Friday, April 30, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell

One of my pastimes is walking through graveyards with my dog Charlie Darwin.

I particularly like the cemetery nearest my home in Sycamore, Illinois--Elmwood Cemetery--because it's old enough to have some graves going back to the 1840s, which is very old by the standards of the American Midwest. Elmwood was formally incorporated in 1865, and it has many graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Graves are a sign of our humanity. Evolutionary scientists often see prehistoric burial sites as evidence for the first appearance of the human species. The symbolic activity of burying the dead and perhaps imagining a life after death suggests distinctively human capacities and propensities for pondering the meaning of life and death.

I often wonder about the designs of the grave monuments that I see. Almost invariably, every monument will have the name of the individual along with the years of birth and death. The only exception is that some of the older monuments for dead infants will say simply "Baby" or "Infant." Many monuments identify family relationships--son, daughter, husband, wife, and so on. Often there is one monument for a married couple, with the date of their marriage. Some monuments identify some lifetime achievement or career--the most common being military service, often specifying military rank and the war. Dying in war seems to be especially honorable. Sometimes dead individuals are identified as lawyers, doctors, or ministers. Many are identified as beloved or loving people who will be remembered.

One can see here what people think is most important for their lives--their individual identities as bounded by birth and death, their marriage, their loving attachments to family and friends, their careers, and their honorable service to their communities.

It's surprising to me that so few monuments make any clear reference to Heaven, although many have crosses, which might suggest some Christian notion of Heaven. And I have never seen any reference to Hell, which might just reflect the sunny optimism of Americans.

Those monuments that invoke some conception of an afterlife are often remarkably vague or comically specific. One monument I've seen declares: "Death is not the end. What seems so is only transition." Transition to what? It doesn't say. Another monument I've seen has a marble golf ball on it, with the words "golfing for eternity."

Some of the monuments for married couples say "together forever," suggesting that the couple will be reunited as husband and wife in Heaven.

Surveys of American public opinion suggest that while many Americans believe in Heaven, fewer believe in Hell, and of those who believe in Heaven, almost all believe they're going there. What they think they're going to do in Heaven is often unclear--"golfing for eternity"? Of course, in some of the more secularized parts of the world, most people have no conception at all of an afterlife.

Do we still believe in Heaven and Hell--an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments? If so, does this belief provide a necessary support for our earthly morality? Or are we seeing the decline of the traditional notions of the afterlife? And if this is so, does this weaken our motivation for morality, given that it has no confirmation in cosmic moral law enforced by eternal judgment after death?

Although Darwin was never a complete atheist, because he thought the mystery of the origin of the universe left an opening for God as First Cause, he utterly rejected the orthodox conceptions of Heaven and Hell, saying that the idea of eternal punishment for unbelief was a "damnable doctrine" that denied God's goodness. He believed that "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality." But he also thought that "a man who has no asssured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward" could could still derive moral guidance from social praise and blame and from his own rational judgment or conscience. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Norton, 1958, 86-95; Descent of Man, Penguin, 682).

Against Darwin, and against my conception of "Darwinian natural right," some religious believers have insisted that morality is impossible if it is not sustained by a religious belief in a cosmic moral law enforced by eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell. Even Plato suggests a similar argument in Book 10 of the Laws.

To think through this debate, this will be the first of a series of posts on the evolution of Heaven and Hell.

The main theme running through my posts will be the contrast between the transcendental Platonic/Christian tradition of human immortality and the empirical Aristotelian/Darwinian tradition of human mortality. According to the Platonic/Christian tradition, the necessary condition for sustaining the moral and intellectual virtues is some belief in the immortality of the human soul in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments enforcing a cosmic moral law. I agree that such a belief can reinforce our natural understanding of the human virtues and vices. But I also think that our natural understanding of the virtues and vices can stand on its own without the support of any belief in immortality and eternal judgment. We should be confident, therefore, that we can sustain our natural standards of moral and intellectual excellence even while we recognize that ideas of immortality in the afterlife are unintelligible because they contradict our natural experience of life and death.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cooperation Among the Chaldeans

Why do humans cooperate?

That question is particularly puzzling when we consider large-scale political communities in which hundreds of millions of individuals cooperate with one another in complex ways, although most of these individuals are strangers to one another.

Of course, we could also ask, Why do humans fail to cooperate? After all, every community falls short of perfect cooperation, and the history of every community shows disruptive and often violent conflict.

We all benefit from living in cooperative communities. But as individuals, it might seem to be in our self-interest to become free-riders, who enjoy the benefits of a cooperative society without bearing any of the costs. This dilemma runs through the history of political philosophy and the social sciences.

It's the problem conveyed in the "ring of Gyges" story in Plato's Republic: if I could become invisible whenever I wished, would I be tempted into committing the greatest acts of injustice, while maintaining the reputation of a just man, and thus avoiding punishment for my injustice? If I yielded to such temptation, and safely hid my injustice from others, would I still suffer the punishment of having the disordered soul of an unjust man?

By what principles of justice should we rightly determine the standards of cooperation? Is just cooperation whatever serves the common good of any community? Or would such subordination to the common good violate the private good of individuals with diverse abilities and propensities? If just cooperation serves the common good, how do we settle conflicts between different groups or communities with different conceptions of the common good? Is there some natural standard of perfect justice in the best regime? Or is all justice conventional as varying for differing communities with different traditions and customs of cooperation?

Darwinian theories of the evolution of cooperation attempt to answer some of these questions. Over the past 25 years, proponents of evolutionary psychology (such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides) have stressed the evolved human nature of cooperation as shaped genetically in the prehistoric circumstances of the "environment of evolutionary adaptation" (EEA). Their critics charge that this reliance on biological explanations fails to see the importance of cultural explanations.

Recently, advocates of gene-culture coevolutionary theory have argued that this dichotomy between biology and culture is mistaken, because the full explanation of human social life requires a complex combination of genetic and cultural factors. In taking this position, they are reviving Darwin's evolutionary approach to human social and moral behavior, which saw human life as manifesting the interaction of biological and cultural evolution.

One of the leading exponents of this coevolutionary reasoning is Joseph Henrich. As a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, Henrich's mentor was Robert Boyd. Much of Henrich's work has been extending the tradition of research begun by Boyd and Peter Richerson in their book Culture and the Evolutionary Process (University of Chicago Press, 1985), which showed how social learning could be understood as a genetically evolved adaptation for learning adaptive traits in complex and variable environments. This requires a broad evolutionary approach that studies not only genetic evolution but also cultural history and the coevolution of genes and culture.

This approach was first suggested in Darwin's Descent of Man. Darwin thought that human morality had advanced more through cultural evolution than by natural selection, although the capacity for cultural learning and sympathy for social approbation and disapprobation had evolved by natural selection. Darwin wrote:

"The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection" (Penguin Books edition, p. 682).

