Sunday, December 30, 2012

Girgis, Anderson, & George on "What Is Marriage?"--The Book

Two years ago, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George published an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy on "What Is Marriage?"  This article was widely debated because it was one of the most rigorous arguments for the claim that only heterosexual marriage of one man and one woman is "real marriage," and therefore that legalizing homosexual marriage would show a mistaken understanding of marriage. 

Now, Girgis, Anderson, and George have published an expanded version of their article as a short book.  Information about the book can be found at their website.  Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has taken up the issue of whether homosexual marriage is a constitutional right, we can anticipate that this book will have some influence on the Court's decision.

In response to the original article, I wrote a series of posts indicating that their reasoning about "real marriage" is essentially an argument rooted in a biological conception of natural law that evolutionary science would support.  I generally agree with this understanding of marriage as rooted in evolved human nature.

And yet I also indicated my disagreement with their suggestion that if homosexual marriage is legalized, this will destroy heterosexual marriage.  To me, this contradicts their natural law argument.  If "real marriage" is really natural, and not an artificial construction of law, then shouldn't we expect that natural inclination to marriage to express itself regardless of changing legal definitions of marriage?  And if it is natural, shouldn't we expect that the natural and voluntary associations of civil society will continue to support that natural institution of marriage, even if the legal definition of marriage has changed?

I see nothing in this book that would change my mind about this incoherence in their argument. 

On the one hand, they say that "redefining civil marriage would change its meaning for everyone," and they endorse a remark by Joseph Raz that "if these changes take root in our culture, then the familiar marriage relations will disappear" (54-55).  This suggests that marriage is so much a legal construction that changing the legal definition of marriage could bring about the complete disappearance of heterosexual marriage.  But if real marriage is natural, why does it depend completely on governmental law?

On the other hand, they write:
"marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours--it is not 'just a contract.'  Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to redefine. . . . marriages are, like the relationship between parents and their children or between the parties to an ordinary promise, moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people with or without legal enforcement." (80)
This indicates that marriage does not depend totally on legal enforcement, implying that even if the legal definition of marriage changes, "real marriage" will not disappear.

I agree, of course, that the natural inclination to marriage needs to be nurtured by social institutions--families, churches, and other social groups.  But this does not require a governmental system of marriage licensing.  In fact, as I pointed out in my previous posts, throughout most of human history, marriages were defined by informal norms shaped by families and other social institutions without any need for legal licensing.  But if Girgis, Anderson, and George are correct, this is impossible, because "real marriage" cannot survive without governmental licensing.

Occasionally, however, they concede that most of the work of "upholding marriage culture" belongs to "civil associations," and the state provides only a "supporting hand" (39-40).  But, again, much of what they say implies that any change in the state's definition of marriage could bring the disappearance of traditional marriage.

I am attracted to the idea of privatizing marriage just as we have privatized religion, so that marriage, just like religion, would be left up to the spontaneous orders of civil society.  If marriage were privatized, and thus there would be no necessity to get a marriage license from the state, then the natural institution of heterosexual marriage would prevail as satisfying the natural desires of most human beings.  But this would also allow some human beings to enter into homosexual marriages or other forms of marital union.  According to Girgis, Anderson, and George, this is impossible, because heterosexual marriage cannot endure if it is not legally licensed by the state as the only form of marriage.

My previous posts on this can be found  here, here, here., here., and here.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Roger Williams Was Right: The Biblical Basis of Legal Toleration

The secularization of politics through the liberal policy of legal toleration is largely a product of Christianity.  Liberal secularism has arisen as an unintended order of the cultural evolution of Christianity.

The crucial step in Christianity's secularization of politics was the move from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  The Mosaic political regime in the Old Testament became a theocracy that enforced its moral and religious law through persecution.  By contrast, the Christian churches in the New Testament were voluntary groups that enforced moral and religious conformity among their members without legal coercion.

After the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 311, Christianity eventually became the exclusive religion of the empire, and this allowed the Christian Church to use legal coercion against pagans and heretics, which included the execution of heretics.  The Catholic Church developed a theory of persecution that prevailed in the Middle Ages.

As a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, Protestants argued against the Catholic persecution of Protestants as heretics.  But once the Protestants gained political power, they persecuted Catholics, and the different Protestant churches persecuted one another.  This conflict provoked a debate over the possibility of a legal toleration that would allow for the peaceful coexistence of the differing religious traditions.  Eventually, this led to the development of the modern liberal doctrine of religious liberty. 

More clearly than any other Christian author in the Reformation, Roger Williams saw that legal toleration to protect the liberty of conscience was a return to the original position of New Testament Christianity as opposed to the Mosaic regime of persecution in the Old Testament.  For, as he declared in The Bloody Tenant of Persecution in 1644, "Persecutors seldom plead Christ but Moses for their author" (BT, 58).

Williams was one of those very few people in the Reformation who argued against persecution not only when he was its victim, but also when he had the power to become a persecutor.  He was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for condemning the Puritan rule there as a Mosaic theocracy that was contrary to the New Testament, and for arguing that the American Puritan settlers should pay for the land that they had stolen from the American Indians.  He then settled in what would become Rhode Island, established amicable relations with the Indians there, and founded a political community that extended legal toleration to all religions, although Williams was vigorous in trying to persuade those he regarded as pagans, blasphemers, and heretics to correct their moral and theological errors.  The radical character of Williams's argument was widely recognized: shortly after its publication, The Bloody Tenant was burned by order of the British House of Commons.

Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration was published forty-five years after Williams's Bloody Tenent, and the range of Locke's toleration fell short of Williams's.  Williams argued for tolerating all pagans, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics.  But Locke refused to extend toleration to Catholics and atheists.  Williams never says specifically that atheists are to be tolerated.  Some scholars assume that when Williams speaks of tolerating "Antichristians," this must mean atheists.  But clearly for Williams, "Antichristians" refers to Catholics or "papists"--those who are "false Christians" submitting to the Pope as the Antichrist (BT, 134, 179).  But it's significant that Williams never specifically states that atheists subvert social order, as Locke does.

Moreover, that Williams's legal toleration would protect atheists as well as believers is suggested by his radical separation--or what he called "wall of separation"--between church and state.  He interprets Romans 13 as teaching that the civil magistrates have authority only of a "civil nature" for "the good and peace of their civil state," while the Kingdom of Christ has authority of a "spiritual and of a Soul-nature" (BT, 108-109).  Civil magistrates have charge of "the bodies and goods of the subject," while the spiritual officers of Christ's church have charge of "their souls and soul safety" (BT, 127).  The "civil sword" for "defense of persons, estates, families, liberties of a city" does not extend to "spiritual and soul-causes" (BT, 160).  There are "diverse sorts of goodness," and "civil or moral goodness" is distinguished from "spiritual goodness" (BT, 245-46, 331-34). 

If government is restricted to securing "civil peace" or "a civil way of union," then every church can exist like any voluntary group that has no authority to use legal coercion (BT, 72-73).  Like any voluntary group, a church can follow the pattern of the churches in the New Testament that used excommunication as the ultimate punishment for those who departed from the orthodox beliefs and conduct of the church (see, for example, I Corinthians 5:13).  But "excommunication is not persecution" (BT, 91, 116, 192).

Williams argued that Constantine and the good Roman emperors did more harm to Christianity through their persecution of heretics and pagans than did Nero in his persecutions of the Christians (BT, 184).  In adopting legal toleration, Christians can return to the true teachings of Christ and the early Christians, who refused to imitate Moses in setting up a national church.

Although Locke's toleration is not a radical as Williams's, Locke does see as well as Williams the contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Like Williams, Locke relies on the New Testament to support his argument for toleration.  In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke cites the Bible at least 18 times, and only 5 of these are references to the Old Testament.  He observes that while the Jewish commonwealth in the Old Testament was an "absolute theocracy," "there is no Christian commonwealth" in the New Testament (42, 189).

Williams and Locke were able to support their argument for toleration with a plausible reading of the New Testament.  By contrast, it's hard to support any argument for persecution as compatible with the New Testament. 

One example of this is the parable of the tares and the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30).  Jesus compares the kingdom of Heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field, but then his enemy sows tares (weeds) among the wheat.  When they sprout, the wheat and the weeds are mixed together, and the man's servants offer to pull up the weeds.  But the man says that this should not be done, because any rooting up of the weeds will likely root up some wheat as well.  So he allows the plants to grow together until the harvest, when the reapers will gather together the weeds to be burned, and gather the wheat into the barn. 

