauss and those under his influence. Lawler attributes to Strauss the thought that "through reason, some human beings can live in unalienated serenity without God in search of the truth, endlessly unraveling the riddle of Being" (Stuck with Virtue, 214). Lawler rejects this thought, because he doubts that such Socratic philosophy or science can escape the feeling of alienation. He cannot see how the Socratic philosopher or scientist could ever explain his own restless quest for truth as a product of the same impersonal natural laws that he uses to explain everything else in the universe. Surely, Lawler suggests, the only explanation for our existence as individual human persons is that we were specially created by a personal God who knows us and loves us.

Lawler would tell us that in the debate between reason and revelation--Athens and Jerusalem--the clear winner is Jerusalem's revelation. But I believe that Strauss and Darwin are correct in suggesting that there can be no final resolution of this debate between reason and revelation, because neither side can refute the other.

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate causation and purpose. But at least it can provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to private property, family life, and limited government as the conditions for individual liberty. And in a free society, individuals will be free to associate with one another in social groups--in families, in religious communities, and in other voluntary associations--in which people can freely explore the ultimate questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

Lawler seems to agree with me in this American conception of the free society--in which individual liberty in the public realm includes religious liberty with no governmental imposition of religious belief, while religious cosmology and ultimate questions of meaning and purpose are left up to individual choice and social habituation in the private realm of civil society. This seems to be what Lawler means by "putting Locke in the Locke box"--combining a Lockean state that treats all citizens as autonomous individuals and a civil society in which people live as parents, children, friends, and creatures. Lawler thinks this was the intention of the American founders, so that Americans would have to live "double lives" (Stuck with Virtue, 33).

I hope that Lawler agrees with me that this American way of combining Lockean liberty and Aristotelian virtue constitutes the best regime for human beings.

Recently, Lawler has stated some of his criticisms of my position on his "Postmodern Conservative" blog--here and here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have defended an Aristotelian conception of liberalism in two books--Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (1991) and Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (2005).

I am largely persuaded by their Aristotelian liberalism, which resembles what I have defended as "Darwinian natural right" and "Darwinian conservatism," and this suggests the possibility of a "Darwinian liberalism." This should not be as confusing as it sounds if one keeps in mind that what I defend as "conservatism" is a "liberal conservatism," and what the two Dougs defend as "liberalism" is a "classical liberalism" or "libertarianism" that many conservatives would embrace. I will try to clarify all this in a series of posts. In this first post, I will briefly summarize their argument, and then I will briefly note some of the ways that my conception of Darwinian natural right supports their argument.

The idea of Aristotelian liberalism might seem contradictory. After all, modern liberalism (particularly as coming from John Locke) claims that the proper aim of government is to secure the rights of individual liberty without any legal enforcement of morality, while the Aristotelian tradition of political philosophy seems to claim that the proper aim of government is to shape the moral character of citizens to secure the common good. While Aristotelians seem to say that statecraft is soulcraft, liberals seem to say that this is wrong, because a government that would try to shape the moral character of souls to perfect them would become tyrannical in denying individual liberty.

The two Dougs reject this dichotomy between Aristotelian social virtue and Lockean individual liberty. This is clear in their disagreement with Leo Strauss. In his interpretation of "modern natural right" as conveyed in Locke's account of property, Strauss in Natural Right and History (248) observes: "Through the shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights, the individual, the ego, had become the center and origin of the moral world, since man--as distinguished from man's end--had become that center or origin." The two Dougs disagree with this comment:

"We uphold the shift of emphasis made by theorists of modern natural right; yet we do not think that arguing for natural rights requires that one reject the natural end of man as the standard for morality. It is not necessary to accept the alternative of either the fulfillment of the individual or the natural end of man as mutually exclusive. Making the individual the moral center of the universe does not require that one accept nominalism, mechanism, or hedonism, nor does accepting essentialism, teleology, and eudaimonism, at least as we have described them . . ., require rejecting individualism. It is possible for the fulfillment of the individual to be interpreted in terms of the requirements for human well-being. There can be a view of the ego or self that is neither otherworldly nor Hobbesian, but Aristotelian. Further, the achievement of man's natural end need not be interpreted along Platonic lines. There is no such thing as the flourishing of 'man.' There is only the flourishing of individual men. The human good neither exists apart from the choices and actions of individual human beings nor independent of the particular 'mix' of goods that the individual human being must determine as appropriate for his circumstances. Strauss's dichotomy betrays a disturbing tendency, often found among proponents of natural right and natural law, to reify the concept 'natural end' and make it some good that competes with the good of individual human beings. Our argument for natural rights begins, then, with the rejection of the dichotomy between the fulfillment of the individual human being or self and the attainment of man's natural end" (LAN, 92-93; NOL, 257).

The two Dougs argue that there is a natural end to human conduct, because there are certain generic goods required for a good human life--eudaimonia or flourishing--that are rooted in a universal human nature. For example, health, wealth, honor, and friendship are goods for all human beings. So, for instance, one could not live a flourishing human life if one had no friends at all. Here then is the natural telos for human beings: human flourishing requires the fullest expression of the generic goods of human nature.

But although we can conceive of these generic goods by abstraction, the actual reality of these goods is always individualized and agent-relative, because the human good is always the good for someone in particular, and the ranking or balancing of these diverse goods will be different for each individual based on the talents, temperaments, and circumstances of the individual. Against the "dominant end" conception of ethics that assumes that there is some one ranking of goods that is best for all human beings, the two Dougs defend an "inclusive end" conception of ethics that sees the human good as encompassing all the generic goods with the ranking of goods being determined by what is best for particular individuals in particular circumstances. So, then, they reject the idea that the philosophic life is simply the best life for all human beings in all situations. Intellectual activity is a generic good, and so a human life without any intellectual activity would be less than fully flourishing. But while a life devoted to intellectual activity as the highest good is good for Socrates and those individuals with Socratic dispositions, this is not necessarily the best life for all individuals.