This idea "that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited" manifests the Lamarckian element in Darwin's thought. In another passage, Darwin speaks of "natural selection, aided by inherited habit" (155). This seems to be Darwin's anticipation of what James Mark Baldwin later called "social heredity": social evolution creates a cultural environment to which genetic evolution adapts. As Henrich and many others have noted, this "Baldwin effect" has been confirmed in some famous cases--as in the genetic evolution of lactose tolerance in adults in response to a cultural history of dairying. It is possible, then, that if cultural traditions of moral virtue were stable over a few thousand years, this could have created a selective pressure favoring genetic adaptations for such moral learning. This is the coevolution of genes and culture.

To my mind, the best single statement of this coevolutionary study of human culture is the book Joseph Henrich coauthored with his wife Natalie--Why Humans Cooperate (Oxford University Press, 2007). The book is especially rich in its combination of many research strategies--theoretical modelling of evolution, behavioral experiments in economic games, and an anthropological case study--to show the evolution of human cooperation.

The case study concerns the Chaldeans of metropolitan Detroit. The Chaldeans in Detroit are Catholics from Iraq who believe themselves to be descendants of the Chaldean civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. The Chaldeans might date back as far as 11,000 years. A Chaldean dynasty ruled over Babylon from 625 B.C. to 482 B.C. Chaldeans believe that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all traced back to the Chaldeans through Abraham, because Abraham was said in the Bible to have lived in "Ur of Chaldea" (Genesis 11:31). Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Chaldeans have migrated to the Detroit area, seeking economic opportunity and freedom from persecution in Iraq. They have prospered in Detroit because almost all of the small grocery stores in Detroit are owned by Chaldeans.

The Henrichs show how the Chaldeans illustrate the simple core principle in the evolution of cooperation. "Cooperation can evolve under circumstances in which selection takes advantage of a stable regularity that allows cooperators to preferentially bestow their benefits on other cooperators; in other words, cooperation can evolve when cooperators tend to cooperate with other cooperators" (42).

The dilemma of cooperation could be solved if there were a gene causing those with it to have green beards and to help only others with green beards. These green-bearded cooperators could cooperate with one another with no fear of being cheated by free-riders. This would solve the "Ring of Gyges" problem, because cheaters could not disguise themselves as cooperators. But this would fail if there were a mutant green-beard gene that did not make its bearer cooperative.

So, the problem for the evolution of cooperation is how to arrange the circumstances of cooperation so that cooperators could increase the probability of their cooperating with other trustworthy cooperators, while identifying and punishing those who were untrustworthy.

The Henrichs identify five evolutionary solutions to this problem: (1) kinship, (2) direct reciprocity, (3) indirect reciprocity enforced through reputation, (4) social norms enforced through third-party punishment, and (5) ethnicity. All five of these evolutionary grounds for cooperation were recognized by Darwin. All five have been confirmed by recent research in evolutionary modelling and in experimental games. And all five are illustrated in the social life of the Chaldeans.


The most common forms of cooperation in nature are parental care of offspring and care of one's kin in general. This solves the problem of cooperation because one's close kin are more likely to be trustworthy cooperators than those who are not kin.

Darwin saw that the social instincts of animals, including human beings, were largely extensions of parental care and kinship.

Universally, human beings tend to reserve their most costly forms of cooperation for close kin. Tooby and Cosmides and other proponents of evolutionary psychology argue that this can explain cooperation in modern large-scale societies, because the human propensity to aid kin, which evolved genetically in the Pleistocene era, can be tricked in modern environments so that we care for nonkin as if they were kin. But the Henrichs rightly challenge this by pointing out that human beings are quite good at distinguishing close kin from distant kin and nonkin. For example, as the Henrichs point out, 86% of kidney donations in the United States come from close kin, while only one-half of one percent come from anonymous strangers.

And while the Chaldeans say that all Chaldeans belong to the same community as one family, their behavior shows clear lines separating kin from nonkin, so that Chaldeans are much more likely to provide costly aid to close kin than to those who are not.

The history of utopian communities--from Plato's Republic to modern socialist communes--shows the failure of the attempts to extend kinship cooperation to embrace nonkin in the same community so that private families and private property can be abolished.


As Robert Axelrod showed in The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), one solution to the problem of cooperation is direct reciprocity based on a strategy of tit-for-tat exchange, because this allows us to cooperate with other cooperators while punishing those who are cheaters.

Darwin saw the importance of direct reciprocity as a ground for cooperation and morality among humans: "as the reasoning powers and foresight of the members become improved, each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return" (156).

But unlike kinship, such direct reciprocity is rare in the rest of nature. The Henrichs explain how human culture allows human beings to solve the problems of reciprocal cooperation that most other animals cannot solve. For example, language and writing allow us to keep records of our direct exchanges with others to make sure we are not being cheated.

The Chaldeans have found ways to monitor exchanges to insure reciprocal fairness. For example, they have a system by which people attending weddings and funerals leave cash donations in envelopes with their names. This allows people to keep records of what they have received, so that in the future they can pay back whatever they have received in the past. If people attending funerals and weddings were expected to leave donations without identifying who gave how much, this would create a "public goods" dilemma, in which people would be tempted to give less than what was fair.


Even if we have no history of direct reciprocal exchanges with someone, we can judge that person as a trustworthy cooperator if he has a good reputation from exchanges with others, or we can avoid any engagement with him if he has a bad reputation. This is what Richard Alexander called "indirect reciprocity."

Darwin recognized this by stressing the importance of praise and blame in sustaining the social virtues. But Darwin also recognized that indirect reciprocity works only if there's a high probability of the helper accurately knowing the reputation of the person to be helped. He saw that cultural capacities--especially language--improve the reputational information necessary for indirect reciprocity.

The Henrichs accept this, even as they stress that indirect reciprocity does not work well in large groups where it is hard to accurately identify people as having good or bad reputations. They point out that it works well for the Chaldeans only because they have such tight-knit and stable social networks that gossip functions well in providing reputational information about who is trustworthy and who is not.


Darwin saw that one motivation for obeying social norms was the sense of shame based on the fear of social disapproval. As naturally social animals, we are acutely sensitive to the opinions of others in our group. "Even when an action is opposed to no special instinct, merely to know that our friends and equals despise us for it is enough to cause great misery. Who can doubt that the refusal to fight a duel through fear has caused many men an agony of shame? Many a Hindoo, it is said, has been stirred to the bottom of his soul by having partaken of unclean food" (138). As these examples indicate, even seemingly arbitrary norms--like food taboos--that might be maladaptive can be enforced by the fear of social blame.

The Henrichs show how the fear of getting a bad reputation works not only in indirect reciprocity for cooperative norms, but for any social norms enforced by third-party punishment. The importance of third-party punishment--also called "altruistic punishment"--has been seen in experiments with "public goods" games. In such a game, all members of a group benefit from a public good, even those who pay none of the costs in providing the good. In such a situation, it's hard to see how people would cooperate to provide such a good, given the temptation to become free riders. The answer is that cooperation evolves if free riders are punished, and members of the group are willing to incur some costs in punishing free riders. People are willing to inflict such costly punishment because they are moved by moral emotions of anger and indignation. Such third-party punishment can even enforce social norms that have nothing to do with reciprocal cooperation--norms such as food taboos, appropriate clothing, and the choice of a marriage partner.

