Friday, October 24, 2014

Joseph Cropsey's Straussian Attack on Adam Smith

Joseph Cropsey was introduced to Leo Strauss by Harry Jaffa when Strauss was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York, before Strauss went to the University of Chicago in 1949.  Although Cropsey was convinced by Strauss to turn his mind to political philosophy, Cropsey's training was in economics at Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1952.  His dissertation was on Adam Smith, which allowed him to think about how Smith might be fitted into the Straussian view of the history of political philosophy.  That dissertation was published as a book--Polity and Economy: An Interpretation of the Principles of Adam Smith--in 1957.  Cropsey then became a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago in 1958, and from that point, he became Strauss's closest associate.

Cropsey became the primary Straussian interpreter of Smith.  In 1963, he was the co-editor with Strauss of History of Political Philosophy, for which Cropsey wrote the chapter on Smith.  In 1976, he wrote another paper on Smith for the bicentennial of the publication of The Wealth of Nations.  In 2001, a revised version of Polity and Economy was published by St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, Indiana), which reprinted the original book and added the two later papers as two new chapters.

As a graduate student studying with Cropsey in the 1970s, I wondered about his interpretation of Smith.  But it is only in recent years, that I have begun to understand Cropsey's handling of Smith and how it fits into the Straussian story of the "crisis of liberalism."  I have become increasingly skeptical about the Straussian denigration of classical liberalism; and as I compare what Cropsey says about Smith with my own reading of Smith, I find Smithian liberalism far more defensible than Cropsey and the Straussians are willing to admit.  A big part of my thinking is that I have come to see an intellectual tradition of biological naturalism in moral and political philosophy that links Aristotle, Smith, and Darwin in a way that is ignored by the Straussians.

The revised version of Polity and Economy falls into two parts that contradict one another.  In the first part--the original book of 1957 and the book chapter of 1963--Cropsey presents an Aristotelian attack on Smith for proposing commerce as a poor substitute for virtue and excellence.  In the second part--the paper composed in 1976--Cropsey presents a Kantian attack on Smith for failing to see the incoherence of "natural liberty" and the need for a Kantian realm of freedom that transcends the realm of nature.  I will take up each of these two parts and indicate the dubious character of the reasoning in each.


Early in The Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies his position as a defense of a "commercial society."
"When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply.  He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for.  Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society" (37).
Cropsey identifies this "commercial society" as the system of "liberal commerce" or "liberal capitalism," and he identifies the primary alternative as the system of "authoritative virtue" (PE, xi).  According to Cropsey, the system of liberal commerce is Hobbesian in being based on the desire for self-preservation as the defining feature of human nature in contrast to the Aristotelian principle that human beings are by nature political animals.  For Aristotle, the end of political life is to promote moral and intellectual virtue; but for Smith, commerce takes the place of virtue. 

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explicitly rejects Hobbes's teaching (315-18); and he affirms that he agrees with Aristotle's moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics (269-73).  Remarkably, Cropsey is completely silent about this in his book.  Presumably, Cropsey must have thought that Smith was mistaken about this, but Cropsey never explains this.  Later in his book, Cropsey does contradict his claim about Smith as a Hobbesian by acknowledging that Smith actually departed from the Hobbesian reduction of human nature to self-preservation and affirmed the natural sociality of human beings (PE, 124, 128, 147).

Cropsey says that dying for noble causes shows that human desires go beyond self-preservation.  "If the end were living well or nobly, nothing would be easier to imagine than a conflict between the requirements of preservation and the requirements of man's end.  The death in battle of every courageous soldier, and the self-sacrifice of all those who have died for high causes, testify to this fact of human life" (PE, 116).  Oddly, Cropsey is silent about the fact that Smith says the same thing--that heroism in war shows how a sense of duty and honor overcomes the desire for self-preservation (TMS, 116, 138-39, 191-92).

If Cropsey is right that Smith's "liberal commerce" rejects "authoritative virtue," then we must wonder, what exactly is meant by "authoritative virtue"?  Cropsey says that "Smith rejects fear of the prince as the principle of virtuous society," because this threatens liberty, security, and justice (PE 42).  "Before Smith's epoch," Cropsey explains, "it was a settled principle of political life and philosophy that fear of the prince and fear of power invisible were alike indispensable to common life" (PE, 100).  Cropsey's only evidence for this "settled principle" is a quotation from Tudor statesman Sir William Paget: "Society is a realm doth consist and is maintained by means of religion and law, and these two or one wanting, farewell all just society, government, justice."  Smith's rejection of this "settled principle" was his "rejection of the virtuous society" and his affirmation of commerce as a substitute for virtue (PE, 110). 

Is it true that Aristotle believed that "fear of the prince and fear of power invisible" were the only way to make virtue authoritative?  It is true that at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that for many people swayed by irrational passions, the coercive force of law might be the only way to habituate them to virtue.  But he also indicates that except for Sparta, almost no other political community has paid attention to the instilling of virtue through legal coercion, and consequently most moral education is left up to parents in shaping the character of their children and to the unwritten customs of a community (1179b20-1180b10).

In Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a comprehensive account of the social and political formation of the virtues through "friendship" (philia), which for Aristotle is a general term for all kinds of social bonding in which human beings show some care for one another.  Aristotle's "friendship" coincides with what Hume and Smith called "sympathy"--any kind of "fellow feeling" among human beings.  Darwin adopted this idea of and made "sympathy" one of the fundamental themes in his evolutionary account of moral and political order.  More recently, biologists and psychologists have used the word "empathy" in a way that largely corresponds to what Hume, Smith, and Darwin would call "sympathy," or what Aristotle would call "friendship."  All agree with Aristotle that the various forms of friendly feeling or social bonding that unite human beings as individuals, as fellow citizens, and as members of the same species are originally rooted in the natural affection of parental care for offspring (NE, 1155a1-33, 1159a27-37, 1160b23-62a29).  "In the household, are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of polity, and of justice" (Eudemian Ethics, 1242b1-2).

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 is one section of Aristotle's writing that shows his propensity to liberalism, while also showing many references to his biology.  The liberal character of Aristotle's social anthropology here becomes clear as soon as 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 (TMS, 28, 77-78, 86-87, 142, 219-34; Lectures on Jurisprudence, 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, 85-86; LJ, 7-9).

Smith also follows Aristotle in looking to the friendship of philosophers 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" (TMS, 216).  The friendship of such philosophers is the highest form of friendship that is possible only among men of the highest virtue (TMS, 224-25).  Remarkably, Cropsey does not see how this contradicts his claim that The Theory of Moral Sentiments "contains literally nothing on the subject of intellectual virtue" (PE, 50).  Similarly, Cropsey says nothing about how Smith in The Wealth of Nations stresses the importance of philosophy as produced by the division of labor in the most civilized societies, in which one sees "philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is, not to do any thing, but to observe every thing" (WN, 21).  Cropsey ignores Smith's argument that the contemplative life of the philosophic few flourishes only in civilized, commercial societies (WN, 782-84).

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is full of observations about friendship (see, for example, 16-17, 22-23, 32-33, 38-43, 120-25, 129, 150, 174, 219-26, 256, 328).  Surprisingly, Cropsey is completely silent about this.  His only reference to friendship in his book is his identification of Hume as Smith's "senior friend and compatriot" (PE, 120).  And yet Cropsey says nothing about the prominence that Smith gave to his friendship with Hume, particularly in his famous letter to William Strahan describing the magnanimity and cheerfulness of Hume in facing his own death while conversing with his friends.  In this published letter, Smith dramatically imitated the last sentence of Plato's Phaedo by declaring that Hume had approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (Correspondence, 221).  Thus, Smith showed how the opulence and liberty of a commercial society would provide philosophers like Hume and himself with the intellectual commerce, the individual liberty, and the leisured independence necessary for living a philosophic life with their friends.  Cropsey ignores all of this because it contradicts his argument that there is no place for the intellectual virtues of philosophy in Smith's commercial society.

The intellectual friendship of Smith and Hume arose in a dense social network of friends who met regularly in social clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Smith was a leading member of the Philosophical Society and the Select Society of Edinburgh that meet weekly for discussions of ideas in philosophy, science, and the other liberal arts.  Smith was also an active member of the Political Economy Club of Glasgow and the Oyster Club of Edinburgh.  These clubs brought together university teachers, clergymen, lawyers, judges, and merchants.  These same people came together for public lecture series.  Smith gained his first public notoriety from his long series of public lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence from 1748 to 1751 that he delivered in Edinburgh at the invitation of Henry Home, Lord Kames, a prominent judge who was influential in shaping the intellectual life of Edinburgh.  This intellectual commerce in Scotland was also manifested in the publication of journals like the Edinburgh Review (1755-56) and many books.  Because of this intellectual activity, Edinburgh became known as the "Athens of the North."  Cropsey says nothing about this.

Notably, while Peter Minowitz, in his book Profits, Priests, and Princes: Adam Smith's Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion (Stanford University Press, 1993), generally agrees with Cropsey's Straussian interpretation of Smith, Minowitz has a section of his book on "The Contemplative Ideal" in Smith's writing, where he suggests a criticism of Cropsey for ignoring how Smith conveys "ancient notions of the exclusivity or superiority of philosophy" (83-86).

According to Cropsey, Smith's commercial society denies the importance not only of intellectual virtue but also moral virtue.  Cropsey does recognize that Smith relies on social approbation and disapprobation to enforce moral norms.  Moreover, in small communities, such as religious groups, "the citizens' conduct is regulated by their constant mutual surveillance" (PE, 95).  But, apparently, Cropsey believes that this cannot enforce "authoritative virtue," which depends upon the coercive force of law working through "the fear of the prince and fear of power invisible."

Here we see the fundamental issue in the debate over commercial liberalism.  A commercial liberal like Smith separates the coercive force of government as directed to securing liberty from the natural and voluntary associations of society as directed to securing virtue.  But for Cropsey, virtue can only be secured through the coercive force of a Spartan government.