Determining how best to organize or balance the various generic goods in a manner appropriate for some particular individual in particular circumstances is a matter of practical judgment or phronesis. There are no universal rules of ethics to decide this for all individuals in all situations. We look to the generic goods as constituting the natural standard of the human good for all human beings. But choosing the best form of life for each individual is a matter for the practical judgment of each individual.

The political problem of liberalism, therefore, is how to allow individuals to pursue their flourishing as individuals without interfering with the ethical pursuits of other individuals. Moreover, since human beings are by nature social animals, they cannot flourish without living their lives in association with others in various kinds of social groups based on friendship and voluntary interaction. So, a political/legal order needs to allow individuals to live together in ways that do not favor one form of life over another. This is what the two Dougs call "liberalism's problem."

The solution to liberalism's problem requires distinguishing between normative principles and metanormative principles. Normative principles are those social standards of the good life that human beings formulate as they exercise practical judgment in creating and maintaining those forms of human flourishing that they judge best suited for them as individuals. Metanormative principles are those political/legal standards that allow human beings with diverse forms of life to live their moral lives without interfering with others.

The primary metanormative principle for the two Dougs is self-direction as secured by the negative right to liberty. All of morality requires self-direction, because we are not truly moral if we have not chosen our moral paths through our own judgments. Something good for me is not really my good if I have not chosen it for myself. Being self-directed does not guarantee self-perfection, because we can make self-directed choices that are counter to our true self-perfection. So, for instance, if we choose to not have any friends or to never engage in any intellectual activity, we will not achieve full self-perfection even though we are self-directed. But in securing self-direction, by legislating that all individuals have the right to liberty, understood as the negative right not to have their self-direction denied by force or fraud from others, a liberal government secures the possibility of self-perfection.

The two Dougs argue that this establishes a link between ethics and politics that provides ethical legitimacy for politics but without identifying ethics and politics. They say that the ancient political philosophers were right to claim that ethics is a self-perfecting activity of actualizing the natural potentialities of human beings, which is the natural end of human life. They were wrong, however, in thinking that politics could coerce citizens into self-perfection. But the two Dougs also say that modern liberal political philosophers were right to claim that politics could not rightly enforce directly any standards of self-perfection. They were wrong, however, to suggest that moral standards were merely subjective or hedonistic. The ancients were right about ethics, but wrong about politics. The moderns were right about politics, but wrong about ethics.

Notice that here the two Dougs come close to what I identified in a previous post as "Midwestern Straussianism," which asserts--against Strauss--that modern liberalism is good in its political teaching as securing individual liberty and limited government, and that this modern liberal politics can be combined with ancient Aristotelian ethics. Aristotelian liberalism combines virtue and liberty.

There are at least four points in the reasoning of the two Dougs where my Darwinian natural right would support them: teleology, generic goods, individuality, and sociality.

1. Teleology. Aristotelian ethics requires natural teleology, because it asserts that the human good is a natural end for human conduct. Often, those like Strauss have said that this Aristotelian teleology is a cosmological or theological teleology that has been refuted by modern science. But the two Dougs note that Aristotelian teleology--as opposed to Plato's cosmic teleology--is a "biocentric teleology." Even if it is indefensible to think of the physical cosmos as aiming towards ends--perhaps the cosmic ends of a cosmic designer--it is still defensible to see living beings as naturally aiming for ends, as in the growth of plants and animals to maturity or the striving of mammalian animals to care for their offspring. As I have often argued, this biological teleology is sustained in modern Darwinian science as an immanent teleology of species-specific ends that does not require a Platonic cosmic teleology.

2. Generic goods. The two Dougs offer a list of generic goods that they identify as universal ends for all human beings rooted in human nature. They are a little unclear as to the grounds for this claim. I would argue that their list corresponds closely to my list of twenty natural desires, which I see as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings. These goods are not cosmic goods, because they are relative to the nature of the human species. What is good for human beings is not necessarily good for other species. So contrary to Plato, there is no transcendent Idea of the Good. And contrary to Kant, there is no categorical imperative for all rational beings in the universe. Instead, morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives relative to the goods of the species.

3. Individuality. The two Dougs stress that although we can generalize about generic human goods, these goods don't really exist as pure abstractions. Rather, they exist as good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. They thus recognize the biological fact that every living being is unique in its individuality. Although plants and animals show general traits that characterize each species, each member of the species is an individual, and thus what is good for each individual must be what is suited to that individuality. The need for practical judgment or prudence follows from this biological individuality, because since there are no universal rules for what is good for each individual in each situation, there must be some judgment of what is best for each in each case.