An example of this among the Chaldeans is the norm of endogamous marriage: Chaldeans should marry other Chaldeans. Unlike gift-giving at a wedding, this norm of endogamous marriage is not a matter of reciprocal cooperation, but it's a social expectation enforced by the willingness of many members of the group to express their moral disgust with those who violate the norm.

Lots of apparently arbitrary and even maladaptive behavior can be explained as arising from social norms enforced by third-party punishment. I have written some posts on female circumcision as an example of maladaptive behavior. The Henrichs see this as a case of a culturally evolved social norm supported by social punishment of those who violate the norm. As we saw in those earlier posts, the abolition of female circumcision requires that a sufficient number of people in a community must band together in agreeing to abolish the practice. Such a strategy can work with female circumcision in Africa, just as it did with female foot-binding in China.


Darwin saw that one crucial element in the evolution of morality and cooperation was cultural group selection through tribal competition. He wrote:

"It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase" (157-58).

The Henrichs suggest that cultural group selection would have worked through competition in warfare, economic production, and demographic reproduction. Those groups stronger in military, economic, or reproductive advantages would tend to prevail over other groups. And thus those norms that enhanced military, economic, or reproductive advantages would be favored. For example, some historians of early Christianity have argued that the surprising triumph of the early Christians in ancient Rome came from social norms favoring marital fidelity, high reproductive rates, and mutual aid among the Christians, in contrast to the pagan Romans.

A consequence of such cultural group selection is to foster "ethnic markers" as a guide to cooperation. Interactions are smoother when the people interacting are playing by the same rules, because they share the same social norms. Consequently, we are more cooperative with people we can identify as members of our own group. We look for cues to group membership such as language, clothing, greetings, mannerisms, and religious beliefs.

Chaldeans look for those ethnic markers that identify people as Chaldeans--belonging to the Chaldean Church, speaking the Chaldean language, and having Chaldean ancestors from Iraq. These are all ethnic markers that suggest people who share the underlying norms of the Chaldean community.


I am reminded here of some previous posts on evolutionary explanations of the Industrial Revolution as a product of cultural group selection in which certain norms of economic productivity and entrepreneurship favored the the rise of modern commercial societies.

I am also reminded of my post last November on "rights from wrongs," because we might understand the modern liberal idea of natural rights as a product of cultural evolution: we have learned from our historical experience with great injustice that we need the social norm of government securing individual rights as an expression of our moral sense.

I am also reminded of previous posts on Aristotelian liberalism. Groups like the Chaldeans show us how morality and cooperation can be enforced voluntarily in civil society through a pluralism of social groups rather than coercively through the bureaucratic state. The Chaldeans have immigrated to the United States because they want the economic, religious, and political freedom of a liberal society. In such a society, the state does not enforce any one comprehensive conception of the good. Rather, the state enforces a procedural conception of the common good as securing individual liberty, while leaving individuals free to form social groups organized around specific conceptions of virtue.

Friedrich Hayek made this point when he argued that the enforcement of social norms of morality through social pressure (rather than state coercion) was a condition for a free society. Precisely because human beings have evolved to be social animals with a moral sense, they will naturally form social groups defined by moral norms of cooperation within the groups. The role of government, then, is to secure the general conditions that make it possible for individuals to freely form such groups. See, for example, The Constitution of Liberty, 62-63, 145-47, 402, 451; and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, 167-68, 170-71.

Although I have pointed out (in some previous posts) some serious flaws in Hayek's account of cultural evolution, the coevolutionary theory of cooperation surveyed by the Henrichs would support an evolutionary explanation of the emergence of liberalism and the free society as the way of life best adapted for evolved human nature.

A few weeks ago (April 1), I wrote a post on Joe Henrich's recent article in Science on the importance of "market integration" and "world religion" in the evolution of cooperation.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Antony Flew, 1923-2010

Antony Flew, a famous professor of philosophy in England, died a few days ago in Reading, England, at the age of 87.

He wrote on many topics. But he was best known for his writings on the philosophy of religious belief and on David Hume. He was famous for arguing that human reason could neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, because belief in God was not falsifiable.

As a member of the Socrates Club at Oxford, Flew engaged in a continuing debate with C. S. Lewis over religious belief.

It became an international news story, therefore, when it was reported that he had changed his mind, and that he was now convinced that there was sufficient evidence to believe in God, or at least in some deistic conception of God as First Cause. But his advancing age had deprived him of his mental clarity, and there was some evidence that some evangelical Christians around him were manipulating him for their own purposes.

In 2006, he wrote a brief review of Darwinian Conservatism.

I found that he was a clear expositor of Hume's thoughts about religion. I was also influenced by his argument--drawn from Hume--that all explanation depends on an unexplained ground, which leaves us affirming the ultimate starting point to be either nature or nature's God.

There's an obituary in the New York Times.

My posts on Flew can be found here and here.

A couple of recent posts on the proofs for God's existence can be found here and here.

Kenneth Grubbs has written an article for the Skeptics Society on "The Remarkable Story of Professor Antony Flew.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Animal Culture Wars

Is culture uniquely human? Or do some nonhuman animals have culture?

How we answer this question is crucial for our understanding of how we fit in the natural world. As I have indicated in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, Immanuel Kant originally formulated the modern concept of culture as that uniquely human realm of artifice in which human beings escape their natural animality to express their rational humanity and their freedom from the laws of nature. In doing this, Kant extended Thomas Hobbes' dichotomy of animal nature and human artifice in rejecting Aristotle's biological understanding of human beings as political animals by nature.

In Aristotle's biological studies of social and political behavior, he did not separate animal instinct and human learning. He saw that, in varying degrees, all social animals have natural instincts for social learning. Of course, in the capacity for learning, human beings far surpass other animals. Still, it is as true for nonhuman animals as it is for human beings that social life emerges as a joint product of nature and nurture. So, for example, Aristotle observed that some birds teach their young to sing, and the languages they teach differ in different localities in a manner comparable to the diversity of human languages, which suggests that among birds "language is not natural in the same way as voice but can be trained" (HA, 536b18-20).

Charles Darwin made the same observation about variable dialects of bird songs transmitted as traditions by social learning, and he saw this as showing "that an instinctive tendency to acquire an art is not peculiar to man" (Descent of Man, 2nd ed., Penguin Classics, p. 106-109). More recently, Peter Marler and other biologists studying bird-song dialects have presented this as an example of animal culture--that is, a behavioral tradition transmitted by social learning.

Over the past two decades, there has been an intense controversy over the possibility of animal culture. On the one hand, there has been growing evidence for elaborate cultural traditions among animals--particularly, chimpanzees, orangutans, whales, and dolphins. One highlight of this new research was the report in 1999 in Nature by Andrew Whiten et al. comparing seven chimp study sites in Africa and showing 39 behavior patterns customary in some communities but absent in others, so that each chimp community has its distinctive profile of behavioral patterns, which is comparable to the cultural diversity of human communities. On the other hand, many critics of this research deny that this is really evidence for true culture.

