Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Darwinian Liberalism, Revisited

Last July, I wrote a series of three essays for Cato Unbound on "Darwinian Liberalism." Having just reread those essays--and the "reaction essays" from PZ Myers, Lionel Tiger, and Herbert Gintis--I now see that there are four major ways in which Darwinian science supports classical liberalism.

First, Darwinian science supports classical liberalism's devotion to the British Enlightenment tradition of thought as opposed to the French Enlightenment tradition. Although I don't explicitly make this point in my Cato Unbound essays, I elaborate this point in Darwinian Conservatism.

In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Friedrich Hayek distinguished between two traditions of liberty associated with England and France.

we have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty: one empirical and unsystematic, the other speculative and rationalistic--the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood, the second aiming at the construction of a utopia, which has often been tried but never successfully. Nevertheless, it has been the rationalist, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, that has progressively gained influence, while the less articulate and less explicit tradition of English freedom has been on the decline. (54-55)

Later, Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions (2002) showed how much of the ideological debate over the past two hundred years could be understood as a debate between the "constrained vision" of the British tradition and the "unconstrained vision" of the French Tradition. Then, Gertrude Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Englightenments (2004) sketched the history of these competing Enlightenment visions.

I have argued that Darwinian science is on the side of the realist vision of the British tradition of liberty. The central idea of this realist vision is evolution--the idea that social order is largely spontaneously evolved rather than rationally designed. Darwin's theory of biological and cultural evolution grew out of the social theory of evolved, spontaneous order that was developed by Adam Smith and others in the Scottish and British Enlightenments. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2002), showed how modern biological research on human nature confirms the insight of the realist vision that there is a universal human nature--imperfect in knowledge and virtue--that cannot be radically changed by social reform. Most recently, David Brooks's The Social Animal (2011) argues that recent research in cognitive science supports the British tradition against the French Tradition.

The second way in which Darwinian science supports classical liberalism is in supporting the liberal distinction between society and state. Darwin's evolutionary explanation of the moral sense shows how moral order can arise through the natural and voluntary associations of civil society without the need for coercive governmental enforcement by the state. This sustains the classical liberal distinction between the political order of the state as protecting individual liberty and the moral order of society as shaping virtuous character. Consequently, a Darwinian liberalism can combine an Aristotelian ethics of social virtue and a Lockean politics of individual liberty.

Regrettably, many thinkers in the Aristotelian tradition of political thought--particularly, Leo Strauss and his followers--fail to recognize this distinction between society and the state, because they don't see the ambiguity in the ancient Greek conception of the polis as signifying both a society and a state. Here is where I agree with Douglas Rasmussen--in a recent essay for Cato Unbound--who criticizes the Straussians for ignoring this distinction and for refusing to consider how this distinction supports a union of Aristotelian virtue and Lockean liberty.

The third way in which Darwinian science supports classical liberalism is in showing how moral order can be grounded on purely human sources of order--human nature, human culture, and human judgment--without any necessity for appealing to supernatural or cosmic sources. This is important for classical liberalism because if the liberal principle of equal liberty for human beings depends upon some religious conception of human beings as divinely created, then it would seem that a liberal regime would have to enforce some theocratic conception of moral order as grounded in religious belief, which would deny the liberty of thought that is crucial for liberal thought.

The fourth way in which Darwinian science supports classical liberalism is in confirming the liberal history of government as set forth in the political anthropology of Locke, Hume, and Smith. An evolutionary history of government manifests three eras in political history: the Paleolithic era of egalitarian hierarchy in foraging societies, the pre-modern era of despotic hierarchy in agrarian states, and the modern era of egalitarian hierarchy in commercial liberal republics.

In this history, we see the difficulty in combining freedom and civilization. Foraging societies were free but uncivilized. Agrarian states were civilized but unfree. Commercial liberal republics are both free and civilized.

We can judge this history to be progressive insofar as it's a cultural history of trial and error in trying out various ways of organizing society and politics, as a result of which we eventually see the emergence of modern liberal regimes as successful because they happen to satisfy the full range of natural human desires more adequately than any prior regimes.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (2): Verbal Courtship Theory

David Brooks's The Social Animal is an ambitious, and therefore risky, book.

One can see that in how he summarizes hundreds of research reports in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. He describes this as a "perilous enterprise," because many of these studies are in dispute, and it's often impossible to briefly summarize complex research in ways that convey the complexity and nuance in the work. He admits that he won't satisfy all of his readers, but he notes that he has "tried to direct readers to sources where they can read about the original work and draw their own conclusions about its implications" (377-78). And, indeed, his notes with research citations take up 26 pages of small print at the back of the book.

