Thursday, August 30, 2012

Adam Smith's Aristotelian Liberalism: Philosophic Friendship in a Commercial Society

One of the most fascinating, and perplexing, features of Adam Smith's writing is that while he defends the modern commercial way of life, there is hardly any serious criticism of the commercial society that cannot be found in Smith's writing.  Even Karl Marx could quote long passages from Smith to depict the "alienation" of labor in a capitalist society.

Some scholars of political philosophy--the Straussians, for example--would explain this by saying that Smith was defending the commercial society as "low but solid."  To secure the solid benefits of a commercial way of life--liberty and opulence--he was willing to accept the low aims of modernity, even when this meant depriving most human beings of genuine happiness and genuine excellence.  And yet he could not do this without lamenting the loss of the human greatness promoted by pre-modern thought.  This is what the Straussians like to call "the problem of the bourgeois."  This is Joseph Cropsey's argument in Polity and Economy.

But this interpretation of Smith seems hardly plausible if one notices that Smith defends the "wise and virtuous man" as the standard of moral and intellectual perfection as manifested in the life of philosophic friends (TMS VI.i.14, 216; VI.ii.I.18, 224-25; VI.iii.23-25, 247-48).  He observes that the division of labor in a commercial society allows for the intellectual commerce of philosophers "whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything" (WN I.i.9, 21).  And he presents the life of David Hume as showing how a commercial society provides the conditions for the philosophic life--a life that in Hume's case approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (Letter to Strahan, Nov. 9, 1776, CAS, 221).

This language echoes the end of Plato's Phaedo.  Describing the death of Socrates, Phaedo observes: "Such was the end of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most just man" (118a).  Thus, Smith is suggesting that Hume shows how a Socratic life of philosophic inquiry is possible in a modern commercial society.

Moreover, Smith saw his account of virtue as compatible with Aristotle's teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics (TMS VI.iii, 237-62; VII.ii.I.12-14, 270-72).  This has led Ryan Hanley and other Smith scholars to interpret Smith as an Aristotelian virtue ethicist (Calkins and Werhane 1998; Hanley 2009).

My explanation of this is that Smith's commercial liberalism coincides most closely with Aristotle's teaching about friendship and philosophy in Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, which also happens to be one of the sections of Aristotle's moral and political writing that shows a propensity to liberalism, while also showing many references to his biology.

As I have argued in some previous posts, how one reads Aristotle's Ethics turns crucially on whether one sees the peak of his teaching in the books on friendship (books 8-9) or in the final book on philosophy as a purely contemplative life beyond the moral virtues (book 10).  Philosophy as presented in book 10 is a purely theoretical life of solitary contemplation without friendship, and it's a life striving for an abstraction of the mind from the body.  But philosophy as presented in books 8-9 is a life of philosophic conversation and thought with one's friends, which combines all the moral and intellectual virtues as perfecting the psychosomatic unity of human biological nature.  Smith's moral and political philosophy follows the approach that Aristotle took in books 8-9.

In The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, Eric Havelock argued that in ancient Greece there was a tradition of liberal thought supporting Periclean democracy.  While most of the writing in this tradition--including Democritus, Antiphon, Protagoras, and Lycophron--survived only as fragments, Havelock thought the ideas of this liberal tradition could be found scattered in the texts of Greek tragedy and poetry as well as the texts of Plato and Aristotle.  In particular, he thought that books 8-9 of the Nicomachean Ethics incorporates ideas from the biological anthropology of the liberals--especially "friendship as a biological and social fact" that

"becomes that spontaneous feeling of sympathy or goodwill which all members of a species are supposed by definition to feel for each other, and which expresses their recognition that they have common traits.  Beginning perhaps as a herd instinct, it becomes the basis for that cooperation which creates and supports human society" (298).
The biological character of the anthropology in this part of the Ethics becomes evident as soon as one notices how often Aristotle here invokes the biological propensities to pleasure, sexual mating, parental care, and other social instincts (see, for example, 1153b7-1154a1, 1154b1-22, 1155a17-22, 1159a27-33, 1161b15-1162a30).  The liberal character of this anthropology becomes clear when one notices how Aristotle presents social order as arising spontaneously in the natural and voluntary associations of society (see, for example, 1159b25-1160a30).

Smith follows in this tradition of Aristotelian liberalism by arguing for a biological emergence of social order from the natural instincts of human beings as social animals (see, for example, TMS I.ii.2-3, 28; 77-78; II.ii.3-5, 86-87; III.3.13, 142; VI.ii.I-II, 219-34; LJ, 141-43, 163-67).  While legal coercion is required to enforce the negative rights of justice to be free from unfair injury, the other moral duties are enforced through social praise and blame and the spontaneous order of civil society (TMS II.ii.1-4, 85-86; LJ, 7-9).

Smith also follows Aristotle in looking to philosophical friendship as the peak of human happiness that embraces all of the moral and intellectual virtues.  The life of a Platonic or Aristotelian philosopher "necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues.  It is the best head joined to the best heart.  It is the most perfect wisdom combined with the most perfect virtue" (TMS, VI.i.15, 216).  The friendship of such philosophers is the highest form of friendship that is possible only among men of the highest virtue (TMS, VI.ii.I.18, 224-25).  (Notice how Smith's reference to both the intellectual and moral virtues contradicts Cropsey's claim that TMS "contains nothing on the subject of intellectual virtue" [Polity and Economy, 50].)

Smith's clearest portrait of such philosophic friendship was in his letter to Strahan describing the magnanimity and cheerfulness of Hume in facing his own death while conversing with his friends.  As argued by Eric Schliesser, this letter, considered in the circumstances surrounding it, shows how the life of philosophy and philosophic friendship is possible in a modern commercial society. 

Both Hume and Smith defended commercial civilization as superior to savage and premodern societies, and they suggested that in a commercial society, philosophy could prosper as a professional trade in the division of labor.  The opulence and liberty of a commercial society would provide philosophers with the intellectual commerce and the leisured independence necessary for living a philosophic life with their friends. (Does this confirm the claim in Book 8 of Plato's Republic that democracy is the only regime that leaves people the freedom to live the philosophic life?) 

Smith indicates that philosophers can benefit their fellow citizens through mechanical inventions, through the propagation of general knowledge, or through promoting "general ideas concerning the great subjects of religion, morals, and government" as bearing upon human happiness (LJ, 574).  So, for example, Smith's writing on morality, economics, and politics could be seen as an exercise in philosophic beneficence.

But many of Hume's critics doubted his beneficence in his philosophic attacks on religious beliefs in miracles, providence, immortality of the soul, and the afterlife.  And while Smith often invoked conceptions of divine providence over the order of nature, many of this readers suspected that he was as much of an infidel as his friend Hume.

