Friday, July 19, 2013

The MPS in the Galapagos (6): Darwinian Liberalism

On the morning of June 25th at the MPS conference, I was the opening lecturer, followed by Kenneth Minogue, and then a general discussion.

I lectured on "The Evolution of Darwinian Liberalism."  Since my paper is available online, and since I have written an earlier post on this paper, there is no need to summarize it here.

In my oral presentation of the paper, I addressed four (somewhat overlapping) groups of people in the audience--the classical liberals or libertarians, the Kirkians, the Hayekians, and the evolutionary psychologists.

Given the character of the Mont Pelerin Society, I would assume that almost all the members would consider themselves classical liberals or libertarians in some form.  To them, my appeal was to consider how a Darwinian science of human nature could confirm classical liberal thought, particularly as expressed by Adam Smith.  As I have indicated, someone like Charles Murray would seem to agree with me about this.

Although Russell Kirk was never a member of the MPS, many of its members have been identified with the sort of conservative thinking that he promoted.  At the 1957 meeting of the MPS, Hayek gave his famous speech entitled "Why I am not a Conservative," in which he identified himself as a classical liberal rather than as a conservative.  This was thought to be an expression of his disagreement with Kirk's conservatism, although he did not expressly mention Kirk in the speech.  Kirk was present at the meeting, and he reportedly gave an impromptu response.

My argument is that in many respects, Kirk and Hayek were not far apart.  After all, as many people have noted, they both identified themselves as belonging to the intellectual tradition of Edmund Burke.  Moreover, Kirk was a very liberal conservative, in that he clearly did not espouse the kind of theocratic conservatism represented by someone like Joseph de Maistre, and he feared as much as Hayek did the drift towards socialism and statism.

And yet there was one clear point of disagreement between Hayek and Kirk.  As Hayek indicated in his 1957 speech, the Kirkian conservatives rejected Darwinian evolution as a threat to traditional social order, and Hayek saw this as foolishly mistaken.  Furthermore, Hayek thought the case for liberalism was strengthened by a Darwinian understanding of how a free society can arise by spontaneous evolution.

In contrast to Hayek's evolutionary liberalism, Kirk defended a metaphysical and religious version of conservatism.  The first canon of conservative thought, he declared in The Conservative Mind, was "belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead."  Consequently, "politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature."  In later formulations of this first canon, Kirk spoke of the conservative belief in "a transcendent moral order."  In all of his formulations, he connected this principle to "Burke's description of the state as a divinely ordained moral essence, a spiritual union of the dead, the living, and those yet unborn," and he spoke of Burke's view of history as "the unfolding of Design."  He mentioned various schools of thought opposed to this conservative thinking, including "those scientific doctrines, Darwinism chief among them, which have done so much to undermine the first principles of a conservative order."

Here in Kirk we see the common fear of many conservatives that Darwinian science denies a conservative order by denying the religious belief in a transcendental order of moral law.  I have tried to allay this fear by arguing that a Darwinian liberalism can recognize the importance of religious belief for moral life as cultivated in the natural and voluntary associations of civil society.  But a Darwinian liberalism will also recognize that the evolved moral sense of human beings can stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief, and that the coercive enforcement of religious belief by the state must be rejected as a threat to liberty.

I will have the chance to continue this discussion with the Kirkian conservatives when I speak at a Regional Meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Atlanta, Georgia, October 4-5.  The theme of the meeting is "The Permanent Things," and it's a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Conservative Mind.  I will be part of a panel on "Human Nature and the Permanent Things."  And I will argue that evolved human nature does provide an enduring, even if not eternal, ground for conservative order.

While indicating my general agreement with Hayek's evolutionary liberalism, I also indicated some points of disagreement--particularly, in his tendency to play up cultural evolution to the exclusion of human nature and human reason, and in his Freudian conception of the free society as requiring a complete suppression of our naturally evolved instincts.

This Hayekian Freudian theme is similar to the idea of "mismatch" coming from the evolutionary psychologists.  As I have already indicated, I find this to be partially true but often exaggerated.  Yes, we are evolved for life in small groups with face-to-face interaction.  But life in small groups is still possible even in the large societies of the modern world.  Moreover, the modern extension of trading relations in global networks of exchange draws on evolved instincts for trading that go back very far into human evolutionary history.

I also questioned the evolutionary psychologists about their commitment to the fact/value distinction.  The presence of Cosmides and Tooby at this conference suggested that they see some connection between evolutionary psychology and classical liberal thought.  And yet they have often said that evolutionary science must be value-free, because moral values are beyond any purely empirical science.  This explains why when Ed Wilson argued for an evolutionary science of morality at the 1996 Meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, he was fervently criticized by the evolutionary psychologists who insisted that this violated the unbridgeable gap between facts and values, is and ought.  If this is true, then an evolutionary science can contribute very little to classical liberalism as a moral and political position, which would suggest that this whole MPS conference on "Evolution, the Human Sciences, and Liberty" was misconceived!

Ken Minogue's lecture expressed some skepticism about my arguments.  Regrettably, as I have indicated in a previous post, Ken died suddenly during his flight out of the Galapagos at the end of the week, and so I am saddened by the thought that I can't continue my conversations with him.  His lecture seemed to suggest that evolutionary thinking could only subvert traditional moral order.

Various questions were raised in the discussion period.  Some of those questions indicated disagreement with my endorsement of Steven Pinker's argument about the history of declining violence.  For some people in the audience, and for Minogue, it was obvious that "the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history," and that this was enough to refute Pinker's argument.  As he indicated in his lecture two days later, Deepak Lal thought that Pinker was blind to the fact that the "Long Peace" since World War II has been a product of American imperial dominance of the globe--the Pax Americana.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"the unbridgeable gap between facts and values, is and ought."
The question isn't logically bridging the gap, i.e., logically deducing an ought statement from an is statement. The question is which values lead to the survival of its bearers? The Shakers practiced celibacy and they went extinct because of it. Imagine if a strong moral realism is true, and we finally perform an act or realist moral intuition and discover that celibacy is the true moral value. Now imagine a tribe sadly unable to perform moral intuitions and fail to see that celibacy is the true value. Which tribe is will survive? In other words, can moral truths be anything other than those values which lead to the survival of those who hold them? The real study of morality isn't about the fact/value question; we need a new field of inquiry about the survival value of values.