Consequently, any careful reader of Brooks's book will have to read some of the research he cites in order to judge whether his claims are warranted or not. I foresee that when I use this book as a text in an undergraduate class, I will ask my students to do that--to read some of the original research for themselves and then assess its plausibility for supporting Brooks's arguments.

It's clear, however, that some of the early reviewers of Brooks's book have not done this. For example, in his review in the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Nagel complains: "Brooks seems willing to take seriously any claim by a cognitive scientist, however idiotic: for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates." It's easy to dismiss such as claim as "idiotic" without actually scrutinizing the research that supports it.

The passage in the book that Nagel finds so "idiotic" comes in the context of Brooks's story of how Harold's parents--Rob and Julia--first met for a blind lunch date. After describing the flow of their conversation and how much they enjoyed talking with one another, Brooks cites some research in evolutionary psychology that might explain the importance of language for sexual mating:

Words are the fuel of courtship. Other species win their mates through a series of escalating dances, but humans use conversation. Geoffrey Miller notes that most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?

Miller believes that humans learn the words so they can more effectively impress and sort out potential mates. He calculates that if a couple speaks for two hours a day, and utters on average three words a second, and has sex for three months before conceiving a child (which would have been the norm on the prehistoric savanna), then a couple will have exchanged about a million words before conceiving a child. That's a lot of words, and plenty of opportunities for people to offend, bore, or annoy each other. It's ample opportunity to fight, make up, explore, and reform. If a couple is still together after all that chatter, there's a decent chance they'll stay together long enough to raise a child.

Harold's parents were just in the first few thousand words of what, over the course of their lifetimes, would be millions and millions, and things were going fabulously. . . . (13)

The reader who checks the endnotes for this passage will see that Brooks is citing Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (Random House, 2000), pages 369-75. This is a book surveying recent evidence and theorizing in biology and psychology supporting Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection--the idea that both human sexes have evolved ways of displaying cues of fitness that attract mates. The passage cited by Brooks is part of a chapter on "verbal courtship theory," which tries to explain how human verbal behavior might have evolved to make human beings more attractive to potential mates.

Miller's reasoning in this particular passage moves through eight steps. Throughout the passage, Miller uses words like "may" and "perhaps" to suggest how tentative his conclusions are. And yet Miller's arguments and evidence are impressive enough to make a powerful case for his theory that the size of a human adult's vocabulary has evolved through a history of mate choice.

Miller's first step is to point out that the typical adult vocabulary of 60,000 words is excessive, because it surpasses what we need for pragmatic communication. The most frequent 100 words account for about 60 percent of all conversation, and the most frequent 4,000 words account for about 98 percent. Why do we need all these words? If we have the word "blue," why do we need "azure," "cobalt," "sapphire," "ultramarine," "cerulean," and "indigo"?

His second step is to show that artificial languages and "pidgin" languages can satisfy the practical needs of life with very small vocabularies. In the 1920s, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards developed what they called Basic English. With an English vocabulary of 850 words, this language could serve all the purposes of everyday practical life. Similarly, pidgin languages are developed when people with different languages have to communicate with one another for practical purposes, and these languages have very small vocabularies. This shows that the much larger vocabularies of normal human languages are not necessary for pragmatic communication.

Miller's third step is to note an analogy to bird song. Most bird song evolves through mate choice. Some birds--such as nightingales--have a large repertoire of courtship songs (over a thousand), and this seems to be because those males who sing more songs are more attractive to mates, which seems to arise because a larger song repertoire of songs is an indicator of intelligence and learning abilities that enhance fitness.

Miller's fourth step is to note that vocabulary size varies greatly among human beings, and it seems to indicate factors of intelligence and learning ability that are highly heritable and indicators of fitness. Consequently, our ancestors would have benefited by selecting mates with large vocabularies that would have indirectly indicated fitness.

Miller's fifth step is to indicate that although most human beings are probably not consciously aware that they prefer mating with someone who has a large vocabulary, there is some evidence that couples in long-term relationships are similar to one another in the size of their vocabularies. Since intelligence testing indicates that the size of one's vocabulary correlates with one's IQ, choosing mates based on their vocabularies is an unconscious inference about their intelligence.

Miller's sixth step is to point to how, in the film Mary Poppins, the song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" highlights the power of unusual words to advertise intelligence.

