Saturday, August 28, 2010

Darwinian Natural Law: A Reply to Paul Allen

I have written a lot on how a Darwinian science of human nature could support a Thomistic understanding of natural law as rooted in natural desires and prudence.

In recent years, some Catholic philosophers have endorsed this idea--people like Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean Porter, and Stephen Pope. But they are also ambivalent about this idea, because they don't like my argument that while religious belief can reinforce our natural moral experience, religious belief is not absolutely necessary, insofar as morality can stand on its own natural ground even without religion. But then, when they argue that religious belief is absolutely necessary for moral understanding, they move towards a divine command view of morality that denies natural law by denying that there can be any natural moral law independent of divine law.

This problem is evident in a paper by Paul Allen (a theologian at Concordia University in Montreal) entitled "Pride, Envy, and Human Nature: Beyond Darwinian Conservatism.". Allen argues that to fully understand human nature, we need a "theological anthropology" (10). Although evolutionary science confirms some elements of that theological anthropology, this science fails to recognize the full truth of what human beings are like as created in God's image and ruined by original sin.

Allen takes up my position as "the most prominent evolutionary version of natural law" (9). He agrees with me that Darwinian evolution can explain human morality as a joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments. But at the same time, he criticizes me for failing to see the need for "a cosmic hierarchy of good," a "metaphysical teleology," and a theologically informed understanding of human nature, which support a "transcendental notion of value" (11-17).

It's hard for me to understand exactly what he is saying because he doesn't develop any specific examples of precisely how his "transcendental notion of value" would differ from my understanding.

The only specific example he mentions is divorce, but he gives it only one sentence (12-13). In Darwinian Natural Right, I argue that marriage satisfies the natural desires for parental care and conjugal bonding. Although it would be good for marriage to be perpetual, there are circumstances where divorce might be justified by prudence. Consequently, I suggest that the Catholic Church's prohibition of divorce is contrary to the natural pattern of human mating, because the Catholic Church considers marriage not only a natural institution but also a sacrament that conveys a supernatural teaching. Allen implies that he disagrees with me about this, but he doesn't explain what he has in mind. Does he believe that divorce should never be legally permitted? Does he believe that this illustrates the need for theology to teach us that divorce is wrong?

Allen's "transcendental notion of value" seems to depend on religious belief in God's will--rather than natural law--as the ultimate source of moral law. If so, then Allen would be agreeing with people like John Hare that there is no true moral standard except God's command. So, for example, we must accept God's command to Abraham to kill Isaac as illustrating God's absolute authority unconstrained by natural standards.

Allen says: "Natural law and divine command ethics seem to be at odds with one another. But they are not" (24). So, on the one hand, he endorses "divine command ethics," but, on the other hand, he thinks this is compatible with natural law. It's not clear to me how this works.

Apparently, he thinks natural law is a partial truth about morality but not the whole truth. For the whole truth, we need divine revelation to teach us that we are infected with original sin, and that we will never be truly good until we "root out cardinal sins such as pride and envy," and thus achieve absolute "selflessness" (23-24). To do this, we must see "the loving relationship with God" as providing "the conditions of possibility for moral goodness" (25). But if this means that moral goodness is impossible without a "loving relationship with God," then it would seem that there is no natural ground for morality at all independently of divine revelation.

If moral goodness depends on divine revelation, where do we go for that revelation? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? Does this mean that religious traditions outside the Bible don't provide grounds for moral goodness? As a Catholic Christian, Allen implies that the Old Testament is insufficient. Does that mean that Jews cannot be morally good?

As I have suggested in my many recent posts on Confucianism, there is no clear theological teaching in Confucianism at all, and there's certainly nothing like Christian theology. So would Allen say that there is no moral goodness in the Confucian tradition, because it fails to see that "the loving relationship with God" is the condition for the possibility of moral goodness?

For the proper divine revelation, do we have to go beyond the Bible? Allen cites the Catholic catechism's description of sin. Does this imply that we need the revelation coming from the traditions of the Catholic Church? Would this mean that Protestant Christians cannot be morally good?

For example, consider a great moral issue like slavery. The Bible explicitly endorses slavery, which is why the American proslavery advocates were often devout Christians who believed they were following God's commands. How do we judge them to be mistaken without appealing to some natural standards of justice that go beyond God's commands in the Bible?

According to Allen, a theologically informed morality would require absolute "selflessness" and a rooting out of all pride and envy. What exactly would that mean? Would this require Christian socialism and pacifism--like that of the utopian Christian communities that I study in Darwinian Natural Right? Would this require the abolition of family life and private property? After all, don't family life and private property keep us from being "selfless"?

My argument is that while religious belief can reinforce natural morality, that natural morality can stand on its own even without religious belief. I recognize that the natural desire for religious understanding leads some human beings to believe that the full satisfaction of human longings will only come in a supernatural reunion with God after death. In that supernatural realm, human beings might become absolutely selfless and free of pride and envy. But I don't see how this heavenly redemption is possible on earth. I don't see how that belief in supernatural salvation changes the natural conditions of human life, in which attempts to enforce absolute selflessness and the abolition of pride and envy is foolishly destructive of what is required for the human good in this life.

Some of my blog posts on Darwinian natural law can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Posts on divine command ethics can be found here and here.

One of my posts on Biblical slavery can be found here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Confucian Liberalism

This post adds to my series of posts over the past few months on the possibility of a Confucian liberalism supported by Darwinian science.

