Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smash the State! Anarchism in Medieval Iceland

"Smash the State!" is the slogan for the anarchists.

Here the "State" is defined as the institutionalized government that claims a monopoly on the legitimized use of force over a certain territory (to use Max Weber's famous definition). As this definition suggests, the authority of the State ultimately rests on violence, because the State originates typically through military conquest, with the conquerors becoming the rulers.

The State also depends on agriculture. The first states arose during that crucial point in human social evolution when human beings moved from nomadic foraging (or hunting-gathering) societies to settled agricultural societies. Farming allowed for increasing and concentrated populations with a greater division of labor than had been possible in foraging societies. For the first time in human history--in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica--a class of farmers provided a surplus of food that supported a ruling elite--priests, bureaucrats, soldiers, and kings--who extracted resources through taxation, coercive labor, and military conscription.

These agrarian states provided the conditions for high civilization--economic wealth, technological innovation, cultural progress (particularly, through the invention of writing), bureaucratic administration, and military power. But that high civilization came with a big price--the loss of the freedom from domination that human beings enjoyed in foraging societies. Among foragers, the inequality of power, wealth, and status is minimal. Foraging societies don't allow some to tyrannize over others. But agrarian states allow ruling elites to live by exploiting those they rule.

Consequently, the history of politics over the past 8,000 years has been a conflict between freedom and domination--with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There often seems to be no good resolution to the conflict because human beings seem to be caught in a dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.

Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal democratic capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a democratic polity, and a capitalist economy is thought by the classical liberals to promote both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. But such a regime allows for great inequality in social status, political power, and economic wealth, and so those who hold the higher ranks will be inclined to exploit those at the lower ranks.

To me, this shows the tragic conflicts in human social life that arise from natural desires that cannot be changed. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But while we cannot totally eliminate such tragic conflicts, we can mitigate them through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become concentrated or unchecked. Such a system is imperfect. But it's the best we can do.

Or is it? The anarchists argue that the only real solution to our problem is to abolish the state. As long as the state exists--with its territorial monopoly on legitimized coercive force--those in the ruling classes will use the power of the state for their selfish benefit.

There's an amazing variety in the schools of anarchist thought. But one main division is between the communal anarchists and the capitalist anarchists. The communal anarchists believe that to abolish the state we must abolish private property, because inequality in private property will always bring about statism as the rich seek state power for their benefit. The capitalist anarchists believe that anarchy can be best achieved in a system of private property and capitalism where power would be dispersed through free competition.

Despite their disagreements, both the communal anarchists and the capitalist anarchists would agree in their denying my claim that political power is a natural human desire that cannot be abolished. On the contrary, they would say, the history of social evolution shows that human beings have lived in anarchic societies without government. Through most of human evolution, human beings lived in foraging societies without government, although this required a primitive way of life without the advantages of the high civilization made possible by farming. Furthermore, there seem to be a few cases of anarchy in highly civilized societies with farming.

One of the most widely discussed examples of civilized anarchy is medieval Iceland during the period of the "Free Commonwealth" (930-1262). In the second half of the ninth century, King Harald Fairhair unified Norway under his rule. Some of his people fled his rule and found their way to Iceland, where they established a social system based on Norwegian traditions, but without a king or any centralized executive authority. The only centralized authority in Iceland was an assembly of local chieftains who represented their assemblymen. Every assemblyman was attached to a chieftain to whom he paid a fee. The chieftaincy was private property that could be bought and sold. The assemblymen could change their allegiance without changing their residence, so the chieftaincies were not based on territory. This freedom of assemblymen to move from one chieftaincy to another (along with their fees) created a free competition between chieftains so that chieftains had an incentive to serve their assemblymen. The legal system worked largely through private enforcement based on arbitration. Victims initiated prosecution of offenders.

This system worked well for almost 300 years until 1230. By then, six large families had gained control of most of the original chieftaincies, and the competition between these led to civil wars. Once the rich farmers grew frustrated with the disorder of the civil wars, they accepted the invitation of the King of Norway to become part of his kingdom in 1262.

This example of the Icelandic Commonwealth has been used by capitalist anarchists--particularly, David Friedman and Roderick Long--to show how a stateless society could work through capitalist free markets and private arbitration, without any need for a centralized bureaucratic state.

Communal anarchists have responded by arguing that medieval Iceland was not a capitalist industrialized society, but was, rather, a society based on communal self-management, which was more like guild socialism than capitalism. Furthermore, they argue that what brought about the collapse of this communal anarchy was the growth in economic inequality from the accumulation of private property, which shows that anarchy requires the abolition of private property in favor of communal property. This has provoked a debate between Friedman and his critics as to whether the example of Iceland supports Friedman's anarcho-capitalism.

But for the sake of my argument, the key point here is that while Iceland was "stateless"--in the sense that it did not have a centralized bureaucratic state apparatus--it still had political rule. It was a chiefdom, but with multiple competing chieftains. So what we see here is not the absence of government, but rather the freedom from tyranny that can come from a system of decentralised, limited government. The natural desire for political rule was not eliminated. But it was channeled through a system of competing elites and countervailing power that secured freedom and minimized exploitative domination.

Some anthropologists have spoken about social and political evolution as if it were a progressive movement through stages--band, tribe, chiefdom, state--so that the state is somehow the predetermined end. But what is significant about the Viking settlers of Iceland is that they apparently chose to escape from the tyranny of King Harald's feudal state to establish a system of chieftaincies without centralized state authority. If this is so, this suggests that the evolution towards the state can be reversed.

Some other posts on anarchism can be found here, here. and here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Darwinian Libertarianism?

In his review of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1860, Thomas Huxley began by declaring: "every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism." A Whitworth gun was an advanced breech-loading cannon. So Huxley saw Darwin's evolutionary biology as a powerful weapon for liberalism against its opponents.

In 1860, "liberalism" was what we today would call "classical liberalism"--the social and political tradition that argued for the primacy of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to live as they please so long as this was consistent with the equal liberty of others. Such liberty included moral liberty, economic liberty, political liberty, and religious liberty. According to the liberals, the only proper aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud and to enforce laws of contract and private property.

Although Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as Herbert Spencer in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw his science as supporting liberalism. Darwin was a fervent supporter of the Liberal Party in Great Britain and its liberal policies. He was honored when William Gladstone (the "Grand Old Man" of the Liberal Party) visited him at his home in Down in 1877.

Like other liberals, Darwin believed in distinguishing state and society, and limiting the power of the state, while leaving matters of moral and religious virtue to be enforced through the family and the voluntary associations of social life. He believed in the virtues of "self-help," as promoted in Samuel Smiles' famous book Self-Help, with its stories of self-made men. Darwin was active in the charitable activities of his parish. He was the treasurer of the local Friendly Society. In Great Britain, friendly societies were self-governing associations of manual laborers who shared their resources and pledged to help one another in time of hardship. In this way, individuals could secure their social welfare through mutual aid without the need for governmental intervention.

Darwin was also active in the international campaign against slavery, one of the great liberal causes of his day. In their recent book--Darwin's Sacred Cause--Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown that Darwin's life-long hatred of slavery as a violation of human liberty was one prime motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the proslavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a distinct species of natural slaves.

Also in The Descent of Man, Darwin showed that the moral order of human life arose through a natural moral sense as shaped by organic and cultural evolution. In doing that, he provided a scientific basis for the moral liberalism of David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other Scottish philosophers, who argued that morality could arise through the spontaneous orders of human nature and human culture.

One might expect, therefore, that today's libertarians--who see themselves as continuing the tradition of classical liberalism--would want to embrace Darwin and evolutionary science as sustaining their position.

And yet libertarians are ambivalent about Darwin and Darwinism. That ambivalence is evident, for example, in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, edited by Ronald Hamowy, under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute, and published in 2008 by SAGE Publications. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Charles Darwin. But there are entries for Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism, and Evolutionary Psychology. In these and other entries, one can see intimations that libertarianism could be rooted in a Darwinian science of human nature. But one can also see arguments that Darwin's science has little or no application to libertarian thought.

The entry on Evolutionary Psychology is written by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the husband-wife team at the University of California-Santa Barbara who are generally regarded as the founders of the research tradition that goes by the name of "evolutionary psychology."

