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.

1 comment:

Paul said...

"First, there must be no natural justification for the rule of any set of masters over any set of slaves."

I wonder about this point. I will grant that no normal adult human would want to be enslaved. But doesn't the evidence of group selection in human beings point to a natural fact, the fact that in some sense it is natural for some groups of humans to dominate other groups of humans. Isn't that one of the selection pressures that is posited by those who argue for group selection? I might be wrong, because more cooperative groups might just be better at taking care of each other and not dying from illness or starvation. However, if greater in-group pro-sociality actually was selected for because it allowed for that group to dominate other groups, then I think that would pose some sort of problem to an argument for our using our pro-social moral sentiments and intuitions as one of the main basis for moral justification.