The distinction between state and society is fundamental for classical liberal thought. This supports the crucial insight that social order arises not just from the coercive government of the state but also from the natural and voluntary associations of civil society. Through family life, economic trade, and social interaction generally, human beings manifest their natural sociality in the spontaneous order of civil society as an intermediate realm of moral order between the individual and the state. Although the coercive government of the state is required to enforce the legal and political conditions for social cooperation, cultivating the customary moral order of civil society minimizes the need for governmental coercion and maximizes the liberty of an open society.

This liberal distinction between state and society is never fully developed in Confucian thought. But it is implicit in the Confucian teaching that the Dao of moral order can arise through the social traditions of family life, economic exchange, and social groups, while the coercive powers of government are limited. The survival of Confucianism in modern China despite the resolute efforts of Mao's Marxist government to extinguish it testifies to the power of Confucian civil society to prevail against a hostile government. Confucianism could become even more successful in ordering the moral life of China if the Chinese government were to continue along its present path towards a fully liberal order.

Confucius tried to convince political rulers that political order was better secured through the persuasive influence of morally virtuous rulers than through the coercive force of governmental regulations. He advised: "If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations (zheng) and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them through virtue (de), and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves" (2.3).

In the Shang and Zhou dynasties, "virtue" (de) was regarded as a charismatic power conferred on rulers by the ancestral spirits that would allow rulers to acquire and retain power under the Mandate of Heaven. Confucius continued to teach the need for virtue in rulers, so that they could rule through moral persuasion rather than coercive threat. But Confucius also taught that virtue no longer belonged exclusively to the ruling class. Anyone who followed the Dao could become virtuous and thus claim the Mandate of Heaven.

In fact, Confucius observed, most rulers of his time did not follow the Dao, and they continued to rule, despite their lack of virtue, as long as they were surrounded by competent, but not virtuous, advisers and ministers. In these circumstances, the moral order of virtue was to be found, not in the ruling offices of government, but in the social life of individuals outside of government who lived virtuously in their families and social groups (2.21, 11.26, 14.19, 15.7).

Confucius advised rulers as to the importance of minimizing governmental intrusion itno the social life of their people, particularly through reducing the tax burden. If the harvest was poor, rulers might complain that they could not satisfy their need for tax revenue. The Confucian advice was to lower tax rates to 10%. Rulers needed to understand that reducing tax rates could actually increase the government's revenue, because the people would be more productive (12.9).

Mencius offered the same advice in recommending a flat tax of 10%. While a rate of 5% might be enough for a primitive tribal government, this would be too low to pay for the governmental services necessary for a civilized society like China. But tax rates higher than 10% would impede the economic activity of the people, and thus make it hard for the people to provide for their needs (3A3, 3B8, 6B10).

For Mencius, a low tax rate was part of a program of economic and social reforms that he proposed, all aimed at limiting the power of government, which had become too oppressive. Mencius warned that all of the governments of his time had lost the support of the people, because all the rulers had "a taste for killing people." If there were even one ruler who did not have this thirst for killing, all the people of the world would be attracted to him, and this would show that he was favored by Heaven (1A6). A ruler who would reduce or even eliminate the taxes ta ht interfered with the economic life of merchants, travellers, farmers, and shop-keepers would attract people from around the world. And "one who has no enemies in the world is the agent of Heaven" (2A5).

Mencius understood that originally human beings lived in primitive foraging groups that sustained themselves in a nomadic way of life by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, for which there was no need for formal governmental institutions. But as human beings moved to farming, which allowed for a sedentary life and growing populations, they needed governmental rule to manage irrigation, the control of flooding, and other public services necessary for an agrarian state. This required an elaborate division of labor in which most people were farmers, and others constituted a ruling class of shamans, soldiers, aristocrats, bureaucrats, and royalty. But while initially the early rulers governed for the public good, later rulers became tyrannical, particularly in seizing the property of their people for the benefit of the ruling class. The popular resentment against tyranny exposed the rulers to assassination, and this popular rebellion manifested the Mandate of Heaven as expressed through the feelings of the people (1A1, 2A5, 3A4, 3B9, 5A5, 5B2, 5B9). So while agrarian states made a civilized life possible, they also created the conditions for tyrannical rule. (The remarkable parallels here with John Locke's history of government in the Two Treatises is noteworthy.)

One of Mencius' most famous proposals for limiting the power of government and protecting private property was the "well-field system." Instead of taxing each farming family by taking a portion of each year's farming production, Mencius proposed an allocation of farm land so that the revenues for the state would come from a public field. In the countryside, each village should 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" (3A3). The land would be divided into nine equal plots--one plot would be the public field cultivated by all the families for the benefit of the state, and eight plots would be held separately as private property by eight families. So eight-ninths of the land would be held as private property. The state's revenues would depend on the shared cultivate of the one-ninth allocation for the public field. This system would also create small, local communities organized for mutual aid and the local enforcement of moral norms. Social order would thus arise through social cooperation from the bottom up rather than being imposed by governmental coercion from the top down.

So while both Confucius and Mencius believed that in principle the best regime would be the wise rule of virtuous kings, they were realistic in seeing that this was almost never possible, because most rulers would always lack wisdom and virtue, and consequently their lust for power would lead them into tyranny.

Confucius and Mencius saw that in practice the best regime would limit the power of the central government, while promoting the spontaneous moral order of economic exchange, family life, and social groups in civil society, which indicates how Confucianism could support a liberal social order.