They indicate that evolutionary psychology was begun by Darwin. They say that its aim is to map human nature as rooted in the evolved architecture of the human mind. They summarize some of this evolved human nature, including reasoning about social exchange and cheater detection that provides the cognitive foundations of trade and the moral sentiments that make moral order possible. They contrast this idea of a universal human nature with the idea of the human mind as a blank slate that is infinitely malleable by social learning. They say that this false idea of the blank slate explains the failure of those experiments in social engineering that denied human nature, and they mention the the communist regimes as a prime example of this. All of this suggests ways that a Darwinian evolutionary psychology could support a libertarian view of human nature.

But then, in their last paragraph, they cast doubt on this conclusion. Although the implementation of public policy proposals needs to take human nature into account, they say, "the position most central to libertarianism--that human relationships should be based on the voluntary consent of the individuals involved--makes few if any assumptions about human nature." They don't explain what they mean by this. But one possible interpretation is that they are making a fact-value distinction, and suggesting that while the calculation of means to ends is a factual judgment that might be open to scientific research, the moral assessment of ends--such as the value of individual liberty--is a normative judgment that is beyond scientific research.

What Cosmides and Tooby are suggesting here is perhaps more clearly stated by Will Wilkinson in his essay on "Capitalism and Human Nature":

"We cannot expect to draw any straightforward positive political lessons from evolutionary psychology. It can tell us something about the kind of society that will tend not to work, and why. But it cannot tell us which of the feasible forms of society we ought to aspire to. We cannot, it turns out, infer the naturalness of capitalism from the manifest failure of communism to accommodate human nature. Nor should we be tempted to infer that natural is better. Foraging half-naked for nuts and berries is natural, while the New York Stock Exchange and open-heart surgery would boggle our ancestors' minds."

Wilkinson goes on to argue that while our evolved human nature constrains the possibilities of social order, the historical move to liberal capitalism--the transition from personal to impersonal exchange--was a "great cultural leap," as Friedrich Hayek emphasized. Within the limits set by evolved human nature, the emergence of liberal capitalism depends on cultural evolution. "We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom. We can, of course, do better."

This dependence of classical liberalism on cultural evolution is also stressed by George Smith in his encyclopedia entries on Social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer. Smith argues that Spencer's view of evolution was Lamarckian and therefore quite different from Darwin's view of evolution. And while the Spencer's Lamarckian conception of evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been discredited as biological theory, Smith observes, this is actually a better approach for understanding social history than is Darwin's biological approach. After all, social evolution--including the evolution of liberal capitalism--really is Lamarckian in that the social practices successful for one generation can be passed on to the next generation through social learning as a system of cultural inheritance.

Most importantly for Spencer, the move from regimes of status based on coercive exploitation to regimes of contract based on voluntary cooperation was a process of cultural rather than biological evolution. And, thus, Smith suggests, the liberal principle of equal freedom--that people should be free to live as they please so long as they respect the equal rights of others--arose not from biological nature but from cultural history.

Furthermore, Smith argues, Spencer and other classical liberals understood that market competition was radically different from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from their voluntary exchanges with one another. (Other libertarians--like George Gilder--have made this same distinction between zero-sum biological competition and positive-sum market competition to argue against the application of Darwinian evolution to human morality and social order.) Smith explains: "To associate market competition with the biological competition of Darwinian evolution is to misunderstand how classical liberals viewed the free market." In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. So, Smith concludes: "It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply."

There is, however, a big problem with Smith's analysis. If Social Darwinism means explaining all social order through biological evolution based on zero-sum competition, as Smith suggests, then Darwin was not a Social Darwinist.

Darwin is clear in recognizing that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship and reciprocal exchange. Modern Darwinian research--both empirical and theoretical--on the evolution of cooperation clearly shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game. This research tradition is well surveyed in Robert Wright's book Nonzero.

Moreover, it is not true that Darwin totally rejected Lamarckian evolution. In fact, he accepted Lamarckian thinking in speaking of "the inherited effects of the long-continued use or disuse of parts." And he saw that the moral and social progress of human beings came much more through cultural evolution by social learning than biological evolution by natural selection. With civilized nations, Darwin said in The Descent of Man (Penguin ed., 163), moral progress comes mostly through cultural factors: "the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings."

Darwin's reasoning here has been confirmed by recent research on gene-culture coevolution, which supports a broad understanding of evolution as encompassing at least four systems of inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, cultural, and symbolic.

To see how Darwinian science supports classical liberal or libertarian thinking, we must see how the liberal principles of equal liberty have arisen from the complex interaction of natural history, cultural history, and prudential judgment.

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

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War

How do we explain human heroism in war? Why are we willing to sacrifice our lives in war to advance our group against our enemies? And why do we honor those who die fighting in war as displaying the virtues of courage and patriotism? We can't presume to understand human beings if we can't explain this universal human propensity to warrior virtues.

Many people who agree with much of what I have to say about "Darwinian natural right" object to my including the desire for war as one of the 20 natural desires. These folks like the idea of their being a natural biological basis for love, morality, and cooperation. But they don't like the idea that such moral concern might be inseparable from the human disposition to war, because we have evolved to cooperate with members of our group in order to compete with those outside our group.

For many of my critics, this shows that my Darwinian view of morality cannot recognize the perfection of morality in universal love, which requires a religious belief in the equal dignity of all human beings as created in the image of God. These critics assume a religious pacifism that I reject as utopian in its denial of human nature and the tragic conflicts of interest that are always part of the human condition.

Another set of critics would be the libertarian anarchists who follow in the tradition of Herbert Spencer and Murray Rothbard, who foresee that human beings could live without government in perpetual peace by organizing social order through mutual aid and free trade, so that there would be no need for violent conflict. I see some suggestion of this libertarian pacifism in the work of Rasmussen and Den Uyl who sketch their conception of Aristotelian liberalism while saying nothing about war.

But I reject the pacifist view of morality, because it fails in two ways. First, it fails to recognize the history of morality as arising through war and violence. Second, it fails to recognize the partiality of morality as based on a love of one's own over strangers.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin offered a more plausible and realistic view of morality as arising from group selection in war. 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" (Penguin ed., pp. 157-58).

Some anthropologists have rejected Darwin's scenario of morality evolving through warfare, because they have assumed that the earliest human ancestors who lived in small foraging groups were largely peaceful, and therefore warfare is mostly a product of the cultural history of the agrarian states that arose first about 5,000 years ago in large agricultural societies. But now, the anthropological and archaeological evidence surveyed by Lawrence Keeley, Samuel Bowles, and others suggests that warfare was common enough among foraging human ancestors to be a factor in human evolution. In fact, some estimates indicate that the rate of mortality in war among primitive human ancestors might have been higher than it was for the human community in the twentieth century, which we recognize as one of the bloodiest centuries in human history.

A few years ago, Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles used a computer simulation to work out the theoretical logic of how the evolution of war could have shaped the evolution of morality and cooperation. Here's the abstract for their article in Science:

"Altruism--benefiting fellow group members at a cost to oneself--and parochialism--hostility toward individuals not of one's own ethnic, racial, or other group--are common human behaviors. The intersection of the two--which we term 'parochial altruism'--is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective because altruistic or parochial behavior reduces one's payoffs by comparison to what one would gain by eschewing these behaviors. But parochial altruism could have evolved if parochialism promoted intergroup hostilities and the combination of altruism and parochialism contributed to success in these conflicts. Our game-theoretic analysis and agent-based simulations show that under conditions likely to have been experienced by late Pleistocene and early Holocene humans, neither parochialism nor altruism would have been viable singly, but by promoting group conflict, they could have evolved jointly."

In Choi and Bowles' simulation, agents have two genes, each with two alleles. They are either tolerant (T) or parochial (P) and either altruistic (A) or not (N). So there are four possible combinations of traits. The selfish freetraders (TN) are not altruistic, but they are tolerant in trading with anyone inside or outside their group. The generous warriors (PA) are altruistic towards those in their group but violent towards those outside their group. The hostile bullies (PN) are selfish in refusing to be altruistic towards those in their group but also intolerant of those outside their group. The humanitarian philanthropists (TA) are altruistic towards everyone--those outside as well as those inside their group.