4. Sociality. Contrary to the common assumption that liberal individualism must take an atomistic view of individuals as utterly solitary in the state of nature, the two Dougs insist that human beings are naturally social animals. This natural sociality manifests the evolved biological nature of human beings as social mammals who must live in social groups to fulfill their natural potentialities. The dependence of human offspring on parental care shows this social nature from birth. (Unfortunately, as I will indicate in a future post, the two Dougs say almost nothing about the natural need for parental care and the fact that all human beings are born dependent on parental authority.) Because of their natural mammalian sociality, human beings are naturally inclined to form and maintain social groups, beginning with the family. This provides biological support for the two Doug's in their emphasis on the distinction between society and the state. When Aristotle declares that it is natural for human beings to live in a polis, his conception of the polis obscures this distinction. But if we recognize the distinction, we can see that human beings are naturally inclined to and capable of forming social groups and engaging in social activity in civil society without the coercive activity of the state. Here in civil society is where our moral habituation and moral judgment are secured. A liberal state cannot guarantee that civil society will properly shape human social life for ethical self-perfection. But a liberal state can secure the possibility of self-perfection by protecting the possibility of self-direction through the right to liberty. By contrast, those like Hobbes who deny the natural sociality of human beings must look to the collectivist coercion of the state as the only way to secure social cooperation.

In these and other ways, a Darwinian biological science could support Aristotelian liberalism as a Darwinian liberalism.

Some comments on Rasmussen and Den Uyl in a post from a couple of years ago can be found here.

For the other six posts in this series, go here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Can Virtue be Genetically Engineered?

We are not born virtuous or vicious. But we are each born with innate temperaments and capacities that influence our acquisition of virtue by learning and judgment. As Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics (1103a24-25): "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation."

So, for example, if the virtue of courage in war (as Aristotle says) is a mean between the rashness of being too fearless and the cowardice of being too fearful, then one's inborn temperament will influence how easily one learns true courage. Those who are too fearful and those who are too fearless will find it hard to habituate themselves to hit the virtuous mean of courage.

Most parents understand this, because they see that their children differ in their innate personality traits, and consequently parents must plan the moral education of their children so as to nurture them in ways that fit their distinctive personalities.

Some children are harder to train properly than others. And, unfortunately, a few children might be born with such unruly or callous temperaments that, even in the best environments, they might be inclined to become vicious rather than virtuous.

But what happens as we learn more about the genetic mechanisms that underlie the biological inheritance of psychic temperament and capacity? Does this open up the possibility of intervening through genetic engineering to strengthen those innate traits inclined to virtue and weaken those inclined to vice? From Plato to Francis Galton, this has been the dream of a eugenic utopia in which we could scientifically control the innate propensities of human beings at birth to enhance moral character.

At least in principle, it's hard to deny the possibility of genetically changing human nature so as to favor those innate traits most amenable to moral instruction. And yet, as I have argued in chapter 10 of Darwinian Conservatism, the power of biotechnology for changing human nature has been exaggerated. The most fervent advocates of biotechnology welcome the prospect of using it to transform our nature to make us superhuman. The most fervent critics of biotechnology warn us that its power for transforming our nature will seduce us into a Faustian bargain that will dehumanize us. Both sides agree that biotechnology is leading us to a "posthuman" or "transhuman" future. But that assumption is false. It ignores how Darwinian evolution has shaped the adaptive complexity of our human nature--our bodies, our brains, and our desires--in ways that resist technological manipulation. A Darwinian view of human nature reveals the limits of biotechnology so that we can reject both the redemptive hopes of its advocates and the apocalyptic fears of its critics.

If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, we can foresee that biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends. It will be limited in its technical means, because complex behavioral traits are rooted in the intricate interplay of many genes interacting among themselves, with developmental contingencies, and with unique life histories to form brains that respond flexibly to changing circumstances based on individual judgment. Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible. Biotechnology will also be limited in its moral ends, because the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterized human nature.

A recent example of the tendency to exaggerate the power of biotechnology for fostering human virtue is Mark Walker's article in the September, 2009, issue of Politics and the Life Sciences, entitled "Enhancing Genetic Virtue: A Project for Twenty-First Century Humanity?" Walker is a philosophy professor at New Mexico State University. Unfortunately, his article is available online only for subscribers to the journal. But here's the abstract:

"The Genetic Virtue Project (GVP) is a proposed interdisciplinary effort between philosophers, psychologists, and geneticists to discover and enhance human ethics using biotechnology genetic correlates of virtuous behavior. The empirical plausibility that virtues have biological correlates is based on the claims that (a) virtues are a subset of personality, specifically, personality traits conceived of as 'enduring behaviors,' and (b) that there is ample evidence that personality traits have a genetic basis. The moral necessity to use the GVP for moral enhancement is based on the claims that we should eliminate evil (as understood generically, not religiously), as some evil is a function of human nature. The GVP is defended against several ethical and political criticisms."

Almost two-thirds of Walker's article is devoted to his responses to the ethical and political criticisms. Without necessarily agreeing with him on every point here, I believe he has taken up these issues in an informed and intelligent way.

My complaint is that Walker's argument never gets off the ground because he never shows the "empirical plausibility" that there are "genetic correlates of virtuous behavior" that are clear, strong, and open to biotechnological manipulation. He quotes behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin as saying that "nearly all personality traits show moderate heritability," and Walker goes on to claim that "since genes influence enduring behaviors, it might be possible to use biotechnology in a manner that would promote virtue, and thus serve as a means to improve ourselves, morally speaking" (29-30). His language is so vague and equivocal--"moderate heritability," "influence," "might be possible"--that his readers have to look for some clear examples of specific genetic linkages to virtue that could be altered by genetic engineering.

In Walker's entire article, I can see only two possible examples of this sort, but neither of these examples give Walker what his argument demands--clear, strong, and manipulable genetic correlates of virtue.

The first example concerns the genetic basis for "novelty seeking." Walker cites two articles claiming to show some connection between novelty seeking (as measured by a questionnaire) and the D4 dopamine receptor gene (32). Both articles were published in 1996 in Nature Genetics. Walker fails, however, to tell his readers that later research has concluded that although there seems to be some kind of connection between the D4 dopamine receptor gene and novelty seeking, the connection is "small" (see J.A. Schinka, E.A. Letsch, and F.C. Crawford, "DRD4 and Novelty Seeking: Results of Meta-Analyses," American Journal of Medical Genetics 114:643-648 [2002]).