In China today, the remarkable resurgence of Confucianism and proposals for organizing a new Chinese regime based on Confucian morality suggests the possibility of an emerging Confucian liberalism.

Friday, August 20, 2010

20 Natural Desires--Useful or Agreeable to One's Self or to Others

A central claim for my conception of Darwinian natural right is that the good is the desirable, and that the generic goods of human life are constituted by 20 natural desires that are universal to human societies because they are rooted in evolved human nature. The proper ranking and organization of those desires varies according to the circumstances of different cultures and individuals, and that's why prudence or practical judgment is required for judging what is desirable for particular individuals in particular social circumstances. But we can still judge these 20 natural desires as setting the natural norm for the generic goods of human life. Those 20 natural desires are desires for the following goods-- 1. a complete life 2. parental care 3. sexual identity 4. sexual mating 5. familial bonding 6. friendship 7. social ranking 8. justice as reciprocity 9. political rule 10. courage in war 11. health 12. beauty 13. property 14. speech 15. practical habituation 16. practical reasoning 17. practical arts 18. aesthetic pleasure 19. religious understanding 20. intellectual understanding Some elaboration of what I mean by each of these can be found in Darwinian Natural Right (29-36) and Darwinian Conservatism (26-34).

This list has provoked a lot of criticisms, and I have responded to many of them in various posts. But I haven't said enough in response to the criticism that my list is naive in that it includes the "positive" desires but not the "negative" ones. For example, why not include cruelty and exploitation as natural human desires? The suggestion is that I haven't offered any justification for including only the "nice" desires on my list. Actually, there can be a dark side to most if not all of these natural desires. Obviously, cruelty and exploitation often arise from the natural desires for social ranking and war. And, in fact, many of my critics have criticized me for including war on my list of natural desires. 

But there is also a criterion of selection implicit in my account of these 20 natural desires that I need to make explicit. My implicit criterion was perhaps best stated by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. He argued that "PERSONAL MERIT consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities, useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others" (9.1). Virtues are mental qualities that produce pleasure in impartial observers; and this pleasure produces social esteem for those mental qualities. Qualities of mind that are useful or agreeable--either to those with those qualities or to others--induces a pleasure in impartial spectators that leads to these qualities being esteemed as virtues. Hume can then catalogue the virtues according to four categories: qualities useful to others (such as friendliness and justice), qualities useful to ourselves (such as prudence and temperance), qualities immediately agreeable to others (such as wit and affability), and qualities immediately agreeable to ourselves (such as pride and greatness of mind). I think that all of these qualities esteemed as virtues could be classified as related to the natural desires on my list. We recognize the generic goods of life as truly desirable because they satisfy those natural desires that are either useful or agreeable to ourselves or to others.

In other words, my list of 20 natural desires generally excludes those desires that are undesirable because they are harmful or disagreeable to oneself or others. 

Darwin extended this Humean view of the virtues and the desires by showing how our natural desires could be explained as products of natural human evolution.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lewis, Aristotle, and Practical Reason

In some previous posts, I have argued that a Darwinian science of morality and politics could satisfy C. S. Lewis's call in The Abolition of Man for a "new Natural Philosophy" that could explain the human nature of morality (89).

Lewis seemed to reject the possibility of an evolutionary ethics, however, in his criticisms of C. H. Waddington's essay "Science and Ethics" (49-50). Lewis quotes Waddington's claim that "existence is its own justification," and "an existence which is essentially evolutionary is itself the justification for an evolution towards a more comprehensive existence." To Lewis this illustrates the futility of trying to infer moral values from natural facts. If we praise evolution for any property that we deem praiseworthy, then we are implicitly using an external standard of judgment, and thus denying our premise that "existence is its own justification." But if we stick with this premise, then we will have to say that "good" means "whatever Nature happens to be doing," which will not support the value judgments that human beings actually make.

Lewis's criticisms of Waddington are persuasive. I can agree that we cannot rightly judge any human behavior good simply because it has evolved.

But it does not follow from this that our judgment of some human behavior as good is not a product of the natural evolution of our species, which is what G. E. Moore did when he identified "good" as an indefinable, non-natural property. It does not follow that moral values are non-natural facts existing in some transcendental realm beyond ordinary human experience. Rather, we can conclude that moral values are subjective facts of our evolved human psychology.

The most common objection to evolutionary ethics is that it commits the "naturalistic fallacy" by ignoring the is/ought or fact/value dichotomy that was first identified by David Hume. But this is mistaken, because far from separating facts and values, Hume showed how moral judgments could be grounded in certain facts of human nature. This explains why Darwin incorporated Hume's theory of the moral sense into his evolutionary account of human morality.

Hume's claim is that moral distinctions are derived not from pure reason alone but from a moral sense. This idea can be traced back to Francis Hutcheson's criticisms of some early modern rationalists such as Samuel Clark and William Wollaston, who believed that moral distinctions could be derived from abstract reasoning about structures in the universe that were completely independent of human nature.

Far from denying that moral judgments are judgments of fact, Hume claims that moral judgments are accurate when they correctly report what our moral sentiments would be in a given set of circumstances. Moral judgments do not have cosmic objectivity in the sense of conforming to structures that exist totally independently of human beings. Yet neither do moral judgments have only emotive subjectivity in the sense of expressing purely personal feelings. Rather, moral judgments for Hume have intersubjective objectivity in that they are factual judgments about the species-typical pattern of moral sentiments in specified circumstances.

