Monday, April 15, 2013

Hobbesian Political Philosophy as Empirical Science

It has always seemed odd to me that scholars in the history of political philosophy pay so little attention to empirical evidence. 

I was thinking about this while attending some of the panels on political philosophy at the annual conference in Chicago of the Midwest Political Science Association.  Most of the papers for these panels were textual interpretations of classic and contemporary writings in the history of political philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls and Nussbaum.  In most cases, the scholars on these panels argued about the correct interpretations of the texts being considered without surveying any of the empirical evidence that might confirm or falsify the claims made by the political philosophers.  This is strange because the texts being studied make lots of empirical claims about political life, and therefore one might think that the scholars studying these texts would want to gather and analyse whatever evidence would be relevant to assessing the accuracy of these empirical claims.

For example, much of the debate in early modern political philosophy turns on Thomas Hobbes' argument that government originated as a way to pacify the natural human inclination to violence in the state of nature, in which human beings existed as solitary animals thrown into perpetual conflict.  That Hobbes saw this as an empirical claim is made clear by his references to the American Indians as living in a state of nature and by his references to animal behavior in denying that human beings are political animals by nature.  So it would seem that to judge the truth or falsity of Hobbes' arguments, we need to look at the relevant biological and anthropological evidence.

And, indeed, the critics of Hobbes in his lifetime looked to such evidence in their responses to Hobbes.  For example, Richard Cumberland in 1672--in his Treatise of the Laws of Nature--argued that the biological evidence supported Aristotle's claim that human beings were political animals by nature against Hobbes' claim that they were not.  Cumberland argued that all the natural causes that incline animals to social cooperation--such as parental care, mutual aid, and reciprocal exchange--are just as strong in human beings as they are in some other animals.  He saw the human capacities for speech and reason as the natural instruments by which human beings become more political than the other political animals, just as Aristotle had claimed in his biological writings.

We now have more biological and anthropological evidence than was available to Hobbes and Cumberland, and this new evidence can help us adjudicate this debate.  I would say that the evidence suggests that Hobbes was partially right and partially wrong.

Hobbes was partially right in arguing that the life of hunter-gatherers showed high levels of violence, and that the establishment of formal governments had a pacifying effect.  In recent decades, the archaeological evidence surveyed by Lawrence Keeley and others (including Azar Gat and Steven Pinker) make it clear that Hobbes was right about this, and Rousseau was wrong.  For example, the skeletal evidence surveyed by Richard Steckel and John Wallis shows that the rate of violent death among hunter-gatherers was much higher than that for those who lived in the earliest villages and towns.  Pinker uses this and other evidence to show that Hobbes was right about the "pacification process"--the first big step in the long history of declining violence came 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic revolution, with the establishment of agriculture and the settlement in urban centers with formal governments.

This evidence for the pacification process has forced me to change my mind about Hobbes.  Having criticized Hobbes for many years, I now see that Hobbes was right about this.

Hobbes was partially wrong, however, in suggesting that hunter-gatherers lived as solitary individuals.  The evidence concerning the hunting-gathering way of life--as well as the general evolutionary theorizing of Darwinian biology--indicate that our earliest human ancestors were social animals bound together by ties of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.  And thus Cumberland was right in defending Aristotle's political biology against Hobbes.  Actually, Hobbes himself indicated that life in the state of nature was not totally solitary, because of "the government of small families" based on the ties of "natural lust."

Hobbes was also partially wrong in not seeing that although the first states were beneficial to everyone in lowering the level of violence, those states were also oppressive in allowing ruling elites to exploit the ruled, and thus Locke was right about the need to limit the powers of government.  The evidence of both ancient and modern history would support this.

This application of biological and anthropological evidence to debates in the history of political philosophy will be part of the newly emerging biopolitical science.

Some posts that elaborate some of these points can be found here, herehere, and here.

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