In his original book on Smith, Cropsey argued that Smith's commercial society was designed to secure freedom but not virtue.  In his book chapter of 1963, however, Cropsey changed his mind and argued that Smith wanted to secure both freedom and virtue:
"When it is borne in mind that Smith's teaching aims at the articulation of morality and preservation, and that the practical fruits of his doctrine are intended to be gathered by emancipating men, under mild government, to seek their happiness freely according to their individual desires, the accomplishment as a whole demands great respect.  The reconciliation of the private good and the common good by the medium not of coercion but of freedom, on a basis of moral duty, had perhaps never been seen before" (PE, 129).
Apparently, however, Cropsey thinks this liberal combination of freedom and virtue is impossible.  He also thinks it is incoherent in its assumption that freedom within nature is possible, which is his Kantian criticism of Smith.


 In his Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies his position as "the system of natural liberty" (687).  In 1976, Cropsey lectured on "The Invisible Hand: Moral and Political Considerations," which became the last chapter of his revised book on Smith.  Here he criticized Smith for failing to recognize Immanuel Kant's insight that "natural liberty" is an incoherent idea, because nature and freedom are contradictory, and therefore freedom of the will must belong to a realm of freedom that transcends the realm of nature.  Smith does not see this because he assumes, along with Hume, that moral freedom is part of human nature, and that human nature is part of nature as a whole.  Consequently, for Smith and Hume, the science of moral and political philosophy is a natural science.  According to Cropsey, this is wrong, because it fails to recognize Kant's point that for freedom of the will to be possible, it must be "outside the causal chain of natural necessity" (PE, 155).  The moral freedom of human beings must be "outside nature" (PE, 156).

If our moral choices are expressions of our natural desires, then those choices are not truly free choices because they are determined by our desires.  To be free, our moral reason must be able to grasp moral truth as a cosmic truth about the universe that does not depend on our natural human desires.

By embracing this Kantian dualistic metaphysics of morals, Cropsey moves from Aristotle to Kant.  For Aristotle, "thought by itself moves nothing."  Deliberate choice (proairesis) must combine reason and desire: it is either rational desire or desiring reason (NE, 1139a35-39b7).  Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action.  But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice.  For Aristotle, being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires.  Rather, to be responsible, one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived.  To do this, one must act deliberately in the present in the light of one's past experiences and future expectations.  One must do this to attain happiness, which is the ultimate end of all human action.  If "free will" means acting as an uncaused cause, acting outside the natural order of the world, then Aristotle has no conception of "free will" as understood by Kant.  In all of this, Aristotle would agree with Hume, Smith, and Darwin (see my Darwinian Natural Right, 69-87).

There are lots of problems with Kant's metaphysical morality.  One of them is that he identifies nature in a reductionistic way as mere mechanism, as what Cropsey calls "the motion of lifeless matter according to mere laws of physics" (PE, 165).  If this is nature, then there surely cannot be any freedom within nature.  But if nature includes the emergent evolution of life with higher levels of organization that cannot be fully reduced to the laws of physics, then living nature can show the freedom of animal voluntary movement and of human deliberate choice (as indicated in Aristotle's The Movement of Animals).

That Smith does not understand the "nature" in "natural liberty" as a deterministic mechanism of absolute necessity should be clear from the fact that he believes that "natural liberty" has been generally violated by the policies of Europe.  In some cases, the "natural order of things" has been "entirely inverted."  Even Smith himself recommends certain governmental regulations of banking, although this would be a "manifest violation of natural liberty" (WN, 116, 157, 324, 376-80, 530).  If "natural liberty" can be violated by human institutions, then human nature cannot be understood as a deterministic mechanism governed by the laws of physics.  Smith admits that far from being a necessity of nature, his "system of natural liberty" is actually utopian, because it contradicts the natural selfishness of merchants and manufacturers who use their power to promote policies that restrict competition (WN, 157-58, 266-67, 471, 584, 647-48).

Another problem is that Kant's metaphysical dualism is implausible.  To most of us, the idea of a realm of noumenal freedom transcending the realm of phenomenal nature is hard to believe as anything other than an imaginary creation.  Even Cropsey suggests this: "Superfluously to raise the question of man's bondage to nature has effects that go beyond the theoretical.  It either prepares the way for despair: there is no escape from the absolutely comprehensive and equally tyrannical grip of the natural All; or it compels men to find, which probably means invent, an enclave inside or a platform outside nature in the form of a state of the consciousness or the will, by which in spirit man will elevate himself to freedom in a sense most elusive" (PE, 165-66).  So is the Kantian realm of freedom an invention?  Earlier in his book, Cropsey claims that "Smith understood science to be human invention, as distinct from discovery," and Cropsey sees this as a good ground for criticizing Smith (PE, 51).