Smith showed his sensitivity to this public suspicion in refusing Hume's request for publishing The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion after his death.  And yet his letter on Hume's cheerful facing of death without any belief in the afterlife provoked a public outcry against Smith.

The Dialogues provide incisive philosophical arguments against natural theology--against the idea that the order of nature manifests the intelligent design of the Creator.  The Dialogues also provide some of the clearest anticipations of Darwin's argument for the emergence of natural order through the unintended order of evolution.  So we are left wondering whether Smith agreed with Hume's proto-Darwinian thinking, or whether he thought that philosophers should show their beneficence by suppressing such teaching.

Calkins, Martin J., and Patricia H. Werhane, "Adam Smith, Aristotle, and the Virtues of Commerce," The Journal of Value Inquiry, 32 (1998): 43-60.

Den Uyl, Douglas, and Charles Griswold, "Adam Smith on Friendship and Love," Review of Metaphysics, 49 (March 1996): 609-37.

Hanley, Ryan Patrick, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Havelock, Eric A., The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1957).

Schliesser, Eric, "The Obituary of a Vain Philosopher: Adam Smith's Reflections on Hume's Life," Hume Studies, 29 (November 2003): 327-62.

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

Freud, Lewis, and Neuropsychoanalysis

Yesterday, I was one of three participants in a panel discussion of the play "Freud's Last Session" at the Mercury Theater in Chicago.  The discussion came just after the 1:00 p.m. performance.  Most of the audience for the performance stayed for the discussion.

This play is a dramatization of a meeting between C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud at Freud's home in London on September 3, 1939, the day of Great Britain's declaration of war against Germany.  Lewis and Freud debate their disagreements over God, sex, and the meaning of life and death.

When I first saw this play a few weeks ago, I wrote a post indicating that the play seemed to me to lean towards Lewis--depicting him as a more likable human being than Freud--and thus favored Lewis's Christian position over Freud's atheism.  This leaning towards the side of Lewis is evident in Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God, which is the primary source for almost everything in Mark St. Germain's play.

After this second viewing of the play, however, I am not so sure about my first impression, because now the play seems more even-handed than it did the first time.  My wife Mary had the same experience.

Although I still see a clear bias towards Lewis in Nicholi's book, I now think St. Germain goes far towards evening out the debate between Lewis and Freud.  The clearest example of this is how St. Germain introduces a scene where Freud questions Lewis about his relationship  with Mrs. Janie Moore--the mother of Lewis's dead friend Paddy Moore who lived with Lewis.  Mrs. Moore became a surrogate mother for Lewis, who had lost his mother at age 9.  When Freud intimates that Lewis developed a romantic relationship with her, Lewis falls silent: "I won't discuss this further."

But then Lewis notices a picture of Freud together with his daughter Anna, and this leads him to question Freud about his unusually close relationship with his unmarried daughter, which draws out the suggestion that Freud has an erotic tie to his daughter.  Thus, St. Germain sets up a good dramatic symmetry between Lewis and Freud.

Oddly enough, Lewis implicitly adopts Freud's theory of the Oedipal urge to incestuous eroticism and turns it against Freud, just as Freud had used it against him.

While Nicholi dismisses in one sentence the possibility that Lewis had a sexual affair with Mrs. Moore, A. N. Wilson--in his biography of Lewis--presents all the evidence that indeed Lewis and Mrs. Moore were romantically entangled.  Lewis had to keep this secret to avoid a scandal that would have ruined his life--including the loss of his position at Oxford. 

For me, one of the clearest pieces of evidence for this is an enigmatic passage in Lewis's Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, 1955):
I returned to Oxford--'demobbed'--in January 1919.  But before I say anything of my life there I must warn the reader that one huge and complex episode will be omitted.  I have no choice about this reticence.  All I can or need say is that my earlier hostility to the emotions was very fully and variously avenged.  But even were I free to tell the story, I doubt if it has much to do with the subject of the book. (198)
His erotic experiences with Mrs. Moore would seem to be the most likely "huge and complex episode" that he cannot reveal here.  This is what St. Germain brings into his play as one way of presenting Lewis as an imperfect human being moved by the illicit eroticism that was so prominent in Freud's psychological science.

This leads to another theme that became clear to me only in my second viewing of the play.  At one point, Freud expresses some frustration with their discussion:
FREUD.  . . . We speak different languages.  You believe in revelation.  I believe in science, the dictatorship of reason.  There is no common ground.
LEWIS.  There's also a dictatorship of pride.  It builds walls that make common ground impossible.  Why is it religion makes room for science, but science refuses to make room for religion?
FREUD.  How roomy was Galileo's cell when he told the Pope that the Sun did not move around the Earth?
LEWIS.  The stupidity of  church leaders is too easy a target.  But look at our scientists: None agree what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I don't feel anger at them for not having the answer.  So why is it so difficult to accept that theologians are not all-knowing as well?
The play shows that there really is some "common ground" for Lewis and Freud, which allows them to have a discussion.  Despite the seemingly irresolvable tension between revelation and reason, they agree that science and religion must make room for one another.  Lewis is open to science.  And Freud's science is open to religion at least in the sense that Freud recognizes religious belief as a powerful psychological propensity that must be explained by his science.

Moreover, Lewis and Freud also agree here on the importance of psychology.  They both make psychological arguments.  One of Lewis's favorite arguments is that all human beings show a deep desire--a longing for what he calls "joy"--that can only be fulfilled by the supernatural reality of God.
A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim, water exists to do it.  So if I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most likely explanation is that I was made for another world.

In response, Freud asserts that this is only fantasy and wish-fulfillment, because "Our deepest cravings are never satisfied or even identified."

So here we have a debate over human psychology--over how best to explain the "deepest cravings" of the human mind.  Freud knows that he must explain scientifically the deeply religious longings that Lewis and perhaps all human beings feel.

And, indeed, as I have indicated in various posts, Darwinian psychologists and neuroscientists continue today to debate how best to explain religious belief.  Has the scientific study of this issue advanced beyond what was available to Freud and Lewis?  Certainly, we do seem to have much more precise evidence about the structure and functioning of the human brain coming from the neuroscientific research of the past 50 years, and some of that research can be applied to the scientific study of religion.

Until recently, however, Freudian psychoanalysts have largely ignored neuroscience, because they have assumed that the study of the human mind promoted by Freud depends on subjective introspection that cannot be reduced to the objective study of the human brain.

And yet Freud himself was a brain scientist for the first twenty years of his career.  In 1895, he wrote an unpublished manuscript--"Project for a Scientific Psychology"--in which he indicated that his goal was to turn psychology into a natural science of the brain.  He indicated, however, that this biological psychology might not be achievable in his lifetime, because the biological science of the brain would take a long time to develop.  In developing psychoanalysis without any clear explanation of its biological basis in the brain, Freud was working within the limits of the science of his time.