This whole debate is now conveniently surveyed in the new book The Question of Animal Culture, edited by Kevin Laland and Bennett Galef, published last year by Harvard University Press. Laland and Galef have arranged the book's chapters to move from the strongest advocates of animal culture (such as Frans de Waal, William McGrew, and Andrew Whiten) to the strongest skeptics (such as Michael Tomasello, Susan Perry, and Kim Hill).

As the book makes clear, much of the controversy turns on how one defines "culture." As Laland has said, "Culture is as rare or as common as it is defined to be" (101). So, if culture is defined narrowly as requiring uniquely human traits (such as symbolic teaching and moral norms), then nonhuman animals cannot have culture. But if culture is defined broadly as the transmission of behavioral traditions through social learning, then there is plenty of evidence for animal culture.

Under the broad definition of culture, the evidence for animal culture comes both from field studies of wild animals and laboratory experiments with captive animals. So, for instance, the comparative study of wild primate communities does show remarkably complex variation in the behavioral profiles of primate communities, which suggests social traditions initiated by individual innovators that have been passed on by social learning. But the inference that these behavioral profiles really do arise from socially learned traditions is largely circumstantial and based on arguments of plausibility. This inference is reinforced, however, by experimentation with captive primates showing that individual primates can learn a new behavioral pattern and then others in the primate group can learn the new behavior by imitation, which then becomes a group tradition.

But under the narrow definition of culture, we might concede that nonhuman animals show socially learned behavioral traditions, while still denying that this is sufficient to count as "culture" in the full sense. This position is best stated by Kim Hill. Hill is an interesting case. As an anthropologist and behavioral ecologist using models from evolutionary ecology to explain the behavior of hunter-gatherers, Hill has for many years rejected the claim of his colleagues in cultural anthropology that human culture is too unique to be explained as animal behavior. But recently Hill has changed his mind, and now he thinks the behavioral ecologists and evolutionary psychologists are mistaken in not facing up to the uniqueness of culture for human beings. Hill thus belongs to a growing movement among Darwinian social scientists who now see that a Darwinian account of human behavior requires explanation of the co-evolution of genes and culture in human history.

Hill agrees that nonhuman animals are capable of socially learned behavioral traditions. But he argues that such animal traditions differ in kind from human cultures. They differ in two respects. First, human culture shows a ratchet effect in which socially learned information accumulates over time to achieve ever more complex forms, while social learning among animals doesn't show such accumulation. Chimps can learn to crack open nuts with pointed stones used as hammers and flat stones used as anvils, and this technology can become a behavioral tradition in certain chimp communities. But they don't progressively improve on their technology to develop ever more intricate tools.

The second difference is that the content of human culture is unique. Human culture shows three categories of socially transmitted information. Animal traditions show the first but not the other two. The first category is "socially learned techniques, technology, and environmental information (traditions, beliefs)" (275). This can be seen among many animals.

The second category of socially transmitted information is unique to human culture--"regulations of individual behavior enforced by rewards and punishments (norms, conventions, institutions, laws)" (276). Other animals manifest some rules of behavior--for example, rules among chimps about subordinate individuals deferring to dominant individuals. But these rules of behavior are not enforced by third-party punishment and reward. Human beings will punish someone for violating social norms even when the punishment is costly to them and does not directly benefit them. "Morality is demonstrated by altruistic third-party punishment" (286).

Other animals don't show such altruistic punishment. For example, when human beings play the Ultimatum Game, responders will punish proposers who make unfair offers even when the punishment is costly for the responders. But when chimps play the Ultimatum Game, responders will not engage in such costly punishment.

The third category of human culture, which is not seen in other animals, is "symbolic means of reinforcing, and signaling adherence to, a specific rule system" (277). Human beings invest their social rules with such emotional weight that they become moral rules, so that violation of the rules elicits moral emotions of guilt, disgust, and anger. Often these moral rules are reinforced with religious sanctions, including supernatural rewards and punishments. And often human beings use symbolic ethnic markers--for example, dialects, clothing, ritual behavior, and dietary restrictions--to signal their commitment to a distinctive set of social norms, which allows them to interact with those who share the same norms, while avoiding those who don't.

What are these distinctively human social norms? Hill suggests that hunter-gatherer societies show a universal human pattern: "Hunter-gatherers universally regulate access to valuable resources (e.g., food, mates) and regulate how competition for these resources may be legitimately expressed." This would include the following social norms regulating behavior (279-80):

1. Mate access
a. Prohibitions and prescriptions (applied on the basis of age, kin, or ritual-group membership)
b. Polygyny (degree allowed and who may practice it)

2. Food production
a. Land use (territoriality)
b. Specific resource rights (ownership of specific plants or animals)
c. Niche specialization (informal trade unions)

3. Food redistribution
a. Sharing (who receives, how much they receive, and, what body parts of some game species)
b. Consumption taboos (applied on the basis of age, kin, or ritual-group membership)

4. Display rights (ritual participation)
a. Mating (who may participate in organized displays that are important forums for mate choice)
b. Other sociopolitical messages (who has the right to "broadcast" symbolic messages and in what context)

5. Access to kin and other allies
a. Residence rules (who is allowed to reside with close kin)
b. Activity and ritual regulations (who can be a member in some organized activities)

6. Political power
a. Designated positions (reserved for specified age, sex, kin or ritual-group members)
b. Transfer of power (rules of succession, turn taking, or context-specific leadership)

7. Regulation of violent conflict
a. Within-group contests (ritual dueling, divining, and justice)
b. Participation in social group defense (who may or must defend the group and in what contexts)

8. Regulation of life history
a. Age at first reproduction (acceptable age for sexual relations and marriage)
b. Investment in infants and juveniles (who must invest and in what contexts)
c. Age- and sex-specific rights and restrictions (that change during the life course) in competition over resources

Notice how these social norms correspond to my list of 20 natural desires, which I take to be rooted in evolved human nature. Notice also how these social norms underlie the natural moral sense as enforced by our moral emotions.

For example, "prohibitions and prescriptions" for "mate access" would include incest taboos. Other animals have behavioral mechanisms for avoiding incest. But only human beings reinforce incest avoidance with a deeply emotional incest taboo that cannot be violated without feelings of moral repugnance.

Chimps might avoid incest. But they don't have an incest taboo as a moral norm, because they don't have a "conscience" that is expressed as moral emotions such as guilt and anger. Hill concludes from this that chimps are like psychopaths--that is, they lack the moral emotions required for a moral sense or conscience. Human psychopaths apparently are innately psychopathic because they have alleles that incline them to emotional poverty, so that they don't feel the moral emotions that are normal for the rest of us. This suggests that the human moral sense arose from a genetic adaptation that separated normal members of Homo sapiens from our primate ancestors. This innate moral sense is now universally expressed in all human societies, although the presence of psychopaths as a small proportion of each society shows that there is still an adaptive niche for those without any conscience.