Perhaps because of this thought that Kantian dualistic metaphysics is a mere invention of Kant's imagination, Cropsey later, in the 1980s, turned away from Kant to Heidegger.  This Heideggerian turn is evident in his Heideggerian interpretation of Plato in his book Plato's World.  Embracing Heidegger's idea that the being of human being understood as Dasein is defined as "care" (Sorge), Cropsey read Plato as teaching that human beings care about their existence within an uncaring world of nature and without any divinity to care for them.

This Heideggerian turn in Cropsey's thought shows a problem in the Straussian story of political philosophy.  On the one hand, Strauss and the Straussians have generally argued that the ancient conception of natural right is based on a cosmic teleology of nature that is denied by modern liberalism.  On the other hand, they have also intimated--as their secret teaching?--that the ancient political philosophers did not really believe in a cosmic teleology as anything other than a noble lie.

Although Smith sometimes invokes a cosmic teleology guided by the "Author of Nature," there are lots of reasons to believe that this is a rhetorical gesture to escape the charge of infidelity, and that his moral and political philosophy is grounded in an immanent teleology of human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of Divine design.

Many of my points here have been elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Haidt, the Mormon Church, and Libertarian Conservatism

Some federal courts have struck down as unconstitutional laws in 11 states banning gay marriage.  By refusing to hear the appeals of these decisions, the United States Supreme Court has forced these states to legalize gay marriage.  Many people have wondered why the Supreme Court has refused to rule on this contentious debate over gay marriage and thus establish a national legal standard, instead of forcing the debate to be taken up state-by-state.  One possible explanation is that the Court does not want to move too quickly to declare a constitutional right to gay marriage.  By allowing the spread of gay marriage across the states, the Court allows the shift of public opinion towards favoring gay marriage to continue, so that when the Court does rule, the ruling will be seen as conforming to what the general public has already decided in their states.  This is what the Court did in deciding the debate in the 1960s over whether the state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional.  The Court waited until these laws had been overturned in most states, reflecting a shift in public opinion, before declaring in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that interracial marriage was a constitutional right.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt who study the moral psychology of the "culture war" between liberals and conservatives in the United States will say that the legalization of gay marriage is a victory of liberals over conservatives, because conservatives believe in moral standards of divinity and sanctity that condemn homosexuality (as well as interracial sex and marriage) as disgusting violations of God's law.  But that Haidt is mistaken about this becomes clear when one notices how almost all conservatives today condemn the legal prohibition of interracial marriage as a violation of individual liberty, and increasingly most conservatives now see that the principle of liberty applies in the same way to gay marriage.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Haidt, his mistake comes from his not recognizing that most American conservatives are actually liberal or libertarian conservatives, in contrast to the illiberal conservatives that one could find elsewhere in the world today and in past history.  As Louis Hartz argued in The Liberal Tradition in America, American political thought has been dominated almost totally by Lockean liberalism, so that even those who identify themselves as conservatives are liberal or libertarian in their conservatism.  One possible exception to this might be the pro-slavery Southern thinkers, whose position was defeated in the Civil War and in the civil rights movement.

American libertarian conservatism is a fusion of political liberty and social virtue that depends on the distinction between government and civil society.  The purpose of government is to secure individual liberty by using legal coercion to punish force and fraud and to enforce the rule of law and property rights, while leaving individuals free to live as they choose so long as they do not exercise coercive force against other individuals.  The purpose of a free society is to allow individuals to shape their moral and intellectual virtues in the natural and voluntary associations of life.

Much of Haidt's data to support his theory comes from his "Moral Foundations Questionnaire".  But since his questions do not ask people about using governmental coercion to enforce their moral principles, conservatives are not allowed to identify themselves as libertarian conservatives who can be committed to binding moral standards of loyalty, authority, and sanctity as enforced through the voluntary exchanges of social life, while also being committed to the individualizing moral standards of liberty that forbid government from using coercion to enforce the binding moral standards.

This conservative fusion of liberty and virtue explains the recent statement of the Mormon Church in response to legalization of gay marriage in Utah.  The Church has reaffirmed its belief that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is acceptable to God."  "Nevertheless," its statement continued, "respectful coexistence is possible with those with differing values."  And "as far as the civil law is concerned, the courts have spoken."  Thus, they distinguish between the divine law that must be accepted by those who voluntarily join the Church and the civil law that is enforced by government.  Their belief that they should strive for "respectful coexistence" with those whose moral values differs from theirs coincides with Haidt's main idea--that a peaceful coexistence of people who have deeply conflicting moral commitments can overcome the tendency to brutal violence in moral tribal conflicts.

In this way, libertarian conservatism promotes peaceful cooperation in a morally pluralistic society that can combine the moral norms of individual liberty and social virtue.  Introducing political diversity into social psychology, as Haidt and some of his colleagues have recommended, should make social psychologists more knowledgeable about how conservative political thought embraces the broadest set of moral concerns, so that all six of the moral foundations are valued equally.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Thomistic Political Thought

Here is my article "Thomistic Political Thought" for the Encyclopedia of Political Thought:

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was the most important philosopher and theologian of the High Middle Ages.  Thomistic political thought shows his enduring influence on the history of political thought, particularly in the philosophical interpretation and practical application of his teaching on natural law.