While the interpretation of parables is often difficult, the meaning here seems reasonably clear: in this life, it is hard to separate true Christians from those who are not, but at the day of judgment in the afterlife, the true Christians will be rewarded with eternal life, and the unsaved will be eternally punished in Hell.  This was the interpretation Williams used to support legal toleration:  the unbelievers and the false Christians must be left alone and not persecuted, because at the time of harvest at the Last Judgment, they will be recognized by God and condemned to eternal punishment (BT, 112-13).

Augustine, however, developed a twisted interpretation of this parable to support persecution.  When the weeds are clearly identifiable as different from the wheat, persecutors have a Christian duty to uproot the weeds without disturbing the wheat.  This perverse reading of the parable of the tares was adopted by the medieval Catholic Church to support its theory of persecution.

Notice that Williams's reading of the New Testament allows him to combine legal toleration and moral and theological absolutism.  Often the critics of toleration complain that it rests upon moral and theological relativism--that toleration assumes that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong.  But with Williams, this is not true.  He was morally and theologically intolerant, even as he argued for legal tolerance.  He was sure that the New Testament provided absolute standards of right and wrong rooted in divine truth, and he was sure that the errors of his opponents would be punished by God in the afterlife.  But while in this life, he would try to expose these errors through persuasion, he had no moral or religious right to use coercion to suppress the liberty of conscience of those who disagreed with him.  This must be so, because freedom of thought is the precondition for Christian virtue.  There is no moral or theological virtue in being coerced into a hypocritical profession of belief.

This indicates the classical liberal or libertarian character of New Testament Christianity as manifested in Williams's writings.  This line of reasoning is elaborated in a remarkable book by Andy Olree, The Choice Principle: The Biblical Case for Legal Toleration.  Olree writes primarily for evangelical Christians, trying to persuade them that Williams was right about the New Testament teaching toleration, and that such toleration really is compatible with a Christian belief in the absolute moral and theological truth of the New Testament, as long as one understands that the New Testament teaching about freedom of choice supplants the Old Testament teaching about theocracy and persecution.

In defending "legal toleration," Olree expands the argument for religious toleration into a general argument for the legal toleration of both religious and moral pluralism.  Thus, Olree argues against the "legal moralism" of many evangelicals and of Catholics like Robert George who assume that any good regime must legally coerce people into virtue, by outlawing immoral behavior, which Olree rejects because it cannot work, because it promotes a denial of human liberty, and because it contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.

In arguing for a combination of liberty and virtue--liberty as secured by government and virtue as cultivated in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society--Olree takes a position that is similar to the Christian libertarianism of Frank Meyer and the Aristotelian liberalism of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl.  They all argue that, far from being contradictory, political liberty protects the freedom of choice that is the precondition for moral virtue.

A commonly cited New Testament passage to support persecution and legal moralism is the teaching of Romans 13 that rulers are God's servants "to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."  One of the best parts of Olree's book is his interpretation of this teaching (84-88, 106-10, 113-15, 120-24, 146-47).  The primary question here is the meaning of "wrongdoing."  Olree argues that both the historical context and the textual context suggest that the "wrongdoing" that is rightly punished by government refers only to actions of people that directly harm or victimize others.

First, the historical context for this scriptural passage is that Nero is the Roman Emperor.  During Nero's time, Roman law was used to support pagan worship, which was sinful to the Christians, and it allowed for sinful activities such as prostitution, homosexuality, and abortion.  So, clearly Paul was not interpreting "wrongdoing" as all conduct that would be sinful according to the Bible.

Second, the textual context is that immediately prior to Romans 13--at the end of Romans 12--Paul condemns vigilante vengeance ("Do not repay evil for evil," because vengeance belongs to God).  Thus, by implication, Olree concludes, the rulers seen as God's servants in punishing wrongdoers in Romans 13 are exercising collective vengeance as a legal substitute for individual vengeance, so that the "wrongdoing" being punished by government is any wrong that would so harm or victimize people that they would naturally want to take vengeance.  Such "wrongdoing" would be acts of force or fraud that victimize others rather than personal sins.

Olree applies this libertarian reading of the New Testament to the legal and moral debates over suicide, homosexuality, drug addiction, redistributive taxation, prostitution, and abortion.  In each case, he argues for the "choice principle"--that law rightly secures individual choice or autonomy except in those cases where individuals have imposed some direct harm--by force or fraud--on others.  In the case of abortion, he takes no clear position, except to argue that whether we should legally prohibit abortion as murder turns on the question of whether human life begins before birth, which he takes to be a question that the Bible does not answer.

The plausibility of this libertarian reading of the New Testament as supporting legal toleration and religious liberty was dramatically manifested in the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, particularly in the Declaration of Religious Freedom approved in 1965.  Under the influence of liberal Catholics such as John Courtney Murray, the Vatican Council declared that "the human person has a right to religious freedom."  In section 12, the Council stated:
"In faithfulness therefore to the truth of the Gospel, the Church is following the way of Christ and the apostles when she recognizes and gives support to the principle of religious freedom as befitting the dignity of man and as being in accord with divine revelation.  Throughout the ages the Church has kept safe and handed on the doctrine received from the Master and from the apostles.  In the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it.  Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm."
Is the Catholic Church confessing here that its earlier doctrine of persecution was contrary to the New Testament--"a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it"?  Does this concede that Roger Williams was right about the New Testament supporting toleration and liberty, while the medieval Church and the Protestants who supported persecution were wrong?

Do we see a continuation in this movement of the Catholic Church towards Christian libertarianism in that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have asked forgiveness for the Church's history of supporting the violence of persecution?

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts herehere, here, here, and here.

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010)

Andy G. Olree, The Choice Principle: The Biblical Case for Legal Toleration (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006)

Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, ed. Samuel L. Caldwell (New York: Russell & Russell, 1963), vol. 3.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Do We Tolerate Atheists? Locke, Bayle, and Darwin

"For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination.  It is also the most absurd."

That's the opening of the cover article for the Christmas issue of The Economist. 

After ridiculing the traditional depictions of Hell, the author concludes the article: "Just as there can be no light without dark, and no sound without silence, so everlasting celestial joys depend on a contrast of everlasting horror.  Without Hell, you can't have Heaven."

So just as there is no Hell, there is no Heaven.

What I find most remarkable about this is that this article in a popular magazine will not provoke any outrage--at least not in most of the Western world.  I assume that this article will be banned in those countries where blasphemy is a crime--even a capital crime.  Not long ago, however, in Western history, anyone who denied the reality of Heaven and Hell would be subject to persecution and even execution.

For most of us in modern Western societies today, the idea of persecuting people for questioning the doctrines of orthodox Christianity--such as God's eternal judgment after death--is incomprehensible.  Even the most devout religious believers generally agree that we must tolerate not only differing religious beliefs but even open atheism as an exercise in freedom of thought.

For me, this raises two general questions.  First, what exactly is the philosophic or scientific reasoning behind this modern policy of liberal toleration?  Second, is there any Biblical basis for this liberal toleration?  I'll take up the first question here.  I'll take up the second question in my next post.

Probably, the single most influential statement of the case for toleration in early modern political thought is John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (first published in 1689).  We might expect, therefore, that Locke would give us the rationale for tolerating atheists.  Surprisingly, he doesn't do that. 

Locke does argue for tolerating Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and Pagans (including the American Indians).  But he thinks there is no justification for tolerating either Catholics or atheists.  Catholics are intolerable because their submission to papal authority make them disloyal citizens.  Moreover, no religious group is to be tolerated if it teaches intolerance, and the Catholic Church officially endorses persecution of heretics, which includes all Protestants.

Here's what Locke says about atheists:
"Those are not at all 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, though 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." (52-53)
That atheists cannot reasonably claim protection under a policy of religious toleration seems clear enough.

But what about the other point--that denying the existence of God dissolves the bonds of social order by subverting the grounds of promises, agreements, and oaths?  Elsewhere, Locke says that believing in the existence of God is "the foundation of all morality" (132).  Apparently, for this reason, in the Constitutions of Carolina, which Locke coauthored with Shaftesbury, every freeman of the Carolina colony was required to acknowledge God and join a church, although diverse churches would be tolerated (146-47).

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argued that one of the great advantages of Christianity was that its teaching about Heaven and Hell provided the only solid ground for morality.  "Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and will defy all competition" (185).  In this respect, the moral teaching of the ancient philosophers was inferior because they "seldom set their rules on men's minds and practices by consideration of another life" (183).  Of course, the word "seldom" here might remind us that Plato was the first philosopher to elaborate a teaching about rewards and punishments in an afterlife, and, indeed, much of the Christian teaching about Heaven and Hell was shaped by the Platonic tradition.