The second possible example of a specific genetic link to a specific character trait is in Walker's reference to research on the heritability of "anti-social personality disorder" (ASP). He cites three articles published in 1987, 1990, and 1994. He does not tell his readers that although these articles claim to show some degree of heritability for ASP, they do not identify any specific genes or explain how exactly such genes could work to incline people to ASP. Nor does he cite any of the extensive research over the last 15 years showing that although there does seem to be "a genetic contribution to the emotional dysfunction facilitating antisocial behaviors," there is no direct genetic contribution to the behaviors themselves, and no one has identified any specific genetic linkages or how exactly they work (James Blair, Derek Mitchell, and Katrina Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005], 28-46).

Is it likely that we will someday be able to use genetic engineering to promote virtuous character by precisely altering psychic traits like novelty seeking and ASP? To support his affirmative answer, Walker cites Gregory Stock's Redesigning Humans (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Readers who go to Stock's book will see a rhetorical strategy of exaggeration followed by retraction. On the one hand, Stock declares that "the arrival of safe, reliable germline technology will signal the beginning of human self-design." On the other hand, he admits that "our biology might prove too complex to rework." He concedes that "no present genetic intervention is worth doing in a healthy individual, and no present technology is capable of effecting an intervention safely anyway." He acknowledges that many biologists believe that the genetic propensities underlying complex behavioral traits such as personality and intelligence are so intricate that we could never intervene to change these mechanisms without producing undesirable side effects. He also recognizes that these genetic propensities always interact in unpredictable ways with chance events and life history to produce unique individuals in ways that cannot be controlled by genetic technology. "Even for highly heritable traits," he observes, "it will be uncertain what a child's unique amalgam of potential and experience will bring. A vision of parents sitting before a catalog and picking out the personality of their future 'designer child' is false" (3-4, 64, 76-77, 111). It's not clear to me how this supports Walker's confidence in the prospects for the genetic engineering of virtue.

I am not denying the possibility that genetic research can uncover some specific genetic linkages to complex behavioral propensities that are clear, strong, and manipulable. But whether that would substantiate Walker's argument is unclear, because his argument is ambiguous. When he writes about using genetic engineering to "eliminate evil," he seems to imply a reduction of virtues and vices to genetic propensities, which is implausible. But when he agrees with Aristotle that innate propensities are necessary but not sufficient for virtue, because virtue requires a lifetime of learned habituation and individual judgment (38-39), Walker pulls back to a more modest and defensible claim.

Yet even this defensible version of Walker's Genetic Virtue Project invites another question: Has he provided plausible standards of virtue and vice? The success of his GVP assumes that it is guided by some clear standards for the virtues to be enhanced and the vices to be eliminated. What are those standards? And who will be responsible for setting and enforcing the standards?

One possibility is that government will set and enforce the standards. The obvious danger with this, however, is the threat of tyranny--either the tyranny of a few or the tyranny of the majority--that will create something like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Another possibility is that individuals will be free to set and enforce their own standards. In particular, parents will be free to follow their own standards of virtue in genetically engineering their children.

Walker seems to take this route of allowing parents the freedom to decide for their children. He admits, however, that parents might change their minds. They might genetically enhance their children to favor the virtuous dispositions to be truthful, just, and caring; but then they might later be convinced by moral reformers that the true virtues should promote dispositions to be untruthful, unjust, and uncaring. In that case, the parents could send their children to "remedial camps" to make them untruthful, unjust, and uncaring. So Walker seems here to be a radical moral relativist or nihilist, because standards of virtue are arbitrary products of cultural history. This would suggest then that the Nazis could have been more successful than they were if they had had the help of Walker's GVP. Were the Nazis right about the importance of eugenics in shaping virtue, but they failed only because they didn't know enough about genetics and genetic engineering to carry out their project?

But I don't think Walker is a moral nihilist, because he often suggests that he believes there really are some enduring standards of virtue. For example, he identifies was as evil, and he praises Gandhi's pacifism. So would the GVP eliminate evil by eliminating all violence, including military violence? Would this suggest that Aristotle was wrong to believe that courage in war is virtuous? Walker reassures us that even the Gandhian pacifist can be courageous because he resolutely resists evil, even if non-violently. But if the GVP eliminated all evil, why would there be any need for non-violent resistance to evil?

Does Walker really believe that there is no virtue in the courage of soldiers risking their lives for their countries? Does he really believe that using genetic engineering to eliminate any disposition to military courage would make the world better? If he does believe this, how would he enforce this belief through his GVP? Would parents be free to disagree with him and thus choose to enhance military virtue in their children? Is there something about the nature of human life that makes conflict inevitable, and thus creates the need for the virtue of courage in war?

The plausibility of Walker's GVP depends on answering such questions.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Philippa Foot and the Hypothetical Imperatives of Natural Goodness

Philippa Foot is the author of one of my favorite essays in contemporary moral philosophy--"Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," reprinted in Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978). She is a British philosopher best known as one of the leading proponents of Aristotelian virtue ethics. After teaching for many years at Somerville College, Oxford, she taught at many other schools until she retired from teaching at UCLA. In her essay, she argued that moral judgments are "hypothetical imperatives in the sense that they give reasons for acting only in conjunction with interests and desires." We do sometimes declare moral rules about what one ought to do or not do, as if these rules were binding as pure dictates of reason regardless of any one's interests or desires. But we do the same with rules of etiquette, when we want to insist that these rules of proper conduct can't be disregarded without incurring our scorn. In both cases, we expect people to obey the rules without asking why they should do so. But, of course, people can challenge the rules, and then we are forced to justify them as desirable. So moral rules have no better claim to be categorical imperatives than do rules of etiquette.