In recent decades, a growing number of psychoanalysts have concluded that neuroscience has now developed far enough to revive Freud's original project for what some of them now call "neuropsychoanalysis."  Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull has written an article surveying this interdisciplinary field.

Certainly, one of the primary conclusions of modern neuroscience--that most of human thought is carried out at an unconscious level--coincides with the fundamental insight of Freud's psychoanalysis.

We might wonder, then, whether this new research could advance the debate over the psychology of religious belief that was begun by Lewis and Freud.  What are the correlates in the brain for Lewis's longing for joy that Lewis sees as pointing beyond this world?  How should we explain that?

Solms and Turnbull say that Freud was a "dual-aspect monist," who assumed that brain and mind were two aspects of an underlying natural reality, and that this dual-aspect monism could support neuropsychoanalysis.

To me, this is another way of expressing what I have called the evolutionary emergence of the mind in the brain, the mind displaying an irreducible complexity that arises from the evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity. 

Religious belief is uniquely human because it depends on the uniquely human traits of the human brain.  And yet that human brain can explained as the product of an evolutionary history that ties us to our prehuman ancestors.

Since Lewis was a theistic evolutionist, he might have been open to this kind of reasoning.

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Does Oxytocin Solve the Adam Smith Problem? Part 2

In my previous post, I summarized Paul Zak's argument for oxytocin as the "Moral Molecule."  Now I turn to the five difficulties that I see in his reasoning.

The most fundamental difficulty is that some of Zak's conclusions are not strongly supported by the evidence he presents. 

For instance, one of his most important conclusions is that in his experiments with the Trust Game, when player-B receives an intentional signal of trust from player-A, because player-A has shared some money, there is a strong correlation between player-B's level of oxytocin and this player's trustworthiness in returning some of the money to player-A.  This correlation shows up for most individuals, but not all.  Some individuals acting as player-B receive intentional signals of trust and show a surge of oxytocin, but they return none or very little of the money they have to player-A.  The technical term for such people is unconditional nonreciprocators.  Zak calls them bastards.

Can Zak explain bastards in a way that supports his conclusions?

When this question comes up in Chapter 5 ("The Disconnected") of The Moral Molecule, Zak cites only one of his experimental reports--an article published in 2005 in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  In that article, the only presentation of data is a scatter diagram, which shows a scatter of points between levels of oxytocin in the blood and trustworthy behavior (dollars returned by player-Bs to player-As after the tripled transfer from player-A to player-B) for player-Bs receiving an intentional signal of trust.  In that article, Zak claims that this scatter shows a "positive relationship" between levels of oxytocin and the trustworthy behavior of player-Bs (Zak 2005, 369).  In fact, as John Conlisk (2011) has pointed out, there is no statistically significant "positive relationship" in the scatter, unless one throws out the five cases of individuals who showed high levels of oxytocin while refusing to show  trustworthy reciprocation.

To justify throwing out these five individuals, Zak explained:
We investigated traits that differentiated these five 'unusual' participants from the others and found that they exhibited labile affect on four self-report measures, were usually sexually active, said that they thought others were trustworthy and evaluated themselves as very trustworthy.  They also stated that accumulating wealth while others lived in poverty was acceptable.  Though these results are based on a small sample and should be taken with caution, they suggest that a lack of trustworthiness after receiving a signal of trust is associated with identifiable personality traits. (Zak 2005, 369)
Oddly, Zak does not identify these "identifiable personality traits."  Being sexually active?  Thinking that others are trustworthy?  Thinking that it is acceptable to accumulate wealth while others live in poverty?

In 2008, Zak returned to this point in a chapter for his edited book Moral Markets.  He explained:
. . . I studied 212 subjects making trusting decisions and showed that their brains released oxytocin approximately proportional to the intentional monetary signal of trust received from a stranger: the stronger the signal of trust, the more oxytocin is released.  Approximately 98 percent of thse subjects also had proportional behavioral responses: the higher their oxytocin levels, the more they shared money with the person who initially demonstrated trust in them.  But the other 2 percent of subjects, though their brains produced a surge of oxytocin, were untrustworthy, keeping all or nearly all the pot of money they controlled (Zak, 2005).  Two percent is roughly the proportion of sociopathy in the population, and these subjects psychological profiles had elements of sociopathy.  A discussion of the neural mechanisms that produced this behavior is beyond the scope of this chapter . . . (Zak 2008, 268)
So now the bastards--those individuals who do not show the predicted correlation between surges of oxytocin and trustworthy behavior--are to be thrown out because they are sociopaths.  But it is not clear how he justifies identifying them as sociopaths.  Is it because we know that 2% of any random group of people are sociopaths?  How exactly did their "psychological profiles" show sociopathy? 

These individuals were untrustworthy even though their brains showed "a surge of oxytocin."  Does that mean that surging oxytocin by itself is not necessarily correlated with trustworthy behavior?  If so, does that weaken Zak's whole argument for oxytocin as "The Moral Molecule"?

In his new book, Zak returns again to this point.  Now he reports that the proportion of bastards has increased from 2% to 5% of the college students in his experiments.  He identifies this 5% as suffering from "Oxytocin Deficit Disorder."  But he admits that this might seem odd since they show "an excess of oxytocin" (104).  He explains:
. . . the system does not react to the overall level of oxytocin but only to the immediate surge.  The off-switch in their receptors was malfunctioning, flooding the system with oxytocin, and the overflow was creating a functional deficit.  No surge, no contrast, no oxytocin activation.  No oxytocin activation, no empathy or reciprocity. . . .
There are two problems with this explanation.  First, he does not explain how he knows that "the off-switch in their receptors was malfunctioning."  Did he determine this through a medical examination?  Or is this just speculation?

The second problem is that while here in the new book he says there was "no surge" of oxytocin in these individuals, he previously reported (in the quotation above) that "their brains produced a surge of oxytocin."

So there is some confusion in Zak's accounts of his experimental results.  Conlisk reports that when he asked to see Zak's data for these experiments, he was told that the "data had been discarded within old computers" (Conlisk 2011, 161).

Perhaps the only firm conclusion we can draw from this is that there's no accounting for bastards!

To assert that oxytocin is the molecule for love and morality is a bold claim.  To render such a bold claim plausible, one would have to support it with deep research to uncover exactly how oxytocin functions in the complex neurophysiological networks of the human brain and body.  Zak has not done that.  And he cannot do it with the methods he employs.

Zak says that his Dean at Claremont Graduate University once described his research as "vampire economics."  It's a good label, because Zak's method is to have individuals play behavioral economic games and then to take blood samples from them and measure the level of oxytocin to look for correlations of the oxytocin with their behavior.  Measuring oxytocin in blood samples is a shallow probe into the complex reality of the neuroendrocrine systems of the brain and body.  It's too shallow to reveal the complex mechanisms by which oxytocin might influence the complex behaviors of love and morality.  Because of the blood/brain barrier, there is no reason to believe that measures of oxytocin in the blood stream is an accurate measurement of oxytocin in the brain.  Moreover, this tells us nothing about exactly where and how oxytocin acts in the brain to influence behavior.