          Thomas was an Italian priest who joined the new Dominican order of the Catholic Church.  He taught at the University of Paris and elsewhere.  Of his many writings, the best known is his Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology), which he wrote as a textbook of theology for young students.  After his death, he was canonized by the Church as a saint; and eventually he was recognized by the Church as an authoritative source of Christian philosophy and theology.

          During his lifetime, Thomas’s thinking was influenced by three major controversies.  One was the question of how to reconcile the temporal authority of political rulers and the spiritual authority of the Church.  The second controversy was whether the pagan philosophy of Aristotle could be harmonized with Christian theology.  The third controversy was about how the Church should respond to heretical groups—particularly, the Cathars (or Manicheans)—that claimed to represent a pure form of Christianity free from the corruption of the Catholic Church.

          In response to such controversies, Thomas’s fundamental teaching was the harmony between the natural truths known by human reason and the supernatural truths known by faith in Christian revelation.  A crucial part of this teaching was the idea of natural law.

According to Thomas, there are four kinds of law.  Eternal law is the law of the universe by which God governs everything as created by Him.  Natural law is that part of the eternal law that can be known universally by natural reason and natural inclinations.  Human law is constituted by those particular rules enacted by human lawmakers for particular communities.  Divine law is constituted by God’s commands in the Bible that guide the conduct of Biblical believers according to eternal law beyond what could be done by natural and human law.

In explaining natural law, Thomas indicats that “the order of our natural inclinations ordains the precepts of the natural law” (ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 2).  There are three levels in this order of the natural inclinations.  At the first level, all substances have a natural inclination to preserve themselves.  Consequently, whatever preserves human life and avoids threats to human life is of natural law.  At the second level, human beings share some natural inclinations with some animals, particularly the inclinations to sexual mating and the rearing of offspring.  This shows, in the words of an ancient Roman lawyer, that natural right is “what nature has taught all animals.”  At the third level, human beings have natural inclinations that are proper to their rational nature.  “For example, human beings by nature have inclinations to know the truth about God and to live in society with other human beings.  And so things that relate to such inclinations belong to the natural law—for example, that human beings shun ignorance, that they not offend those with whom they ought to live sociably, and other such things.”  Consequently, “everything to which human beings are inclined by their nature belongs to the natural law” (ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 3).

The major themes of Thomistic political thought can be understood as responses to five prominent objections to Thomistic natural law coming from the critics of Thomism.  The first objection is that Thomistic natural law is not truly natural because it depends on religious faith in the supernatural teachings of the Bible.  The second objection is that natural law reasoning commits the naturalistic fallacy by illogically inferring moral values from natural facts.  The third objection is that the fixed principles of natural law fail to allow for flexibility in judging what is best for particular individuals in variable social circumstances.  The fourth objection is that Thomas was a medieval monarchist whose political teaching is therefore opposed to modern liberal democracy as aiming at the securing of individual liberty.  The fifth objection is that Thomistic natural law supports some unreasonable doctrines of the Catholic Church concerning sexuality, abortion, and marriage.

Reason and Revelation

The first objection arises from the apparent contrast between reason and revelation.  Even if there is a natural inclination “to know the truth about God,” that is not the same as knowing God.  Faithful acceptance of God and of the Bible as His revelation requires a faith that goes beyond natural reason (ST, II-II, q. 2, aa. 1-2).  So if natural law is to be comprehensible by natural reason alone, natural law should not depend upon religious faith.  And yet Thomas often seems to present natural law as if following natural law depended upon understanding it to be God’s law.  The very term “natural law” would seem to presume a divine “lawgiver.”  This has provoked Leo Strauss (1953: 163-64) and others to object that a natural law that depends upon religious faith is not really natural if it assumes faith in the supernatural, and thus it cannot be known by unassisted natural reason alone.

          Some Thomists have explained that, indeed, Thomas’s understanding of natural law is inseparable from his Christian theology.  Fergus Kerr argues: “when Thomas reaches the question of natural law, it is long after he has put in place his theology of beatitude and virtue; he takes natural law to be self-evidently participation in divine providence and always already requiring deeper instruction by the Law of Moses and by ‘the Law of the Gospel’” (2002: 113).

          On the contrary, other Thomists have argued, natural law must stand on its own natural ground independently of divine law.  Therefore, Thomas’s natural law is comprehensible by purely natural reason and experience without any need for faith in the supernatural.  Anthony Lisska (1996) takes this position in interpreting Thomistic natural law as rooted in human nature understood as the natural biological inclinations of human beings.  Thus, Thomistic natural law manifests a biological understanding that might be confirmed by modern biological science.  Thomas thought that “everything is good so far as it is desirable, and is a term of the movement of the appetite” (ST, I, q. 5, a. 6).  If the good is the desirable, and if our evolved human nature is constituted by a set of natural desires distinctive to the human species, then those natural desires could be the biological ground for a natural law that is knowable by natural experience without any need for religious belief (Arnhart 2001).  In his biological reasoning about natural law, Thomas was influenced by the biological work of Albert the Great, his teacher at the University of Paris, who wrote a massive survey of zoology, beginning with Aristotle’s biological writings.