Foot's essay provoked intense opposition from other moral philosophers who accused her of "attacking morality," because so many philosophers had been persuaded by Immanuel Kant that moral judgments as categorical imperatives must be distinguished from hypothetical imperatives. In his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant explained this distinction: "All imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former present the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to achieving something else which one desires (or which one may possibly desire). The categorical imperative would be one which presented an action as of itself objectively necessary, without regard to any end" (trans. Lewis White Beck, p. 414). Hypothetical imperatives are judgments of prudence as to what conduces to happiness, which is the natural end of human life. But categorical imperatives are commands of pure reason that bind all rational beings without regard to happiness. One can see here Kant's radical break from Aristotle, and from ancient ethics generally, because while Aristotle regarded prudence as the supreme virtue, Kant dismissed prudence as outside of morality. Kant did this because he wanted morality to belong to a transcendent realm of "noumenal" experience beyond the natural realm of "phenomenal" experience. Through pure practical reason, he believed, human beings could grasp absolutely necessary principles of morality beyond the contingencies of human nature and natural experience. In this way, he insisted, human beings as rational agents could free themselves of their animal nature, including their animal desires for happiness.

For those philosophers who agree with Kant, it was shocking, therefore, to have Foot dismiss Kant's morality of categorical imperatives as an illusion or fiction based on the belief that declaring a categorical "ought" has some magical force that is so intrinsically binding that it must be obeyed without question. But when we declare that we simply must or have to or ought to do what morality demands, Foot observed, we are really just saying how strongly we feel about the importance of some moral norm. If someone challenges us to explain why this norm is so important, we must then explain how, given the character of human life, human desires, and our present circumstances, following this norm will generally be better for us because it will make our lives happier. We then move from the language of categorical imperatives to that of hypothetical imperatives: if you want to live a satisfying human life, then you need to embrace this norm as one means to that end.

In some hard cases, however, this persuasive appeal to hypothetical imperatives doesn't work because we're dealing with people whose beliefs or desires are so radically different from ours that there is no ground for persuasion. In some cases of tragic conflicts, there is no resolution except by force. I have often cited the American Civil War as an example of a tragic moral conflict that was settled by force of arms. I have also pointed to the problem of psychopaths as moral strangers who are beyond moral persuasion because they lack the moral emotions and desires necessary for a moral sense. Since we can't persuade them, we coerce them for our own protection.

From a biological point of view, we could say that morality consists of hypothetical imperatives constrained by our biological nature as social mammals. Considering the nature of the human species, human beings have certain universal natural desires--such as sexual mating, familial bonding, parental care, cooperation through reciprocity, and others--that set the generic ends of human life, and so we can judge moral norms by how well they promote those ends.

Foot moved in this direction in her book Natural Goodness (Oxford, 2001). She defended a naturalistic view of ethics by arguing that the moral evaluation of human actions has the same logical structure as the natural evaluation of other living beings. Unlike the non-living world, plants and animals show a teleological structure in the nature of each species. We can then judge an individual plant or animal as to how well it fulfills its natural end. So, for example, we can judge the roots of an oak tree as good if they effectively draw water and nutrients from the soil and support the weight of the tree. By contrast, we can't make a similar evaluation of the rustling of the tree's leaves in the wind, because we don't see this as contributing to any natural need of the tree. Similarly, we might judge social mammals by how well the mothers nurture and train their offspring to fulfill their needs as social animals. Thus, our evaluations of plants and animals can be grounded in natural facts about their species, which we learn by studying their natural history.

In a similar way, Foot suggests, we can evaluate human actions by how well they serve the natural ends of the human species as shaped by natural history. There are similar "patterns of natural normativity" that human beings share with other living beings. And yet, of course, human morality is also unique in so far as human beings have a capacity for moral judgment and deliberation that comes from being rational animals with language, which separates them from other living beings. But, still, there's an underlying structure of evaluation through the life form of the species that applies to all life. "To flourish is here to instantiate the life form of that species, and to know whether an individual is or is not as it should be, one must know the life form of the species" (91). Or, as Peter Geach once said, "human beings need virtues as bees need stings" (44). In this way, Foot employs the same kind of reasoning that I use in Darwinian Natural Right in considering natural teleology (chapter 9)and the normative structure of animal movement (chapter 2).

Foot's position in Natural Goodness becomes confusing, however, when she suggests that she wants to depart from some of what she said in "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives." In the essay, she indicated--and I agree--that the hypothetical imperatives of morality are dependent on human interests and desires. Human conduct requires a combination of reason and desire, with reason deliberating as to how best to satisfy our desires harmoniously over a whole life. This Aristotelian and Humean conception of the union of reason and desire in moral experience runs through much of my biological account of morality. And yet, in her book, Foot apparently denies this by saying that moral judgment does not require any appeal to human wants, desires, or feelings. A moral reason for acting moves people to act regardless of their wants, desires, or feelings.

Foot writes: "Recognition of a reason gives the rational person a goal; and this recognition is . . . based on facts and concepts, not on some prior attitude, feeling, or goal. The only fact about the individual's state of mind that is required for the explanatory force of the proposition about the requirement of rationality is that he does not (for some bizarre reason) deny its truth. He only needs to know, like most adults, that it is silly to disregard one's own future without special reason to do so. No special explanation is needed of why men take reasonable care of their own future; an explanation is needed when they do not. Nor does human cooperation need a special explanation. Most people know that it is, for instance, unreasonable to take benefits and give nothing in return" (23).