Under some plausible conditions as specified in their model, Choi and Bowles show that societies of selfish freetraders can evolve if there is a high proportion of tolerant agents in the groups. But even a low level of intergroup warfare--10 to 20% of encounters--favors parochial altruism, because the groups with greater numbers of generous warriors will win the spoils of war while the losing groups risk extinction.

A few humanitarian philanthropists can exist in trading regimes or warrior regimes, but their number can never be very great. The record of history bears this out. Traditions of pacifist thought persist, but the number of true pacifists is always small. Even most Christians have failed to live by the pacifist teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, because they recognize the practical necessity of war in defending one's group against attack from other groups, and so most Christians have adopted the tradition of "just war." Even Jesus departed from his teaching of universal love in teaching eternal damnation for those who rejected his message.

A recent article in Science (De Dreu et al. 2010; Miller 2010) suggests that the human brain is designed to promote the parochial altruism that has arisen from the evolutionary history of war. Here's the abstract for the article:

"Humans regulate intergroup conflict through parochial altruism; they self-sacrifice to contribute to in-group welfare and to ogress against competing out-groups. Parochial altruism has distinct survival functions, and the brain may have evolved to sustain and promote in-group cohesion and effectiveness and to ward off threatening out-groups. Here, we have linked oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus, to the regulation of intergroup conflict. In three experiments using double-blind placebo-controlled designs, male participants self-administered oxytocin or placebo and made decisions with financial consequences to themselves, their in-group, and competing out-group. Results showed that oxytocin drives a 'tend and defend' response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups."

In Darwinian Natural Right, I surveyed the research on the importance of oxytocin for promoting the social bonding between sexual mates and between parents and children. A few years ago, Paul Zak and others won a lot of attention showing how inhaling a spray of oxytocin fostered trust that facilitated economic exchanges, which has become part of a whole field of research called "neuroeconomics," on the the neuroendocrinological basis of economic behavior.

This is the lovey dovey side of oxytocin. But we should expect that love of one's own--one's own mate, one's own children, one's own group, one's own trading partners--will be bound up with hostility towards those outside one's circle of loved and trusted associates.


Arrow, Holly. 2007. "The Sharp End of Altruism." Science 318 (October 26): 581-82.

Bowles, Samuel. 2009. "Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherers Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behavior?" Science 324 (June 5): 1293-1298.

Choi, Jung-Kyoo, and Samuel Bowles. 2007. "The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War." Science 318 (October 26): 636-40.

De Dreu, Carsten K. W., et al. 2010. "The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans." Science 328 (June 11): 1408-11.

Gat, Azar. 2006. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keeley, Lawrence. 1996. War Before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Greg. 2010. "The Prickly Side of Oxytocin." Science 328 (June 11): 1343.

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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Understanding Psychopaths and the Problem of Moral Strangers

Mencius' famous teaching that "human nature is good" can be easily dismissed as naive in ignoring the reality of human depravity. In defense of Mencius, we might say that, of course, Mencius knows that many human beings are bad, because his point is only that all human beings are born with the propensities and capacities that can be cultivated into goodness, even though many people fail at this because of their bad circumstances or their bad choices. But even this modest claim that human beings are born with the natural potential for goodness seems to fail to account for those we identify as psychopaths, who from birth seem to lack the full potential for goodness that we take as normal for most human beings.

Similarly, some of my critics have argued that psychopaths contradict my claim that there is a natural moral sense rooted in human biology. To answer that objection, I wrote Chapter 8 of Darwinian Natural Right on "The Poverty of Psychopathic Desire." I survey the modern research on psychopathy and conclude that psychopaths suffer from an abnormal poverty of desire: they lack the social desires and moral emotions that support the moral sense in normal people. If morality depends upon a moral sense, and if the moral sense depends on moral emotions that typically arise in most human beings, then it would seem that those few people who happen not to share those moral emotions are not bound to obey that moral sense. Yet, although it is true that psychopaths are under no moral obligation to conform to the moral sense, because they lack the moral emotions that provide the only basis for moral obligation, it does not follow that we cannot protect our moral community against their attack. Since they lack the moral sentiments that make moral persuasion possible, our only appeal with such people is force and fear.

Some of my critics--for example, John Hare and Carson Holloway--insist that this shows the fundamental weakness in my argument--that my appeal to moral sentiments cannot work with those psychopaths who lack such sentiments, and so the only way we can constrain their behavior is through force or fear. But these critics haven't provided any good alternative. To me, our experience with psychopaths shows the tragic limits to moral persuasion. With those who lack the social emotions necessary for developing a conscience, we have no grounds for persuasion.

In my chapter on psychopathy, I rely heavily on Robert Hare, one of the leading psychologists in this area. So I have been interested to see the recent media coverage of a controversy involving Hare. In 2007, Jennifer Skeem and David Cooke wrote an article criticizing Hare's work on psychopathy. Their article was accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Assessment. When Hare saw a copy of their manuscript, he threatened to file a lawsuit for libel if the article were published. This brought a delay in publication. Eventually, Skeem and Cooke revised their article, and Hare was invited to write a reply to be published along with the article. Finally, three years later, this has all been published in the latest issue of the journal. The intensity of the controversy is suggested in a recent article in the New York Times. The latest issue of Science also has an article on this.

I have not been able to secure copies of these journal articles. But from my reading of the abstracts, it seems that this continues a controversy that has surfaced in some previous articles. In 2007, Cooke and Skeem published an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry that seems to state the same criticisms of Hare that are set forth in their latest article. Also, Hare has posted a statement on his website giving his side of this controversy.

Hare's great influence comes from his being the creator of the "Psychopathy Checklist," which is used by forensic psychologists to identify people with psychopathic personalities. The checklist consists of 20 traits and behaviors, with definitions for each. Using interviews and case-history information, evaluators rate subjects on a 3-point scale for each item. This is commonly used in legal systems to decide whether an offender is psychopathic and thus likely to be dangerous in the future.

Much of the controversy over Hare's checklist turns on arcane technical details. And if you're going to try to read the article by Cooke and Skeem, I warn you that they write in the turgid style favored by academic psychologists. For example, they use words like "parameterise."

But there is an important substantive point here beyond the technical issues of methodology. Cooke and Skeem argue that psychopathic personality should be distinguished from criminal behavior, and therefore criminal behavior should not be part of the "Psychopathy Checklist." They agree that psychopaths might be often inclined to criminal behavior. But this behavior is separate from the "construct" of psychopathy. Oddly enough, Hare seems to agree with this, because he claims that Cooke and Skeem distort his work to make it appear that he treats criminal behavior as essential to psychopathy, whereas in fact he does not.

In my chapter on psychopathy, I agree with this point, because although psychopaths are often inclined to criminal violence, and indeed to the worst kind of violence, as in the careers of serial killers, many psychopaths never commit such crimes, but pursue lives of deceitful and manipulative behavior that are harmful even if they are not guilty of criminal violence.

Although few of us will have any contact with serial killers (we hope!), many of us almost everyday deal with people who show a psychopathic lack of conscience. Consider the following character sketch from Cooke and Skeem. They identify "three highly correlated symptom factors: arrogant and deceitful interpersonal style, deficient affective experience, and impulsive and irresponsible behavioral style." They then correlate various traits to each of these three factors. Corresponding to the first factor are "glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, and conning/manipulative." Corresponding to the second factor are "lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy and failure to accept responsibility for own actions." Corresponding to the third factor are "need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, irresponsibility, impulsivity, parasitic life-style, and lack of realistic, long-term goals."

As I indicate in my chapter, many of the traits of psychopathy correlate closely with the "Machiavellian personality," a psychological construction derived from Machiavelli's writings. Success in politics might require a callous, manipulative temperament, which raises questions about the uneasy relationship between politics and morality.

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Confucian Way (6): Mao, Mencius, and Human Malleability

When I was a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s, one of my friends was a fellow graduate student in political science who was writing a dissertation on the political thought of Mao Zedong. He became one of the leading scholars in the study of Chinese politics and Chinese Marxism. Some years later, we were colleagues in the political science department at Northern Illinois University. Through all those years, our conversations about Mao were tense, because my friend thought Mao was a great political philosopher, while I thought he was the worst tyrant in human history. He was exhilarated by the thought of Mao as a philosopher-king with absolute power over 600 million human beings whom he could shape according to his vision of a communist utopia. Many Western intellectuals felt the same excitement. But to me this denied the reality of human nature--including the natural tendency of rulers to be corrupted by absolute power.