This moral sense as expressed in deep moral emotions is the ground for "normativity," for our feeling that one ought to obey our social norms. This normative ought is unique to human culture. But if it has an evolutionary history--the evolution of a propensity for moral emotions in the human brain and nervous system--then we can see it as an emergent property of human evolution. And like every emergent property, it shows an emergent difference in kind with an underlying difference in degree.

We can put this all in the evolutionary framework suggested by Eva Jablonka, distinguishing four dimensions of evolutionary history--genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic. Animal traditions belong to behavioral evolution. Human morality belongs to symbolic evolution, which is a system of evolutionary inheritance that is unique to human beings.

Some posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (7): Frank Meyer and the Fusion of Virtue and Freedom

Rasmussen and Den Uyl never cite Frank Meyer in their writings. But they should have, because their argument for Aristotelian liberalism coincides with Meyer's argument for a conservatism that combines virtue and freedom.

Meyer went from being an active member of the Communist Party to becoming one of the leaders in the post-World War II conservative movement in the United States. As one of the founding editors of Bill Buckley's National Review magazine, Meyer saw the split in conservative thought between libertarians who stressed individual freedom and traditionalists who stressed social virtue. To overcome that split, he argued that conservatism should be based on an intellectual consensus that combined commitments to political freedom and moral virtue. This attempt to "fuse" libertarian conservatism and traditionalist conservatism became known in the conservative movement as "fusionism."

The best statement of Meyer's reasoning is his book In Defense of Freedom, first published in 1962 and reprinted in 1996, along with related essays, by the Liberty Fund.

One can see in this book the same combination of liberty and virtue that runs through the reasoning of Rasmussen and Den Uyl. Meyer saw his conservative fusion of liberty and virtue as bringing together the partial truths of libertarianism and traditionalism. He wrote: "Although the classical liberal forgot--and the contemporary libertarian conservative sometimes tend to forget--that in the moral realm freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end, which is virtue, he did understand that in the political realm freedom is the primary end" (24). Similarly, in his analysis of traditionalist conservatism, he wrote: "Sound though they were on the essentials of man's being, on his destiny to virtue and his responsibility to seek it, on his duty in the moral order, they failed too often to realize that the political condition of moral fulfillment is freedom from coercion" (25). Meyer's claim, then, is that while the libertarians are right about politics, but wrong about ethics, the traditionalists are right about ethics, but wrong about politics.

Like Rasmussen and Den Uyl, Meyer saw a similar mixture of truth and error in Aristotle's moral and political philosophy. Aristotle was wrong in suggesting that the aim of government was to enforce virtue. But he was right in seeing that virtue must be chosen by each individual. If one recognizes that individual freedom is the necessary condition for virtue, then one should see that a virtuous society must be free from the governmental enforcement of virtue (126-27).

This reasoning led Meyer to conclude that the conservative consensus could bring together virtue and freedom. "That consensus simultaneously accepts the existence of an objective moral and spiritual order, which places as man's end the pursuit of virtue, and the freedom of the individual person as a decisive necessity for a good political order" (155).

In my series of seven posts on the work of Rasmussen and Den Uyl, I have argued that their Aristotelian liberalism can be grounded in a Darwinian conception of natural right that combines freedom and virtue. This could be called Darwinian liberalism. But if Meyer is right about conservatism as a fusion of libertarianism and traditionalism, we might just as easily call it Darwinian conservatism.

The previous posts in this series on Rasmussen and Den Uyl can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A couple of my previous posts on fusionism can be found here and here.

Aristotelian Liberalism (6): The Morality of Commercial Friendship

In his zoological writings, Aristotle distinguishes solitary animals and gregarious animals. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not. The political animals cooperate for some some work or function (koinon ergon). Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense (History of Animals, 488a7-14).

Human beings are more political, however, than these animals because of the uniquely human capacity for speech (logos). Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good (Politics, 1253a1-18). Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive than is possible for other political animals. Through speech, human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" (koinon sumpheron) as the criterion of justice (Rhetoric, 1362a15-63b5). A just political community can be judged to be one that serves the common advantage of all of its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its rulers (Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a13-14; Pol., 1279a17-19).

But how is it possible for a large-scale political community (like the United States, for example) to be organized around a common end or purpose? The problem in achieving a common end in such a community arises not just from the size of the population but also from the diversity of ends in the individual lives of human beings.

Ancient political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle seemed to argue that the only solution to this problem was for a government to impose a single moral end or way of life on the whole community. This required severe limits on the size of the community, and so it would not work for large political communities like modern nation-states. This imposition of a single moral end also required a coercive enforcement of morality that would deny individual liberty. For such a regime, statecraft would be soulcraft.

By contrast, modern liberal political philosophers have argued that coercive enforcement of a single moral end cannot work, and the attempt to make it work brings about a tyrannical suppression of individual liberty. As an alternative, liberal thinkers have argued for defining the common good of a political community as securing the liberty of individuals to pursue their diverse moral ends. But the critics of liberalism have charged that this promotes a hedonistic atomism that dissolves the communitarian conditions necessary for moral excellence.

In their defense of Aristotelian liberalism, Rasmussen and Den Uyl claim that this debate is misconceived, because there is a failure here to make some crucial distinctions. We need to distinguish state and society. And we need to distinguish procedural ends and determinate ends.

When Aristotle says that our nature as political animals is fulfilled in the "city" (polis), he doesn't distinguish between the "city" as a state or government and the "city" as a society. The social life of human beings requires not only a legal/political order of the state, but also a social order of civil society. Once we see this, we can see how the social cultivation of morality might be carried out in civil society--in families and various kinds of social groups--without any need for the legal/political order to coercively impose a single moral order. The legal/political order can be understood as limited to securing the conditions for moral order to arise in diverse forms in civil society.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl also distinguish between procedural and determinate ends:

"A procedural end is the object of a human purpose, the function of which is to define the conditions under which the pursuit of other (determinate) ends will occur but which does not specify what those ends will be or when and how they will be realized. A determinate end, on the other hand, is a the object of a human purpose with identifiable characteristics which can be used to help specify appropriate and inappropriate courses of action for the realization of that end. The procedural ends that characterize a political community represent the conditions under which any and all specific forms of human activity can take place. They must, therefore, be as open as possible with respect to the determinate ends they will allow" (LAN, 163).

So, Rasmussen and Den Uyl explain, while a liberal political community like the United States does not have one determinate conception of the human good, it does have procedural norms of legal conduct that secure the conditions in which individuals are free to form families and social groups based upon determinate conceptions of the human good. Such a liberal regime can be understood as promoting the Aristotelian idea of actualizing the natural human potential for moral and intellectual virtue. But it does this through the procedural protections of a legal/political order within which civil society flourishes as a social realm of moral education.

Another way of seeing this fusion of Aristotelian ethics and liberal politics, Rasmussen and Den Uyl suggest, is to see how liberalism fosters social cooperation through Aristotelian friendship.

The longest section of the Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle's study of "friendship" (philia), which is the word that Aristotle uses for any kind of social bond. He distinguishes three kinds of friendship as based on virtue, pleasure, or advantage. Friendships of virtue are the highest kind, and they are based on the friends resembling one another in their virtuous character. Such friendships are the most intimate and the most enduring. Friendships of pleasure last only as long as people find some pleasure in one another. Friendships of advantage arise when people find one another useful in some way.