But notice that a reason for acting compels us only if we are "reasonable" in exercising "reasonable care" about the future and so are not so "silly" as to not care about future consequences of our actions. In another passage, she says that it is "a part of rationality for human beings to take special care each for his or her own future" (24). She then adds: "This in no way precludes recognition of the part played by 'sentiments' such as (negatively) shame and revulsion or (positively) sympathy, self-respect, and pride in motivating human virtue. I think David Wiggins is right often to have stressed this side of Hume's moral philosophy."

On the one hand, like Kant, she thinks a moral reason for acting compels us to act regardless of our desires. On the other hand, like Aristotle and Hume, she thinks moral rationality assumes that we are taking "special care" for our future. I think the latter is closer to the truth.

Moving in the direction suggested by Foot's essay, I would argue that ethics is informed desire. The good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires over a whole life, which often requires settling conflicts between desires by judging how one desire fits with others in some deliberate conception of a whole life well-lived.

This view of ethics as arising from reason and desire--ethics as rooted in natural human desires, as requiring habits of right desire, and as guided by prudential reasoning in judging the contingencies of action--was originally developed by Aristotle in his ethical and biological writings. Other philosophers in the tradition of ethical naturalism, such as Hume, have defended a similar understanding. Just as Aristotle declared that "thought by itself moves nothing," Hume declared that "reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will."

Kant turns away from this tradition, because in taking a Hobbesian view of human nature as crudely selfish and hedonistic, Kant cannot believe that morality can arise from the animal nature of human beings. So, instead, he looks for transcendental norms of pure practical reason through which human beings can escape their human nature and exercise a moral freedom beyond the laws of nature.

Foot was right in rejecting this Kantian illusion that pure reason by itself--without any grounding in natural human inclinations--could move us to moral conduct. She was right to see morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives dependent on our natural desires. And she was right to see the normative structure of those desires as rooted in the natural history of the human species.

Foot was right to reject the idea that morality is nothing more than an arbitrary expression of subjective emotivism--the kind of thinking proposed by philosophers like C. L. Stevenson. In her search for the objective, factual ground of morality, she ultimately found that ground in the biological nature of living beings, so that what is good varies according to the nature of the species. "Natural goodness" denotes not some eternal, cosmic necessity of Reason, Nature, or God, but the evolved nature of particular forms of life. Against Plato and Kant, Foot would seem to agree with Aristotle, Hume, and Darwin that there are no universally necessary principles of the good, because the good varies according to the desires and capacities of each species.

This last point has been elaborated in some other posts, which can be found here, here., here., here., here, here, and here.

[Foot died on her 90th birthday a few months after this post was written--October 3, 2010.]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Darwinian Evolution of Comics

The first volume of The Evolutionary Review has just been published by the State University of New York Press. This will be a yearly volume edited by Alice Andrews (SUNY at New Paltz) and Joseph Carroll (University of Missouri at St. Louis). The editorial policy is to provide "a forum for evolutionary critiques in all the fields of the arts, human sciences, and culture" and thus promote E. O. Wilson's vision of "consilience" as the unity of all knowledge through evolutionary science. The website for this publication can be found here. I know Joe Carroll, and I have long admired his work in promoting Darwinian literary theory. I now must admire his brilliance in putting together a journal that combines depth of thought and engaging literary style in showing how scintillating evolutionary reasoning can be.

One of the best essays in this new journal is Brian Boyd's "On the Origins of Comics." Boyd is an English professor (the leading expert on Nabokov), who has recently written On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction (Harvard, 2009). His essay (with full-color comics!) can be found here.

So what does Darwinian evolution have to do with the history of comics? Well, Boyd shows how evolutionary reasoning can illuminate any human activity, including the arts, and in this case, one of the most popular of "low arts." The main point--which I have stressed often--is to see that Darwinian thinking is not reductionistic or one-leveled but multileveled in seeing the complex historical interaction of genetic evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution, and individual judgment.

At the beginning of his essay, Boyd writes:

"Evolution lets us see comics, like almost anything human or even alive, in a panoramic context but also in extreme close-up, as close as a comics artist trying to grab readers' attention in this frame or with that angle. And it can zoom smoothly between these two poles. Evolution offers a unified and naturalistic causal system from the general to the very particular. Far from reducing all to biology and then to chemistry and physics, it easily and eagerly plugs in more local factors--in a case like comics, historical, technological, social, artistic and individual factors, for instance--the closer we get to particulars. Evolution accepts multilevel explanations, from cells to societies, and allows full room for nature and culture, society and individuals."

Later in the essay, he summarizes some of the main points in his Darwinian history of comics:

"Comics, as they established their language in the early 1900s, solved the problems of sequential narration in image and word in ways that appeal to deep human cognitive preferences. In modern comics each frame tends to create a single impression that can be taken in at a glance and a situation either visually explicit in instant icons or immediately clarified by prominent speech balloons. The sequence from frame to frame usually allows a brisk clear flow of attention and low-cost comprehension. Search time can be reduced to a second or two. Verse around the world uses controlled phrase lengths that in written form become line lengths, whereby poets shape the attention of their audience, releasing just as much at a time as our auditory present and the storage space of working memory can hold (Frederick Turner). In the same way, comics concentrate and reward comprehension within the clearly delineated attention-sized units of the single simplified comic frame, without the superfluous detail or distracting multiple foci of Outcault's panoramas."