That atheism was not tolerable because it corrupted morality, and therefore should be prohibited by law, was a common assumption of almost all the proponents of toleration.  Sebastian Castellio's Concerning Heretics (1554) was the first full statement of the argument for a tolerant Christian society, which was provoked by John Calvin's execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva for heresy.  And yet Castellio was clear that blasphemers who openly turn away from God should be punished, and even killed, because such atheism leads to criminal immorality.  Roger Williams's The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644) was the most sweeping justification of toleration up to that time--including even Catholics, whom Williams identified as "Antichristians"--but even so, Williams never explicitly said that atheists should be tolerated. 

As far as I can tell, the first writer to explicitly extend toleration to cover atheists was the English Leveller William Walwyn, in Toleration Justified and Persecution Condemned (published in 1646).  A man "whose mind is so misinformed as to deny a deity or the scriptures," Walwyn argued, has committed the "worst of errors," but this does not justify coercive punishment (20).  Rather, the best response to such error is to use reason and argument to expose the error. Yet this is only a brief comment by Walwyn without any elaboration. 

The first full explanation of how atheists could be safely tolerated comes from Pierre Bayle.  In his Philosophical Commentary on Jesus's parable of the marriage feast ("compel them to come in"), first published in 1686, Bayle defended religious toleration as embracing all believers, including Catholics.  But in one passage, he did allow for punishing obstinate atheists (242-43).  This is hard to understand because his earlier book--Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682)--was the first writing in the history of philosophy and science to defend the possibility of a decent society of atheists.

What Bayle says about how morality depends on natural passions or sentiments rather than on religious doctrines lays out a moral psychology that was later deepened by David Hume and Adam Smith, given an evolutionary explanation by Charles Darwin, and provided more theoretical and empirical support by recent research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.  Bayle sees himself as reviving a tradition of "natural philosophy" that goes back to the ancient Greeks.  The modern natural science of Hume, Smith, and Darwin continues that tradition.

Considered purely as a general or abstract idea, it seems plausible that belief in a final judgment by God with eternal rewards and punishments in the afterlife would support virtue, and therefore that atheistic denial of this doctrine would subvert virtue.  If all human beings seek happiness, and if they believe that obeying God's moral law will bring them eternal happiness in Heaven, while disobeying that divine law will bring them eternal torment in Hell, then one might expect that those human beings with such beliefs would always be virtuous. 

Bayle's argument, however, is that this general idea is contrary to what we know by experience, because we can see that Christians who sincerely believe in this doctrine of Heaven and Hell are no more virtuous than those people who doubt or deny this doctrine.  The reason for this is that our conduct depends very little on our abstract ideas and much more on the dominant passions of our nature.  This allows Bayle to argue that insofar as atheists are moved by natural passions that lead to virtue, they are virtuous in their conduct.

Bayle's argument is an attack not only on orthodox Christianity but also on Platonic rationalism, because the Christian belief in Heaven and Hell as the necessary support for virtue continues the tradition of Plato's teaching (particularly in the Laws, the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Gorgias).  Now, I know that some scholars--particularly, the Straussians--would say that Plato's teaching about immortality of the soul with judgment in the afterlife is not Plato's true belief but only a noble lie for the many.  But then Bayle would argue that Plato was wrong to think that this is a noble lie, because popular belief in the lie does not really motivate good conduct.  (The one weakness in Robert Bartlett's Introduction to his translation of Bayle's Various Thoughts is that he does not recognize that Bayle's attack on Christianity is also an attack on Plato.)

Bayle writes:
"One sees by now how apparent it is that a society of atheists would perform civil and moral actions as much as other societies do, provided that it punish crimes severely and that it attach honor and infamy to certain things.  As the ignorance of a First Being, a Creator and Preserver of the world, would not prevent the members of this society from being sensitive to glory and scorn, to reward and punishment, and to all the passions seen in other men, and would not stifle all the lights of reason, people in good faith in commerce would be seen among them who would help the poor, oppose injustice, be faithful to their friends, scorn insults, renounce the pleasures of the body, and harm no one, either because the desire to be praised would prompt them to all these fine actions that could not fail to earn public approbation, or because the plan to gain friends and protectors for themselves in times of need would lead them to such actions.  Women would pride themselves on modesty because they would without fail gain love and the esteem of men thereby.  There would be crimes of all kinds, I do not doubt it; but there would not be more of them than in idolatrous societies because all that caused the pagans to act, either for good or for ill, would be found in a society of atheists, namely punishments and rewards, glory and ignominy, temperament and education.  For as regards that sanctifying grace that fills us with love of God and that leads us to triumph over our bad habits, pagans are as deprived of it as are atheists." (sec. 172)
That appeal to "sanctifying grace" in the last sentence is what some readers see as evidence that Bayle was not himself an atheist, but was rather a Calvinist who saw human depravity as so deep that Christian virtue could not arise from belief in Christian doctrines but only from grace as a supernatural gift from God.  It is not so clear, however, that this grace makes much difference as far as the regular conduct of human beings is concerned (secs. 92, 157).

What Bayle says here about the natural motivations for morality that do not depend on religious doctrines is very similar to what Darwin says in his Autobiography in a section explaining his gradual loss of religious belief, and how his evolved moral sense could stand without religious support:
"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 the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, names 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.  i feel no remorse from having committed any great sin." (94-95)
In affirming his devotion to a life of science, Darwin indicates that he belongs to that small group of human beings whom Bayle identifies as having a dominant passion for natural philosophy or science (secs. 171, 175, 181).  Although the natural human passions are universal to the human species, each individual shows a distinctive profile of passions in which some are stronger than others, which creates a diverse range of temperaments and thus a diverse range of goods for different human beings.  Liberal toleration secures the freedom that allows the fullest expression of this diversity of human goods, protecting the philosophic few as well as the nonphilosophic many.

Darwin is also like Bayle in that both of them reject "particular providence" in favor of "general providence."  It is worthier of the greatness of God to work through the general laws of nature than to have to intervene arbitrarily into the world through miracles.  Like Bayle, Darwin can allow God to work as a primary cause in determining the laws of nature, while allowing the secondary causes of nature (like natural evolution) to work out the natural history of the world (Bayle, secs. 172, 230, 234).

If moral order depended on believing in certain religious doctrines (like Heaven and Hell), then liberalism would be indefensible, because we would have to assume that for the sake of social order we must use the laws to compel people to believe those doctrines, and thus individual freedom of thought would have to be seen as dissolving all social bonds.  An evolutionary account of how moral order arises from natural human desires through voluntary associations in civil society, without any necessity for enforcing an established religion, supports the argument for liberalism.

Pierre Bayle, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet, trans. Robert C. Bartlett (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000)

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958)

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010)

John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, ed. George W. Ewing (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1965)

Andrew Sharp, ed., The English Levellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here., here.,, and here.

Some of my posts on explaining religious belief as an evolved instinct of the human mind can be found here, here,  here., and here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Glory of Suicidal Mass Killings

Adam Lankford's op-ed article in The New York Times seems to me to be one of the best explanations for suicidal mass killers like Adam Lanza.  What most appeals to me in Lankford's explanation is his assumption that the aberrant and even monstrous behavior of such people can be explained as exaggerated or distorted expressions of the natural desires that we all share.

Lankford's main idea is that suicidal terrorists and rampage killers have a lot in common.  Specifically, Lankford sees them as sharing three factors.  First, they generally are suffering from mental disorders or acute mental stress that make then suicidal.  Second, they believe that their suffering has been unfairly inflicted on them by others, and they want to take vengeance through murdering them.  These two factors explain the murder-suicides that are more common than suicidal mass killings.  The third factor that is distinctive to these killings is the desire for fame and glory.

I would explain these three motivational factors as linked to my list of 20 natural desires.  First, the natural desire for a complete life is expressed as a desire for self-preservation.  But we are also willing to risk our lives for a good cause, like the Sandy Hook teachers who gave their lives in defense of their students.  In protecting young children, they were expressing a natural parental desire.  And a very few of us can find our lives to be so painful that we might seek suicide as an escape from our suffering.

Second, our natural desire for justice as reciprocity moves us to want vengeance against those who have victimized us.  Apparently, Adam Lanza expressed this as a murderous rage against his mother.

The third natural desire manifest here is the desire for social status--for social recognition or honor within the groups to which we belong.  Adam Lanza was so socially awkward and socially detached that he became almost invisible, hidden away in his mother's house.  We can speculate, as Lankford does, that Lanza could imagine that killing lots of elementary school children could make him world famous after his death.  There is a twisted truth to this in that he could enjoy the prospect of gaining social recognition from a monstrous crime that would be known to the whole world.

I am reminded of the killer at my university--Northern Illinois--who killed five students in a crowed lecture hall and then killed himself.  It was reported that in his last days he was reading Friedrich Nietzsche, and thus he perhaps imagined that he would become an ubermensch by committing a crime that would show him to be "beyond good and evil."