We can't know exactly how many innocent people were killed as a result of Mao's utopian experiments--particularly, the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution." But estimates range from 20 million to 40 million. In a century of bloody tyrants, Mao stood out as the bloodiest of them all. So we have to wonder what it was about Chinese history that allowed this to happen.

Many Westerners are inclined to talk about "Oriental Despotism" as a deeply rooted historical tradition of popular submissiveness to centralized imperial power. Confucianism seems to be part of that tradition, because it seems to teach unquestioning respect for hierarchical authority reaching up to the Emperor as the "Son of Heaven." Even now that the Chinese government has turned away from Maoist communism towards economic development through competitive markets, the central power of the Communist Party as the ultimate authority over China still remains unchallenged.

As I have indicated in previous posts, I think Confucianism does offer some intellectual resources that would support a liberal or libertarian alternative to the sort of Chinese authoritarianism represented by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.

The crucial challenge to Maoism and communism comes from the Confucian belief in human nature. The sinologist Donald Munro has written a series of three books on Chinese conceptions of human nature--The Concept of Man in Early China (1969), The Concept of Man in Contemporary China (1977), and Images of Human Nature: A Sung Portrait (1988). His most recent book--A Chinese Ethics for the New Century (2005)--summarizes the conclusions from his earlier books and argues that a sociobiological science of human nature largely supports the Confucian conception of human nature, while denying the Maoist conception of human malleability.

Mao promoted a campaign of attacking Confucianism, and one of his reasons was that Confucianism suggested that human nature would limit the possibility for the sort of radical social experimentation that Mao desired. Mao saw the Chinese people as a blank slate. He once declared: "A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it." As Jonathan Glover has argued in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999), it was this assumption of the utter malleability of humanity that sustained Mao's tyrannical utopianism, because it assumed that human beings were formless material that could be formed by the Maoist ruler in any way he wished.

Munro rightly shows how the Mencian conception of human nature--the idea that at birth human beings have natural emotional dispositions to moral order--opposes the Maoist idea of complete human malleability. But Munro also rightly shows how Mencius--and the Confucians generally--do recognize that human nature has to be nurtured through social learning and individual judgments over the human life span. So there is some degree of malleability, because human nature is not simply fixed and fully formed at birth. But the course in which a human life develops is constrained by the natural potentials. Human beings naturally learn some things more easily than others. So, for example, when Mao sought to abolish private families and private property in developing a totally collectivized life, the disastrous consequences of this showed that this was going against the grain of human nature. Sociobiology explains this as showing the complex interaction of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and individual judgment.

And yet Munro hardly notices what I see as the weakness in the Confucian understanding of human nature, which indirectly prepared the way for Maoist tyranny. The writing of Mencius suffers from a fundamental contradiction that arises from the failure of Mencius to recognize how the ambivalence in human nature creates the need for limited government under the rule of law.

From the beginning of his text, we see Mencius trying to persuade King Hui of Liang to rule benevolently. Those who do not rule benevolently, Mencius warns, can be assassinated. But those who do rule benevolently can expect to win the support of the people, which will secure their rule (1A1). Later, he summarizes what a benevolent ruler must do:

"When a ruler honors those who are exemplary and employs those who are capable, so that outstanding persons hold positions of authority, all the world's scholars will be pleased and will want to stand in his court. When in his marketplace he levies a ground rent, but without levying a tax on goods, or else enforces the regulations but without levying any ground rent, all the world's merchants will be pleased and will want to store their goods in his marketplace. When at his frontier passes there is an inspection but no tax is levied, all the world's travelers will be pleased and will want to travel on his roads. When tillers are required to render their assistance but are not taxed, then all the world's farmers will be pleased and will want to till his fields. When individuals are not fined and no levy of cloth is exacted, all the world's people will be pleased and will want to reside within his state. If one is truly able to do these five things, the people of neighboring states will look to him as a father and mother and follow him like his children. Never, since the birth of humankind, has anyone ever succeeded in causing people to attack their parents. So the ruler will have no enemies in the world, and one who has no enemies in the world is the agent of Heaven. Could he then fail to become a true King?" (2A5).

The reference here to farmers "rendering assistance" but without being taxed is apparently a reference to Mencius' famous proposal for a "well-field" system of farming. In the capital city, the people might be taxed at a rate of 10%. But in the countryside, the public contribution to government would come through the farmers laboring on a public field. In each village, the land would be divided into nine equal plots. The central plot would be the public field, and the production from that field would go to the government. The other eight plots would belong individually to eight families working each plot for their private benefit. So, in effect, the government would extract only one-ninth of the agricultural production of each village. "The fields of the village share the same well. They go out and return from the fields together. They keep watch against thieves and assist each other. When ill, they support each other. In this way, commoners are affectionate toward one another" (3A3).

As Roderick Long has suggested, this looks like a system of voluntary taxation in which the farmers would make public-spirited contributions to the working of the public plot in response to good rule, while apparently they could reduce their contributions during bad rule. The good order of the village depends on the mutual aid and mutual enforcement of social norms that arise in small communities with most of the property privately owned.

For Mencius, benevolent government is based on low taxes, private property, and free trade, where the freedom and prosperity of the people produces power and wealth for their benevolent rulers. But Mencius doesn't expect his policy advice to be taken seriously by rulers. Most rulers prefer to extract exorbitant taxes, to force farmers to work on public projects, and to draft men into military service, which interferes with farming and economic trade to the point of creating mass famine.

Mencius laments: "Nowadays, there are none, among those who shepherd the people, who do not have a taste for killing people. If there were one who did not have a taste for killing people, the people of the world would crane their necks to look for him. If it were genuinely like this, the people would turn to him like water flowing down, copiously" (1A6).

So here's the fundamental contradiction in Mencius's teaching. One the one hand, he teaches that good government requires the paternalistic authority of a benevolent ruler who recognizes that his power is enhanced by the freedom and prosperity of his people. On the other hand, he teaches that most rulers are incapable of such benevolent rule because they have "a taste for killing people." The same contradiction appears in the Analects of Confucius.

In some of his writing, Mencius suggests that this contradiction arises from the dilemma inherent in the move from a foraging way of life to an agrarian way of life. As foragers, human beings had no need for systems of social ranking with sharp distinctions between rulers and ruled. But the foraging way of life was uncivilized. Human civilization came with agriculture. But an agricultural way of life required a clear division of labor between those who did the farming and those who did the ruling, because ruling became a specialized activity devoted to tasks such as flood-control, irrigation, taxation, dispute-resolution, and military defense. Good rulers were followed by bad rulers who used the power of their centralized state bureaucracy for tyrannical oppression of the people. So while the agrarian state made possible a civilized life, it also made possible tyrannical rule (3A4, 3B9, 5B2).

One consequence of agrarian civilization was that people like Confucius and Mencius could pursue a leisured life of philosophic study, and a big part of that philosophic life would be trying to figure out how to secure the civilizing benefits of agrarian state rule while avoiding its propensity to tyranny. The history of political philosophy is largely a continuing intellectual struggle to resolve this dilemma of the agrarian state.

Those in the Legalist tradition of ancient Chinese political thought--like Han Feizi--saw that the Confucians were mistaken in relying on the benevolence and wisdom of rulers for good government. "People naturally submit to the power of position"(shi), Han Fei observed, "but few are able to yield to righteousness" (chap. 49). Those like Confucius and his followers who value virtue are too few to be reliable. People are naturally inclined to obey whoever fills a powerful position in government. The benevolent rulers will use their position for good, while those without benevolence will use their position for evil. To secure good government over time, we can't rely on good rulers. Rather, we must rely on having legal institutions that structure power so that the harm from bad rulers is minimized. One can see here an anticipation of the modern liberal constitutionalist idea that limited government under the rule of law must work without assuming virtuous or wise rulers.

One can also see in the Confucian dilemma the need for separating state and society. Consider the following exchange in the Analects:

"Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governing.
"Confucius responded, 'To govern (zheng) means to be correct (zheng). If you set an example by being correct yourself, who will dare to be incorrect?'"

"Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governing, saying, 'If I were to execute those who lacked the Way in order to advance those who possessed the Way, how could that be?'

