Thursday, May 24, 2012

Das Charles Darwin Problem & The Bourgeois Virtues

In the nineteenth century, some German scholars identified das Adam Smith Problem as the apparent contradiction between Adam Smith's two books.  In 1759, Smith published his first book--The Theory of Moral Sentiments--in which he explained morality as arising from sympathy.  He began the book with a chapter on sympathy by declaring: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."  In 1776, he published his second book--The Wealth of Nations--in which he explained economic prosperity as arising from the division of labor based upon the natural human propensity "to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."  He indicated that this system of exchange depended on self-interest: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but their regard to their own interest."  To the German scholars, there seemed to be an obvious contradiction between Smith's emphasis on sympathy in his first book and his emphasis on self-interest in his second.  Some of them concluded that Smith must have changed his mind about human nature, deciding late in life that self-interest was stronger than sympathy among human beings, and thus that self-interest was a more reliable ground for social order.

This puzzle in interpreting Smith's two books suggests a deep question about human life.  Are morals and markets contradictory or compatible?  Do markets subvert morals?  Or do markets make us moral, or at least presuppose morality?  Is capitalism morally corrupting in fostering selfish competitiveness and greed rather than social cooperativeness and benevolence?

How one resolves das Adam Smith Problem might imply answers to these questions.

Nathan Dinneen--a political scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology--has recently suggested to me that as with Adam Smith, one might identify das Charles Darwin Problem.  In 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species in which he seemed to explain all life as governed by the "struggle for existence," which  Social Darwinists interpreted as a justification for viewing life as a competitive struggle in which the strong prevail over the weak.  In 1871, he published The Descent of Man in which a prominent part of his explanation for human evolution was the evolution of a moral sense based on sympathy.  While Darwin's Origin of Species corresponds to Smith's Wealth of Nations, Darwin's Descent of Man corresponds to Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In fact, Darwin in Descent quotes from Smith's chapter on sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Dinneen has noticed that Darwin's critics who want to connect him to Social Darwinism tend to ignore what Darwin says about morality in the Descent so that they can emphasize the theme of competitive struggle unconstrained by moral motives.  In particular, Dinneen sees this in Gertrude Himmelfarb's book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959).  This book has been especially influential among neoconservatives who attack Darwin as morally subversive.  (There's a family connection here: Irving Kristol was Himmelfarb's husband, and William Kristol is her son.)

In her chapters on "Darwinism, Religion, and Morality" and on "Darwinism, Politics, and Society," Himmelfarb presents Darwin as promoting a crude Social Darwinism that includes Adolf Hitler.  But in these chapters, she never once cites Darwin's account of morality in the Descent.  Although she does cite the Descent in her chapter on "The Origin of Man," her entire presentation of his explanation of human morality consists of only one paragraph (p. 373).

As I have indicated in a previous post, one can see a similar rhetorical strategy in Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought, which largely invented the popular view of Social Darwinism (recently manifest in a speech by Barack Obama).  Hofstadter's references to Darwin's Descent appear on one and a half pages of his book.  Hofstadter writes:  "Darwin himself offered somewhat confused counsel on the ethical implications of his own discoveries.  In the light of his discussion of the moral sense and the role of sympathy in evolution, it is not surprising to find him somewhat hurt at the suggestion that he had proved the might is right.  He little suspected that he was fated to be an intellectual Pandora; for, however dismal the Malthusian logic behind his system, it was filtered through his own tender moral sensibilities" (90-91).  In a footnote, Hofstadter concedes: "Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist" (238).

I would argue that the writings of both Smith and Darwin are consistent in explaining human conduct as grounded in both self-interest and sympathy.  If they appear inconsistent to some readers, it is only because of the unreasonable modern dichotomy between the amorality of self-interest and the morality of altruism.  Even many of the proponents of evolutionary psychology and Darwinian moral psychology make this mistake in identifying morality as totally other-regarding and therefore set in opposition to self-regarding conduct.  If morality is defined in this way as utterly selfless behavior, then it is hard to understand the personal motivation for moral conduct, and it is also hard to understand the morality of economic exchange.

"In civilized society," Smith observes in the Wealth of Nations, a man "stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons."  Since he cannot expect a multitude of strangers to cooperate with him solely out of benevolence, he must appeal to their self-love, and he does this by offering an exchange: "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want" (I.ii.2).

This does not deny that human beings are naturally benevolent towards their family, their friends, or anyone who might elicit their sympathetic concern.  But it does deny that such benevolence is sufficient to secure the extended cooperation of strangers that makes civilization possible.  The Wealth of Nations is about how exchange or trade in markets makes possible the division of labor that sustains the extended cooperation of human civilization.

If we identify morality with selflessness or altruism, then the social activity of trade as based on self-love is not moral.  And, indeed, there is an old tradition of moral condemnation of the life of trade.  But Smith rejects this in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
 because he sees that the virtuous character of an individual is judged by how it may affect not only the happiness of others but also his own happiness (VI.i-ii).  To provide for our own happiness, we need the virtue of prudence.  "The care of the health, of the fortune, of the rank and reputation of the individual, the objects upon which his comfort and happiness in this life are supposed principally to depend, is considered as the proper business of that virtue which is commonly called Prudence" (VI.i.5).  Moreover, Smith observes, "Regard to our own private happiness and interest, too, appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of action.  The habits of economy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives, and at the same time are apprehended to be very praiseworthy qualities, which deserve the esteem and approbation of every body" (VII.ii.3.16).    

These are the bourgeois virtues--the virtues that sustain the extended order of civilization as based on market exchanges.  According to Smith, these virtues are uniquely human because human beings are the only animals with a natural propensity "to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (WN, I.ii.1).  (This is, I think, what the Midwest Straussians--like Martin Diamond and Bill Galston--have in mind when they defend the liberal virtues against the Straussian complaint that modern liberalism cannot recognize human excellence.) 

Darwin also recognized the importance of exchange or barter in supporting the division of labor in human evolution.  When he met the hunter-gatherers in Tierra del Fuego in 1834, he observed: "Some of the Fuegians plainly showed that they had a fair notion of barter.  I gave one man a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear."  And in The Descent of Man, he judged that "primeval man practised a division of labour; each man did not manufacture his own tools or rude pottery, but certain individuals appear to have devoted themselves to such work, no doubt receiving in exchange the produce of the chase."

In The Rational Optimist (2010),  Matt Ridley argues that the primary cause of human cultural evolution over the past 100,000  years has been the uniquely human propensity to exchange one thing for another, just as Smith said.  Some evolutionary psychologists might say that exchange is simply a form of reciprocity.  But Ridley argues--correctly, I think--that while reciprocity means individuals giving each other the same thing, which is seen among nonhuman animals, exchange means individuals giving each other different things, which is uniquely human.  The fulfilment of the cultural evolution of exchange in modern commercial societies was made possible by modern liberal ideas that recognized the bourgeois virtues.

I will say more about this in future posts on Ridley's book and on Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues.                    

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

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

Das CharlesDarwinProblem

I love it. There really is a nice parallel there with Das AdamSmithProblem.

But shouldn't it be one word? I can't remember enough German to know whether the component nouns should be capitalized.