Later, he writes:

"Comics tapped deep-rooted cognitive capacities and appealed to deep-rooted cognitive preferences as they discovered a whole series of ways to lower comprehension costs and raise the benefits of even a moment of reading time. They appeal to our craving for story, humor and surprise, for high-quality information in sight and speech, and for likely payoff at low cost. They prefocus expectations, reducing search and comprehension time through genre (comic strip funnies), series (Garfield), and therefore familiar characters (brazenly egotistical cat, blithely hapless owner, self-duping dog) and narrative contours (cat satisfies greed), so that hundreds of millions of readers can reach with minimum effort the promised hit of humor, the surprise of just where that comic trajectory will land today."

Comics are a cultural invention of the last 150 years. But they appeal to our evolved human nature, which includes a natural desire for story-telling, which can be satisfied through narrative pictures and words. The particular aesthetic techniques of comics have evolved through individual artists finding solutions to their problems--concerning how to engage the attention of a mass audience--which then become part of a cultural tradition conditioned by social, economic, and technological conditions (like printing, newspapers, and mass literacy).

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Secret Teaching in Aristotle's Natural Science

One of the most common criticisms of "Darwinian natural right" is that Darwinian science denies the cosmic teleology necessary for natural right. For example, in his contribution to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, John West insists that natural human desires can be the ground for a universal morality only if "one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or that they represent permanent truths inherent in the nature of the universe"; but "Darwinism explicitly denies that natural desires are either the result of intelligent design or an unchanging nature." Straussians offer a similar criticism when they quote Leo Strauss's claim (at the beginning of Natural Right and History) that classic natural right depends on an Aristotelian conception of cosmic teleology that has been denied by modern natural science.

This assumption that the human good must be a cosmic good runs through the fusion of Platonic cosmology and Biblical creationism that constituted the Medieval Cosmic Model that dominated much of Western history up to the 19th century. Last summer, I wrote a long series of posts arguing that, in fact, the Socratic philosophers were skeptical of any cosmic teleology, and that they saw the human good (moral and intellectual) rooted in human nature in a manner that would be consistent with Darwinian natural right. Some of those posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

It is often assumed that modern natural science overturned Aristotle's natural science by refuting the cosmic teleology that was fundamental for his science. But this overlooks the evidence that Aristotle did not really believe many of the doctrines commonly attributed to his science. When Thomas Hobbes warned against the "vain philosophy" of the Aristotelian Scholastic theologians, he suggested that their "supernatural philosophy" was not really part of Aristotle's true teaching. He observed: "And this shall suffice for an example of the Errors, which are brought into the Church, from the Entities, and Essences of Aristotle: which it may be he knew to be false Philosophy; but writ it as a thing consonant to, and corrobative of their Religion; and fearing the fate of Socrates" (Leviathan, chap. 46, paragraph 18). Similarly, Moses Maimonides argued that Aristotle knew that there was no scientific demonstration of the eternity of the world, and that Aristotle's apparent endorsement of this idea was a merely rhetorical appeal to popular opinions (The Guide of the Perplexed, part 2, chaps. 15, 25). So some careful readers of Aristotle have concluded that the overt teaching of his scientific writings sometimes contradicts his true secret teaching, which suggests that possibility that his secret teaching might be compatible with modern natural science.

That's the argument of David Bolotin's book An Approach to Aristotle's Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing (SUNY Press, 1998). Through a meticulous analysis of some of Aristotle's reasoning in the Physics and On the Heaven, Bolotin tries to show that Aristotle deliberately uses weak arguments to lead his careful readers to suspect that he doesn't really accept the conclusions apparently set forth in those writings. Bolotin suggests that Aristotle employs secret writing as a rhetorical strategy to protect his natural science from persecution. In the ancient Greek cities, natural philosophers were commonly thought to be atheists, because they seemed to explain the world as governed by purely natural causes with no need for divine powers. Socrates at his trial was accused of being an atheistic natural philosopher. And Aristotle himself was eventually forced to leave Athens to avoid the fate of Socrates. If one takes account of Aristotle's rhetorical strategy in concealing his true views of science, Bolotin concludes, one can see that his true teaching is consistent with modern science, and that it is also in some respects deeper and broader than modern science.

I generally agree with Bolotin. And yet I don't think he gives enough weight to Aristotle's turn away from theological cosmology to empirical biology as set forth most clearly in the Parts of Animals (642a28-30, 644b22-645a37). Here Aristotle indicates that Plato's Socrates was mistaken in identifying the study of nature with the study of cosmology or astronomy and in failing to see how political philosophy could be grounded in the study of biological nature. This is crucial for the question of teleology. Because even if there is no warrant for a cosmic teleology, there can still be an immanent teleology rooted in the goal-directed order of living beings. Like Strauss, Bolotin fails to notice how Aristotle's best examples of natural teleology are biological rather than cosmological (see, for example, pages 19-22, 24, 43-44).