Some of the leading researchers in biological psychology deny that the evidence of neuroscience supports any identification of oxytocin as the Love Molecule or the Moral Molecule (see, for example, Panksepp and Biven, 2012, 38-42).  How would Zak resolve this dispute in his favor?  He can't do that because this would require research that would probe much more deeply than is possible with the shallow methods of vampire economics.

The crucial part of Zak's argument for moral markets is the "Oxytocin Prosperity Cycle":  oxytocin promotes empathy, which promotes morality, which promotes trust, which promotes prosperity, which promotes even more oxytocin.

One important line of reasoning for this conclusion depends on Zak's analysis of data from the "World Values Survey" showing a correlation between people reporting attitudes of tolerance and trust and the average income in their nations, so that national tolerance and trust correlate with national wealth (Zak 2012, 171-73).

There are three problems with this analysis.  The first is that Zak does not have any international data on oxytocin to indicate that countries with high values for trust and tolerance also have high surges of oxytocin.

The second problem is that high national trust might be best explained as a result of high ethnic similarity.  Of the four nations reporting the highest levels of trust, three are Scandinavian--Norway, Sweden, and Finland--nations known for their ethnic homogeneity.  In fact, Zak recognizes this: "countries whose citizens are more similar have higher trust--the cognitive and affective mechanisms that induce the understanding of another's intentions may simply be easier to read when those around us are similar" (2008, 273).  Of course, Zak might claim that this still shows the work of oxytocin, because oxytocin surges more easily in social interactions between people who are similar to one another.

The third problem is that Zak reports that from 1960 to the present, the United States has shown a dramatic drop in the proportion of Americans who trust one another (2012, 177).  Since this same period showed the greatest increase in national wealth in American history, it seems that levels of trust and levels of wealth have been inversely related, which is the opposite of what Zak would predict.

Sometimes, Zak offers a strong version of his main thesis:  "modern market exchange is inconceivable without moral values," and these moral values arise "in the normal course of human interaction, without overt enforcement" (2008, xi, xvii).  The obvious objection to this is that this is simply not true: many people in modern markets will behave immorally if good conduct is not enforced legally through clear threats of governmental punishment.

In response to this objection, Zak can move to a weaker version of his thesis: "most people, most of the time, behave ethically," but many people will behave unethically in certain circumstances--such as in the unethical environment of the Enron company, for example--and to mitigate such moral market failure, we need economies that are at least "moderately regulated" by law (2008, 261, 276).

Zak tells the story of J. Clifford Baxter, who became vice chairman of Enron in 2000.  Baxter was a moral man, and he complained about the unethical business practices of the company.  He finally resigned, and then committed suicide because he could not endure the pain of what had happened in Enron (Zak 2008, 259-60).  Zak does not bring up this case in his new book, but he should have, because it illustrates moral market failures, even as it illustrates the disgust with such moral failures felt by morally sensitive individuals like Cliff Baxter.

Moral failures like Enron become more likely to the extent that modern markets are impersonal.  The neurophysiological basis of morality studied by Zak is most effective in personal interactions.  But as modern markets become extended, and numberless individuals from around the globe engage in trade with distant strangers who might not even be known to them, it becomes ever harder for the moral sentiments to be aroused.  Zak recognizes this problem:
The move from personal exchange to modern, mostly impersonal exchange in markets is the key to the division of labor that caused the rapid gains in productivity and wealth since the Industrial Revolution (Vernon Smith, 2003).  Because the instantiation of values varies somewhat across both individuals and environments, violations of values must have consequences.  Enforcement in traditional societies is personal--you cheat me, then I hurt, or ostracize, you.  The incentives to cheat, free ride, and steal are rampant during impersonal exchange, necessitating an enforcement body that all accept, namely, government.  (2008, 275)
Like all classical liberals, Zak is suspicious of government and its "top-down" regulation of markets, because he thinks that in general the "bottom-up" emergence of unintended order in markets is more efficient and more moral.  But again like all classical liberals, he recognizes that markets always need rules, and impersonal markets need some rules of law enforced by government.  He does not stress this enough in his new book, but he does at least acknowledge the need for the "procedural fairness" that comes from government providing "equality under law, an impartial judiciary, freedom of the press and assembly, and the light to moderate economic regulation that allows the overall economic pie to expand" (2012, 200-201).  He also recognizes that to "keep the oxytocin flowing," we need a short-term "safety net" for the poorest people, and we need to avoid gross inequality of wealth.

All of this is consistent with the tradition of classical liberalism from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, which has recognized the need for government to provide the minimal procedural rules that increase the probability that impersonal markets will become moral markets.

Does Zak's argument for oxytocin as the "Moral Molecule" solve the Adam Smith Problem? 

His argument does show how modern neurophysiological research can confirm the moral psychology of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments by showing how it can be rooted in the evolved biological psychology of the human species.

And if we read The Wealth of Nations in the light of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, we can see how Smith's economics can be embedded within his moral philosophy. 

But this does not completely resolve the Adam Smith Problem, because it does not explain why Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations without any references to his moral teaching in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.  Zak says that Smith teaches "that the pursuit of self-interest can indeed benefit all, but only so long as it takes into account the mutual sympathy that leavens the contrary forces that are almost always at work in us, namely, greed and aggression" (2012, 168).  But the very term "mutual sympathy" never appears in The Wealth of Nations!  And if we look at Smith's Index for The Wealth of Nations, we see an entry for "Self-love the governing principle in the intercourse of human society, 26-7."

If one reads The Wealth of Nations by itself, one could easily conclude that economic science can explain human motivation with nothing more than the axiom of self-interest as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society."

Adam Smith could have avoided the Adam Smith Problem by making clear to the reader of The Wealth of Nations that the economic teaching of that book is embedded within the moral teaching of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.


Conlisk, John (2011).  "Professor Zak's Empirical Studies on Trust and Oxytocin," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 78: 160-66.

Panksepp, Jaak, and Lucy Biven (2012).  The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (New York: Norton).

Zak, Paul J. (2005).  "Trust: A Temporary Human Attachment Facilitated by Oxytocin," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28: 368-69.

Zak, Paul J., ed. (2008).  Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Zak, Paul J. (2012).  The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (New York: Dutton).

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Does Oxytocin Solve the Adam Smith Problem?

Paul Zak thinks that oxytocin solves the Adam Smith Problem. 

As I have indicated in some previous posts, this problem in interpreting Smith arises from the apparent contradiction between the primacy of morality in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and the primacy of self-interest in Smith's Wealth of Nations.  The significance of this problem is that it points to a fundamental problem in the social sciences.  Are human beings naturally social, naturally selfish, or some tense combination of both?  Does our morality show our naturally social side, while our economic behavior shows our naturally selfish side?  Is morality concerned with the world as we would like it to be, while economics is concerned with the world as it really is?  Do modern market societies corrupt our morals by teaching us that greed is good?  Or do efficient markets depend upon good morals?