Miller's seventh step is to admit that his verbal courtship theory has not yet been fully tested:

To test this verbal courtship theory of vocabulary properly, we would have to find out much more about human verbal behavior than language researchers know at present. We don't know the size of typical ancestral or tribal vocabularies. We don't know whether people use more impressively obscure words during courtship. We don't know whether large vocabularies are valued directly in human mate choice. We don't know how vocabulary sizes correlate with brain size, physical health, physical attractiveness, fertility, or general fitness. Sex differences in the distribution of vocabulary sizes are rarely reported in the scientific literature (though they are perfectly well known to the Educational Testing Service that administers the SAT). (374-75)

After this concession as to the need for more study to test his theory, Miller concludes by affirming that the evidence and reasoning that he has presented should at least suggest the plausibility of explaining the large size of human vocabularies as evolving through sexual selection just like the song repertoires in some bird species.

For Thomas Nagel to flippantly dismiss all this as "idiotic" is . . . well, idiotic.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

David Brooks and Evolutionary Conservatism (1): The British Enlightenment

"This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world."

That's how David Brooks begins his new book--The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. The tone of comic irony in these opening lines and in other parts of the book seems oddly discordant, because it undercuts the seriousness of Brooks's intention in surveying the recent research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to explain human nature and human happiness.

In fact, the early reviews that I have seen--by Thomas Nagel (The New York Times), Alan Wolfe (The New Republic), Will Wilkinson (, and PZ Myers ( all been so scornful of the book that I wonder whether Brooks loses many of his readers from the opening lines.

And yet, in contrast to these reviewers, I find this to be one of the most intellectually stimulating books that I have read in recent years. So I have to wonder what it is that I see in the book that would explain why my reaction is so different from these reviewers.

I'll have to admit that one explanation for this might be that I happen to agree with a lot of what Brooks is arguing. But I also happen to disagree with parts of this book--particularly, one chapter (Chapter 20: "The Soft Side") that seems to me to be the weakest part of the book. I'll explain that disagreement in a future post. Here I'll explain my main point of agreement.

The uniqueness of the book is the attempt to fuse a fictional narrative and an intellectual argument in a manner that, as Brooks indicates, follows the model of Rousseau's Emile. Just as Rousseau uses the story of Emile and Sophie to illustrate his philosophic teaching about human nature and human society, Brooks uses his story of Harold and Erica to illustrate his understanding of how modern cognitive science illuminates human psychology.

The title of each chapter indicates some feature of human nature--such as "Attachment," "Culture," or "Morality." Brooks narrates some events in the life of Harold and Erica that illustrate that theme. He then surveys some of the recent research in cognitive science that explains the relevant facet of human psychology, and he draws out the implications of this for social life and public policy.

The primary idea running throughout the book is the supremacy of the unconscious mind (Level 1) over the conscious mind (Level 2). He explains:

I want to show you what this unconscious system looks like when it is flourishing, when the affections and aversions that guide us every day have been properly nurtured, the emotions educated. Through a thousand concrete examples, I am going to try to illustrate how the conscious and unconscious minds interact, how a wise general can train and listen to the scouts. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan from another context, the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious. (xii)

Moreover, he sees this as vindicating a philosophic position, which he identifies with the British Enlightenment, and this is the general point of agreement between Brooks's book and my defense of evolutionary or Darwinian conservatism:

Brain research rarely creates new philosophies, but it does vindicate some old ones. The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connectedness over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment, which emphasizes reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasizes sentiments, wins. (xiii)

In Brooks's fictional narrative, Harold writes a book about the British Enlightenment. Harold explains to Erica that the British Enlightenment included thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, while the French Enlightenment included those in the tradition of Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Condorcet. Those in the British Enlightenment were not irrationalists, who denied the importance of reason. But they did stress the limitations of reason and the importance of emotion and desire as guiding reason. Moreover, they believed that morality was rooted in moral sentiments or emotions rather than the logical deductions of pure reason. And while those in the French Enlightenment looked to human reason as the source of the deliberately designed order of human morality and politics, those in the British Enlightenment saw social order as largely evolved rather than designed.

This distinction between the British and French traditions was originally developed by Friedrich Hayek. It was then developed by Thomas Sowell--in his book A Conflict of Visions--as an ideological debate between a realist vision of social order and a utopian vision.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I adopted this distinction and argued that Darwinian science is on the side of the realist vision of the conservative tradition. As Sowell indicates, the central idea of the realist vision is evolution--the idea that social order is spontaneously evolved rather than rationally designed. Hayek understood this, and he saw that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection grew out of the social theory of evolved, spontaneous order that was developed by Adam Smith and others in the Scottish and British Enlightenments.