There is another factor here that is easily overlooked because it is so obvious:  these suicidal mass killers are almost always young men.  Such behavior is an extreme manifestation of destructive propensities in the minds of young men longing for fame and glory.

Some of my previous posts on the shootings at Virginia Tech and NIU can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty: A Mont Pelerin Society Meeting in the Galapagos

In June, the Mont Pelerin Society will be meeting in the Galapagos Islands for a conference on "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty."  I will be joining a distinguished group of speakers in considering how evolutionary science applies to the debate over classical liberalism.  My lecture will be entitled "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism."

The Mont Pelerin Society was founded in 1947 to promote classical liberal thought under the leadership of Friedrich Hayek.  Since Hayek applied evolutionary thinking to his arguments for classical liberalism, it's not surprising that the Mont Pelerin Society has organized this special meeting on evolution in the Galapagos Islands where Darwin gathered some of the evidence that he would use in developing his theory.

If you go to the website for the conference, you will see that one of the suggested topics for the meeting is "to understand the cultural evolution of open societies as a means to escape from the tribal order."  This reflects an idea from Hayek that I will dispute.

Hayek sometimes spoke of "freedom as an artifact of civilization" that required the "repression" of the innate desires and emotions of human beings as shaped by genetic evolution for life in prehistoric hunting-gathering bands or tribes.  This is the "Freudianism" of Hayek that I find unpersuasive.

Like Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, Hayek thought that the civilization of a free or open society was contrary to human nature as adapted for life in small face-to-face primitive groups.  The freedom of a modern civilized society was a purely cultural construction that required the repression of the natural instincts of the human animal.

By contrast, I will argue, the freedom of a modern liberal society can be rightly understood as an extension of the evolved predispositions shaped for prehistoric foraging societies--particularly, the predisposition to resist exploitation by dominant individuals.  This evolutionary history of liberty is manifest in the historical anthropology of the early liberal thought of Locke, Hume, and Smith.  Recently, evolutionary theorists like Christopher Boehm have shown how new research in evolutionary anthropology confirms this line of argument in classical liberal thought.

So I will be developing some ideas laid out in various posts, some of which can be found here and here.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

John Locke and the "Appeal to Heaven" Flag

As I have suggested in some previous posts, John Locke's "appeal to Heaven" shows a natural inclination to violent resistance to exploitation that is fundamental for classical liberalism.  As a manifestation of Darwinian natural right, this can be explained as rooted in an evolved animal disposition to aggressive retaliation against attacks, which arises in human beings as a natural propensity to vengeance against injustice.  Human beings can use their unique capacities for language and conceptual reasoning to express this natural propensity through abstract principles of justice, but these abstract principles are ultimately rooted in this evolved animal tendency to self-protection.

Locke's "appeal to Heaven" is his answer to what he takes to be an ultimate question of politics--"Who shall be judge?"  This is the question when there is an irresolvable debate over whether political power has been rightly used or not.  Locke's answer comes from the Biblical story of Jeptha (in Judges, chapter 11).  In the conflict between the people of Israel and the Ammonites, Jeptha is selected by the people to be their chief and war leader.  He negotiates with the Ammonites.  But when this negotiation fails to reach an agreement, Jephtha declares, "Let Yahweh the Judge give judgment today."  That divine judgment will come through war.  That's what Locke means by the "appeal to Heaven" when there is no "appeal on Earth."  (See First Treatise, sec. 163;  and Second Treatise, secs. 21, 109, 155, 168, 176, 232, 240-43.)

As far as I can tell this phrase "appeal to Heaven" is Locke's.  It doesn't appear in the Bible. 

It's similar to the way Confucius speaks of the "mandate of Heaven," as I have indicated in a previous post on "Confucian Liberalism."   If there is any heavenly standard of judgment to settle moral and political disputes, it's ultimately expressed in the natural tendency of the people to rebel against unbearable oppression. 

This is what I mean in my previous post affirming the truth of might makes right:  the threat or use of violent vengeance is the ultimate natural restraint on injustice.

Notice also how Locke interprets the Bible--at least the Old Testament--as a work of historical anthropology.  He assumes that what is being described in the history of the judges is the earliest emergence of government in primitive societies, where the natural drive for dominance in a few individuals motivates them to become war leaders chosen by their people.  Notice also how Locke interprets this as showing government by the consent of the governed, in that these informal leaders like Jephtha depend on popular support for their authority.  Thus the Biblical history coincides with what Locke sees in the history of the American Indians as a record of how government arose among the earliest human ancestors.

The influence of this Lockean idea in the American Revolution was vividly displayed in the design of what apparently was the first flag of the American navy in 1775--perhaps commissioned by General Washington--which had an evergreen tree of liberty and the motto "Appeal to Heaven."  Some of the variations of this design can be found here and here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Might Makes Right

If it's rightly understood, it's really true that might makes right.

That's one of the recurrent themes in my writing for this blog.  As I work on the 4th edition of my book Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker, I have been rereading some of my blog posts over the past seven years to help me think about how Darwinian science illuminates the debates in the history of political philosophy.  As I have done that, I've noticed that Darwinism seems to support one of the fundamental claims of classical liberalism:  natural rights emerge in human history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking a natural human tendency to violent resistance against exploitation.

Asserting that might makes right is usually interpreted to mean that life is governed by brute force and not by any sense of right and wrong.  This can suggest a kind of nihilism that is often associated with Darwinism by its critics:  Doesn't the "survival of the fittest" mean that there is no natural standard of right in human evolution, because it's all determined ultimately by the rule of the stronger over the weaker?  Doesn't this indicate that there's a clear line "from Darwin to Hitler"?

But this fails to see how the Darwinian account of moral evolution depends on the natural propensity to exploitative dominance being checked by the natural propensity to resist exploitation, so that even the strongest tyrant is vulnerable to the vengeful retaliation of his victims.

Thomas Hobbes captured this thought in his description of the state of nature as a state of equality in which all can defend themselves with violence.  "Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.  For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself" (Leviathan, chap. 13).

Notice that Hobbes is not saying that all human beings are absolutely equal, which would be obviously false.  Even in a primitive state of nature, some people will be naturally stronger than others in their bodies or minds.  But there is a rough equality in that even the strongest can be brought down by the weaker ones who have been provoked into attack.  Machiavelli emphasizes this point when he warns that even the most powerful princes can be assassinated if they are hated by the people.

Locke points to this when he speaks about the "executive power of the law of nature" (ST, 13).  This "executive power" is the power of everyone to defend lives and property against aggressors, and to punish transgressors in any way that reason and conscience dictate as required for reparation and restraint, which includes the power to kill murderers.  The first "great law of nature" stated in the Bible is "who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (ST, 11; Genesis 9:6).

The problem, of course, is that the vigilantism of the state of nature easily collapses into perpetual feuding, and then people will consent to establish formal governments and the rule of law.  To do that, people must give up their executive power to the government, which then might become even more oppressive than any individual in the state of nature.  But if the people feel oppressed, they can take back their natural executive power in an "appeal to Heaven" in war.

Hobbes and Locke were not just speculating about this.  They had seen the English Civil War.  They had seen that Roundheads can defeat Cavaliers, and that kings can be beheaded.  Locke had plotted with the Whigs in assassination conspiracies directed against the King.

Hobbes and Locke had also studied carefully the reports about the foraging societies of New World, which Hobbes and Locke used as the basis for their depictions of the state of nature.

In tracing political history as a history of warfare going back to the original state of nature of hunting-gathering bands, Hobbes and Locke initiated a tradition of political thought that would be continued by Darwinians studying moral and political history as evolution by group selection.

Darwinians can understand modern liberal regimes as a revival of the "egalitarian hierarchy" (Chris Boehm) that existed among foraging bands, in which the natural desire of the few for dominance was checked by the natural desire of the many to resist dominance, except that now, in modern liberal regimes, the freedom of foraging societies has been combined with the civilzation of modern commercial societies.

Eventually, human social and political evolution has brought a general decline in violence (as Steven Pinker has shown).  But that decline in violence can never bring perpetual peace (contrary to the utopian pacifism of people like Herbert Spencer), because the enforcement of the liberal norm of voluntary cooperation will always depend on the threat or use of force against those who would violate that norm.

These points are elaborated in a previous post, which includes links to many other pertinent posts.