Zak's answer is that on the whole, markets and morals are mutually dependent: morals support markets, and markets make us more moral.  Moreover, he argues, the morality of markets arises from the evolved biological nature of human beings, particularly as manifest in the neurophysiological action of oxytocin, which is the "moral molecule" that sustains our social connectedness as moral animals.

This solves the Adam Smith Problem, Zak believes, because oxytocin constitutes the biological foundation for both the morality of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the economics of The Wealth of Nations.  In his new book--The Moral Molecule--Zak explains this as his eureka insight: "What if oxytocin was, in fact, the chemical signature for that elusive bonding force Smith had called mutual sympathy?  Then, thinking back to my research on the prosperity-enhancing power of trust, I had to laugh.  What if this 'Moral Molecule'--if that's what oxytocin was--is also an essential element in what Smith called the wealth of nations?" (24).

In general, I am largely persuaded by Zak's argument, which I will summarize in this post.  I welcome his argument as reinforcing what I have defended as Darwinian classical liberalism, because he helps to explain the neurophysiology of morals and markets as evolutionary unintended orders.  As is usually true for liberal social theory, Zak stresses the importance of order that arises "bottom-up" rather than "top-down." 

But I also see at least four kinds of difficulties in his research, which I will sketch out in a second post.

Oxytocin is a nine amino acid mammalian hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.  When Henry Dale discovered it in 1906, he gave it the name derived from Greek that means "quick birth," because it facilitates uterine contractions during birth.  It also facilitates the ejection of milk when a mother's nipples are stimulated.  And it generally seems to be associated with maternal bonding to offspring and sexual bonding to the father.  In prairie voles, it promotes monogamous attachment.  So it seems that oxytocin has evolved primarily among social mammals to promote reproduction, parental care, and conjugal bonding.  That's why oxytocin comes up in my chapter on the desire for parental care in Darwinian Natural Right.

Zak became internationally famous when he reported research suggesting that far from being restricted to reproductive functions, oxytocin was associated with social bonding of all kinds.  Since hugging appears to stimulate surges of oxytocin, he now advises that we can spread peace and love by hugging one another at least eight times a day.  That's why he's popularly known as "Dr. Love."

As an economist who has turned to neuroscience to explain behavioral economics, he has established himself as the founder of "neuroeconomics."

His most important experimental evidence comes from having people play the Trust Game and then measuring the activation of oxytocin in them.  In the Trust Game, two players are given some money (say, $10 each).   If the A-player gives some of his money to the B-player, whatever is given will be tripled.  The B-player can then either keep all the money he has, or he can share some of it with the A-player.  Whatever money the A-player gives away is a measure of his trust in the B-player.  Whatever money the B-player gives back is a measure of his trustworthiness.

If these players were rational maximizers of their self-interest, neither player would share his money with the other.  The A-player would not be trusting, and the B-player would not be trustworthy.  But then they both would suffer, because they would walk away with less money than they would if they could enjoy the gains from mutual exchange.

In fact, experiments with this game suggest that most players are not purely selfish.  Typically, about 90% of the A-players share some of their money with the B-players; and 95% of the B-players respond to this generosity by sharing with the A-players.  So it seems that there is enough trust and trustworthiness for most human beings to be generous reciprocators, and thus they live by the Golden Rule.

Zak's claim is that this Golden Rule reciprocity is facilitated by oxytocin.  When the A-players are generous in their sharing, the B-players tend to respond with generous sharing, and the B-players show a surge of oxtocin in their blood samples.  If the sharing by the A-player is not intentional, because it is determined by a random process (drawing a numbered ball from an urn), then the B-players don't show a surge in oxytocin.  So it seems that when people are trusted to do the right thing, they feel a pleasing surge of oxytocin that makes them want to really do the right thing and thus show that they are trustworthy.

Of course, it's a little more complicated than that.  First, Zak explains the "Human Oxytocin Mediated Empathy" (HOME) circuit: surging oxytocin (seek connection) causes surging serotonin (reduced anxiety) and surging dopamine (reinforcing brain reward).  Then, he explains the "Oxytocin Virtuous Cycle":  oxytocin promotes empathy, which promotes morality, which promotes trust, which promotes more oxytocin, in a feedback loop.  And, finally, he explains the physiological connection between morals and markets by arguing that nations showing higher levels of trust also show higher prosperity, and oxytocin supports this insofar as oxytocin supports the morality of trust.

But then he introduces another level of complexity coming from the balance between oxytocin and testosterone.

Zak reports that in every experiment he has ever run, the women show higher surges in oxytocin than do the men.  The men have higher levels of testosterone than women, and this prompts male-typical behavior.  Testosterone is an antagonist of oxytocin, because testosterone blocks the binding of oxytocin to its receptors. 

Testosterone is from Mars.  Oxytocin is from Venus.

Testosterone promotes the punishment of cheaters.  And in behavioral games like the Trust Game and the Ultimatum Game, men are more inclined than women to severely punish cheaters, even when the punishment is costly to the punisher.  So what Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis identify as "strong reciprocity" might be more evident among men than among women.

Moreover, testosterone also promotes the aggressive defense of one's group  against outsiders, and thus the evolution of testosterone might be tied to the evolution of war.

In the evolution of traits that favor survival and reproduction, Zak reasons, it's best to have a balance between testosterone (as promoting competition and aggression) and oxytocin (as promoting cooperation and empathy).  This supports what Bowles and Gintis call "parochial altruism":  through group selection in war, human ancestors evolved to cooperate within groups altruistically to better compete with outsiders from other groups.

Zak advises that "balance is best," because "humans are wired to be both trusting and skeptical, nurturing and punishing, competitive and cooperative, because each of these opposing forces can contribute to survival" (90, 93).  Deciding how best to achieve that balance requires judgment and thus indicates the role of reason.

Like Adam Smith and the contemporary proponents of evolutionary moral psychology, Zak emphasizes the importance of emotion or sentiment in morality, and thus rejects the rationalist transcendentalism of the Platonic or Kantian tradition of moral philosophy.  But he also recognizes that reason has a role to play, and thus he shows what Michael Frazer has called "reflective sentimentalism":  moral psychology is seen as an expression of the whole human mind, reason as well as emotion. 

The emotions are rational in the sense that they are responses to the circumstances of life, and we can judge whether those emotions are appropriate responses or not.  Smith's impartial spectator procedure allows for this interaction of reason and emotion.  And while some evolutionary psychologists of morality like Jonathan Haidt tend to present moral reasoning as the slave of the moral emotions, others follow Smith in seeing a complex interplay of reason and emotion in moral judgment, and in this way they also follow in the tradition of Edward Westermarck's Darwinian moral psychology.