          As an example of such biological reasoning, Thomas explains that marriage is natural because it satisfies natural desires that human beings share with some animals (ST, II-II, q. 57, a. 3; suppl., q. 41, a. 1).  In the Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG), he speaks of the human inclination to marriage as a “natural instinct of the human species” (3.123).  The primary natural end of marriage is to secure the parental care of children; the secondary natural end is to secure the conjugal bonding of male and female for a sexual division of labor in the household.  Among some animals, Thomas observes, the female can care properly for her offspring on her own, and so there is no natural need for any enduring bond between male and female.  For those animals whose offspring do require care from both parents, however, nature implants an inclination for male and female to stay together to provide the necessary parental care (SCG, 3.122-23).  Just as is the case for those animals whose offspring could not survive or develop normally without parental care, human offspring depend upon parents for their existence, their nourishment, and their education.  Even if they do not have children, however, men and women naturally desire marital union because, not being self-sufficient, they seek the conjugal friendship of husband and wife sharing in household life.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

If natural law is rooted in the natural inclinations that constitute human nature, then natural law reasoning is open to the objection that it commits the naturalistic fallacy, because it infers moral values from natural facts.  Many contemporary philosophers have assumed that one cannot logically infer what ought to be from what is.  From the natural fact that human beings desire something, it does not follow that they ought to desire it.

          John Finnis has argued that this does not refute natural law because natural law is not inferred from human nature (1980: 33-36).  The basic forms of human good in natural law are grasped by practical understanding as self-evident and indemonstrable principles, and thus there is no inference from human nature.  Some defenders of natural law have criticized Finnis for proposing “natural law without nature.”  Finnis has responded by arguing that while moral norms are grounded in human nature, these norms are not inferred from a prior knowledge of human nature.  The practical reasonableness of the first principles of action depends on some rational apprehension of natural inclinations as good.

          Ralph McInerny suggests another way of responding to the objection that Thomistic natural law commits the naturalistic fallacy.  Thomas does not absolutely separate facts and values.  For Thomas, the good is the desirable.  Every purposive human action implicitly involves the judgment that what we seek to accomplish through this action will be desirable in the sense of truly perfecting or fulfilling us.  Consequently, the judgment that we ought to desire what is truly perfective of us is already present in any given desire.  There is no purely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire—hence, there is no fact-value dichotomy.

The Need for Prudence

Does this grounding of natural law in human nature assume a universal and unchanging human nature?  Does this ignore the great variability in the lives of diverse individuals in diverse societies?  This suggests a third objection to Thomistic natural law—that the fixity of Thomas’s universal principles of natural law does not allow for flexibility in judging what is best for this individual in this situation.

          Cultural diversity seems to deny any universal natural law.  There seems to be hardly any moral practice of any society that has not been rejected by some other society.  We might conclude, therefore, that everything is culturally relative, and that there are no moral absolutes.

          Thomas recognizes the need for flexibility in practical judgment, which requires the virtue of prudence.  “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs, and hence arises the diversity in the positive laws among various people” (ST, I-II, q. 95, a. 2, ad 3). 

Family law illustrates this.  By nature human beings are inclined to produce offspring who need prolonged and intensive care by adults.  By custom, societies have devised diverse ways of organizing the division of labor in caring for the young.  By stipulation, lawmakers specify the legal rights and duties of parents and children in a particular community.  To be successful these legal stipulations must respect both natural inclinations and customary practices, although this leaves the lawmakers free to choose among a wide array of practicable rules.  Thus, natural law constrains but does not determine customary law and positive law.

Natural Law and Liberal Democracy

One way to achieve moral flexibility in response to individual variation and cultural diversity is to create a liberal society that protects individual liberty and cultural pluralism.  Individuals can be free to live as they please in cooperation with other consenting adults so long as they don’t harm anyone else.  Modern liberal democracy tries to do this by having governments established by the consent of the governed to secure individual rights.

Critics of Thomism object, however, that Thomas seems to be hostile to liberal democracy, because he endorses monarchy as the best form of government, and because he thinks that the purpose of government is not to protect individual rights but to enforce a shared morality on the whole community.

Thomists like Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon have tried to show that Thomas’s teaching is compatible with modern liberal democracy and with the modern conception of human rights.  Some Thomists like John Hittinger (2002: 35-60) have argued, however, that Maritain and Simon fail to find an unqualified endorsement of pure democracy in Thomas’s writings.

Nevertheless, as Hittinger and others have suggested (Blythe 1992), one can rightly interpret Thomas as teaching that the best regime is a mixed government that combines monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements (ST, I-II, q. 105, a. 1).  Modern liberal democratic republicanism belongs to this tradition of mixed government as the best regime.

Moreover, Thomas is surprisingly liberal in his argument that it is improper for human law to try to enforce perfect virtue: “Human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue.  Wherefore, human laws do not forbid all vices from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.  Thus, human law prohibits murder, theft, and suchlike” (ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 2).