Hume compares moral judgments to judgments of secondary qualities such as colors. My judgment that this tomato is red is true if the object is so constituted as to induce the impression of red in normally sighted human beings viewing it under standard conditions. Similarly, my judgment that this person is morally praiseworthy is true if the person's conduct is such as to induce the sentiment of approbation in normal human beings under standard conditions. Just as an object can appear red to me when in fact it is not, so a person can appear praiseworthy to me when in fact he is not. The moral judgment whether some conduct would give to a normal spectator under standard conditions a moral sentiment of approbation is, Hume insists, a factual matter.

Thus, for Hume, moral judgment requires a combination of reason and passion. Reason can direct action, but it cannot motivate it. Passion is the primary cause of action because it sets the goals of action. Reason is the secondary cause of action because it provides information relevant to the goals set by passion.

Recent research in neurobiology confirms Hume's argument that reason and passion are distinct and yet complementary causes of human behavior, because rational conduct must be guided by emotional assessments that enforce a system of preferences. Any Kantian conception of moral rationality as utterly free from emotion has been refuted by neuroscience.

Aristotle's account of practical reasoning agrees with Hume and with this research in neuroscience in recognizing the primacy of passion or desire in motivating human action. "Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle believes, although reason can guide the desires that do move us. Desire always moves us, but thought never moves us without desire. Deliberate choice by practical reasoning requires a conjunction of desire and reason into "desiring thought" or "thinking desire." In his Rhetoric, Aristotle shows how the psychology of the moral emotions, working through social praise and blame, supports a natural moral sense.

Although Lewis does not cite Hume, he does employ Hume's comparison of moral judgments to perceptions of color, so that the moral truth of judging whether some behavior is truly praiseworthy or not is similar to the perceptual truth of judging whether some object is truly red or not.

Lewis does cite Aristotle, and clearly Lewis's account of "Practical Reason" as distinct from "Theoretical Reason" is drawn from Aristotle. Moreover, like Aristotle, Lewis sees that moral judgment requires a combination of reason with emotion, sentiment, or desire.

Moreover, Lewis's "Illustrations of the Tao" in The Abolition of Man are illustrations of the universal moral psychology of the human species as animals naturally inclined to feel moral sentiments of approval and disapproval.

One can see this by noticing how selective Lewis is in his choice of illustrations. For example, under the category of "the law of general beneficence," he quotes the Biblical injunction "Do not murder"(Exodus 20:13). Why doesn't he also quote these commands of Moses to his soldiers fighting against the Mideanites--"Kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves" (Numbers 31:17-18)? Doesn't he quote the first passage because he knows it will elicit the reader's sympathetic approval, while he knows that the second passage (or similar passages in the Bible) would provoke emotions of disapproval? Does that explain why the first belongs to "the Tao," but the second does not?

A Darwinian science of morality should be able to explain this moral psychology as rooted in evolved human nature. Such a science can make falsifiable predictions that are open to experimental testing. Much of the current research in evolutionary moral psychology is using experimental neuroscience, social psychology, and evolutionary game theory to do this.

Kantians like John Landon have objected to this post that I ignore the obvious fact that the Platonic Idea of the Good is beyond space and time. He offers no explanation as to why we should believe this. For him, this seems to be a matter of faith.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Daniel Bell and The Chinese Confucian Party

"It is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be relabeled the Chinese Confucian Party in the next couple of decades."

That's the remarkable claim being made these days by Daniel Bell, a professor of political theory at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has elaborated his argument for this claim in a book--China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, 2010). Brief statements of his reasoning can be found in two essays for The New York Times and Dissent, which can be found here and here.

I have a special interest in Bell's argument, because in October, I'll be presenting a paper at Beijing University entitled "The Dao of Confucianism and Darwinism," arguing that China needs a new Confucianism supported by Darwinian liberalism.

Does Bell support my argument for a liberal Confucianism sustained by Darwinian science? It's hard to say, because his reasoning is confusing, if not contradictory.

On the one hand, his claim that the Chinese Communist Party needs to be replaced by a Chinese Confucian Party suggests a rejection of communism in favor of Confucianism. He says that "Communism has lost its capacity to inspire the Chinese," that the failures of Maoist Marxism were so clear that Marxism no longer has any moral legitimacy, and so Marxism is totally dead in China. "A moral foundation for political rule in China," Bell observes, "almost certainly won't come from Karl Marx" (ix, xix, 8). This leads me to think he agrees with me that China needs a liberal Confucianism to replace Marxist socialism.

On the other hand, Bell insists that he's defending a socialist Confucianism that conforms to the current Marxist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Leaders of the Party say that their move in recent decades to promote capitalism is only the "primary stage of socialism." In accordance with Marx's ideology, capitalism is a necessary evil, a transitional stage that must prepare the way for a final revolution that will establish "higher communism." In this final revolution, family life, private property, and social hierarchy will be abolished in a utopian community of pure socialism (3-5). Bell advocates a "left Confucianism"--rooted in the "original Confucianism" of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi--that supports the "socialist ideals defended by Karl Marx" and thus supports the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (xxix-xxx).