If one believes that statecraft is soulcraft, then one might assume that "political friendship"--the friendship that binds together citizens in a political community--would be a friendship of virtue based on sharing a single moral end. But, in fact, Aristotle indicates that friendships of virtue are possible only with a few people, because such friendships require knowing one another intimately over a long life. Political friendships are actually friendships of advantage, because citizens should be held together by some conception of their political life as mutually advantageous (NE, 1155a23-27, 1160a11-15, 1167a27-30). A liberal regime could be founded on such political friendships of common advantage.

Moreover, in modern liberal commercial societies, Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue, commercial relationships can foster advantage-friendships and thus contribute to the moral order of civil society. In explaining how commercial exchanges can sustain friendship, they quote the following passage from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations:

"Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them . . . and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of."

They observe:

"What this passage shows is that market transactions require an interest in others. It is true that this interest is a means of satisfying one's own interest, but it is an interest in others nonetheless. Suppose then . . . that what all friendships have in common is an interest in others. Some of these (the highest types) have this interest in an unself-interested sense. Other types, however, carry a genuine interest in others, but not for their own sake. Market exchanges require a genuine interest in others, because one's own success depends upon getting others to see one's interest as their interest; in other words, sharing an interest.

"Oddly enough, command economies do not require an interest in others, for obedience, and not persuasion, is their mode of eliciting cooperation. Command structures can, and often do, embody selfishness (understood as a lack of concern for the interests of others) in a pure form, since those issuing the commands need pay no heed to anyone's interests but their own. Voluntary market transactions, on the other hand, will not occur if both parties do not see the relationship as mutually advantageous. This shared interest and advantage, at least for the duration of the transaction, embodies several features that can be found in higher forms of friendship: mutual advantage, mutual interest, cooperation, unity of purpose, and even good will" (LAN, 179).

It's worth noting that in appropriating Smith's account of commercial friendships as supporting moral cooperation, Rasmussen and Den Uyl accept Smith's moral psychology of social life, which they reject later in their book when they denigrate Smith's "moral sociology" (LAN, 214-19).

This Smithian understanding of how commercial exchanges promote friendships of advantage and thus social norms of cooperation has been confirmed by studies in the evolution of cooperation of how "market integration" fosters social norms of fairness in cooperation. Some of this research is surveyed in Joseph Heinrich's recent article in Science and in the book Moral Markets (2008), edited by Paul Zak.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Aristotelian Liberalism (5): Adam Smith's "Moral Sociology"

Since Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue for an Aristotelian defense of liberalism, one might expect that they would find common ground with Adam Smith, who promoted liberalism and developed a theory of the moral sentiments that he thought largely coincided with Aristotle's moral theory.

Contrary to this expectation, Rasmussen and Den Uyl criticize Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. They write:

". . . Although this work appears to offer a moral theory, that theory is marred by an insoluble dilemma: the 'impartial spectator' who makes the final judgment about moral propriety must either make that judgment on the basis of his sentiment or not. If so, what justifies that sentiment over the others being observed in the actions considered? If not, a standard other than sentiment is being used, which seems disallowed by the theory itself and would require its own justification. Nevertheless, it is possible to ignore this problem and treat this work as expressing a theory of moral sociology. If we do this, the actions of the impartial spectator can be considered as descriptive of moral attitudes rather than justificatory, and the work as a whole could be regarded as an account of how moral attitudes and norms are generated in a free society.

". . . the free society undoubtedly allows for the free-flowing of the passions, or sentiments. Assuming that people are guided more by their passions than anything else, it is plausible to conclude that the most common personality of such a society would reflect the most common passions. . . .

". . . Smith's TMS was predictive of moral discussion in a free society. . . . We can, for example, criticize wealth by pointing to the presence of the poor and imagining ourselves in their place. Indeed, the anticapitalist literature is filled with images appealing to sentiments: 'sweatshops,' 'greed,' 'selfishness,' 'exploitation,' 'price-gouging,' and numerous others could be cited. And political battles are generally won or lost today on the basis of how appealing or evocative the issue in question can be made to the general public. In essence, moral discourse has resulted in what Smith describes in his opening chapters: simply putting oneself in another's place and reflecting upon one's feelings. Feelings are decisive; rational analysis serves to clarify, not justify, the sentiments" (LAN, 214-15).

Rasmussen and Den Uyl worry that although Smith's "correspondence of sentiment" is true sociologically, it will not provide normative stability in a pluralistic society, because it will lead to "the abandonment of an objective theory of value" (LAN, 216-17). They suggest that the only escape from this outcome is to see the truth in Plato's Allegory of the Cave--"the self-conceptions and values of a culture are largely dependent upon the beliefs of the intellectual class." Philosophers have a duty to shape popular culture to conform to their rational understanding of the truth. Philosophers must take responsibility for shaping the souls of their fellow citizens (LAN, 218-29).

Rasmussen and Den Uyl write:

"We agree with Adam Smith that we are largely other-oriented from the beginning, or at least as much other-oriented as self-oriented. . . . our real problem is one of learning how to develop the self, and what that means is that we need to figure out how to bring the other into the self--that is, finding ways to integrate our other-orientation into our own nexus. The Smithian position of developed sentiment is not a solution. We never integrate others into ourselves by sentiment even if they 'correspond.' This is why Smith must employ the device of the 'impartial spectator' as a deus ex machina of ethical integration to get it to work. In our view, the integration can only come through practical reason or practical wisdom of the agent as applied to the agent's own project of eudaimonistic flourishing" (NOL, 316-17).

But I would say that what Rasmussen and Den Uyl suggest in this last sentence--integrating others into ourselves through practical reasoning--is exactly what Smith suggests. Smith's "impartial spectator" is not totally disinterested. When Smith lays out "the order in which individuals are recommended by nature to our care and attention," he makes it clear that each individual is "first and principally recommended to his own care." With oneself at the center, one can move outward in an ever expanding circle to care for family members, friends, fellow-citizens, one's country, and even all of humanity. But that care and concern become weaker as one moves farther out (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Classics, 219-27). That's why Smith rejects Stoic cosmopolitanism as contrary to human nature. The "impartial spectator" moderates but does not deny our partiality for ourselves (TMS, 292-93).

This expansion of one's care for oneself to embrace care for others arises from our nature as social animals, and it requires a combination of reason and sentiment. Rasmussen and Den Uyl object to Smith's appeal to moral sentiments. But, oddly enough, they concede that Smith is accurately describing what happens in a free society governed by "the free flowing of the passions, or sentiments." Like Plato, they imply that philosophers can become purely rational beings, free from the passions or sentiments that move other human beings, and these purely rational philosophers have the duty to shape the souls of those less rational than they are. But doesn't this contradict what Rasmussen and Den Uyl say about the necessary union of reason and desire? Are philosophers purely rational beings, or are they moved by an erotic desire for intellectual understanding?

