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.


bjdubbs said...

If the "greatest happiness consists in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasure," doesn't that mean that it's not the enjoying but the having that's important? In other words, having a big bank account is the greatest happiness, not buying and consuming the things which wealth purchases. So the ideal Lockean will save and better his condition a little every day, but it's the having and not the consuming that's crucial to the Lockean. That's why Strauss ends the chapter on Locke with "joyless quest for joy," which can be restated as "joyless quest for the having but not the consuming of the things which produce joy."

Tom West said...

Larry, Thanks for posting. I appreciate your anointing me a member in good standing of Midwest Straussianism. But if the paterfamilias of that movement is Michael Zuckert, I may have to decline the offer. As you noted in your blog post, he and I differ fundamentally on Locke (to say nothing of other topics). If, as you say, a "Midwest Straussian" is "someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Leo Strauss) that one can combine ancient virtue with modern liberty," then I don't see how Zuckert qualifies. As I note in my Locke essay, "In his long discussion of Lockean natural law in "Natural Rights and the New Republicanism," 187-288, Zuckert focuses almost exclusively on Locke's doctrine of natural rights as opposed to the duty of everyone to preserve others and of parents to care for their children." Locke's teaching on parental and spousal duties--which tend not to be much noticed among Straussians--brings Locke closer to Aristotelian ethics than does Zuckert's emphasis on Lockean self-ownership.

Actually, your definition of "Midwest Straussian" reminded me more of Harry Jaffa than of Zuckert. In fact, isn't combining ancient virtue with modern liberty almost the definition of "Western Straussianism"? If it is, then maybe it is not I who am a Midwest Straussian but rather you who are a Western one!

But enough with such superficial labels.

I do have my differences with Jaffa. One of them is the way he and I might respond to Zuckert's critique of Jaffa in Z's book "The Truth about Leo Strauss." In "The Truth" Zuckert says one way Jaffa could respond to his critique is to make a more robust defense of Locke. That is in effect what I did in the Locke essay that you reference.

The implication of my argument is that the American Founders do not have to be viewed as breaking with Locke (or as embracing some sort of incoherent "amalgam" in their political theory) in their simultaneous concern with natural rights and with the moral and religious character of the people.

Tom West at Hillsdale

Kent Guida said...

It sounds like Mr. West is approaching the Groucho Marx standard for accepting club memberships.

Perhaps the membership committee should consider expelling Mr. Zuckert for his numerous deviations. Even though he founded the association of Midwest Straussians, it is not clear he truly accepts its principles.

In fact, it’s not clear that anyone except Mr. Arnhart really gets it. And me, of course.

In any event, if this is ever going to become a movement, some discipline will be needed. Otherwise it will remain just another discussion group. Let the purge begin!