Insofar as Brooks argues for cognitive science supporting the philosophic tradition of the British Enlightenment, he seems to be close to what I have identified as evolutionary conservatism. But I can't be sure about this, because he is unclear about two crucial points.

First, although he occasionally acknowledges the importance of reason as interacting with emotion or sentiment in human life, he generally suggests that human behavior is so largely shaped by the unconscious that it's not clear that he leaves any room at all for rational judgment. This denies the insight of the British Enlightenment that while pure reason by itself cannot account for moral and political order, there is still room for prudential judgment to exercise influence in human affairs.

The second possible point of disagreement is that while Brooks generally argues that moral habits and customs are best shaped by the spontaneous order of civil society rather than by the coercion of government, his affirmation that "statecraft is soulcraft" suggests a statist enforcement of moral order.

I will have more to say about these and related points.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another Unconstitutional War? America's Elective Monarchy

Republican House Speaker John Boehner has been quoted as expressing some concerns about President Barack Obama's war against Libya. "Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved."

What's remarkable about such a comment is how Boehner takes it for granted that the President of the United States can go to war by his own decision, while the Congress waits passively for the President's explanation for his decision. Notice that no one inside or outside the Congress is saying anything about the fact that the Constitution of the United States clearly grants to the Congress the power to declare war. What this means, of course, is that that part of the Constitution has been set aside. In effect, the power to declare war has become a prerogative of the President.

We should remember what Senator Barack Obama said in criticizing the Bush administration: "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

But now, President Obama--the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize!--adds Libya to a long list of Muslim countries against which he has ordered bombing attacks. The list includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

This presidential usurpation of the congressional power to declare war shows that the President has become an elected monarch, and thus confirms Machiavelli's claim that even in supposedly republican forms of government, there is a natural tendency for the people to want rule by a prince.

During the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, one of the major complaints from opponents of the Constitution was that the President would become a king. In The Federalist, Number 67, Alexander Hamilton complained that this was a false charge. "Here the writers against the Constitution seem to have taken pains to signalize their talent of misrepresentation. Calculating upon the aversion of the people to monarchy, they have endeavored to enlist all their jealousies and apprehensions in opposition to the intended President of the United States; not merely as the enbryo, but as the full-grown progeny, of that detested parent."

In Number 69 of The Federalist, Hamilton compared the powers of the President and the King of Great Britain, and he argued that on some crucial points, the American President would not have monarchic powers. One crucial point concerned the war powers of the President:

The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with tht of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies,--all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.

Clearly, then, that only Congress can declare war was for Hamilton a primary distinction between the powers of the President and the powers of the British king. But now that the power to declare war has become a presidental power, the presidency has become more monarchic.

Of course, many of Hamilton's critics accused him of favoring monarchy and of pushing the American presidency towards monarchy. These criics understood that there is a natural disposition towards princely rule because of the tendency to concentrate power in the hands of a single person, particualrly in time of war.

This is evident in Locke's Second Treatise, in Locke's indication that even in popular forms of government, the people are inclined to yield to princely prerogative powers in war. Hamilton and other defenders of the Constitution tried to argue that the American president would not have the prerogative powers of a king. But the history of American government shows the tendency of the American presidency to become an elected monarchy.

Does this indicate that like other primates, human beings are naturally inclined to rule by alpha males, especially in times of war and emergency?

This points back to some of my recent posts on the Machiavellian character of primate politics.

In their recent book--The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic--Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule argue that the expansion of presidential power means that the United States is no longer a Madisonian republic of "liberal legalism," because now the concentrated powers of the president are checked not by law but by politics and public opinion. They see this as a vindication, in some respects, of Carl Schmitt's criticism of liberal legalism and advocacy of executive prerogative. Similar arguments have been made by Harvey Mansfield and other followers of Leo Strauss for the supremacy of presidential power as the "rule of one wise man."

Some of my posts on Mansfield's arguments can be found here, here, and here.

Mansfield's review of The Executive Unbound can be found here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Darwinian Lessons from the Earthquake in Japan

There are at least two Darwinian lessons from the earthquake in Japan.

The first lesson is that the universe is not moral. There is no good reason to believe that the victims of earthquakes are being punished for their bad conduct. We can try to explain how earthquakes happen. But we can never explain why they happen. Because earthquakes don't have purposes. They don't arise from the intentional action of a mind. And they certainly don't arise as a manifestation of a cosmic moral law. The natural universe does not care about us or for us.

Of course, those who believe in God as the providential Creator of the universe might believe that everything in the universe--including earthquakes--shows God's cosmic moral law at work. But this belief requires a faith in revelation that goes beyond ordinary natural experience.