Smith's account of the moral sentiments arises from a rhetorical tradition of thought that began with Aristotle's Rhetoric, particularly Aristotle's study of the moral emotions in Book 2. Smith thought he was continuing the teaching of Aristotle and the other ancient philosophers who thought that each virtue was rooted in some "sentiment of the heart" (TMS, 271, 328). This same rhetorical moral psychology of the sentiments continues today in the Darwinian understanding of the moral emotions.

The appeal to moral emotions is inescapable. For example, Rasmussen and Den Uyl use the example of a starving man stealing food to illustate an "emergency situation." Here we might judge the starving man to be acting morally, even though he violates the moral property rights of those from whom he steals. In such a case, we must allow for the discretion of judges, who see that "rights of any kind do not apply" (LAN, 144-50). This is an example of "moral tragedy." But isn't this a case where we judge that the starving man has done no wrong, because his theft doesn't elicit any emotion of moral disapproval? Doesn't every assertion of a natural right make some claim upon our moral emotions?

Aristotelian Liberalism (4): War, Religion, and Parental Care

My list of 20 natural desires includes parental care, courage in war, and religious understanding. It seems odd to me, therefore, that Rasmussen and Den Uyl can speak about the generic goods of human life while saying almost nothing about war, religion, and the parent-child bond.

Since warfare has been a pervasive feature of human ethical and political history, it is surprising that Rasmussion and Den Uyl are largely silent about war. Occasionally, they mention courage as a virtue and include it as a generic good (LAN, 29; NOL, 130, 249). They also make a passing reference to a military life as one form of life in a pluralistic society (LAN, 215). But when they discuss the need for handling emergencies, they mention "earthquakes, fires, floods, famines, and shipwrecks," but they say nothing about wars (LAN, 144-51). And in their extensive comments on the need for liberal states to protect individual liberty, they never mention the need for military defense. Occasionally, they acknowledge the possibility of moral tragedy, but they never identify war as a prime source of tragic moral conflicts (LAN, 150-51; NOL, 152, 180).

By contrast, a Darwinian view of human nature recognizes that human moral history often coincides with military history. Darwin believed that a major factor in human evolution was group selection through warfare, which shaped the natural moral virtues for military courage and spiritedness. Similarly, Aristotle compared human warfare to animal warfare. Certainly, the natural history of liberty has turned on the natural human disposition to the courageous defense of liberty in war. Locke recognized this when he spoke about the "appeal to Heaven," which is the appeal to war when people think their natural rights to liberty have been violated. Rasmussen and Den Uyl say that their Aristotelian ethics of liberty and virtue is a revival of the principles of the America Declaration of Independence. But they ignore the fact that the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war.

This reluctance to face the moral reality of war is a common problem for libertarians like Rasmussen and Den Uyl.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl note that some people (like John Finnis and the proponents of the "new natural law") believe that religion is one of the generic goods of human life (NOL, 79, 186). Rasmussen and Den Uyl offer no explicit discussion of religion. But their implicitly secular view of ethics apparently denies religious belief. For example, they write: "The only place our telos resides, so to speak, is in ourselves. It does not reside someplace else" (NOL, 212; cf. 344-45).

In my Darwinian ethical naturalism, I agree with Rasmussen and Den Uyl in arguing that our ethics and politics can be grounded on purely natural human experience, without any necessity for invoking the supernatural. But part of that natural human experience is a natural human desire for religious understanding, and therefore we need to recognize religious longings as expressing some of the deepest propensities of our evolved human nature. The irresolvable debate between reason and revelation expresses the natural human condition in facing the fundamental mysteries of our life in the universe.

With their emphasis on human nature, it is surprising that Rasmussen and Den Uyl ignore the primal fact of our natural human condition that we all come into life as children dependent on the care of parents or parental surrogates. They do make some casual references to parents and children (LAN, 107, 240-41, 259; NOL, 124, 138, 141-42, 192, 203, 232, 269, 278, 301-303, 309, 315). But they never identify parental care as a generic good. And they generally speak about human individuals as though they were always adults.

Like all libertarians, Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue that social life should be organized through the voluntary association of consenting adults. Consequently, they are reluctant to admit that we all begin life as children under parental authority to which we could not consent.

From a Darwinian view, we can say that the natural desire for parental care tends to protect the best interests of children by nurturing them until they are mature enough to exercise deliberate choice in their lives. Of course, parental authority is often a source of deep conflicts between parents and children. But the utopian projects for collectivizing the rearing of the young have not proven to provide any better alternatives to private families.

Parental care is especially important for Aristotle's biological explanation of social cooperation, because he believes that all social cooperation ultimately arises as an extension of the natural impulses to sexual coupling and parental care of the young. Some animals provide little care for their offspring. But the more social and more intelligent animals care for the complete development of their young. Human beings and the other political animals are characterized by the great duration and intensity of parental care, which includes not only feeding and protecting the young but also passing on the habits and knowledge required for living in groups with complex social structures (HA, 588b23-89a9; GA, 753a8-14; NE, 1155a1-33, 1159a27-37, 1160b23-62a29).

Aristotelian Liberalism (3): Generic Goods and Natural Desires

In Liberty and Nature and The Norms of Liberty, Rasmussen and Den Uyl look to a list of generic goods for human life that closely resembles my list of 20 natural desires. Following the lead of Ayn Rand, they appeal to "a biocentric basis for values" (LAN, 46), which suggests that they might agree with my grounding of ethics in the natural desires of human biological nature. I can't be sure of this, however, because they are never completely clear about how exactly they understand the generic goods of life.

The first problem is that they are not clear in their listing of these generic goods. In one passage, they list the generic goods as "sociability, knowledge, leisure, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, moral virtue, health, pleasure, self-esteem, and practical wisdom" (NOL, 79). In a footnote, they write: "We do not think this list necessarily exhaustive. Spirituality, for example, may be added by some." What they say elsewhere suggests that they don't think spirituality or religion belongs on their list. Comparing their list to my list of 20 natural desires, one notices that not only do they not include religious understanding, they do not include parental care or courage in war. I will come back to this in another post.

The second problem is that they are not clear as to how exactly they derive their list of generic goods. In Darwinian Natural Right (29-30), I cite various anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies of human universal motivations as supporting my list of 20 natural desires. I also note that when Aristotle reviews the common opinions of human beings about what is desirable in life, in his Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric, he includes the 20 desires on my list. Similarly, when Martha Nussbaum identifies the "basic human functions" or "central human capabilities," she includes the desires on my list.

For Rasmussen and Den Uyl, the primary source for their list of generic goods seems to be Aristotle's Rhetoric. For rhetorical persuasion, the starting point is the common opinions (endoxa) of the audience. Similarly, Rasmussen and Den Uyl explain: "We must start somewhere, and the starting point of an inquiry into the character of human flourishing is with the established opinions, or endoxa, or our society and culture" (NOL, 116). But elsewhere in their writing, they seem to embrace a philosophical rationalism that scorns any rhetorical appeal to common opinions or moral sentiments as the ground for moral experience, particularly in their criticism of Adam Smith's "moral sociology."