This important role for reason in the Darwinian psychology of morality is manifested whenever Zak speaks of how "a positive social stimulus prompts the release of oxytocin," which implies some kind of cognitive judgment of the social circumstances, or when he speaks of the role of the prefrontal cortex of the brain in modulating the effects of oxytocin (38, 58, 62, 154).  For example, while we might feel empathy for homeless adults or drug addicts, our empathy might be lessened if we believe that they are responsible for their situation (66).

This role of reason frees us from what might otherwise look like a reductionistic biological determinism that denies our moral responsibility.  As rational animals, we have the capacity to judge our emotional impulses in the light of past experience and future expectations, and thus to correct those impulses if they are inconsistent, inappropriate, or harmful.  That's the ground for our moral freedom.

And yet, reason alone cannot move us to do what is right if we are not moved by the moral emotions that are typical for most human beings.  A few human beings might be so flat in their moral emotions that they lack the motivation for normal morality.

Like all animals, the traits of the human species are highly variable, and that individual variation can be either inborn or acquired.  So even if there is a physiological basis for morality in oxytocin that is typically expressed in most individuals, some individuals will deviate from this central tendency.  Consequently, Zak's experimental research shows that while most human beings most of the time show a natural human desire for social connection that sustains moral order, some individuals are disconnected from their fellow human beings, and a few are so profoundly disconnected that they cannot live a normal social life.

Zak explains these disconnected individuals as victims of either abuse, bad genes, or bad ideas.  The victims of childhood abuse can show a lack of emotional responsiveness to others that comes from a shutting down of their oxytocin receptors.  Autistic individuals appear to show innate disabilities in developing the social skills that depend on oxytocin and social attachment.  The most extreme form of Oxytocin Deficit Disorder might be psychopathy--the anti-social personality disorder that arises from a lack of those moral emotions that move most of us to conform to those moral norms required for social life.  Sometimes physical injuries to the brain can induce the symptoms of these disorders. 

All of these factors for explaining moral deviance have been recognized previously by thinkers like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Smith, Darwin, and others.  But the research of Zak and others helps us to understand the underlying neurophysiology of such deviance.

Some religious believers would object to Zak's Darwinian science of morality, and they would say that what scientists call moral deviance is actually sin, and that the only adequate response to such human evil is to recognize the authority of God's moral law and of the rewards and punishments to come from God's final judgment.

Zak was raised by strict Catholic parents.  His mother was originally a nun.  And although he is not a religious believer, he is not one of those "new atheists" (like Richard Dawkins) who scorn religion.  Rather, like David Sloan Wilson and other Darwinian scientists who look for a scientific explanation of religion, Zak applies his scientific understanding of how oxytocin, testosterone, and other biological mechanisms shape human thought and action to explain religion.

He speculates that religion is an natural adaptation shaped by the evolutionary history of the human social brain and group selection in warfare.

As social mammals with powerful intellects for imaginative projection, we want to connect to beings outside ourselves.  Oxytocin helps us to to do that--to project ourselves into the minds of others, which manifests what Smith identified as the natural desire for mutual sympathy.  This propensity to step outside ourselves--this longing for ecstasy--inclines us to connect to something bigger than ourselves that will love us and care for us.  We feel lonely in the cosmos, and we want to return to the home from which we came.  This, Zak suggests, is the evolved psychological inclination that leads to religious belief.

Although this suggestion is speculative, there is some evidence for it.  As Zak indicates, the history of religious texts and religious experiences is full of eroticism and love.  Consider the orgasmic ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila or the powerful teaching that "God is love."  "The cosmos works the same way a human family does--with love and caring" (145).

Although Zak does not mention it, I think the Old Testament book of the "Song of Songs" or "Song of Solomon" is a remarkable testament to religious eroticism.  It is one of the most beautiful erotic poems ever written.  It was accepted into the canon of the Bible, because such sensual imagery of erotic love was thought to capture the deepest longings of the believer for ecstatic union with the divine.

Zak's explanation of religious psychology as the anthropomorphic projection  of the social brain is similar to the explanation from Justin Barrett, Jesse Bering, and others for religion as rooted in a "Hyperactive Agency Detection Device" (HADD).

Moreover, Zak also adapts the group selection explanation of religion, which originated with Darwin and which has been elaborated by David Sloan Wilson.  The very term "religion" means a binding together, and indeed religion reinforces loyalty to the community of believers, while also fostering hostility to the unbelievers.  This can promote religious cruelty.  But it can also promote self-sacrificing service to the religious community.

This might explain why Smith appealed to a theology of divine intelligent design to reinforce his moral teaching.  The rules of morality become powerful when they are regarded as the laws of God, enforced by rewards and punishments in the afterlife.  Furthermore, Zak's explanation of the evolutionary longing for God the Father might illuminate Smith's remark about how resistant human beings are to the idea of a "fatherless world."

And yet God is complex.  The Jehovah of the Old Testament is vengeful and punishing.  The Jesus of the New Testament is loving and peaceful.  Zak argues that the Bible thus captures the dualistic balance in human moral motivation--manly punishment rooted in testosterone and womanly love rooted in oxytocin--because the Hebrew God and the Christian God reflect this deep duality in human moral psychology.

So how does all of this solve the Adam Smith Problem by reconciling Smithian morals and Smithian markets?

Zak's answer depends on combining his earlier research on the connection between trust and prosperity and his later research on oxytocin as supporting trust as the empathetic ground of morality.  What Smith identifies as the "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" is actually moral in the sense that we must care about the needs of others if exchange is to be successful.  For you to give me what I want, I must give you what you want.  And that means that I must serve the needs of others, so that they will serve my needs.  Ultimately, trade is in the self-interest of each trader.  But a purely selfish trader who cares not at all for the interests of others, and who is willing to cheat others whenever possible, is not likely to be a successful trader for very long.

Zak's account of how oxytocin supports trust, and thus supports the gains from trade when the traders trust one another, provides a neurophysiological basis for the link between morals and markets.

Two kinds of evidence are especially important for this idea of "moral markets."  One is the evidence from international survey research that the nations with the greatest wealth tend to be the nations whose citizens report the highest levels of trust in one another.  When most people are trusting and trustworthy most of the time, it is easier for them to make deals with one another, and then carry out their contractual obligations without falling into endless disputes that make trade inefficient.

The second important kind of evidence comes from the cross-cultural research of Joseph Henrich and his colleagues (including Bowles and Gintis) in administering experimental games with small-scale groups in fifteen different cultures around the world.  In the past, most experimental game research was conducted with subjects from industrialized Western cultures, with a heavy concentration on American college students.  As one might have expected, these non-Western individuals in foraging and pastoral tribes behaved rather differently. 