Many of my critics have argued that Darwinian natural right cannot support human morality, because moral order requires a cosmic teleology so that human morality can be judged by its conformity to a cosmic moral law. But my response to this is to point out that a cosmic teleology requires belief in a cosmic God, or cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason that manifests cosmic purposefulness. Such a belief cannot be sustained by natural human experience--by experience with earthquakes and other natural disasters that show that the natural world is not guided by any kind of moral teleology.

The second lesson from the earthquake in Japan is that human morality can be rooted in human biology without the support of a moral cosmology. The human suffering in Japan has aroused sympathy from human beings around the world, which will lead us to want to help in the relief of that suffering. The universe does not care about what happens to us. But we care about what happens to us. Even without a cosmic teleology, we can see how moral order manifests the immanent teleology of human nature that inclines human beings to care about human welfare. This moral teleology is rooted not in a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason, but in human nature, human culture, and human judgments.

Contrary to the Platonic and Kantian rationalists, this human morality is not a dictate of pure reason, because reason without desire or emotion does not move us to action. If we care about human suffering in Japan, it is not because of our reasoning from a priori principles but because of our moral sentiments as expressions of our fellow-feeling for other human beings. As Hume observed, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."

Of course, our moral sentiments are not absolutely indiscriminate or impartial. Those of us who are far away from Japan and who have no family or friends there will support the relief efforts--perhaps by contributing a little money--but we won't make great sacrifices. Our moral sentiments are not selfless but self-centered. We are naturally social animals. But that natural sociality shows a structure in which we care more for those attached to us--our family members, our friends, our fellow citizens--than we do for distant strangers. We can extend our sympathy to wider and wider circles of humanity--and even out to nonhuman animals--but typically our sympathy for those near the center of the circle will be stronger than for those on the edge of the circle. Our natural morality--the morality of our evolved human nature--does not incline us to universal love (like that taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount).

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Rationalist Strikes Back: Thomas Nagel on David Brooks' Moral Biology

Today, we all live in the world of Charles Darwin.

If we're looking for some intellectually credible explanation for our human place in the universe, there is today no plausible alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. Because of Darwin, we now know what we are and where we came from. We are those remarkably smart, social primates with a unique suite of natural desires and capacities--including language, morality, and self-awareness--that has arisen through natural and cultural evolution.

The pervasive influence of this grand Darwinian story is now being extended beyond the natural sciences into the social sciences and humanities. We can see that this spring in the public debate surrounding two new books that are offering powerful arguments for a Darwinian paradigm for the social sciences. Next month, we'll see Frank Fukuyama's new book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, which is the first volume in what some people are calling Fukuyama's magnum opus. Having seen some of Fukuyama's lecture notes for some of the material going into this book, I foresee that this will become one of the leading statements of Darwinian political science.

The other book has just been published--David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Brooks surveys the research in evolutionary psychology as supporting an Aristotelian conception of human nature and human happiness. To illustrate his points, Brooks tells the story of one composite American couple--Harold and Erica. As Brooks indicates, he intends to employ the technique of Rousseau's Emile, in using a fictional narrative to illustrate his account of human nature.

Since I am now reading Brooks' book, I was interested in the review of the book by Thomas Nagel in the New York Times Book Review.

Nagel is a prominent philosopher at New York University. In 1978, he wrote one of the first responses to E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology coming from a philosopher. Like most philosophers at the time, Nagel showed the reaction of a Platonic transcendentalist in denigrating Wilson's biological account of morality. Nagel rejected sociobiological ethics because it failed to see that ethics is "an autonomous theoretical subject" like mathematics that belongs to a transcendent realm of pure logic. He argued that ethics exists at two levels--the behavioral and the theoretical. And while he acknowledged that biology could illuminate the behavioral level of ethics--the patterns of ethical action as motivated by moral emotions--he dismissed biology as irrelevant to the theoretical level of ethics as concerned with rational standards of moral justification and criticism. Insofar as morality is a matter of normative reasoning, it has nothing to do with any empirical science of human behavior.

With my memory of this essay, I was not surprised to see Nagel criticizing Brooks's book. Here we see the fundamental debate that has been the subject of many of my posts--the conflict between a Platonic or Kantian transcendentalism and an Aristotelian or Humean empiricism. Brooks shows how a Darwinian moral psychology confirms the Aristotelian and Humean tradition of empirical ethics, which will provoke the opposition of Platonic and Kantian transcendentalists like Nagel.