This contradiction in Bell's argument is hard for me to resolve. I do wonder, however, whether this contradiction comes from a rhetorical maneuver that creates a tension between Bell's surface teaching and his secret teaching. In his Dissent article, Bell writes: "As a practical matter, interpretations of Confucianism are more likely to win acceptance in reformist circles of the ruling political class if they are also seen to draw upon socialist ideals." In his book, he writes: "Nor is it possible to openly say what almost everyone knows to be true: that Marxist-Leninism is basically dead as a ruling philosophy" (xix). Does this suggest that his defense of "socialist Confucianism" is actually a rhetorical ploy to obscure the fact that Marxist socialism is completely dead in China? So he only pretends to be working for the eventual triumph of true socialism? Is he really promoting a "liberal Confucianism" as his secret teaching?

This becomes a plausible possibility if we keep in mind that Bell has lived under the threat of persecution and censorship, which forces writers who want to criticize political rulers to employ an evasive style of writing. Bell is a Canadian who studied political theory at McGill University in Montreal and at the University of Oxford. In England, he met his Chinese wife. He then taught political theory in Singapore and Hong Kong before going to Tsinghua University, where he became the first foreigner in the humanities since the Chinese communist revolution. He says that in comparison with Singapore, "China is a paradise of academic freedom" (129). But he also says that he has to worry that if he becomes too openly critical of the Party's position, he could lose his visa and be expelled from China.

If Bell really is secretly agreeing with me that China needs a liberal Confucianism to replace Marxist socialism as the ground of moral order, then he's hiding the secret very well! He repeatedly insists that the Confucian tradition requires socialism, and that any conception of Confucian liberalism must be rejected. And yet his arguments for this conclusion are so weak, and even incoherent, that I must wonder whether this is part of his rhetorical strategy to hide his endorsement of Confucian liberalism from the communist party censors.

Let's start with the most obvious problem for any defense of a socialist Confucianism. Marxist socialism requires the abolition of family life. Bell admits that when the Chinese Communist Party tried "to replace family ties with ties to the state during the Cultural Revolution," this failed because it was contrary to "central Confucian values and habits" (10). It's impossible to conceive of Confucianism without filial piety. Bell never explains how Confucianism could be compatible with the socialist abolition of the family.

Moreover, the failure of Mao's Marxist government to extinguish Confucian traditions in China, despite resolute attempts to do so, testifies to the power of a Confucian civil society to resist governmental interference, which confirms the liberal argument as to the importance of civil society--the intermediary social groups between the individual and the state--as the ground of moral order.

After citing a few examples of how the Chinese government has recently begun to promote Confucianism, Bell observes that "the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored" (x). He then gives examples of how the revival of Confucianism has occurred outside of government. Academics have been studying Confucianism. Psychologists have noticed Confucian styles of thinking among Chinese people. Economists have seen the economic effects of Confucian family values. Scholars of business ethics have studied the influence of Confucian values on Chinese business practices. Political scientists and sociologists have shown the influence of Confucianism during the modernization of Chinese society and government.

Bell fails to see that this all points to the power of a Confucian civil society in China. Despite all the efforts of the Maoist government to destroy Confucianism, Confucian values have survived in the social life of China. This is a historical demonstration of the power of Confucian society to prevail over the power of an oppressive government.

The importance of civil society for Confucianism is also evident in the Confucian understanding of how rituals sustain moral order through the spontaneous order of social habits and customs that rest not on governmental coercion but on social persuasion. It is not always clear that Bell sees this.

After summarizing Xunzi's account of ritual as a social practice arising from social tradition, Bell observes: "Ritual practices, as Xunzi notes, are the guiding ropes that pull the government (27.24). So the most obvious starting place for reform would be the establishment of a government agency with the specific mission to promote rituals that help the vulnerable members of the community" (51).

Notice that Bell here reverses Xunzi's teaching. For Xunzi, ritual principles should guide the government. For Bell, the government should guide the ritual principles. And yet, Bell apparently doesn't notice that his conclusion from Xunzi's teaching is actually a reversal of the teaching, because Bell can't see how rituals can arise from the bottom of society as spontaneous social order without coercive governmental planning from the top.

But, then, only a few pages later, Bell changes his mind: "the less-than-inspiring history of governmental attempts to transform motivation (even of the indirect kind) is reason for caution. So the case for ritual should come largely from schools (e.g., teachers who emphasize rituals and set a good model for students), families (e.g., parents who encourage their children to let the elderly eat first), civil society (e.g., intellectuals who explain the benefits of ritual), and other groups in society that rely first and foremost on persuasion rather than coercion" (53).

So, now, Bell recognizes the importance of civil society as the ground for Confucian values--"groups in society that rely first and foremost on persuasion rather than coercion." But in contrast to socialism, this is exactly the teaching of liberalism--that moral order arises primarily from the spontaneous order of society working through character-forming habits and traditions that rest on social persuasion rather than governmental coercion. A liberal government secures the freedom of civil society by enforcing the procedural conditions for peaceful social cooperation--recognizing the rights and duties of family life, protecting against force and fraud, enforcing contracts and private property, generally securing the rule of law, and providing for military defense. A Chinese liberal government would thus allow the flourishing of Confucian civil society.

By contrast, a Chinese socialist government that would try to abolish family life, abolish private property, and reconstruct the moral order of society according to a coercively enforced central plan would have to try to abolish Confucianism--just as Mao's government tried to do.