For example, previous experiments with the Ultimatum Game showed a general pattern in which most proposers would offer something close to a 50% split of the money, and most responders would reject any offer less than 30% of the pot.  A tribe in the Peruvian Amazon called the Machiguenga behaved very differently.  Their offers averaged 26%, and less than 5% of the offers were rejected.  The researchers considered many  possible factors to explain this.  But finally they settled on one prime factor--"market integration" or the extent to which a group derives household calories from purchasing in a market as opposed to calories derived directly from nature by their own labor.  The Machiguenga were self-sufficient in providing for their needs without having to trade with others.  It seemed, then, that the experience of trading fosters expectations of fair dealing between the trading partners, and this promotes moral norms of trust and reciprocity.

Zak concludes from this that on the whole, markets make us more moral than we would be otherwise.  Contrary to the cartoonish image of capitalism as promoting the idea that "greed is good," the most efficient markets are moral markets.

Zak sees this as ultimately sustaining Smith's position. "When you read his work as a whole, as opposed to a few selected paragraphs, you find him making the case that the pursuit of self-interest can indeed benefit all, but only so long as it takes into account the mutual sympathy that leavens the contrary forces that are almost always at work in us, namely, greed and aggression" (168).

Although I find all of Zak's reasoning fascinating and most of it persuasive, I do see some difficulties that I will explain in my next post.

"Wikipedia" has a good article on oxytocin.

Zak's TED lecture is an engaging introduction to his argument.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Adam Smith and the Darwinian Evolution of Unintended Order

The revival of Darwinian social science that began with the publication in 1975 of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology has stimulated almost four decades of theoretical and empirical research in the biological roots of human social behavior.  Research across many disciplines--including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, evolutionary anthropology, social neuroscience, evolutionary game theory, and behavioral genetics--is now coming together into a general framework for the behavioral sciences founded upon Darwinian science.  Applying this new Darwinian social science to the history of political philosophy supports one general conclusion:  Adam Smith was right.

That conclusion has been suggested both by some of the new Darwinian social scientists and by some of the scholarly interpreters of Smith.  Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (MIT Press, 2005) is a collection of papers by researchers contributing to the new Darwinian social science edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr.  In their introduction to the book, the editors present this research as belonging to the tradition of Smith: "The ideas presented in this book are part of a continuous line of intellectual inheritance from Adam Smith and his friend and mentor David Hume, through Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Emile Durkheim, and more recently the biologists William Hamilton and Robert Trivers" (3).  Indeed, the title of their book--Moral Sentiments and Material Interests--points to the two themes predominant in Smith's two books published in his lifetime: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  Simultaneously, some of the scholarly commentators on Smith's writings have in recent years indicated that this new Darwinian social science can be seen as confirming Smith's teaching.  For example, this is suggested in James Otteson's book Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and in Michael Frazer's book The Enlightenment of Sympathy (Oxford University Press, 2010).

But if this new Darwinian science supports Adam Smith, we might wonder which Adam Smith does it support?  The scholars of Adam Smith have long debated the Adam Smith Problem--the problem that Smith apparently contradicts himself by assuming in The Wealth of Nations that human beings are moved only by self-interest, while arguing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that human beings are moved by their concern for others to act virtuously so that they can enjoy a mutual sympathy of sentiments.  Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, and Fehr indicate that while the research in their book supports the view of moral cooperation in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Smith's legacy also led in another direction, through David Ricardo, Francis Edgeworth, and Leon Walras, to contemporary neoclassical economics, that recognizes only self-interested behavior," as seems to be the teaching of Smith's Wealth of Nations.  Similarly, Bowles and Gintis in their book A Cooperative Species (Princeton University Press, 2011) argue that in explaining the Darwinian evolution of altruistic cooperation (particularly, what they call "strong reciprocity"), they are supporting "the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments" as opposed to "the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations" (1, 199-200).

Insofar as Darwinian social science has been identified with "Social Darwinism," it has been seen as in the tradition of the selfish competitiveness of Smith's Wealth of Nations.  But insofar as the new Darwinian social science emphasizes the evolution of social cooperation, it seems to follow in the tradition of Smith's account of the social nature of human beings in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

I will argue, however, that the new Darwinian social science overcomes the Adam Smith Problem by supporting the fundamental idea running through all of Smith's writing--the evolution of unintended order--and in doing that, it supports Smithian liberalism, or what Smith calls "the system of natural liberty."  This is a remarkable outcome for people like Bowles and Gintis who started out their careers as neo-Marxists, and who originally seemed to be adopting a Darwinian science of cooperation as a way of arguing for a new Darwinian left.  In recent years, one can see how the research in Darwinian science has pushed people like Bowles and Gintis towards a Darwinian liberalism that vindicates Adam Smith.

That the evolution of unintended order is the unifying theme of all of Smith's writing has been well stated by Otteson.  He argues that Smith applies a "market model" to explain the origin, development, and maintenance of all extended human institutions as unintended orders.  What he calls "unintended order" is what Michael Polanyi and Friedich Hayek call "spontaneous order" and what Vernon Smith and others call "emergent order."  Otteson defines "unintended order" as "a self-enforcing, orderly institution created unintentionally by the free exchanges of individuals who desire to satisfy their own individual wants" (270). 

An unintended order is contrasted with an intentional order that has been rationally designed by some mind or group of minds for a deliberately planned purpose.  The contrast between these two kinds of order underlies a fundamental debate in social theory between the constructivists and the evolutionists: between those who think that a good social order must be deliberately and rationally designed for some foreseeable end-state and those who think a good social order arises through a process of free exchanges between individuals acting for individual ends with no overall end in mind.  Since the success of unintended order depends on individual liberty constrained only by rules of justice protecting life, liberty, and property, the idea of unintended order is the fundamental idea of classical liberalism in the Smithian tradition.

The importance of unintended order for explaining economic markets in Smith's Wealth of Nations is generally recognized.  But what is not generally recognized is how this same idea runs throughout Smith's writing.  Otteson presents this as a "market model" with four elements, which he applies not only to The Wealth of Nations but also to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith's essay on the origin of languages, his Lectures on Jurisprudence, and his essay on the history of astronomy.  In the following schema, I am using the language of Otteson for the first three texts and the language of Gavin Kennedy (in the first edition of his Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy [Palgrave Macmillan, 2008]):

1.     Motivating Desire

(i)                TMS:  the “pleasure of mutual sympathy” of sentiments (TMS, 13 and passim)

(ii)              WN: the “natural effort of every individual to better his own condition” (WN, 540; see also WN, 26-27, 341, and 343)

(iii)            “Languages”:  the desire to make “mutual wants intelligible to each other” (LRBL, 203)

(iv)            LJ:  protection of property, perfect and imperfect rights, punishment of offenders

(v)              “Astronomy”: desire to discover the connecting chains of intermediate events (EPS, 42)