Nagel suggests at least four criticisms of Brooks's book. First, Nagel scorns Brooks's story of Harold and Erica as lacking any psychological depth that would engage our interest in them as vivid characters: "they do not come to life; they and their supporting cast are mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations."

I agree that Brooks's story lacks the narrative power of a good novel. But, at least, the story does succeed in the same way that Rousseau's Emile succeeds in providing concrete illustrations of some generalizations about human life.

Brooks's main argument is that the human mind works at two levels--the conscious and the unconscious--and that the unconscious mind is more important in shaping our lives. Nagel's second criticism is his complaint that Brooks does not clearly separate these two realms, because much of what Brooks identifies as unconscious--such as emotions, desires, character traits, and perceptions--could also be seen as parts of conscious experience. But then Nagel essentially concedes Brooks's point in admitting that to a large degree these conscious experiences are not fully under direct conscious control.

Nagel's third criticism is that Brooks is too credulous in accepting some "idiotic" claims by cognitive scientists--"for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates." But, then, Nagel admits that much of the research reported by Brooks is persuasive and not easily dismissed.

Nagel's fourth criticism expresses the fundamental dispute. Although Brooks does say that reason is important for human moral judgment, his argument that emotion and other unconscious motivations and perceptions drive moral experience tends to deny the supremacy of reason in ruling over the passions, which thus rejects the philosophical rationalism that Nagel and other moral philosophers take for granted. Brooks says that conscious reasoning gives us some control over our moral choices because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." So, for example, when Erika commits adultery, she immediately feels a deeply painful regret for what she has done. And contrary to what Nagel says about the story of Harold and Erica being "without interest," I find Brooks's description of how Erika is seduced by "Mr. Make-Believe" and is then thrown into agonizing remorse to be a moving narrative that elicits our sympathetic understanding. This story is a good illustration of what Darwin says about the experience of regret in shaping our moral deliberation. Erika responds to her moral crisis by telling herself a "story of drift and redemption"--a story of a woman who drifted away from her moral anchors until she found her way back to her moral commitments to a husband that she truly loved.

"Amid the tangled jostle of unconscious forces," Brooks observes, "the intuitionist still leaves room for reason and reflection," because "we can choose the narrative we tell about our lives." Nagel objects that this doesn't provide us any rational standards for choosing one narrative over another. He writes:

Experiments show that human beings feel greater sympathy for those who resemble them--racially, for example--than for those who do not. How do we know that it would be better to counter the effects of this bias rather than to respect it as a legitimate form of loyalty? The most plausible ground is the conscious and rational one that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering, so these differential feelings, however natural, are a poor guide to how we should treat people. But reason is not Brooks's thing: he prefers to quote a little Sunday school hymn about how Jesus loves the little children, "Be they yellow, black or white/they are precious in his sight." This is an easy case, but harder ones also demand more reflection than he has time for.

But then Nagel never explains exactly how purely rational principles resolve moral conflicts. (I recognize, of course, that a short book review doesn't allow for much elaboration.) He doesn't respond to some of the evidence surveyed by Brooks that shows how apparently rational human beings--psychopaths, for example--can become moral monsters because they lack the moral emotions that incline them to care for other human beings.

Moreover, Nagel doesn't explain why so many of the Kantian moral philosophers in Nazi Germany joined the Nazi Party. They surely had a very good intellectual understanding of the rational principle "that race is irrelevant to the badness of someone's suffering." But, apparently, their philosophical rationalism could not overcome the appeal of Nazi morality.

I will be writing some future posts on Brooks's book.

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

The New Yorker has published an excerpt from Brooks's book.

There is a web video of a "TED Talk" by Brooks on why reason cannot be separated from emotion.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lincoln, Darwin, and the Progressives: Jason Jividen's Book

Northern Illinois University Press has just published Jason Jividen's book--Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric. Jason is presently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

I take some special pride in this book, because it originated as a dissertation in political theory that I supervised at NIU. This is the latest addition to a distinguished list of books that were originally political theory dissertations at NIU.

This book is a study of how American presidents in the progressive tradition--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama--have invoked Abraham Lincoln in their rhetoric as supporting progressivism. Jason's argument is that in doing this, they had to distort Lincoln's political thought. Jason writes:

Lincoln sought to secure individuals' equal liberty to exercise diverse and necessarily unequal talents and abilities in the pursuit of happiness, under rule of law. This dedication to equal liberty expects an inequality of results or outcomes among individuals in pursuit of their interests. Lincoln showed in both word and deed that this pursuit of equality ought to recognize the necessity of various political and constitutional goods in moderating democracy and the pursuit of equality itself. Lincoln's pursuit of equality recognized the worth of the constitutional forms and institutions that help to structure and shape a measured and sober popular government. A large measure of the duty of democratic statesmanship is to foster a moderate love of equality rather than to allow the passion for equality to prompt us to pursue equality at all costs, destroying the institutions that help to make free government possible.