Sexuality, Abortion, and Marriage

A final objection to Thomistic natural law—perhaps the most contentious one—is that natural law is rendered dubious by the way it is used by the Catholic Church to justify its doctrines about sexual behavior, abortion, and marriage.  The Church condemns abortion as murder, and thus contrary to the natural law principle that innocent life is to be preserved.  The Church also condemns non-reproductive sexual conduct as contrary to the natural law principle that the sexual organs are naturally oriented to producing children.  Homosexual conduct and homosexual marriage are therefore condemned as unnatural.

Some Thomists have indicated that Thomas never condemns intentional abortion as murder.  Furthermore, he never says that life begins at conception, because he agrees with Aristotle that human life begins sometime after the first month of gestation.  These Thomists argue, however, that if Thomas had had the knowledge of modern embryology, he would have concluded that human life begins with the fertilization of a human egg, because that initiates the genetic potential for a unique human person to develop (Haldane and Lee 2003).

Thomas declares that life-long monogamous marriage is dictated by natural law, because human offspring are born dependent on the care of both a mother and a father.  And yet Thomas concedes that there are exceptional cases.  A wealthy woman might rear her children without the help of the father; and a man producing a child through fornication might provide for the rearing of the child (ST, II-II, q. 154, a. 2; SCG, 3.122.7).

Thomas agrees with the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural (ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 3, ad 2; II-II, qq. 153-54).  Homosexual marriage is unnatural in so far as it cannot achieve the primary natural end of marriage—procreation and parental care.  But homosexual marriage might achieve the secondary natural end of marriage—conjugal bonding—which is also true for infertile heterosexual marriages.  Thomistic opponents of homosexual marriage must argue that infertile heterosexual marriages are still natural marriages, because they are inherently oriented to producing children, even when they fail to produce any children (Girgis, George, and Anderson 2010).

Even if one regards homosexuality as a vice, one might agree with Thomas that it is not the proper role of human law to enforce perfect virtue, and that human law should be concerned primarily with prohibiting conduct that is harmful to social order, such as murder and theft.

Some Thomists assume that social order requires marriage as a formal, public institution created by marriage licensing law.  But if marriage really does satisfy some of the deepest natural desires, as Thomas argued, why could we not privatize marriage just as we have privatized religion, so that marriage would then stand on its own natural ground independently of government?  In fact, throughout most of human history, marriage has been an informal social institution based on the consent of individuals and their families, without any formal licensing by the state or the church (Koontz 2005).  Privatizing marriage would recognize it as ultimately rooted not in human law or divine law but in natural law.

References and Suggested Readings

Aquinas, T. (2002) On Law, Morality, and Politics. Trans. R. J. Regan. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Arnhart, L. (2001) “Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right.” In E. F. Paul, F. D. Miller, and J. Paul (Eds.), Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blythe, J. M. (1992) Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Finnis, J.  (1980) Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Girgis, S., George, R., and Anderson, R. (2010) “What is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 34 (1): pp. 245-287.

Haldane, J., and Lee, P. (2003) “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion, and the Value of Life,” Philosophy, 78: pp. 255-278.

Hittinger, J. (2002) Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. Lanham, MD: Lexington Press.

Kerr, F. (2002) After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Koontz, S. (2005) Marriage, a History. New York: Viking.

Lisska, A. J. (1996)  Aquinas’s Theory of Natural Law: An Analytic Reconstruction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Maritain, J. (1951) Man and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McInerny, R. (1982) Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.

Rommen, H. A. (1998)  The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy. Trans. T. R. Hanley. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Simon, Y. R. (1951) Philosophy of Democratic Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, L. (1953)  Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Thursday, October 02, 2014

Darwinian Political Thought

Wiley Blackwell has just published The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, edited by Michael Gibbons.  It's a massive work--8 volumes for only $1,188.00 at Amazon!  It's also available as an electronic version on Wiley Online Library.  From looking over the articles, I would say that this will become the best source for introductory overviews of every major topic for political thought.  It has over 900 A-Z entries by over 700 contributors.  It covers non-western as well as western traditions of political thought.

I was asked to contribute two entries--"Darwinism" and "Thomistic Political Thought."  Since I suspect few of you have a thousand dollars to spend on such a collection, I will post my two articles.  I will post my Thomism article tomorrow.  Here is my Darwinian political thought article.

Darwinism is an intellectual tradition associated with the ideas of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), an English biologist.  Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) elaborated his theory of the evolution of all living species.  For two thousand years, it had been assumed in the Western world that all the species of life had been eternally fixed ever since their original special creation by God.  Against this, Darwin argued that all forms of life have changed over long periods of time, so that the species of plants and animals that we see today are descendants of simpler species in the ancient past.  The primary cause of this evolutionary change is natural selection.  There are heritable variations in the traits of individual organisms influencing their survival and reproduction.  Organisms are in a struggle for life, because the scarcity in food and other resources limits the growth of populations.  Consequently, those heritable variations that enhance survival and reproduction will be preserved, and those that impede survival and reproduction will be eliminated.   Gradually, the favorable traits will be naturally selected to be more frequent in later generations, so that eventually new species can arise.   In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained the evolution of human beings, including human morality and politics, which became the classic text of Darwinian social theory.