2.     Rules Developed

(i)                TMS: standards of moral judgment and rules determining propriety and merit

(ii)              WN: the “laws of justice” (WN, 687), including in particular protocols protecting private property, contractual agreements, and voluntary exchanges

(iii)            “Languages”:  rules of grammar, pronunciation, and so on;

(iv)            LJ:  codified laws, due process, Habeas Corpus, presumption of innocence, verdict by peers, sentence by judge

(v)              “Astronomy”:  rules for the testing and debate of successive explanatory systems

3.     Currency (i.e., what gets exchanged)

(i)                TMS: personal sentiments and moral judgments

(ii)              WN:  private goods and services

(iii)            “Languages”:  words, ideas, and wants

(iv)            LJ:  argument, persuasion, judgment, and condign punishment

(v)              “Astronomy”:  hypotheses, ideas, and speculation

4.     Resulting Unintended System of Order

(i)                TMS: commonly shared standards of morality and moral judgment

(ii)              WN: economy (i.e., large-scale network of exchanges of goods and services)

(iii)            “Languages”:  language

(iv)            LJ:  relatively orderly living environment under imperfect but stable government and the rule of law

(v)              “Astronomy”:  “Introduction of order into the chaos of jarring discordant appearances” (EPS, 43-49)

 I will have more to say in future posts about how this structure of unintended order arises in Smith's writing and how the new Darwinian social science confirms it through a Darwinian view of the evolution and psychology of human social cooperation.

Here I will just make two points.  First, notice that each unintended order expresses a motivating desire.  This assumes that the good is the desirable, and thus the natural desires constitute the natural goods for human life.  Thus, these unintended orders are rooted in an implied hypothetical imperative:  if you want to live a desirable life, a happy life, then you should participate in those unintended orders that help you to do that.  Understood in this way, these unintended orders have no transcendental claims to conform to any cosmic order or to instantiate any categorical imperative.

My second point is to note that Otteson is not satisfied with this.  He wants to find some cosmic normativity in Smith's teaching.  But this creates a big problem in Otteson's interpretation of Smith's "marketplace of life."  While Otteson presents the evolution of unintended order as the pervasive theme in Smith's explanation of social order--including morals, markets, languages, laws, and the sciences--Otteson argues that Smith does not extend this kind of explanation to cosmic nature or human nature, which require explanation through intelligent design by God.  The very possibility of unintended order presupposes a certain constitution of human nature and certain recurrent circumstances of social life--such as the dependence of children on adult care.  This presupposes an order of nature, including human nature, that cannot itself be explained as unintended order, because, Smith suggests, it shows evidence of intentional design by an intelligent, benevolent, and omnipotent God.  Otteson can supply plenty of textual evidence for this from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, because Smith often refers to God, the Deity, or the Author of Nature as ordering nature to His benevolent ends.

Otteson thinks this intelligent-design theology serves two purposes for Smith's account of morality.  People are more likely to obey the most important moral rules if those rules are regarded as sacred duties.  And if morality is understood as rooted in divine commands manifested in the cosmic structure of nature and human nature, then morality takes on a transcendent character, because it is based not just on hypothetical imperatives but categorical imperatives.

Otteson acknowledges that many scholarly interpreters dismiss Smith's theological language as a rhetorical appeal to popular religious beliefs that Smith himself does not share.  Otteson rejects this position by pointing to the language of moral theology in The Theory of Moral Sentiment.

But while this textual evidence does seem to support Otteson's interpretation, I think Otteson is wrong to ignore the evidence from Smith's intellectual friendship with David Hume and the threat of religious persecution that has led many scholars to conclude that Smith largely agreed with Hume's skepticism, but he thought that he could not risk provoking religious believers the way Hume had. 

When Hume was dying, there was intense public interest in the possibility that the great atheist--who had denied the immortality of the soul and the judgment of souls in the afterlife--would show his fear of death and divine judgment.  Smith wrote a long letter to William Strahan (November 9, 1776) describing Hume's illness and death and presenting him as facing death with tranquillity.  He concluded: "Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." 

This provoked a great controversy in the press, and Smith was denounced as an infidel.  A few years later, in a letter to Andreas Holt (October 26, 1780), Smith lamented:  "A single, and as, I thought a very harmless Sheet of paper, which I happened to Write concerning the death of our late friend Mr. Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain."

Before his death, Hume asked Smith to take the manuscript of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and supervise its publication.  Smith promised to preserve the manuscript, but he did not want it to be published in his own lifetime, presumably because he feared the persecution it would provoke.

In the Dialogues, Hume wrote the most devastating attack on the reasoning for natural theology that anyone has ever written.  He also suggested that the apparent design of the universe could be explained by undesigned, unintentional processes of nature, and some of what he said looks remarkably like what Darwin would develop later as his theory of evolution.

Otteson insists that while Darwin's evolutionary theory might provide an alternative to intelligent-design theology, this Darwinian theory was not available to either Hume or Smith.  While it is certainly right that neither Hume nor Smith were able to elaborate anything like Darwin's theory, Hume did clearly foreshadow the theory in the Dialogues; and even Smith has a few passages in The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he speaks of species as naturally adapted for survival and reproduction (77, 142, 219), and this looks like at least a vague  foreshadowing of Darwin.

Darwin agrees with Smith about how religious belief can be important for reinforcing moral conduct.  But he also thinks that religious belief is not absolutely necessary for morality, which can stand on its own natural ground as rooted in our evolved human nature.  This position is important for liberalism, because religious liberty--including the liberty of atheists and skeptics--can be defended only if we see that there can be a common natural morality that does not require that religious belief be coercively enforced.

Darwin also agrees with Smith that the mystery of the origin of the laws of nature leaves an opening for religious belief in a Creator as First Cause.  But even so, Darwin would argue, we do not need special miraculous interventions by the Creator to explain the origins of species, including the human species.

The new Darwinian social science would support Darwin on both of these points, I think.  Darwinian science can explain the evolutionary psychology of religious belief, but this by itself cannot refute the possiblity that such belief is true.  Darwinian science can also recognize the role of religion in the evolution of morality, but without denying the naturalness of morality even for those who are not religious believers.

On all of these points, Darwinian social science supports the core of Smith's teaching about the evolution of unintended order and thus supports the classical liberal tradition that grows out of that teaching.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Panel Discussion on "Freud's Last Session"

I will be participating in a panel discussion on Freud's Last Session at the Mercury Theater in Chicago on August 19th.  The panel discussion will follow the performance of the play, which starts at 1:00 p. m. 

The other two members of the panel are Jeffrey Barbeau (a professor of theology at Wheaton College) and Tracy Caldwell (a professor of psychology at Dominican University).

We will each offer some comments on the play and on the questions surrounding the debate between C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud.  Then we will open up the discussion to the audience.

This will give me the chance to think more about some of the issues I raised in my previous post on the play.

Information about the play is available online.