Beginning in the Progressive Era, many who invoked Lincoln's name in the pursuit of modern egalitarian principles nevertheless rejected this Lincolnian understanding of equality. The progressives and their heirs argued consistently that the pursuit of new and expanded notions of egalitarianism necessitated an overcoming of the institutions that Lincoln believed fostered a healthy republican government. This pursuit was guided, above all, by a self-conscious and deliberate turning away from the natural rights principles and constitutionalism that lay beneath the Lincolnian notion of equality in favor of a push for equality under the rubric of progressive history. Appealing to the Lincoln image in their writings and speeches, the progressives and their heirs must reject, revise, or reinterpret Lincoln in order to incorporate the Lincoln image into the rhetoric of progress and modern egalitarianism.

. . .

Progressivism and modern liberalism's rejection of modern natural right thinking leads to an indifference to constitutionalism, separation of powers, and limited government. Again, the choice-worthiness of such institutional arrangements follows from the assumption that there is an enduring and necessarily imperfect human nature that we can comprehend through human reason. Our reason tells us that all men are born with inalienable rights, which by definition place limits upon government. Moreover, given the imperfections of human nature, our reason suggests that political power ought to be constitutionally balanced and limited. Insofar as these principles are rejected in light of historical progress, it is probable that limited constitutional government would be deemed obsolete. The modern pursuit of equality is necessarily limited and tempered by these principles. The denial of an enduring and imperfect human nature, the rejection of the principle that all human beings are equally endowed with natural and inalienable rights, the radicalization of the pursuit of equality, and the willingness to alter constitutional forms and structures in this pursuit, are all intimately related. (175, 178)

As I have argued in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I believe that a Darwinian view of "enduring and necessarily imperfect human nature" supports Lincoln's principles of equal liberty and limited government.

Against this claim, however, many of the defenders of Lincoln against the distortions of the progressives--particularly, the students of Harry Jaffa--have insisted that the mistake of the progressives was in viewing Lincoln through the lens of Darwinian historicism. It certainly is true, as Jason indicates in his book, that the progressives commonly linked Lincoln and Darwin as manifesting the new organic science of historical progress that transcended the mechanical, Newtonian science of the American founders.

But if the progressives were bad interpreters of Lincoln, they were equally bad interpreters of Darwin. They failed to see how Darwin's science sustained Lincoln's opposition to slavery and his affirmation of equal liberty and limited government.

This historicism of the progessives came not from Lincoln or from Darwin but from the biblical historicism of Hegel--the idea that history can be understood as the unfolding of the intelligent design of a cosmic mind directed to absolute freedom.

Some of my previous posts on these points can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Does Anyone Believe in Hell?

What does it mean for us when almost no one any longer believes in Hell?

The New York Times has a story about Rob Bell--a popular evangelical pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan--who has written a book questioning the traditional belief in Hell. He argues that the young Christians in his church no longer believe that most human beings are condemned to eternal punishment in Hell. This story confirms what I wrote about a year ago concerning the declining belief in Hell.

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Heaven and Hell that can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

One of the conclusions from those posts is that most Christians have adopted the ancient heresy of Origen in that they assume that everyone will eventually go to Heaven. They cannot accept the traditional dogma of Christianity that most human beings will be punished forever in Hell for their disbelief in Christianity. Traditionally, Christians believed that Heaven and Hell were real places. Now, very few Christians believe that. At best, Heaven and Hell are psychological states in this life, and not real places in the afterlife. Almost no one today believes that sinners suffer eternal torment in Hell.

These Christians who cannot believe in Hell have adopted the position of Charles Darwin who rejected the idea of eternal punishment for unbelievers as a "damnable doctrine" (in his Autobiography).

This raises deep questions about the relationship between religious belief and moral conduct. The idea of eternal rewards and punishments was first formulated by the ancient Egyptians and Plato. The argument of Plato was that the morality of most human beings required a belief in the existence of a God who would reward good conduct and punish bad conduct in an afterlife. Those atheistic natural philosophers who explained the origin of cosmic order as a result of natural processes were condemned by Plato as subversive of moral and political order. This Platonic teaching was then adopted by medieval Christians. (Whether Plato actually believed this teaching is an open question, but it is clear that Plato and Plato's Socrates regarded this as a necessary belief for moral and political life.)