"Confucius responded, 'In your governing, Sir, what need is there for executions? If you desire goodness, then the common people will be good. The virtue of a gentleman is like the wind, and the virtue of a petty person is like the grass--when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend.'" (12.17, 12.19)

Here one sees the Confucian version of the political paternalism that modern conservatives sometimes manifest when they teach that "statecraft is soulcraft"--that the purpose of government is to form the souls of its subjects to be virtuous. But this assumes that those who fill the offices of government will themselves be supremely virtuous, an assumption that Confucians and modern conservatives deny when they lament the lack of virtue in government.

When Confucius is asked why he is not participating in government, he answers by suggesting that anyone who is a filial son and good brother is already participating in government by setting an example of virtuous behavior that can influence others (2.21). If Confucians were to think through the implications of this idea, they might see that moral order can arise through the spontaneous order of social life--in families, in social groups, and in other voluntary associations--independently of the formal offices and bureaucracy of government. The "statecraft" of formal government could then be limited to enforcing the conditions necessary for the "soulcraft" of a free society.

This separation of state and society is the means by which a modern liberal order combines freedom and virtue in a civilized way of life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Confucian Way (5): Did Mencius Have a Sociobiological Concept of Human Nature?

Did Mencius have a concept of human nature?

That's an important question for the scholarly interpreters of Mencius and his contribution to the Confucian tradition. But more than that, it's a question with broad theoretical and practical implications for our moral and political understanding of ourselves in the modern world.

Some people would say that the Western philosophical tradition began with the discovery of the idea of nature--including human nature--by the ancient Greek philosophers. That discovery of nature as distinguished from convention allowed the development of the idea of natural right as an enduring, universal standard of judgment beyond the variability of cultural traditions. Some scholars--for example, Leo Strauss and many of this students (like George Anastaplo)--have expressed doubts as to whether there is any comparable concept of nature (or human nature) in Asian thought, and therefore whether there is anything like Greek philosophical inquiry into nature in Asian traditions.

But if there were no Asian conception of nature independent of Western influence, then one might wonder whether nature is not so much a "discovery" of the Greeks as an "invention." If there is no understanding of nature in the East, does that suggest that what we in the West call nature is only an artifact of Western culture that has no application beyond the West? If we are to avoid a radical cultural relativism, don't we need to see at least some implicit recognition of nature and human nature in the tradition of Asian thought?

This issue has practical, political consequences. If the ideas of nature, human nature, and natural right are cultural inventions of Western tradition, does that mean that we cannot rightly judge Eastern cultural traditons by our Western standards of natural right? The continuing debate as to whether the Western understanding of universal human rights has any application to Asian culture and politics manifests this problem.

For there to be human rights, there must be some common human nature that is universal to human experience. If that is so, then there should be some understanding among thoughtful people in all cultures of that universal human nature as a standard for morality and politics.

That's why the study of Confucianism is so important. If there is no recognition of nature or human nature in Confucianism--one of the most influential and enduring traditions of thought in all of human history--then we have to question whether the Western ideas of nature and human nature are anything more than cultural prejudices.

As George Anastaplo has rightly noted, there is almost no explicit recognition of nature or human nature in the Analects of Confucius (see 5.13, 17.2), although there is sometimes an implicit appeal to human nature, as in the understanding of family life as a primordial ground of human social life. But if Anastaplo had turned to Mencius, he would have seen much more explicit recognition of human nature. More specifically, I think, one can see in the writing of Mencius a biological conception of human nature--and of moral and political order as grounded in human nature--that is close to the modern Darwinian and sociobiological understanding of human nature and morality.

This is a controversial claim. Some scholars of Chinese philosophy--like Roger Ames, for example--argue that there is nothing like the Western concept of human nature in Mencius, because they insist that the dynamic and relational understanding of the world that one sees in Chinese philosophy rejects the static "essentialism" of the Western concept of human nature. But as I have argued in some previous posts, this fear of "essentialism" is mistaken, because it fails to see how the biological conception of human nature (from Aristotle to Darwin) recognizes the contingency and individuality of humanity, while also recognizing the recurrent tendencies that characterize the human species as a natural kind.

In claiming that Mencius does have a concept of human nature that supports his moral and political thought, I agree with scholars of Chinese thought like A. C. Graham, Irene Bloom, and Donald Munro. Munro's writing is particularly interesting from my point of view, because he develops the points of contact between Mencius and E. O. Wilson's sociobiological ethics.

Mencius often refers to "nature" (xing) and "human nature" (renxing). He is most famous for his teaching that "human nature is good." By this he means that while human goodness must be cultivated by individual habit and social culture--and thus, human beings are not good at birth--this moral cultivation nurtures the natural inclinations of human beings. Human beings are born with the natural tendencies and capacities that develop into human goodness when the nurturing environment is hospitable. So, as I would say, nature must be nurtured.

When Frans de Waal argues that human goodness is the development of natural tendencies shared with primates--and so we are "good natured"--he sometimes cites Mencius as agreeing with him. Of course, Mencius was not a biologist, and he knew nothing about genetics or evolutionary science. But by his natural experience, he was able to infer that human morality was rooted in human biology in a way that has been more fully explicated by modern evolutionary theory.

Munro has shown how closely this comes to Ed Wilson's account of sociobiological ethics as an "empiricist" view of ethics as grounded in human nature, by contrast with the "transcendentalist" view of ethics as sanctioned by some cosmic order of Reason, Nature, or God.

I agree with Munro in noting at least six points of agreement between Mencius and sociobiological ethics. First, Mencius takes an empirical approach to ethics in the sense that he appeals to empirical arguments based on practical human experience. Second, he understands human experience as manifesting a common human nature. Third, he explains morality as motivated by innate emotional responses (such as sympathy and indignation). Fourth, he sees the primacy of kinship relations and the empathy that arises from kinship ties. Fifth, he sees the mind as primarily evaluative in being directed to practical engagement with the world. Sixth, he sees that while the natural concern for others can be extended broadly, it is structured by an in-group bias--we tend to feel more concern for those close to us than for those outside our group. On all of these points, Munro rightly sees coincidences with Wilson's sociobiological ethics.

Munro does see, however, one point of possible dispute between Mencius and sociobiology. Following traditional Chinese cosmology, Mencius often appeals to "Heaven" (tian) as the source of human nature and natural morality, which suggests that the human nature of morality has a cosmic or religious source. Munro rejects this as unsupported by modern science or by any sociobiological conception of ethics.

Here is where I find Mencius hard to interpret. At times, it seems he really is appealing to some religious source in "Heaven" for human biological nature and natural morality. But at other times, he suggests (to me, at least) that his "Heaven" is nothing more than the Nature that gives rise to human nature, and so it's not clear that this has any religious sense. In any case, it is clear that "Heaven" is not a personal, transcendent God like the God of the Bible; and there is no conception of rewards and punishments after death. So there is nothing like Plato's religious cosmology of eternal rewards and punishments. This is why many people have wondered whether Confucianism is really a really a religion.

Mencius indicates that one sure sign that a ruler has lost the "Mandate of Heaven" is when he has become so hated by the people that he can be easily assassinated (1A1, 1B7-10, 4A2, 5A5-6, 5B9). By contrast, those rulers who accept limited government and low taxes, and thus leave people free to live as they please, have no enemies; and those who have no enemies are "the agents of Heaven" (2A5). One might be reminded here of what John Locke says about the "appeal to Heaven" as the ultimate recourse in disputes over governmental authority. Ultimately, government rests on violence and war.

Even if Mencius is a religious thinker in invoking "Heaven," his religion could be accounted for in Darwinian terms as a "natural religion," as a product of cultural evolution in which religious belief reinforces group morality (along the lines suggested by Darwin and by David Sloan Wilson). As far as I can see, the "Heaven" of Mencius does nothing but support what we could know by natural human experience alone.

Long after Mencius, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the "School of the Way" (the Neo-Confucians) pushed Confucian thought towards a religious cosmology quite different from what one finds in Confucius or Mencius. Buddhism had become a powerful presence in China. The Chinese Buddhists adopted the Chinese term for "pattern" to refer to the cosmic web of interrelations. The Neo-Confucians incorporated this idea in declaring that "Heaven" corresponded to the cosmic "Pattern" that pervades and guides the universe. In doing that, they transformed Confucianism into a much more metaphysical or Platonic position than what was taught by Confucius and Mencius. Like Plato, they taught that the true philosopher orders his soul to conform to the "city in speech" as manifesting a "Pattern in Heaven" (592b).