An especially pertinent post is the one on Thomas Aquinas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the "Christian Uncle Tom problem."  Against the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, Darwinian natural right rests on the idea that morality is rooted in the evolved dispositions of animals to feel anger against those that threaten them, and that this naturally evolved animal inclination to ward off attacks is the deepest root of that sense of injustice that underlies all human morality.  Vengeance is a virtue, perhaps even the fundamental virtue.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Incest in Ancient Egypt and Persia: A Westermarckian Response to Paul John Frandsen

Six years ago, I wrote a post entitled "So What's Wrong with Incest?"  Amazingly, every week since then, that post has been one of the top two or three posts in the number of pageviews at my blog.  Apparently, lots of people are troubled by incestuous thoughts, and they are Googling the Internet to find some help in understanding their feelings.  One can see that in some of the comments on my post.

I was disturbed to learn from one of my students that my post on incest can be found on a website for incest pornography, where it is presented as defending incest!

The purpose of my post was to summarize some of the reasoning of Edward Westermarck for explaining the Darwinian evolution of the incest taboo, which elaborates an idea briefly suggested by Darwin himself. 

I first began thinking about Westermarck and incest in 1998, when I lectured at a conference in Helsinki, Finland (Westermarck's homeland), on Westermarck's legacy.  There I first met Arthur Wolf, the leading defender of Westermarck's theory of incest, and other younger scholars like Debra Lieberman, who became a leader in the field.

Westermarck argued that if close inbreeding tends to increase the probability of producing offspring with inherited physical and mental defects that lower the chances of survival and reproduction, then we might expect that natural selection would favor adaptations for avoiding such inbreeding.  And one way of doing that would be to favor a mental propensity to feel disgust towards the thought of having sex with those among whom one has been reared from early childhood.  Typically, this would create a sexual aversion towards close family members.  This emotional disgust towards incest could then be generalized across a society as an incest taboo. 

Westermarck developed this as a Darwinian theory of the incest taboo that would illustrate a general Darwinian theory of morality as rooted in evolved moral emotions.  This Westermarckian theory has become one of the best examples of evolutionary moral psychology.

In my book chapter on "The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right," I explained why I think Westermarck's theory is persuasive, particularly when one considers the scientific evidence and arguments for it as summarized by Arthur Wolf in Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck.

There are lots of objections to Westermarck's theory, and I tried to answer them in my book chapter.  But I did not say enough about the objection that the incest taboo cannot be natural, because incest and incestuous marriages have been common in some societies, such as ancient Egypt and Persia.

The evidence for this objection has recently been surveyed in Paul John Frandsen's book Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia.  But while I find Frandsen's book fascinating, I am not persuaded by his general argument, because he has not shown that the evidence he presents refutes Westermarck's theory.

Although Frandsen mentions Westermarck and suggests that his book refutes Westermarck's theory, he shows no knowledge of the details of Westermarck's work and of how Wolf's research supports Westermarck.  Consequently, Frandsen fails to see how the evidence he presents is actually compatible with Westermarck's position (see Frandsen, 21-22, 25, 49, 73-74,  81-83, 85, 111, 115, 125-29, 136, 167).  In his 395 notes, Frandsen cites Westermarck three times and Wolf once (nn. 31, 33-34, 389).  But as far as I can tell, he hasn't actually read either Westermarck or Wolf.

Westermarck predicted that although the incest taboo is universal, the details of the taboo will vary across individuals and societies.  The taboo against sexual mating within the nuclear family (mating with one's parents, one's children, or one's siblings) will be universally strong, although some individuals will deviate from this either because of their temperament or their circumstances.  Although the Westermarck effect is a natural propensity, the fulfillment of that propensity requires social learning..  People will not necessarily show the Westermarck effect if they have not been reared from early infancy in close association with their nuclear family members.

Moreover, Westermarck's theory predicts that there will be great variation in the extension of the incest taboo beyond the nuclear family.  For example, whether the marriage of cousins, of uncles and nieces, and of in-laws is taboo varies according to the kinship systems and social circumstances of different societies.

Apparently, Frandsen's book challenges the core of Westermarck's theory by showing the wide acceptance of marriage between nuclear family relatives in ancient Egypt and Zoroastrian Persia.  He shows that while brother-sister marriages were extremely rare over the 3,000 years of Pharaonic Egypt, they became more common among the members of the Greek communities of Graeco-Roman Egypt (from around 300 BC).  He also shows that father-daughter, mother-son, and brother-sister marriages were justified as religious obligations for Zoroastrians during the Sasanian Period (224-651 AD) of Persia.

Frandsen fails to see, however, that all of the evidence he presents can be compatible with Westermarck's theory.  For example, he relies on the research of historian Keith Hopkins on the evidence for brother-sister marriages as being a common practice in Egypt (48-50).  But he does not notice that Arthur Wolf and Walter Scheider have shown that Hopkins' research fails to refute the Westermarck hypothesis.

The Westermarck effect arises when children are reared in their first few yeas with siblings and other family members.  Many of the sibling marriages in Hopkins' data are between siblings with considerable age differences, which suggests that they were not reared together in their earliest years, and consequently the inhibitions to sexual intercourse and reproduction would not have been acquired. 

Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting that some of the sibling marriages of people close in age were between people who could have been reared by wet nurses in their earliest years, and thus they might have imprinted on the body odor of their unrelated wet nurses, which would interfere with the Westermarck effect.

Another problem with the Hopkins data is that it does not give us any evidence of the success or failure of these sibling marriages.  Did such marriages produce high rates of divorce, adultery, and infertility?  If they did, then they would follow the pattern that Wolf saw with Chinese "minor" marriages--where parents adopted an infant girl, reared her with their son, and then forced the girl and boy to marry at puberty.

The same problems arise with the Persian evidence.  Frandsen gives us no evidence that these marriages of nuclear family members were successful.  In fact, he sometimes quotes remarks about such marriages being "difficult and hard" (73, 85).  But he doesn't reflect on what this means.  He also admits that there is little evidence as to how frequent these marriages were (81-82, 115).

Occasionally, Frandsen acknowledges Persian texts that seem to point to the many children of these marriages being born physically and mentally deformed.  But, again, he doesn't ponder the implications of this.

The evidence from ancient Egypt and Persian shows that a society can force brothers to marry their sisters, mothers to marry their sons, and fathers to marry their daughters.  But if these people have grown up in close association from an early age, Westermarck predicts that most of them will not be happy in their marriages.  And even if they are happy in their marriage, many of them will suffer the unhappy consequence of producing seriously deformed offspring.

This gives us the general pattern for an evolutionary moral psychology.  By nature, we are endowed with evolved propensities to learn certain moral emotions, like finding incest disgusting.  By custom, we learn the traditional norms of our society, but those social norms are constrained by our natural propensities.  By reason, we exercise individual judgment in deciding how best to live happy lives within the constraints of our natural desires and our customary traditions.

Larry Arnhart, "The Incest Taboo as Darwinian Natural Right," in Arthur Wolf and William Durham, eds., Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 190-217.

Paul John Frandsen, Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia: An Examination of the Evidence (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009).

Walter Scheidel, "Ancient Egyptian Sibling Marriage and the Westermarck Effect," in Wolf and Durham, 93-108.

Arthur P. Wolf, Sexual Attraction and Childhood Association: A Chinese Brief for Edward Westermarck (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

"Natural Right and Biology"--Ken Blanchard's New Blog

"Natural Right and Biology" is the title for Ken Blanchard's new blog.  He will be writing about topics related to what he sees as the intersection of classical political philosophy and Darwinian biology. 

Obviously, this is similar to what I do on this blog, although I can anticipate some interesting points of friendly disagreement as indicated by his post on Lincoln and Aristotle.

Both Ken and I were trained as scholars of the history of political philosophy, and we both decided some years ago that the evolutionary biology of human nature could illuminate our study of political philosophy.  In particular, it seemed to us that modern Darwinian science might support a revival of the ancient idea of "natural right."

In our thinking about classical natural right, Ken and I were influenced by the scholarship of Leo Strauss and his students.  But unlike most Straussians, we did not see modern natural science--and particularly Darwinian science--as the enemy of the classical tradition of natural right. 

A crucial influence guiding us down this path was Roger Masters of Dartmouth College.  Roger studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago where he wrote his dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political thought.  Roger became one of the leading Rousseau scholars.  Then in the 1970s, he began to consider how modern biology might help him to think about the history of political philosophy--particularly, in supporting the tradition of natural right.

In 1978, I read a conference paper by Roger on modern biology and classical natural right.  I was hooked.  And from that point, I began to work through the points of contact between biological science and political philosophy.

In the summer of 1996, Ken and I were together at a NEH/NSF summer institute on "Biology and Human Nature" directed by Roger at Dartmouth.  The thinking that we did that summer--stimulated by conversations with the many smart people at the institute--laid the groundwork for much of what we've done since then.