Bolotin concludes his book with a brilliantly formulated summary of his main ideas (pp. 150-52). Because it's so well stated, I'll quote from it at length:

". . . let us briefly contrast what he says openly regarding the topics I have been discussing with the views that I argue he really held. He teaches openly that our visible world has always existed and will always exist; that one of its principles is a substrate that persists throughout all change; that there are also eternal and changeless forms, which by their actin upon this substrate give rise to the natural beings; that the development of a natural being is set in motion for the sake of the good toward which it tends; that the manifest or perceptible character of the world, as for instance the continuity of its bodies and of their motions, is also its most intimate character, even beyond the range of any possible perception; that the up and the down, as they appear to us on earth, are also features of the world in itself, which characterize the places in which light and heavy bodies fulfill their natures; and, more generally, that there are permanent and proper places for the several elements, including earth, whose proper place is the absolutely fixed center of the world. If my arguments have been correct, however, he was well aware of the dubiousness of the claim that our visible world exists forever; he did not believe that any natural beings come into being from a persistent substrate (and all the less, from the action of eternal and changeless forms on such a substrate); he did not seriously claim that the end toward which a natural being tends to develop is in any sense anticipated by the moving cause or causes of that development; he did not believe that the manifest or perceptive character of the beings also belongs to them independently of our perception, but rather focused on it in the belief that the beings as we perceive them are what we properly mean by the beings themselves; in saying that the up and the down and the other differences of place are not just arbitrary designations, but genuine features of the whole itself, he meant by 'the whole' the experienced whole, which exists as such only for human beings; and similarly, in saying that the earth remains unmoved at the center of the world, he meant that what we experience as the stability of the earth beneath us is part of the normal human perspective, within which natural beings are seen in their truest light."

"What emerges from this contrast between Aristotle's surface teaching and his genuine views is that in the former he presented the natural world as being far more completely intelligible than he believed it was. For if the visible world is eternal, and if natural beings result from the action of eternal forms on a persistent substrate, then it can seem intelligible at least in principle why there are the kinds of beings there are. There arises, of course, the question of why the forms are the ones they are; but even this question can appear to be answered sufficiently, if not completely, if everything natural is brought about for the sake of the good. Moreover, if natural motion is directed toward the good, then the tendency of living beings toward the attainment of their mature forms can appear to be explained with the kind of clarity with which we explain our own purposeful actions. Even the rising and falling of light and heavy bodies can appear to have the intelligiblity of end-directed motion if in moving to their proper places they are becoming more completely the kinds of beings they are. And finally, if we accept Aristotle's arguments for infinite divisibility, then at least to this extent, our knowledge need not be limited to the beings as we perceive them, but can encompass what lies beyond the perceptible realm. In Aristotle's serious view, however, natural beings do not arise from the action of eternal forms, and neither is there any other principle that can make intelligible--except conditionally, given that there is in fact an ordered world--why there are any of the kinds of beings that we know there are. As for the growth of these beings, he knew from experience that they typically develop in more or less the way their parents did, and he understood that their development is necessarily somehow coherent if they are to live; but he also knew that he could not understand the full necessity for this development or any purpose directing it. Though he did have an explanation of why lighter bodies tend to rise, his account of this phenomenon relies on the more primary fact, which he did not really try to explain, that the medium in which they do so presses downward. And more generally, he regarded the task of natural science to be the articulation of the manifest character--understood as the truest being--of the given world, a world whose ultimate roots he did not think that this science could ever discover."

"Now to understand why Aristotle presented what he knew to be such an exaggerated picture of the degree of intelligibility of the natural world, we must consider the implications of the limitedness of the achievement of what he regarded as genuine natural science. For his denial that natural science can finally explain the given world--and in particular his acknowledgment that it can not discover its ultimate roots--seems to leave him unable to exclude the alternative that this world might partly consist of, or otherwise owe its existence to, a mysterious and all-powerful god or gods. If there are such gods, as was suggested by Homer and Hesiod, among others, we can not rely on what reason and normal experience indicate as to the limits of what beings can do and of what can be done to them. What I have called the manifest character of things could not be their truest being but at most their usual way of being, and the most important truth about them would have to include their capacity to undergo miraculous change. In other words, so long as this theological alternative is not ruled out, the very assumption that there is nature, or that beings must become and perish in accordance with fixed natures, remains questionable; and the pursuit of a science of nature remains a dubious and perhaps even a wholly misguided one. Aristotle must refute, then, the claims of this theology in order to vindicate the possibility of natural science. And the primary reason for his exaggerating the intelligibility of the world is to indicate what would have to be the case in order for natural science to be able to complete this task itself."

Bolotin's account of Aristotle here supports many of the arguments that I have made on this blog. Aristotle casts doubt on the claim of Socrates (in the Phaedo) that Mind is responsible for all things and for directing all things to what is good. There is no scientific support for such a cosmic teleology. Nor is there any scientific ground for Plato's teaching that there are eternal and changeless Ideas or Forms. Natural science can articulate the manifest order of the world as we know it by experience, and this we can say is nature. But natural science cannot explain the ultimate roots of this given natural world by explaining why it is this way and not some other way. Natural science can take nature as self-evident--that's just the way it is! But this appeal to self-evident natural experience cannot prove that nature could never be in any other way, or that nature as we know it could not have been originally created by all-powerful god or gods.

Bolotin's account of Aristotle suggests that Aristotle is close to David Hume in crucial respects. Like Bolotin's Aristotle, Hume sought a science of nature rooted in a science of human nature that would be free of theological beliefs. As part of this project, Hume could explain religion as a product of natural history, and he could spot the flaws in the cosmological arguments for God's existence. But, still, Hume saw the fundamental contingency and mystery of nature as a given world, the ultimate origins of which are beyond human reason. Hume could not, therefore, prove that nature was not the work of a divinely intelligent designer. Here Hume was in the same boat with Charles Darwin, who fulfilled the Aristotelian/Humean project for explaining the order of nature in purely natural terms, but who could not rationally explain the ultimate origins of nature, because "the mystery of the origin of all things is insoluble by us."

As I have often suggested, we see here the fundamental tension between the natural desire for religious understanding and the natural desire for intellectual understanding. This is, as I think Bolotin suggests, the irresolvable choice between reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.