Irene Bloom, "Mencian Arguments on Human Nature," Philosophy East and West, 44 (Jan. 1994): 19-53.

Irence Bloom, "Human Nature and Biological Nature in Mencius," Philosophy East and West, 47 (Jan. 1997): 21-32.

A. C. Graham, "The Background of the Mencian Theory of Human Nature," in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (SUNY Press, 1990), 8-66.

Donald Munro, A Chinese Ethics for the New Century (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005).

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

Creationism and Darwinism in Russia

Recently, there have been some reports that leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church are arguing for teaching creationism and intelligent design in the public schools as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution. The argument is that Darwinian science promotes an atheistic or secularist view of the world that subverts the religious teaching of the Orthodox Church and thus subverts the religious basis for Russian culture.

Of course, this is remarkably similar to the argument one hears in the United States--that the public schools should teach creationist or intelligent design alternatives to Darwinism in biology classes to show respect for the religious beliefs that are fundamental to American cultural life.

As I have argued on this blog, I agree that the scientific claims for creationism and intelligent design should be discussed in biology classes along with the evidence and arguments for Darwinian evolution. Students can then think through this debate for themselves. To say that students should be prohibited from considering the creationist/intelligent design criticisms of Darwinian science is foolish, because it denies students a chance to examine the debate for themselves. I am confident that if students weigh the evidence and arguments on both sides, they can see that the case for Darwinian science is persuasive. Unfortunately, most public school teachers lack the inclination or the ability to open up this debate for their students in a fair manner.

Part of this debate should include a critical examination of the common assumption that religious belief and Darwinian science are necessarily opposed. If Biblical creationism means believing in the literal truth of the first chapters of Genesis--that God created everything in six twenty-four hour days--then creationism really is opposed to what modern science reveals about the origins of the universe and of life. But if the Biblical story of Genesis is interpreted as poetic imagery to convey a moral and religious message rather than a scientific theory, then there is no necessary conflict between Biblical religion and Darwinian science.

In fact, theistic evolution has been adopted by many religious believers--the idea that God could have employed a natural evolutionary process to carry out His will. Even Michael Behe--the leading scientific proponent of "intelligent design theory"--has embraced a version of theistic evolution. Theistic evolutionists include C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Mitt Romney, John Paul II, and many others.

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

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Confucian Way (4): Confucian Libertarianism?

For those of us shaped by Western cultural traditions, it's important to study Eastern traditions, because it forces us to consider whether our way of thinking is peculiar to the West, or whether it can account for Eastern experience as well.

So, for example, while libertarian individualism has deep roots in Western history, some people argue that this tradition of thought is so peculiarly Western that it has no application to the East. We can see this in the popular claim that the "Asian values" of communitarian authority are opposed to the "Western values" of individual liberty, and therefore to invoke Western notions of liberty and rights in judging Eastern moral and political practices is an arbitrary imposition of Western culture on the East. Moreover, it is sometimes suggested, Eastern communitarianism might actually be morally superior to Western individualism.

This can be confusing. On the one hand, the critics of the West sometimes seem to be claiming cultural relativism, by which no cultural tradition can be judged by comparison with another. On the other hand, these critics sometimes seem to be claiming the superiority of Eastern traditions, which assumes there is some universal standard for judging some traditions superior to others.

Most libertarians want to argue that the goodness of individual liberty--in economics, politics, and morality--is universally applicable to all human beings everywhere throughout history, and therefore it should be recognizable in all cultural traditions. For that reason, some libertarians have looked for libertarian thinking in ancient Chinese thought. Murray Rothbard and David Boaz have claimed that the first libertarian was the founder of Taoism--Laozi (Lao-tzu), the author of Daodejing (Tao Te Ching. In fact, one can find in Laozi's writing and in the writing of other Taoists the idea that good human order arises best through spontaneous order, free from the evils of governmental coercion and central planning.

But I am persuaded by the reasoning of Roderick Long, a philosophy professor at Auburn University, who shows how the Confucians are better libertarians than the Taoists. Long agrees with Rothbard and Boaz that the key idea is spontaneous order, and he agrees that the Taoists did have some understanding of spontaneous order. But he shows that the Confucians had a better understanding of how spontaneous order could support the moral, economic, political, and intellectual progress of humanity in moving towards what Friedrich Hayek called "the great society of free men."

Spontaneous order refers to an ordered pattern that emerges without being the product of anyone's deliberate design, but only as an unplanned outcome of the mutual adjustment of its parts. For example, language is a spontaneous order, because a language emerges from an evolutionary history of linguistic practice in which every individual speaker or writer can have some influence, but the order of the language at any one point in time is not the product of anyone's deliberate design. Similarly, all enduring social practices--such as law, economics, morality, and religion--arise as evolutionary spontaneous orders. To try to replace such evolved spontaneous orders with deliberately planned orders under the power of a few human planners is both inefficient (because human knowledge is limited) and tyrannical (because human virtue is limited).

The attraction that Lao-tzu has for libertarians is clear. For instance, the following quotation from Lao-tzu is the epigram for the Epilogue of Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Norms of Liberty (p. 340):

"If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves,
"If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves,
"If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves,
"If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves."

But as Long indicates, Lao-tzu and the Taoists were primitivists who believed that the only way to avoid commanding people or imposing on them was to return to a primitive life without government, commerce, or any of the moral and intellectual development that comes from civilization. Rothbard acknowledges this point when he speaks of the Taoists as teaching "withdrawal from society and the world." Rothbard suggests, however, that Lao-tzu taught this not as a principle, "but as the only strategy that in his despair seemed open to him," because "it was hopeless to try to disentangle society from the oppressive coils of the State." Against this defense of the Taoists as true libertarians, Long rightly argues that the Confucians were able to see the compatibility of liberty and civilization through combining a free society with limited government.

My contribution to Long's argument is to suggest how Darwinian evolutionary science supports this Confucian libertarianism by explaining social order as the evolutionary joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.

In doing this, I correct a big mistake in Hayek's explanation of spontaneous order. As I have indicated in Darwinian Conservatism (20-26), Hayek insists that "what has made men good is neither nature nor reason but tradition." I agree with him in rejecting the simple dichotomy between nature and reason as the only two sources of social and moral order, because this ignores the place of custom or habit as that which comes "between instinct and reason." But he is mistaken in so elevating customary tradition over nature and reason that tradition becomes the only source of morality and social order for human beings.

From a Darwinian point of view, human social order arises from both spontaneous order and deliberate order. It arises from the complex interaction of two kinds of spontaneous order--human nature and human tradition--and the deliberate order of human judgment. Human nature is a spontaneous order, because it has arisen through genetic evolution by natural selection, in which complex order emerges without a designer. Human tradition is a spontaneous order, because the customs of social life develop over history through an evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention to create complex traditions of social practice that have not been intentionally designed. Human judgment can be a source of deliberate order, because the human capacity for deliberating about present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations allows human beings to deliberately choose courses of action designed to satisfy their desires. Social biology broadly conceived encompasses all three sources of social order--human nature, human tradition, and human judgment.

The Confucians see the importance of all three. They agree with Hayek in stressing the importance of tradition--the customary, ritualistic norms of behavior--for the spontaneous order of society. Long rightly emphasizes this agreement in making his argument for the Confucians as Hayekian libertarians. But the Confucians also see that cultural traditions presuppose, and are constrained by, the innate propensities of human nature, and they also see that human beings must exercise prudential judgment in deciding what should be done in particular cases, although this judgment is constrained by both nature and tradition.

Mencius is famous for teaching that human nature is good. What he means by this is not that all human beings are always good, which would be a silly claim, but that the development of the human good is the fulfillment of natural emotional propensities for compassion, indignation, respect, and social approval (3A1, 6A6). So, for example, someone seeing a child about to fall into a well would immediately feel sympathetic concern for the child and would want to protect the child from harm (2A6).

Human nature is not a matter of deterministic necessities that always occur regardless of the circumstances, but of innate propensities that generally occur in suitable circumstances. For Mencius, the "nature" (xing) of something is what it becomes when it matures in a healthy environment (4B26, 6A1-8, 7A21, 7B24). Cultivating moral virtue is like a farmer cultivating the growth of his sprouts. It would be foolish for the farmer to pull on his sprouts to make then grow. But it would be just as foolish for the farmer not to water or weed his sprouts. Nature must be nurtured according to its inborn inclinations (2A2).