So why doesn't Bell embrace a liberal Confucianism? After all, he notices that some scholars of Confucianism--like Wm. Theordore de Bary--have seen a "liberal tradition" in Confucian history. Well, it's not clear, because in the two works I have cited--his most recent book and his article in Dissent--there are only two paragraphs where he explains his objections to liberal Confucianism. In the article, he claims that "liberalism" is a Western idea, and therefore a "liberal Confucianism" would have to subordinate Confucianism to the foreign standards of liberalism, which would fail to take Confucianism seriously on its own grounds (p. 4). In the book, he objects that there can be no common ground between liberalism and Confucianism, because while Confucianism is a comprehensive way of life, a moral conception of how one should live, liberalism is "mainly a political philosophy rather than an all-embracing ethical philosophy" (150). Liberals defend the idea of limited government that does not prescribe how people should live in their private lives, as long as they respect the equal liberty of others. Liberals leave private individuals to live as they please. But one cannot be a Confucian without accepting the moral norms of the Confucian way of life.

The first point--that "liberalism" is a Western idea that is foreign to China--is odd, considering that Bell is advocating a fusion of Confucianism with Marxist socialism, which is obviously a very Western idea. But this also begs the question at issue, which is whether a liberal order is far more hospitable to Chinese Confucianism than is Marxist socialism. If Confucianism flourishes in civil society, as Bell seems to say, then shouldn't he support a Chinese liberal order that would promote the freedom of civil society?

The second point--that liberalism, unlike Confucianism, cannot support "an all-embracing ethical philosophy"--is false, unless one believes that liberalism is libertinism or moral relativism. Surely, Adam Smith was an important liberal thinker, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments sets forth "an all-embracing ethical philosophy." But Smith explains how moral order arises through the natural and voluntary associations of social life that shape moral character by cultivating the moral sentiments. Later, Darwin explained how this view of morality could be rooted in an evolved moral sense. Thus, liberals can see the importance of a moral tradition like Confucianism that arises from moral persuasion in society rather than legal coercion by government.

Bell claims that his socialist Confucianism would conform to the "original Confucianism" of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. But he never specifies how we could read Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi as endorsing "the ideals of Karl Marx." Abolition of the family? Abolition of property? Dictatorship of the proletariat? I don't see any of this in the Confucian texts.

But I do see Menius arguing for low tax rates (10%), limited government, and free markets. That sounds pretty liberal to me. Mencius also warns that most political rulers suffer from a lust for power and "a taste for killing people." And he suggests assassination as one good response to tyrannical rule. Isn't this suspicion of absolute power justified by the record of Marxist rulers like Mao?

Modern liberals have looked to constitutionalism as a way of channelling, checking, and balancing the powers of government to protect against the abuse of power. Bell also has a set of constitutional proposals for China. But it's not clear whether his proposed constitution is either Confucian or socialist.

Bell's proposal is in response to Jiang Qing's recent proposal for "political Confucianism" in China. Jiang is a Chinese Confucian who has stirred both admiration and controversy in arguing for a Chinese constitution in which Confucianism would become the state religion, and the national government would be organized around a legislature with three houses.

According to Jiang, there are three sources of legitimacy for a state--"heavenly sacredness," earthly historical tradition, and human consent. He proposes to institutionalize these three sources of legitimacy through a tricameral legislature. Bell summarizes this in an appendix to his book (175-91).

The "House of Exemplary Persons" would evoke heavenly sacredness. Members would be chosen by Confucian organizations relying on examinations testing knowledge of the Confucian classics.

The "House of Cultural Continuity" would have members representing various religions and members who were descendants of great sages, including the descendants of Confucius.

The "People's House" would be chosen by elections and functional constituencies to represent the masses of uneducated people.

Although all religions would be tolerated, Confucianism would be the established state religion.

Bell agrees with Jiang in rejecting liberal democracy as rule by the uneducated, irrational people who constitute the majority in any society. Both Bell and Jiang look to rule by the educated few as the best.

Bell admits, however, that there might be a problem here in that Jiang "underestimates the political intelligence of ordinary people and overestimates that of intellectuals" (191). Bell also wonders whether written examinations are the best way to find the most virtuous people, because of the problem of "how to filter out clever but amoral (or immoral) exam takers" (187). But, even so, Bell never takes seriously the possibility that intellectuals who become political rulers might be imperfect in their knowledge or their virtue. Whereas liberalism assumes that that is always the case.

Bell sees problems in Jiang's tricameral legislature that lead him to propose an alternative bicameral legislature. Bell proposes that there be a meritocratic house with members chosen for seven- or eight-year terms by examinations, which should cover not only the Confucian classics, but also world history, basic economics, and a foreign language. He says that for this house, "there are strict penalties for corruption."

The other house of the legislature would be democratically elected to represent the preferences of the people--those who are uneducated and irrational.

Those in the meritocratic house would be free from the narrow and irrational interests of the people, and therefore they could judge how best to promote the common good of the whole nation as well as the common good for future generations, for all of humanity, and even all animals.

According to Bell, one example of the wisdom to come from the meritocratic house is that they would adopt the policies for solving the global warming crisis set forth in Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth (196).

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of such a utopian vision of rule by the wise elite over the ignorant masses. But what is most perplexing about all this is how Bell claims that this is "political Confucianism," although he admits that there is no basis for any of this in the Confucian texts (180). Of course, beginning in the Han Dynasty, there was a long tradition in Imperial China of recruiting state bureaucrats through an examination in the Confucian texts. This ended in 1905, near the end of the Qing Dynasty. But Bell never endorses this as a historical precedent for what he has in mind, probably because he doesn't want to endorse Imperial Confucianism as the sort of Confucianism that he wants.