In 2009, Ken edited and contributed to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, which presented some of the debate over my argument for Darwinian conservatism.

Ken's new blog will continue our conversation.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln": The Nobility of Politics and the "Appeal to Heaven"

"The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way."  "The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning."

That's the message that David Brooks--writing in The New York Times--sees in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."  The power of that message depends largely on the extraordinary acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, who may well have given us the best film portrayal of Lincoln that we will ever see.  (It also helps to have an Aaron-Copland-style musical score composed by John Williams and played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) 

This movie reminds me of why I regard my course on Abraham Lincoln as one of the best courses I teach--because it helps students to understand the nobility of politics in combining "high vision" and "low cunning."

It is hard for students to understand the nobility of this combination, because many of them want to see one without the other, and thus they are caught between idealism and cynicism.  The idealists assume that nobility is found only in a pure moral vision uncontaminated by practical cunning.  The cynics assume that there is no nobility in politics because it's all a matter of Machiavellian cunning with no moral purpose.  Lincoln's moral realism shows that both the idealists and the cynics are wrong.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the basis for Spielberg's movie, and it's one of the best books for showing Lincoln's combination of moral purpose and prudential realism.  It's one of the books that I have used in my course.  Apparently, this book is now a bestseller because of the movie.  This is a tribute to American popular culture, in showing how a popular but serious movie can direct many people to an even more serious treatment of a topic in a good book.

Some of the best parts of this movie come from the thoughtful material in the book.  One example is Lincoln's explanation of his reasoning for his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a constitutional exercise of his powers as a Commander in Chief in time of war, and why the constitutional limits of that power made it necessary to have a constitutional amendment to achieve a complete abolition of slavery, which could not be done by presidential decree.

Another thoughtful scene in the movie presented Lincoln explaining his fascination with Euclid's geometry.  One of Euclid's self-evident postulates--that two things equal to a third are equal to each other--captured the self-evident truth that slavery is wrong:  if two human beings are equally human, then they are equal to each other as members of the human species.

Appealing to such reasoning shows how persuasion can be used to resolve moral disagreements in politics like the debate over the justice of slavery.  But persuasion is not enough, because human beings are too imperfect in both their knowledge and their virtue to finally settle their disagreements by persuasion alone.  And when persuasion fails, and the urgency of the issue requires some final resolution of the debate, then often the debate must be settled by violence, as was the case in the American Civil War.

Modifying Brooks' conclusion, I would say that Spielberg's movie portrays Lincoln in a way that shows the nobility of politics in the marriage of high vision, low cunning, and brute violence.  Showing Lincoln riding his horse to Richmond with piles of bodies all around him reminds us of the brutality of the war.

The importance of war in settling moral debates in politics is also conveyed in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  The movie gives us the last few lines of this speech.  But it does not convey what Brooks rightly identifies as the acknowledgement in the speech of the "moral ambiguity on both sides."  "Both sides," Lincoln observed, "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.  And each invokes his aid against the other."  But God cannot answer the prayers of both sides.  And ultimately God speaks his will here through war.

Lincoln is implicitly, I think, pointing to the Biblical story of Jephtha asking God to judge between the people of Israel and the Ammonites.  He makes an appeal to Heaven for judgment, and he leads his army out to battle (Judges 11:27).  This appeal to Heaven is always risky, however.  Even the leader of the winning side in a war is exposed to vengeful retaliation, as in Lincoln's assasination. 

As Mark Noll has argued, the American Civil War was a theological crisis, because in a country where the Bible was the ultimate moral authority, the Bible was open to conflicting interpretations on the issue of slavery:  the explicit teaching of the Bible was to support slavery, but some of the Bible's general teachings--such as the Golden Rule--could be interpreted by abolitionists as condemning slavery.  This dispute over the interpretation of the Bible was finally settled, Noll observed, by Generals Grant and Sherman.

This "appeal to Heaven" principle is fundamental to John Locke's teaching in the Second Treatise of Civil Government (secs. 19-21, 155, 168, 175-96, 232, 240-43).  In a constitutional crisis, where there is a dispute over whether the government is exercising force without authority, the ultimate judge is the contest of battle.  Consequently, the moral history of politics--as in the debate over slavery--is military history.  This shows the ultimate ground for Locke's law of nature and his political liberalism in the natural inclination of human beings to violence in resisting exploitation.  "In all States and Conditions," Locke writes, "the true remedy of Force without Authority, is to oppose Force to it.  The use of force without Authority, always puts him that uses it into a state of War, as the Aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly" (sec. 155).

We should remember that Locke was suspected by Charles II of conspiring with other Whigs for insurrection and assassination.  We should also remember that Locke denied his authorship of the Two Treatises, for fear of facing execution for treason, as happened when Algernon Sidney published his attack on monarchy and defense of republicanism in his Discourses Concerning Government.

Charles Darwin saw the importance of political violence, because he saw that moral progress in evolutionary history often turned on group selection through warfare.  He was a fervent opponent of slavery, and he used his Descent of Man to support the Euclidean logic of the argument against slavery, because he showed that the human races were not separate species but merely varieties of the same species, and thus endowed with the same moral and intellectual faculties, including the natural propensity to violence in resisting exploitation.   (As I have indicated in a recent post, there is now some evidence that even ant slaves rebel against their enslavement.)  Darwin cheered when he read the news reports of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the military victory of the North over the South.

I have elaborated some of these points in a previous post.  I have also written some posts on the evolutionary decline in violence as part of Darwinian liberalism and on whether the idea of human rights requires Biblical religious beliefs.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Biological Naturalism of the Lockean Pursuit of Happiness

In some previous posts, I have identified myself as a Midwest Straussian--as someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Leo Strauss) that one can combine ancient virtue with modern liberty.  If I have anything special to contribute to this Midwest Straussianism, it's my argument that Aristotelian liberalism can be rooted in a biological naturalism that is supported by Darwinian science.

Michael Zuckert is the paterfamilias of Midwest Straussianism, and Catherine Zuckert is the materfamilias.  They rule over their intellectual family from their Midwestern home base in South Bend, Indiana.  Although Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl would not identify themselves as belonging to any Straussian lineage, they have elaborated a defense of Aristotelian liberalism that Midwest Straussians should embrace.  A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts on this intellectual project of the two Dougs.  In recent years, Tom West has joined the family of Midwest Straussianism, having begun his intellectual life as a West Coast Straussian fighting the East Coast Straussians.  Having recently moved from the University of Dallas to Hillsdale College, West has set up a home base in Michigan not far from South Bend.

In considering West's many contributions to the Midwest Straussian combination of ancient naturalism and modern liberty, two stand out in my mind.  One is his defense of Thomas Aquinas against Straussian criticisms, on which I wrote a series of posts last year.  The other is his interpretation of Locke, which he has elaborated in a recent article in Social Philosophy and Policy.

West agrees with Michael Zuckert that Locke's political thought does not have to be grounded in religious belief--particularly, in the belief that all human beings have been created as the workmanship of God.  But while Zuckert sees self-ownership as the ultimate ground of Locke's argument, West thinks the true ground for Locke's argument is the natural human pursuit of happiness, so that government is justified insofar as it secures the conditions for that natural pursuit of happiness by securing life, liberty, and property.

Although I generally agree with West, I see this Lockean pursuit of happiness as rooted in Locke's biological naturalism, which includes a biological understanding of self-ownership as extended into a concern for others that is natural for social mammals like human beings.

Kenneth Dewhurst's medical biography of Locke and Roger Woolhouse's general biography make clear Locke's life-long passion for medical science, medical practice, and experimental research in natural philosophy generally, under the mentorship of people like Robert Boyle, Thomas Sydenham, and Thomas Willis.  For example, he contributed to Boyle's experiments with his air-pump to explore how air provided some element necessary for respiration, which apparently sustained the natural heat of the heart that was necessary for life.  Thus, Boyle and Locke were close to the discovery of oxygen's role in sustaining animal life.  One of Locke's earliest writings was a draft manuscript on the importance of air in respiration.  He wrote: "Nature's aim seems to have been to foster that universal heat or fire of our life.  For we live as long as we burn, and are nourished by the same fire" (quoted in Woolhouse, 68).  One can see here the natural teleology of functional processes in biology.  Locke also learned about how the human mind emerges from the brain and nervous system from Willis, who is often considered the founder of modern neurology.  Like Aristotle, Willis dissected monkeys and apes to study their neurological similarities to human beings, while also looking for differences that would explain the distinctiveness of the human mind.

In fact, if Locke had not joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper (the first Earl of Shaftesbury) in 1667, which drew Locke into the political activity of the Whigs, one can imagine that he might have devoted his whole life to natural science without becoming a political philosopher.  If one keeps this in mind, then one begins to notice the biological character of Locke's moral and political philosophy. 

