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.


Anonymous said...

At some future point I hope you will expand on the Sraussians' mistake regarding an important ambiguity within the term "polis" that may allow the combination of Aristotle and Locke.

Troy Camplin said...

I make use of Hayek's distinction in my dissertation as well as a more recent blogs posting on social justice. I think it is a profound and profoundly important distinction. One is evolutionary, the other is anti-evolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Though I have just started reading his work, it appears Hayek may owe something to Donald T Campbell's evolutionary thought. I recently read that the generic variation-selection-retention paradigm of Donald T Campbell is an excellent conceptual framework for considering how the biological and cultural evolutionary processes can add valuable insights into the nature of the law. "FA Hayek approved and adopted Campbell’s model to produce the thesis on legal evolution that is the subject of his works The Constitution of Liberty and Law Legislation and Liberty. Hayek’s thesis is considered to be the most sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of the application of evolutionary theory to legal development." This is very interesting stuff, and if my hunch is correct puts the lie to any notion law is "positive".

Incidentally I too am working on a paper on the themes of biologically derived Human nature and law.

Larry Arnhart said...

Donald Campbell's influence is evident in Hayek's "Three Sources of Human Values," the Epilogue for volume 3 of LAW, LEGISLATION, AND LIBERTY.

I offer some criticisms of Hayek on these points in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM. My main point is that Hayek often elevates custom over nature and reason. He should have sressed the need for "three sources"--human nature, human custom, and human reason.

This three-leveled analysis could then properly recognize three levels of law--natural law, customary law, and positive law.

JS123 said...

As regards the third point, how do you respond to the argument put forth by Michael Ruse that in order for a cooperative society to not be invaded by cheats it needs for moral rules to be perceived as objectively binding, and not as merely subjective social conventions of behavior.

Larry Arnhart said...

Our evolved morality is "objective" in the sense that it conforms to the natural desires and moral sentiments of the human species. The human grounds for that morality--human nature, human custom, and human judgment--are not subjective fantasies but real conditions for human welfare.

If you're a Platonist or Kantian looking for some cosmic grounds of morality, you won't be satisfied with this.

Troy Camplin said...

My understanding of Hayek is that he argues that human nature gives rise to human custom, and that one rationalizes after the fact, in the form of immanent criticism. This in turn can affect custom, but only within the bounds of human nature, and only on the margins of custom for healthy evolution to take place. Each have their proper roles, and custom is in tension between human nature and human reason, which is informed by and evolves in response to both levels of feedback. One must keep in mind that often Hayek is attempting to correct he extreme positions of others, and does so by emphasizing those things others have deemphasized or outright ignored.

Larry Arnhart said...


The version of Hayek that you have stated is acceptable to me.

But there is another version of Hayek's position in "The Three Sources" that I reject.

Hayek argues that cultural tradition alone, in opposition to nature and reason, is the only true source of value--or, at least, the only true basis for the goods that arise in "the open society of free men."

This creates three problems. First, it commits him to a kind of Freudian view of civilization as the repression of all natural instincts. Cultural evolution creates civilization by suppressing the innate desires of human beings. By contrast, socialism represents a "revival of primordial instincts" through restoring the rules of communal living that governed primitive human beings in foraging groups. Why would human beings want to live in Hayek's "great society" if it demands renunciation of their natural instincts?

The second problem in Hayek's elevation of cultural tradition over natural instinct and rational design that it suggests a cultural relativism that subverts Hayek's whole position.

The third problem is that Hayek's stress on cultural tradition as the only source of social order it that it ignores the role of deliberate choice in the moral criticism of social traditions.

I elaborate all these points in Chapter 1 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

Troy Camplin said...

I think you are right that Hayek argues that emergent tradition has the effect of repressing many natural instincts -- though I wouldn't go so far as to say all. The ones that are repressed are those that prevent large-scale social living. At the same time, t highlights those natural instincts that in fact allow large-scale social living. If Hayek emphasized the former more than the latter, it was precisely because he was addressing the atavism inherent in socialist thinking. One could also argue that Continental-style rationalism attempts to do the same thing in repressing the instincts. It just does so through a different mechanism.

Clearly Hayek is struggling to make sense of the connections among these three elements. Does he get it completely correct? No more than did Darwin in positing his theories of natural selection and sexual selection. The idea is a good one, though, and needs to be developed more fully, as I attempt here on the moral order and here on the artistic orders.