There is one crucial point where I agree with Bell. He rejects Jiang's appeal to Confucianism as a state religion with "sacred sources from Heaven." I agree with Bell's argument that Confucius was evasive or silent about metaphysical or supernatural conceptions of "Heaven" or the afterlife, because his primary concern was for human life on earth. This supports my claim that Confucianism shares with Darwinism a "humanistic" conception of moral order as arising not from cosmic sources--God, Nature, or Reason--but from human sources--human nature, human tradition, and human judgments.

In my China paper, I will be elaborating my reasoning for why Darwinian science would support a humanistic and liberal Confucianism. Much of that reasoning will be drawn from my many blog posts in recent months on Confucianism and Darwinian liberalism.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Blanchard on Lincoln, Darwin, and Natural Right

My friend Ken Blanchard and I have been talking about Darwinism and political theory ever since we spent a summer together at Dartmouth College in 1996 participating in a NEH/NSF Institute on the "Biology of Human Nature" directed by Roger Masters.

He is the editor of Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, which includes an excellent essay by him on "Natural Right and Natural Selection," in which he argues that Darwinian biology confirms Aristotelian thought.

Recently, he has written an article on "Natural Right and The Origin of Species" for Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 39, January-March, 2010, pp. 12-19. Here he argues that Darwinian biology supports Abraham Lincoln's natural right argument against slavery.

I have written about this in my chapter on the slavery debate in Darwinian Natural Right and in many blog posts comparing Lincoln and Darwin. But I have never written anything on this topic that has the clarity and precision of Ken's essay.

I do have one point of disagreement, however. Ken goes too far in identifying Lincoln and Aristotle, while I think Lincoln's liberalism departs somewhat from Aristotle.

Ken shows that Lincoln's use of the idea of natural rights to campaign against the extension of slavery rests on three claims. "First, there must be no natural justification for the rule of any set of masters over any set of slaves. Second, natural right must be natural in the sense that it serves natural ends. Finally, it must be natural in so far as it is served by natural human inclinations." Although Lincoln believed that common sense supported all three claims, Ken shows that modern Darwinian biology confirms Lincoln's reasoning on all three points--natural equality, natural ends, and natural inclinations.

In defense of natural equality, Lincoln argues that while human beings vary from one another in many respects that make some better than others, they are all equal in the right of each to self-government. Generally, human adults with normal mental and moral capabilities do not voluntarily submit to enslavement, because each person assumes that he is fit to govern himself. After all, even slaveholders refuse to submit to their own enslavement. But any argument that slaveholders make to justify their mastery over slaves could be used to justify the enslavement of the masters. Like the arguments that masters make for justifying slavery, all the arguments that monarchs and oligarchs make for their being entitled to rule by natural superiority or divine appointment can be refuted. The mere fact that slave masters and political rulers have to make such arguments to justify their supremacy over others shows that even tyrants recognize that they need to persuade their subjects to accept their rule, because those who are hated by the people can be overthrown by force.

Blanchard sees some Darwinian confirmation for this natural equality of rights in Christopher Boehm's evolutionary account of "egalitarian hierarchy." Like chimpanzees, human foragers have a dominance hierarchy, but subordinates resist exploitative dominance. In agrarian states, it was harder for subordinates to protect themselves against despotic dominance, but even so, the history of rebellion and assassination shows that popular resistance to exploitation puts some limits on despotism. Boehm sees modern egalitarian democracy as a return to the standards of justice that prevailed in foraging societies, which seems to conform to Lincoln's view of modern democracy as better fitted to human nature than ancient despotism.

Lincoln's view of the natural ends of government is stated in his "fragments on government:

"The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves--in their separate, and individual capacities.

"In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

"The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

"The first--that in relation to wrongs--embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

. . .

"But a far larger class of objects springs from the injustice of men. If one people will make war upon another, it is necessary with that other to unite and cooperate for defense. Hence the military department. If some men will kill, or beat, or constrain others, or despoil them of property, by force, fraud, or noncompliance of contracts, it is a common object with peaceful and just men to prevent it. Hence the criminal and civil departments" (Library of America edition of Lincoln's writings, 1:301-302).

Thus, the natural ends of government correspond to protection from wrongs (criminal and civil), public works and institutions, and military defense. These are all ends that individuals can better achieve through governmental action than they could acting on their own.

For Blanchard, this human need for government to achieve social coordination corresponds in modern biology to collective action among social animals. Just as the cells of an organism must cooperate for the good of the organism, so must social insects cooperate for the good of the colony. But with any cooperative behavior, there is a temptation for individuals to cheat in their pursuit of short-term selfish interests.

Blanchard observes:

"In every eusocial species, at the heart of the social organization is a social contract. The short-term interest of at least some individual members is subordinated to the common interest of the superorganism; in return, the interest of each member is better served than it would be without the contract. That is the basis of justice everywhere and always. In some cases, there is a difference between what an individual worker ought to do (serve both the common interest and her own long-term interest) and what she is tempted to do (sacrifice both for short-term reproductive gain). Where there is temptation, even in a purely functional sense a moral dimension has emerged" (16).

Human beings use cultural learning, language, and symbolism to construct rules of justice that are unique to human beings. But these human rules of justice are all directed to a natural problem faced by all social animals--how to secure the common good of communities from subversion by individual cheaters.