Strauss and the Straussians have generally depicted Locke as promoting a moral relativism and atomistic individualism that set off a first wave of modernity that would lead inevitably to the third wave of nihilisitic crisis with Nietzsche and Heidegger.   West shows that the Lockean pursuit of happiness does not have to be interpreted as radically relativistic or atomistic, because it is rooted in the natural teleology of human nature.  I agree with this, but I would stress more than West does that this Lockean naturalism is biological, and that this biological naturalism is confirmed by modern Darwinian science.

That Locke's natural standard for the human good is set by the natural pursuit of happiness is most clearly stated in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in chapter 21 of book 2.  (This is one likely source for Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.)  By nature, happiness, as the fullest satisfaction of our natural desires, is that "which we all aim at in all our actions" (II.21.36).  On this point, Locke agrees with Aristotle and Aquinas.

Many Straussians object, however, that Locke breaks fundamentally with Aristotle and Aquinas in denying that there is any natural summum bonum for human life.  In this very chapter on the pursuit of happiness in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke explains:
"the various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike.  This variety of pursuits shows, that every one does not place his happiness in the same thing, or choose the same way to it.  Were all the concerns of man terminated in this life, why one followed study and knowledge, and another hawking and hunting; why one chose luxury and debauchery, and another sobriety and riches, would not be because every one of these did not aim at his own happiness; but because their happiness was placed in different things" (II.21.55).
This leads Locke to apparently deny that there is any summum bonum: 
"the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation: and they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best relish were to be found in apples, plums, or nuts, and have divided themselves into sects upon it.  For, as pleasant tastes depend not on the things themselves, but on their agreeableness to this or that particular palate, wherein there is great variety; so the greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure, and in the absence of those which cause any disturbance, any pain.  Now these, to different men, are very different things. . . . Men may choose different things, and yet all choose right; supposing them only like a company of poor insects; whereof some are bees, delighted with flowers and their sweetness; others beetles, delighted with other kinds of viands, which having enjoyed for a season, they would cease to be, and exist no more for ever"(II.21.56).
As West indicates, Locke's reference to the peculiar "viands" of  beetles is probably a reference to dung beetles:  so it seems that some human beings are like flower-seeking bees, while others are like dung-eating beetles.  Doesn't this, many Straussians insist, show Locke's modern relativism, in which what is good for any human being is merely a matter of subjective taste?

And yet West rightly points to another passage in the Essay where Locke says that human beings "are both concerned and fitted to search out their summum bonum" (IV.12.11).  "In this passage," West observes, "Locke admits that there is a summum bonum--not one single good for everyone, to be sure, but a genuine highest good for each person" (37).

As the two Dougs have argued, this conception of the summum bonum as both humanly universal and individually diverse provides Aristotelian moral support for Lockean liberty.  If there are certain generic goods that are universally good for human beings--like health, property, friendship, parental care, and intellectual activity--then these generic goods constitute a natural standard for the human good.  But if the appropriate ranking or organization of these generic goods varies according to the temperament, talents, and circumstances of different individuals, then each individual has a distinctive summum bonum.  And if so, government cannot properly enforce a single summum bonum for all individuals, but it can properly enforce the conditions for people to have the liberty to pursue their summum bonum in the natural and voluntary associations of society.  Lockean government cannot guarantee the self-perfection of every individual.  But it can guarantee the self-direction that is the condition for the pursuit of self-perfection.  West seems to be defending a reading of Locke that is compatible with the argument of the two Dougs.

I see all of this as rooted in a biological naturalism that Locke shares with Aristotle and Darwin.  As a physician and biological scientist, Locke recognizes that human beings share certain species-specific desires that characterize them as social mammals, but he also recognizes their biological individuality such that different individuals properly rank or organize their natural desires in distinctive ways.  Some are bees, and others are beetles.

In some ways, this is relativistic.  But in other ways, it is not.  This is relativistic in two ways.  First, the human good is not a cosmic good, because the generic goods of life are relative to the distinctive nature of the human species, which is not the product of any intentional cosmic design. 

Second, this human good is relativistic in being individualized, because the actual human good is always the good of some particular individual, which is why we need prudence or practical judgment in determining what is best for particular individuals in particular circumstances.

And yet this conception of the human good is not radically relativistic, because the generic goods of life conform to the reality of the biological nature of the human animal, and the individualized goods of life conform to the biological reality of human individuals. 

Moreover, as naturally social animals who cannot pursue their happiness without living cooperatively with others, human beings need to live in families and voluntary groups that cultivate their moral and intellectual virtues, and they need government to secure the liberty necessary for fulfilling their natural desires as the social mammals that they are.

Dewhurst, Kenneth, John Locke (1632-1704), Physician and Philosopher: A Medical Biography (London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1963).

West, Thomas G., "The Ground of Locke's Law of Nature," Social Philosophy and Policy, 29 (Summer, 2012): 1-50.

Woolhouse, Roger, Locke: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Locke's Evolutionary History of Politics

Reading Jose de Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies is essential for understanding John Locke's political thought and how evolutionary anthropology might support Lockean liberalism.  I have only recently come to that conclusion as I have been revising my Locke chapter for the fourth edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Acosta (1540-1600) was a Jesuit priest who worked in Peru from 1572 to 1586, spending his last year in Mexico.  His Natural and Moral History of the Indies was published in Spanish in 1590.  Following the structure of Pliny's Natural History, Acosta's book was a comprehensive survey of the physical, biological, and anthropological history of the New World.  It was one of many travelogue descriptions of the New World that were avidly read in Europe.  (Another reason for my interest in this book is that my wife and I will be touring South America this coming summer, including a few weeks in the Galapagos Islands in connection with the Mont Pelerin Society's meeting there on the topic of "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty.") 

This was part of a critical turning point in world history, because for the first time in history, the entire Earth was in a global network of human exchange.  The traditional histories of human life in Europe--as formulated in ancient philosophy and Biblical religion--were challenged by the discovery of an unknown world of human experience.  Much of modern political philosophy was a response to this development--particularly, in the speculation about the original state of nature of humanity, which one can see in the work of Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Smith.  Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle continued this tradition of global natural history as inquiry into the universal history of humanity on Earth.  

As indicated by Peter Laslett's list of the books in Locke's library when he was writing his Two Treatises of Government Locke had at least eight books on the history of the New World (or the West Indies), including an English translation of Acosta's book.  In his critical edition of the Two Treatises, Laslett has indicated the influence of these books on Locke's writing.  The best work that I know showing how these books shaped Locke's account of the state of nature and the evolution of politics is William Batz's article on "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke."

Acosta's book seems especially important for Locke, because it's the one that Locke directly quotes in the Second Treatise (sec. 102)This comes in Chapter 8 on "The Beginning of Political Societies," in which Locke argues that human beings are originally by nature free, equal, and independent, so that they enter civil society only by their consent. 

He acknowledges that one objection to this argument is that there is no historical evidence for this claim that human beings were once free and equal, and that they established government by consent.  Locke responds by arguing that there are two kinds of historical evidence for this--the history of America and the history of ancient society in the Bible.

Locke's appeal to history here is fundamental not only for his Two Treatises but also for most of his other writings.  Contrary to what many of Locke's scholarly commentators assume, his reasoning depends not on the logical analysis of abstract ideas but on what he identifies in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Intro., 2) as "this historical, plain method."  This method of historical reasoning from observational experience shows the influence of Locke's medical practice and experimental research, in which he followed the lead of his friend Thomas Sydenham, who insisted that medical science be guided by the experimental history of health and disease in particular patients rather than theoretical reasoning about abstract ideas.  Remarkably, with the exception of a few scholars like Laslett and Batz, most commentators ignore this in their reading of Locke.

So, for example, many scholars debate the meaning of Locke's account of the state of nature as if Locke were engaged in a purely abstract argument without reference to the observable experience of history.  This ignores Locke's clear declaration that "in the beginning all the world was America" (ST, 49), and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (ST, 108).  Thus, Locke follows a methodological assumption that has been fundamental for evolutionary anthropology--that the study of hunter-gatherers who have survived into recent history can illuminate our understanding of what the first prehistoric human beings must have looked like.

That's why Locke turns to Acosta's book and quotes the following as a description of the original state of nature:  "And if Josephus Acosta's word may be taken, he tells us, that in many parts of America there was no Government at all.  There are great and apparent Conjectures, says he, that these Men, speaking of those of Peru, for a long time had neither Kings nor Commonwealths, but lived in Troops, as they do this day in Florida, the Cheriquanas, those of Bresil, and many other Nations, which have no certain Kings, but as occasion is offered in Peace or War, they choose their Captains as they please" (ST, 102, quoting Acosta, book 1, chap. 25, pp. 73-74). 