I have argued for "Darwinian natural right," based on the claim that the good is the desirable, and that there are at least twenty natural desires rooted in evolved human nature. The Confucians show a similar line of thought when they explain moral norms as providing the orderly satisfaction of natural desires. For example, Xunzi writes:

"From what did ritual arise? I say: Humans are born having desires. When they have desires but do not get the objects of their desires, then they cannot but seek some means of satisfaction. If thee is no measure or limit to their seeking, they they cannot help but struggle with each other. If they struggle with each other, then there will be chaos, and if there is chaos, then they will be impoverished. The former kings hated such chaos, and so they established rituals and the standards of righteousness in order to allot things to people, to nurture their desires, and to satisfy their seeking. They caused desires never to exhaust material goods, and material goods never to be depleted by desires, so that the two support each other and prosper. This is how ritual arose." (chap. 19)

So while "rituals" (li)--formalized behavior of ceremonial performances for funerals, music, dance, and matters of etiquette--are artificial, they arose as a way of expressing and channelling natural desires to show respect for others. The rituals for burying and mourning the dead illustrate this. Mencius observes:

"Now, in past ages, there were those who did not bury their parents. When their parents died, they took them and abandoned them in a gulley. The next day they passed by them, and foxes were eating them, bugs were sucking on them. Sweat broke out on the survivors' foreheads. they turned away and did not look. It was not for the sake of others that they sweated. What was inside their hearts broke through to their countenances. So they went home and, returning with baskets and shovels, covered them. If covering them was really right, then the manner in which filial children and benevolent people cover their parents must also be part of the Way" (3A5.4).

The rituals for children burying their parents are formalized refinements of their natural emotional responses. Similarly, as Confucius argued, the socially prescribed period for mourning the death of parents is a customary expression of natural emotions that arise from the natural bond between parent and child, which is rooted in the biological dependence of children on parental care (Analects, 17.21). As I have indicated in a previous post, this conforms to Darwin's thought that the natural social instincts of human beings are ultimately grounded in parental care and filial affections.

Darwin thought that the extension of social concern beyond one's immediate family came through sympathy--the capacity and inclination to share the feelings of others. Adam Smith saw sympathy as the natural ground of moral sentiments. Darwin adopted this idea and sought to explain its evolutionary roots. He saw the extension of sympathy and moral concern to ever wider circles of human beings as the natural ground for the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--which he regarded as "the foundation of morality." Recent research in Darwinian moral psychology and neuroscience shows the moral importance of sympathy or empathy and how this seems to be rooted in "mirror neurons" and other neural mechanisms for sharing the experiences of others.

The same kind of thought was expressed by Confucius when he was asked whether there was one word that could be the guide for one's entire life. "Is it not 'understanding' (shu)? Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire" (Analects, 15.24). The Chinese term shu refers to a character with components meaning "comparing" (ru) and "heart or mind" (xin). So it can be variously translated as "likening to oneself," "putting oneself in another's place," "sympathetic understanding," or "reciprocity." As Confucius indicates, this naturally supports the principle of the Golden Rule.

Although the Golden Rule was first formulated by the ancient Chinese philosophers, they disagreed about what it required. Some of them understood the Golden Rule as requiring universal love that would be utterly impartial. So Laozi taught:

"I am good to those who are good;
"I also am good to those who are not good;
"This is to be good out of Virtue.
"I trust the trustworthy;
"I also trust the untrustworthy.
"This is to trust out of virtue or kindness (de)" (chap. 49).

"No matter how great or small, many or few,
"Repay injury with virtue or kindness" (chap. 63).

Confucius disagreed. When he was asked what he thought of the saying, "Repay injury with kindness," Confucius answered: "With what, then, would one repay kindness? Repay injury with uprightness, and kindness with kindness" (Analects, 14.34). The Confucian version of the Golden Rule teaches a discriminate reciprocity that rewards kindness and punishes injury. An indiscriminate love that would reward harmful behavior would promote social disorder. It would seem, then, that Confucius would reject the teaching of Jesus about loving one's enemies as contrary to the natural conditions for social order.

Similarly, Confucius and Mencius reject the idea that human beings should love all human beings equally, because they see this as contrary to human nature in denying the natural human disposition to love one's family and those close to one more strongly than strangers.

This natural disposition to discriminate reciprocity--returning good for good and injury for injury--is also expressed in the natural inclination of people to rebel against unjust rulers by refusing to fight for them, by fighting against them, by assassinating them, or by running away to another state. Human beings are naturally inclined to resist exploitation by tyrannical rulers (Analects, 13.15; Mencius, 1B8, 4A2, 5A5, 5B9). As Long indicates, this supports the libertarian principle that governments must compete for popular support by satisfying the natural human desires.

Within the broad constraints set by human nature, different societies generate different cultural traditions. The capacity for moral experience is innate in human nature, but this natural moral propensity must be cultivated by moral traditions transmitted through family life and social life generally. The Confucian philosophers stressed the importance of observing the ancient traditional practices inherited from one's ancestors as essential for preserving the moral order of society. Darwin made the same point in arguing that moral progress came mostly from cultural evolution working through habituation, imitation, and the sensitivity of individuals to social approbation and disapprobation.

Some of the defenders of "Asian values" against Western individualism argue that the great fault of individualism is in failing to appreciate the communitarian authority of social traditions. But as Long rightly indicates, this is a false conception of individualism. After all, Hayek defends the "true individualism" that recognizes that a free society is impossible without family life and social groups organized by common conventions and traditions. Without such inherited traditions of moral life to provide rules for social life, we would have to rely on governmental coercion. In a free society that minimizes coercion, most of the social coordination of human activity arises from the spontaneous order of traditional social norms (Hayek, "Individualism: True and False").

Hayek identifies this insight with "the British evolutionary tradition."

"To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, . . . the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and 'all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.' Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society" (The Constitution of Liberty, 61).

Although Hayek identified himself as a classical liberal rather than a conservative, and although Long contrasts Hayek's libertarianism to conservatism, one can see here that Hayek's libertarian liberalism was compatible with traditionalist conservatism, because he saw that Burkean evolutionary traditionalism was essential for a free society. (This corresponds to the Aristotelian liberalism of Rasmussen and Den Uyl and the conservative fusionism of Frank Meyer.) Moreover, this Hayekian insight that a "free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society" supports the idea of a Confucian libertarianism.

Hayek and other libertarians believe that part of the evolving traditional order of a free society is the spontaneous economic order of free markets. But one might object here that surely Confucian thought cannot be understood as compatible with libertarian economics, because the Confucians were often scornful of commercial life. But as Long shows, some of the Confucians saw the value of commerce and free markets as necessary for the kind of civilized life that would satisfy human natural desires, and they often argued for low tax rates (around 10%) to foster productive economic activity.

Confucius criticized one of his students, Zigong, for going into business speculation (Analects 11.19). But later, Sima Qian, in his history of the Han dynasty, disagreed with Confucius. Sima wrote a chapter on "The Biographies of the Money-Makers" that defended Zigong and those like him. He pointed out that Zigong's well-earned wealth allowed him to spread Confucius' teaching. And he praised the laissez-faire policies of the Han dynasty as promoting commercial activity in ways that satisfied the human needs of a civilized society. He wrote:

"The region west of the mountains is rich in timber, bamboo, paper mulberry, hemp, oxtails for banner tassels, jade and other precious stones. That east of the mountains abounds in fish, salt, lacquer, silk, singers, and beautiful women. The area south of the Yangtze produces camphor wood, catalpa, ginger, cinnamon, gold, tin, lead ore, cinnabar, rhinoceros horns,tortoise shell, pearls of various shapes, and elephant tusks and hides, while that north of Longmen and Jieshi is rich in horses, cattle, sheep, felt, furs, tendons, and horns. Mountains from which copper and iron can be extracted are found scattered here and there over thousands of miles of the empire, like chessmen on a board. In general, these are the products of the empire. All of them are commodities coveted by the people of China, who according to their various customs use them for their bedding, clothing, food, and drink, fashioning from them the goods needed to supply the living and bury the dead."

"Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fishermen, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed. But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilization of labor, or periodic assemblies? Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. Thus, when a commodity is very cheap, it invites a rise in price, when it is very expensive, it invites a reduction. When each person works only away at his own occupation and delights in his own business, then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked. Does this not tally with reason? Is it not a natural result?" (Shi ji, 129).

Thus, the traditional order of a free society allows for a spontaneous order of economic activity emerging through free exchange, prices, and a division of labor.

Within the constraints of human nature and human tradition, human beings must exercise judgment whenever they decide to reform an existing tradition of rules, or whenever they must decide what to do in particular cases where the existing rules don't properly cover the cases. While the Confucians condemn innovations in customary practices that attempt to reconstruct social practices from the ground up, they recognize the wisdom in exercising prudential judgment that reforms a tradition from within the tradition itself. Moreover, judging what should be done in exceptional circumstances where general rules are inadequate requires "discretion" (quan) (Analects, 9.3; Mencius, 4A17, 6B1, 7A26).

Hayek recognizes the need for discretionary or prudential judgment when he speaks of how we can rightly criticize customary rules. "All valid criticism or improvement of rules of conduct must proceed within a given system of such rules." This is what he calls "immanent criticism." He observes: "It may at first seem puzzling that something that is the product of tradition should be capable of both being the object and the standard of criticism. But we do not maintain that all tradition as such is sacred and exempt from criticism, but merly that the basis of criticism of any one product of tradition must always be other products of tradition which we either cannot or do not want to question; in other words, that particular aspects of a culture can be critically examined only within the context of that culture. . . . we can always only tinker with parts of a given whole but never entirely redesign it" (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 2, pp. 24-25).

Hayek's idea of the "immanent criticism" of a tradition is obviously very close to C. S. Lewis's idea about how any criticism of the Tao must be from within the Tao itself. While I accept this idea, I would add that our criticism of a tradition can appeal to human nature, so that we can judge a tradition by whether it satisfies or frustrates a natural human desire. So, for example, as the Confucians suggest, we can judge the traditional practices of burial and mourning the dead as to how well they express and channel our natural emotions of bereavement. This appeal to human nature is sometimes ignored in Hayek's writing when he appears to fall into a simple cultural relativism free from any natural standards.

Hayek can't be a simple cultural relativist in so far as he believes that classical liberalism, with its devotion to a free society, is best adapted to human flourishing. Hayek's whole life as a scholar arguing for classical liberalism manifested his conviction that "it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution" (The Constitution of Liberty, 112).

Great thinkers exercise their judgment in formulating and promoting ideas that can gradually spread through society in a way that influences the cultural evolution of social tradition. Confucius and his students did this in initiating a Confucian tradition of thought in Asia. Hayek and other classical liberal scholars have done this in advancing a liberal tradition of thought that has influenced cultural evolution around the world.

During most of the twentieth century, it seemed that the ideas of classical liberalism were being defeated by the ideas of socialism and statist liberalism. By the end of the century, it seemed that those classical liberal ideas were gaining influence throughout the world. Now, it seems that the cultural evolution of ideas is moving back again in favor of central planning and statist coercion. But if the classical liberal ideas of the free society really do conform to our natural human desires for liberty and virtue, then those ideas will never lose their appeal to the human mind and heart.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is Biopolitical Science Predictive?

I have just finished revising an article on "Biopolitical Science" for publication in Politics and the Life Sciences, the journal of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences. When I first began working on this paper a few years ago, it was entitled "Darwinian Political Science."

In this article, I develop a theoretical framework for biopolitical science as a science of political animals. This science moves through three levels of deep political history--the universal political history of the species, the cultural political history of the group, and the individual political history of animals in the group. To illustrate the particular application of biopolitical science, I show how this science would help us to understand Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

At the end of the article, I respond to some of the likely objections to my argument. One objection is that the biopolitical science I have sketched lacks the predictive power necessary for a true science. After all, some critics might say, the ultimate aim of a true science of politics is not just to interpret political events in the past (like Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation), but to predict the future course of political events through scientific laws of political behavior.

In answering this objection, I argue that because of the complexity and freedom of human political behavior, any science of politics must be a science of history based on historical narratives. By contrast with non-historical sciences, historical sciences have only limited predictive power. At best, political science can make general predictions about political patterns. But it cannot make specific predictions about political events. Biopolitical science deepens the historical narratives of political science by grounding them in the evolutionary history of political animals, which moves through three kinds of historical narratives: natural history, cultural history, and biographical history. And yet this biopolitical history cannot provide the precise predictions that are possible in the non-historical sciences.

Evolutionary biology and the social sciences are historical sciences of emergent complexity. By contrast, physical sciences such as physics and chemistry are non-historical sciences of reductive simplicity. Except for historical disciplines such as cosmology and geology, physical scientists study physical phenomena without reference to their history.

Many social scientists--particularly, economists--have taken physics as the model for all science, and they have tried to unify the social sciences as founded on a social physics free from historical contingency. But biopolitical science rejects this approach. Biopolitical science recognizes that social phenomena are necessarily historical, and therefore they can only be explained through historical narratives, which cannot have the predictive precision that is achieved through the deterministic laws of the physical sciences. Pursuing social physics sacrifices accuracy for the sake of precision, because it ignores the fuzzy complexity and historical contingency of social reality. Pursuing biopolitical history sacrifices precision for the sake of accuracy, because it recognizes that fuzzy complexity and historical contingency.

Although biopolitical science cannot provide deterministic laws, it can provide probabilistic regularities, which support falsifiable but fuzzy predictions of behavioral patterns. For example, evolutionary game theory has developed formal models of the natural behavioral repertoire that I lay out in this article, and those models can generate falsifiable predictions that can be tested through experimental game playing. This research shows a complex interaction between natural history, cultural history, and individual history. There are some universal behavioral patterns that manifest a natural history of the human species that has shaped human beings to be both self-regarding and other-regarding. But there is great cultural variation in that behavior that manifests a cultural history that has shaped some societies to be quite different from others. And yet there is also great variation across individuals that cannot be precisely predicted from what we know about natural and cultural history.

Consider, for instance, the playing of the "ultimatum game." In this game, there are two players under conditions of anonymity. Both players are told there is a specified sum of money to be divided between the two players. One player is told to propose a division of the money to the other player. The responding player can either accept or reject the proposal. If the responder accepts the proposal, the money will be divided as proposed. If the responder rejects the proposal, then neither player receives any money.

Assuming that human beings are purely self-regarding egoists, rational choice theorists will predict that the responder will accept any proposed division, because any money is better than none, while the proposer will want to take most of the money and give the responder as little as possible. But Darwinian evolutionary theorists, who think human beings have evolved to have other-regarding moral concerns, will predict that responders will indignantly reject unfair offers, and proposers will feel obligated to offer fair divisions of the money, somewhere around an even split. The Darwinians predict that human beings will on average show a sense of fairness in reciprocity by their willingness to punish those who make unfair offers, even when inflicting the punishment is costly to the punisher.

The experimental play of the ultimatum game generally confirms the predictions of the Darwinians--in most cases, responders reject unfair proposals, and proposers feel compelled to offer fair divisions. But while this evidence suggests that a sense of fairness is part of the natural behavioral pattern of most human beings, a substantial portion of the participants in these experiments (about one quarter) behave in a purely selfish manner. And in a few societies around the world--particularly, in small-scale societies where there is no experience with market exchange to cultivate a culture of reciprocal fairness--almost everyone behaves in a purely selfish manner. So, although we can't make specific predictions based on deterministic laws, we can make general predictions based on probabilistic propensities.

Similarly, political scientists could not have precisely predicted Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But they could have predicted that chattel slavery would provoke resistance from those who saw that it violates the natural desire for justice as reciprocity, and they might have predicted that the cultural history of American constitutionalism would create opportunities for ambitious political actors to satisfy their desire for glory by promoting the ultimate extinction of slavery.

Once Lincoln issued the Proclamation, political scientists could begin a debate over what kind of historical narrative best accounts for that political event. Biopolitical science contributes to that debate by providing a broad theoretical framework for such a historical narrative as moving through the natural history of slavery, the cultural history of slavery in America, and the biographical history of Lincoln as the political actor who won his glory in becoming the Great Emancipator.

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