Lincoln believed that the injustice of slavery was manifest in the moral feelings or sentiments--in the natural disposition of human beings to feel indignation against exploitation. Even in slave societies, one sees signs of a guilty conscience--scorn for slave dealers and slave owners voluntarily freeing their slaves. To Southerners, therefore, Lincoln could say: "It is your sense of justice, and human sympathy, continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself--and that those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt, and death (1:327).

Darwin's account of the natural moral sense and recent research on the evolutionary psychology of morality support this insight into the primacy of the moral emotions as part of our evolved human nature. As Blanchard indicates, research on the "ultimatum game" in game theory shows that most human beings are naturally inclined to moral indignation against cheating, and those tempted to cheat are constrained by their fear of the punishment that comes from such moral emotions.

Blanchard's reasoning coincides largely with my own. Just about everything he says about "natural right" as rooted in "natural equality," "natural ends," and "natural inclinations" could be framed within my account of "Darwinian natural right" as rooted in the "natural desires" of evolved human nature.

But there is one point where I might disagree with him. Blanchard implies that Lincoln's teaching about "natural rights" conforms exactly to Aristotle's teaching about "natural right." In a few places, Blanchard does suggest that Lincoln might be more "modern" or "liberal" than Aristotle, but he doesn't explain this. Here is where I would say that Lincoln really was more "liberal" than Aristotle, and that Darwinian science supports the classical liberalism of Lincoln.

Blanchard says that Aristotle steered between two extreme positions. "Socialist models fail by ignoring the irreducibly Private sphere. Libertarian models fail to recognize that the individual human being cannot be understood apart from membership and interaction in human communities" (14). He goes on to note that while "the classical political philosophers had argued that political power ought to be distributed according to virtue," Lincoln argued that political power should be based on popular consent based on the conception of a political community as a "social contract" (14-16). Surely, there is an important disagreement here between Aristotle and Lincoln that Blanchard is not exploring.

The categories of action that Lincoln lays out as conforming to "the legitimate object of government" conform largely to what Adam Smith says at the end of The Wealth of Nations about the proper ends of government--military defense, security against force and fraud, enforcing contracts, and certain public works and institutions. Although the public institutions for the education of the young can have some effect in shaping moral and intellectual virtues in the citizenry, Smith suggests, generally the moral life of human beings is formed through the natural and voluntary associations of civil society--as described in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Contrast this with what Aristotle says in the Politics (1280b1-12). He attributes to the sophist Lycophron the teaching that the purpose of law is to protect citizens against force and fraud and to secure commerical exchange, and thus law should be "a contract, a guarantor among one another of the just things, but not the sort of thing to make citizens good and just." Aristotle rejects this, because he believes a polis is not just for the sake of living but also for the sake of living well, and for living well, a polis must shape the moral and intellectual virtues that constitute the human good.

It seems that those ancient political thinkers like Lycophron anticipated modern liberalism in its teaching that the aim of government should be limited to securing the conditions for a peaceful social life without legally enforcing any substantive moral conception on all. This seems to be what Blanchard criticizes when he refers to "libertarian models" that "fail to recognize that the individual human being cannot be understood apart from membership and interaction in human communities."

But libertarians like Lycophron don't necessarily deny the social nature of human beings. Rather, they argue that natural human sociality and the moral character-formation that comes through such sociality is better expressed in civil society than in the state. When Aristotle speaks about the polis as aiming not just at living but also at living well, He doesn't distinguish between the polis as society and the polis as the state. To limit the functions of the state, as Lycophron does, creates a realm of freedom in civil society where individuals can form their moral lives through social interaction in families and social groups of all kinds. The liberal distinction between state and society allows us to see that the aim of politics is freedom, while the aim of society is virtue.

Lincoln is, I think, on the side of liberalism here. One way to see this is to look at two of his most important early speeches. His "Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838" and his "Address to the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois, February 22, 1842."

In the Lyceum speech, he speaks about the conditions for preserving the political freedom coming from the political revolution of the American founding fathers. In the Temperance speech, he speaks about the Washington Temperance Society as showing us how to secure the moral freedom coming from the moral revolution manifest in the Society.

The Washington Temperance Society was a movement of former drunkards to persuade everyone to sign a pledge to give up the drinking of all alcohol. Alcoholism was a serious moral problem in 19th century America. Some historians estimate that the average per capita consumption of hard liquor at that time was three times what it is today in the United States. The campaign for temperance was one of the first great moral reform movements of the 19th century. Some of the reformers argued for laws that would make the production and consumption of intoxicating drink illegal. Such a law of legal prohibition was first passed in the state of Maine in 1851. But it was later rescinded because of intense popular opposition.

The Washington Temperance Society refused to endorse such laws, because it stood for the principle that moral reform was better achieved by social persuasion than by legal coercion. A a statement of the Society's position published in 1842 probably influenced Lincoln. He agrees that temperance would be a great moral achievement, and he agrees that the best way to promote such a moral revolution would be through persuasion and social pressure. As far as I know, Lincoln never argued for the legal prohibition of alcohol.

Putting these two speeches together suggests that Lincoln was an Aristotelian liberal, who believed that the aim of government was to secure the conditions for individual liberty, while the aim of civil society was to promote moral and intellectual virtue. A Darwinian liberalism supports this position.

Blanchard's response to this post can be found here.