Even when John Locke argued for religious liberty and toleration in his Letter Concerning Toleration, he saw atheists as too dangerous to be tolerated, because atheism denied the foundations of moral and political order, which required belief in eternal rewards and punishments in an afterlife. He wrote:

Those are not to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration.

As I indicated in a previous post, belief in God can be explained as rooted in an evolved "theory of mind": our distinctly human capacity for reading "other minds" inclines us to believe in a supernatural mind with intentional agency. Locke shows this in his proving God's existence in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (III.3.27; IV.9-10). "That there are minds and thinking beings in other men as well as himself, every man has a reason, from their words and actions, to be satisfied: and the knowledge of his own mind cannot suffer a man that considers, to be ignorant that there is a God." From our intuitive certainty of the existence of our own minds, we can demonstrate the existence of the Divine Mind as the cause of our minds.

Believing in the moral agency of this Divine Mind supports moral and political order as founded on belief in God's moral law. In The Reasonableness of Christianity (par. 245), Locke argues that as "rational creatures," human beings have a "law of nature" or "law of reason" to guide their conduct. But most human beings cannot obey that law unless it is enforced by fear of eternal punishment in an afterlife.

The view of Heaven and Hell will cast a slight upon the short pleasures and pains of this present state, and give attractions and encouragements to virtue, which reason and interest and the care of ourselves cannot but allow and prefer. Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and will defy all competition. This makes it more than a name--a substantial good, worth all our aims and endeavors--and thus the gospel of Jesus Christ has delivered it to us.

Against this claim, however, Pierre Bayle--writing at the same time as Locke--pointed out that believing in Heaven and Hell had not prevented Christians from committing the greatest crimes. Moreover, Bayle observed, atheists could be moved by their natural temperament--by a passionate concern for winning a good reputation and avoiding social scorn--to obey the norms of good conduct. Consequently, there could be a society of atheists that would display all the virtues manifest in pagan societies that had not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This supported Bayle's argument that religious toleration should include tolerating atheists.

Thus, Locke's liberalism fell short of the expansive liberalism made possible by Bayle's extension of liberty to atheists. The crucial step was seeing how moral and political order could be rooted in a natural moral sense that did not require the religious belief in Heaven and Hell.

That step was confirmed by Darwin's evolutionary explanation of morality in The Descent of Man, which has been strengthened by recent evolutionary theorizing and empirical research on moral psychology. Darwin saw that morality depends on a combination of rational deliberation and moral emotions. "How far each man values the appreciation of others, depends on the strength of his innate or acquired feeling of sympathy; and on his own capacity for reasoning out the remote consequences of his acts. Another element is most important, although not necessary, the reverence or fear of the Gods or Spirits believed in by each man" (Penguin ed., 138). That religious belief is not absolutely necessary is illustrated by the abhorrence of incest, Darwin thought, because this is a naturally learned moral response that does not require "a special God-implanted conscience" (139).

Darwin elaborated this point in explaining in his Autobiography the changes in his religious beliefs. By the second half of his life, his "skepticism or rationalism" led him to see how morality could be sustained as a natural disposition even without religious belief in eternal rewards and punishments. He wrote:

A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience. As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. (Norton ed., 94-95)

Thus, Darwin understood that while he had chosen a Socratic life of science as the highest life for him--a life devoted to intellectual understanding for its own sake--he could also live a moral life grounded in his natural sociality and reason. Frederich Nietzsche--Darwin's contemporary--adopted the same Darwinian stance in his middle writings (particularly, Human, All Too Human). But unlike Darwin, Nietzsche's religious longings were so deep that he turned back, at the end of his life, to a Dionysian religiosity.

Even with the "death of God" in the modern world, the evolutionary roots of religious belief are so deep in human nature that many human beings will continue--like Nietzsche--to yearn for some vaguely religious satisfaction--some nebulous sense of eternal purpose and meaning.

But if most human beings today have lost their belief in Hell, then there is no religious support for moral and political order, and we will have to rely on the natural moral sense of our evolved human nature.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lectures in Quebec and Virginia

On March 17th, I will be lecturing at Concordia University in Montreal. The Department of Political Science will sponsor a lecture on "Does Darwin Subvert or Support Morality?" at 4:00 pm (in H-1220).

Earlier in the afternoon, the Department of Theological Studies will sponsor a debate with Paul Allen on "Darwinian Natural Law." I have written about my debate with Professor Allen in a post.

On April 20th, I will be lecturing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The Department of Economics will sponsor a lecture on "Darwinian Liberalism" for the Public Choice Seminar at 4:00 pm (in Carow Hall).