Here's a new translation of this passage from Acosta by Frances Lopez-Morillas: "There are clear indications for a long time these men had no kings or any form of government but lived in free groups like the Indians of Florida nowadays and the Chiriguanas and Brazilians and many other tribes, who do not have regular kings but in accordance with the occasions that arise in war or peace choose their chiefs as they like."

Notice the ambiguity in this passage.  On the one hand, there is said to be among these people "no kings or any form of government" or "no government at all," as Locke says.  And yet, on the other hand, it is said that occasionally in war or peace, these people can choose chiefs or captains to lead them.

This is an ambiguity in Locke's account of the state of nature.  At times, the state of nature seems to be an utterly asocial and apolitical state in which people live as solitary individuals with no structure of rule at all, which can be interpreted to mean that Locke is denying that human beings are political animals by nature.  But, at other times, the state of nature does seem to have some structure of rule, because the family is said to be the "first society," and parental power over children is thus the first structure of authority, although this familial society falls short of "political society" (ST, 77).

This ambiguity is seen in Locke's definition of the state of nature as "men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them" (ST, 19).  Living without any common superior or judge with authority might suggest an asocial state of solitary individuals, but "men living together according to reason" clearly indicates some kind of rule-governed social order.

A similar ambiguity is that while Locke says that the state of nature is a state of peace rather than a state of war, and thus disagrees with Hobbes, Locke also says that the state of nature easily becomes a state of war that induces people to establish government to enforce peace, which agrees with Hobbes (ST, 19, 123).  Here is where the Straussians see Locke's Hobbesianism as his secret teaching.

But this assumption that this shows some complicated rhetorical strategy of secret writing becomes less plausible if one looks at the anthropological reports about America that Locke was studying.  For example, one report from the French missionary Gabriel Sagard-Theodat describes the Great Lakes Indians in Canada as organized by familial and tribal attachments under the leadership of their chiefs, which shows, he concluded, that "man is a social animal who cannot live without company."  And yet the reports of violence and warfare among the American Indians show that living without formal government made it hard for them to live always in peace with one another.

What look like contradictions in Locke's arguments actually show Locke's effort to accurately generalize conclusions about the complex variability of this historical experience, in which primitive people can live orderly social lives governed by informal customary rules, even though the absence of formal governmental institutions makes it hard to settle all disputes peacefully.

Acosta distinguishes three levels or stages in the history of government in Peru and Mexico.  The first human beings to arrive in America were savage hunters who crossed over a land bridge from Asia to America.  (Acosta was the first person to propose this theory of the original human migration from Asia to America over a land bridge, a theory that is now widely accepted by evolutionary anthropologists.)  These hunters had no government.  "They had no chief, nor did they recognize one, nor did they worship any gods or have rites or any religion whatsoever" (380-81).

The second stage is "that of free associations or communities, where the people are governed by the advice of many, and are like councils.  In time of war, these elect a captain who is obeyed by a whole tribe or province.  In time of peace, each town or group of folk rules itself, and each has some prominent men whom the mass of the people respect; and at most some of these join together on matters that seem important to them to see what they ought to do" (359).

The third stage is that of monarchy or empire--like that of the Incas or the rule of Montezuma in Mexico.  Originally, this was a "moderate rule" that is the best, in which the kings and nobles acknowledged that their subjects were "equal by nature and inferior only in the sense that they have less obligation to care for the public good" (346).  But later this monarchic rule became tyrannical as the rulers treated their subjects as beasts and treated themselves as gods (346, 359, 402).

In some passages of his book, however, Acosta combines the first two stages and suggests that even the most primitive hunter-gatherers had some informal leadership by which prominent people could mediate disputes and lead them in war, but always constrained by the informal consent or resistance of the community.  The one passage quoted by Locke is an example of this, as though Locke figured out that even primitive foragers would have some episodic and informal structure of rule in which some individuals would have more influence than others, although excessive dominance would be checked by popular resistance.

In the state of nature, Locke observes, "they judged the ablest, and most likely, to Rule over them.  Conformable hereunto we find the People of America, who (living out of reach of the Conquering Swords, and spreading domination of the two great Empires of Peru and Mexico) enjoy'd their own natural freedom, though, ceteris paribus, they commonly prefer the Heir of their deceased King; yet if they find him any way weak, or uncapable, they pass him by and set up the stoutest and bravest Man for their Ruler" (ST, 105).  The American Indian Kings were originally temporary war leaders.  "And though they command absolutely in War, yet at home and in time of Peace they exercise very little Dominion, and have but a very moderate Sovereignty, the Resolutions of Peace and War, being ordinarily either in the People, or in a Council.  Though the War itself, which admits not of Plurality of Governours, naturally devolves the Command into the King's sole Authority" (ST, 108).

This appeal to the historical anthropology of the American Indians as showing that government was originally limited in its powers and its ends is part of Locke's argument for liberal toleration in his Letters on Toleration.  He argues that there is no justification for European rulers in America to compel the American Indians to convert to Christianity, particularly since they are "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and the Law of Nature, and no ways offending against the Laws of the Society" (40).

In his Second Letter on Toleration, Locke writes: "There are nations in the West-Indies which have no other End of their Society, but their mutual defence against their enemies.  In these, their Captain, or Prince, is Sovereign Commander in time of War; but in time of Peace, neither he nor any body else has any Authority over any of the Society.  You cannot deny  but other, even temporal ends, are attainable by these Commonwealths, if they had been otherwise instituted and appointed to these ends" (77).

In his attack on Locke's Letter on Toleration, Jonas Proast asserted that "Commonwealths are instituted for the attaining of all the Benefits which Political Government can yield; and therefore if the spiritual and eternal Interests of Men may any way be procured or advanced by Political Government, the procuring and advancing those Interests must in all reason be received amongst the Ends of Civil Society, and so consequently fall within the compass of the Magistrate's Jurisdiction" (69).

In response to Proast, Locke insisted that the question was whether government has any power to use force in matters of religion or for the salvation of souls.  The argument against this is that governments are not established to use force for such ends.  Rather, governments are established by men only to protect themselves against injuries from other men for which there is no protection except governmental force.  Religious opinions or forms of worship do not injure those who disagree in any way that requires governmental force against those with those opinions or worship.

To support this conclusion, Locke points again to the American Indians:
"let me ask you, Whether it be not possible that Men, to whom the Rivers and Woods afforded the spontaneous Provisions of Life, and so with no private Possessions of Land, had no inlarged Desires after Riches or Power; should live together in Society, make one People of one Language under one Chieftain, who shall have no other Power but to command them in time of War against their common Enemies, without any municipal Laws, Judges, or any Person with Superiority establish'd amongst them, but ended all their private Differences, if any arose, by the extemporary Determination of their Neighbors, or of Arbitrators chosen by the Parties.  I ask you whether in such a Commonwealth, the Chieftain who was the only Man of Authority amongst them, had any Power to use the Force of the Commonwealth to any other End but the Defense of it against an Enemy, though other Benefits were attainable by it." (76)

Today's evolutionary anthropologists might complain that Locke has confused two levels of primitive social organization--bands and chiefdoms.  But still, Locke is remarkably accurate in describing how foraging societies without formal governments--called "stateless societies" today--enforce customary norms of conduct through private arbitration, while also organizing around war leaders in defense against outside groups.

But notice also that the American Indian societies to which Locke is appealing as a standard for political freedom and limited government are societies of hunter-gatherers in a primitive state, and they survived only as long as they remained out of reach of the Incan and Mexican empires.  Thus, these hunting-gathering societies were both culturally uncivilized and militarily weak.

The problem for Locke's liberalism is how to combine freedom, civilization, and power.

Beginning 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture after the Last Ice Age, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, administrative, and monarchic bureaucracies.

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

Consequently, the history of politics over the past 5,000 years has been largely a conflict between freedom and domination — with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There has often seemed to be no good resolution to the conflict, because human beings seemed to be caught in a tragic dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.

Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal republican capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a republican polity, and a capitalist economy promotes both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free, while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But we can mitigate this through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become unduly concentrated or unchecked. For classical liberals, such a system is imperfect. But it’s the best we can do.

The Darwinian history of politics provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage evolution of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.

Acosta, Jose de, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, trans. Frances Lopez-Morillas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Batz, William G., "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke," Journal of the History of Ideas, 35 (1974): 663-70.

Burgaleta, Claudio, Jose de Acosta, S.J. (1540-1600): His Life and Thought (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1999).

Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Locke, John, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2010).

Some of these points have been developed in some previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.