And yet, they reject ethical rationalism in recognizing that the human good is inconceivable without reference to human desire. We are not rational beings. We are rational animals. The human function, then, is determined not only by rationality, but also by animality. Human flourishing is not just the flourishing of a mind. "Correctly valuing something is not distinct from desire; rather it is right desire. Thus, only an excessively rationalist conception of human beings would attempt to conceive of flourishing without desire" (NOL,165). They quote Aristotle's remark that "choice is either desiderative reason or ratiocinative desire," and conclude that human flourishing is an object of "both reason and desire" (NOL, 166).

This resembles my argument for an Aristotelian and Darwinian ethics 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.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Markets and World Religions in the Evolution of Cooperation

Explaining the evolution of large-scale human societies is one of the fundamental problems in the social sciences. Looking at the deep history of human social life, two turning points towards bigger societies are evident--the ancient emergence of agrarian states and the modern commercial/industrial revolution.

Until about 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in small foraging groups limited to no more than a few hundred individuals. Then, with the beginning of the Holocene epoch, warmer and more stable climates allowed for the emergence of larger, sedentary societies. The domestication of plants and animals supported the development of agrarian states with hundreds of thousands of members.

Over the past three hundred years, modern commercial and industrial societies have supported huge populations of millions of people, along with global networks of exchange that embrace billions of human beings.

The question is, what makes it possible for such large groups of strangers to cooperate with one another? In foraging societies, individuals cooperate with kin or with known individuals bound together by ties of reciprocity and reputation. Evolutionary theories of cooperation often stress the innate psychology of kinship and reciprocity. But it's not clear whether this can explain the cooperation of large groups of strangers.

One line of research is to explain this as a result of social history in which social norms for acting fairly and punishing unfairness have been favored in cultural group selection. A recent example of such research is an article by Joseph Henrich et al., "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment," in Science, 327 (March 19, 2010): 1480-84.

The full article is available online only to subscribers. But here is the abstract:

"Large-scale societies in which strangers regularly engage in mutually beneficial transactions are puzzling. The evolutionary mechanisms associated with kinship and reciprocity, which underpin much of primate sociality, do not readily extend to large unrelated groups. Theory suggests that the evolution of such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral exchanges. If that is true, then engagement in larger-scale institutions, such as markets and world religions, should be associated with greater fairness, and larger communities should punish unfairness more. Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history."

The three experimental games that they used are the Dictator Game, the Ultimatum Game, and the Third-Party Punishment Game.

What they call "World Religion" is identification with either Islam or Christianity, as opposed to practicing a tribal religion or no religion.

They performed their experiments "with 2148 individuals across populations from Africa, North and South America, Oceania, New Guinea, and Asia that included small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers, marine foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and wage laborers" (1482).

This study raises lots of questions. First, what is the relationship between "market integration" and "world religions"? They might be interdependent. For example, some scholars argue that one reason for the rapid expanse of Islam was that Islamic believers developed extensive trading networks based on the trust they had in one another as fellow believers with shared norms of fairness.

On the other hand, if markets and world religions are separable in their fostering cooperation, then social cooperation in large societies might be based on an ethos of market exchanges without religious belief. When Henrich speaks of markets as fostering cooperative relationships, he cites Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Does this imply that the evolution of natural moral sentiments might sustain cooperation even without religious belief?

This anthropological research seems to confirm what Smith said in his Lectures on Jurisprudence about the influence of commerce on the morals of a people.  "Whenever commerce is introduced into any country," Smith observes, "probity and punctuality always accompany it.  These virtues in a rude and barbarous country are almost unknown."  That explains why the Dutch, as the most commercial people, have the best reputation for honesty.  It's a matter of self-interest in maintaining a good reputation.  "A dealer is afraid of losing his character, and is scrupulous in observing every engagement.  When a person makes perhaps 20 contracts in a day, he cannot gain so much by endeavoring to impose on his neighbors, as the very appearance of a cheat would make him lose.  Where people seldom deal with one another, we find that they are somewhat disposed to cheat, because they can gain more by a smart trick than they can lose by the injury which it does to their character."  Smith concludes: "When the greater part of people are merchants, they always bring probity and punctuality into fashion, and these therefore are the principal virtues of a commercial nation" (LJ, 538-39). 

The value of having a good reputation for being trustworthy in voluntary exchanges enforces customary norms of good conduct.  There are many examples in economic history of how important such reputational effects can be in fostering voluntary cooperation (see Daniel B. Klein, ed., Reputation: Studies in the Voluntary Elicitation of Good Conduct [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997]).

Henrich is suggesting that markets fostered cooperation based on norms of fairness from the beginning of agrarian societies 10,000 years ago. But one wonders whether the modern commercial society defended by Smith introduced a new kind of market moral psychology that made possible the commercial/industrial revolution of the last few centuries. Karia Hoff wrote a commentary on Heinrich's article for the same issue of Science, and she cites Joel Mokyr's new book on the British industrial revolution--The Enlightened Economy--as showing how businessmen developed informal norms of trust and fairness that fostered commercial and technical cooperation. Does this suggest that the "spirit of capitalism" can sustain moral norms of cooperation even without religious belief?

And what exactly is it about religious belief that supports norms of fairness? Henrich implies that the Abrahamic religions--such as Christianity and Islam--secure cooperation among strangers better than tribal religions. But he doesn't explain why. In some other writings, Heinrich and others have referred to the "moralizing gods" of the Abrahamic religions as important--the idea that God is a moral lawgiver who monitors human behavior and punishes bad behavior. Is that all that's required? In other writings, Heinrich has argued that the more strict religions that require costly sacrifices from their believers are more effective in enforcing good behavior, because such "costly signaling" separates the committed believers from the freeloaders. So, for example, Mormons are more "prosocial" than Methodists, because Mormonism is a stricter religion that demands more "costly signalling" than Methodism.

Much of this research shows that religious believers--at least those who worship "moralizing gods"--are more cooperative with those in their group. But it's not clear that this extends to those outside their group. After all, the very idea of evolutionary group selection, which underlies Heinrich's study, is that individuals cooperate with members of their group to compete with those outside their group. And, of course, the history of religion is to a large extent a history of religious warfare. It is true that "world religions" like Christianity and Islam can extend their group membership around the world. But still the history of conflict between Christians and Muslims is a reminder of the limits of religious norms of fairness. Or should it be possible for at least the Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism--to find shared norms of cooperation based on their shared belief in a moralizing God?

More questions are raised by Henrich's assumption that both market integration and world religions are products of cultural evolution rather than genetic evolution. He stresses this when he says that when researchers employ behavioral game-theory experiments with people in industrialized societies, the behavior they see is not providing direct access to human nature. Rather, it is showing the consequences of socially learned norms that have evolved culturally, although this cultural evolution must somehow tap into human genetically evolved psychology.

It is often assumed that evolutionary studies of human society look to genetic rather than cultural explanations. But this work by Henrich illustrates the current trend among evolutionary theorists towards coevolutionary explanations of the interaction between genetic evolution and cultural evolution.