The history of Darwinian political thought is best understood in the light of three ideas.  The first is that Darwinian political thought belongs to the tradition of biological naturalism in political thought that began with Aristotle (384-322 BCE).  The second is that if one takes Darwin’s Descent of Man as the definitive statement of Darwinian moral and political thought, then what has been called “Social Darwinism” is not really Darwinian at all.  The third is that it is only in recent years that we have seen the full elaboration of Darwin’s evolutionary social theory in the development of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and biopolitical theory.


Biological Political Thought from Aristotle to Adam Smith

Aristotle was a biologist whose biological studies influenced his political thought.  He argued that human beings were by nature political animals, and they could be compared with other political animals, such as ants, bees, wasps, and some birds.  He also saw that human beings were most similar to chimpanzees.  He explained social cooperation among animals as ultimately rooted in parental care of offspring, so that the most political animals were those whose offspring needed extended parental care, and this familial bonding could then be extended to wider groups.  He thought that human politics was unique because human beings use reason and speech to argue about the justice of political rule.  But he also thought that human social and political life is shaped by some of the same natural inclinations that one sees in other political animals, such as the natural biological inclinations to self-preservation, sexual mating, parental care of offspring, and social cooperation under the leadership of political rulers.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) continued this Aristotelian tradition in arguing that law and politics could be guided by a natural law rooted in these natural inclinations.

          In contrast to Aristotle’s political biology, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) denied that human beings were political animals by nature, because he saw many differences between human political life and the communities of natural political animals like the social insects.  Unlike the social insects, Hobbes thought, human beings are naturally inclined to selfish competition that impedes social cooperation, and consequently human political order must be created artificially when human beings exercise rational choice to agree to be ruled by a sovereign power that will take them out of their natural state of war.  Although John Locke (1632-1704) seemed to agree with Hobbes that human beings were too naturally selfish to be political animals by nature, Locke recognized that human beings were like other social animals in that offspring were naturally dependent on prolonged parental care, and therefore family life depended on natural social inclinations that could be extended to embrace larger social groups.

          David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) thought that while human beings are naturally selfish, as Hobbes and Locke saw, human beings are also naturally social like other naturally social animals.  Hume and Smith argued that the moral and political life of human beings depends on the moral emotions or sentiments that arise from natural sympathy or fellow-feeling—the capacity to imaginatively share the emotions of others, and to approve of what helps them and disapprove of what harms them.  This reasoning from Hume and Smith about the biological nature of human morality and politics influenced Darwin’s thinking about human social evolution.


Darwin and Social Darwinism

Although Darwin said nothing about human morality or politics in The Origin of Species, one of the first reviews of the book in 1860 was by Thomas Huxley, who declared that Darwin’s book would be a powerful weapon for liberalism.  In 1860, liberalism meant classical liberalism—the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others.  According to the liberals, the primary aim of government was to secure individual rights from force and fraud, which included enforcing laws of contract and private property.  They thought the moral and intellectual character of human beings was properly formed not by governmental coercion, but in the natural and voluntary associations of private life.

          While Darwin in his scientific writing was not as explicit as the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in affirming the evolutionary argument for liberalism, those like Huxley saw Darwin’s science as supporting liberalism.  Darwin himself was a fervent supporter of the British Liberal Party and its liberal policies.

          Darwin was active in the international campaign to abolish slavery, one of the leading liberal causes of the day.  His hatred of slavery was one motivation for his writing The Descent of Man, in which he affirmed the universality of humanity as belonging to one species, against the pro-slavery racial science of those who argued that some human beings belonged to a separate species of natural slaves.

          Darwin’s theory of social order in The Descent of Man is implicit in his biological account of the human moral sense.  Social order arises as the product of three kinds of order: natural desires, customary traditions, and deliberate judgments.  As naturally social animals, human beings are endowed innately with social desires, which originated as an extension of the parental or filial affections, so that they feel a concern for others and are affected by social praise and blame.  As animals capable of learning by habit and imitation, human beings develop habits and customs that enforce the social norms of their community.  And as intellectual animals, human beings can deliberately formulate abstract rules of conduct.  Darwin concluded: “Ultimately a highly complex sentiment, having its first origin in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, confirmed by instruction and habit, all combined, constitute our moral sense or conscience.”  This allows for moral progress through history, which eventually leads to the formulation of moral principles such as the Golden Rule.   “To do good unto others—to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you—is the foundation-stone of morality” (Darwin 1871: vol. 1, 165-66).

          Darwin’s moral teaching in The Descent of Man is very different from the morally repugnant doctrines usually identified as “Social Darwinism,” which is thought to teach “survival of the fittest” understood as the rule of the strong over the weak.  Such Social Darwinism is generally assumed to have promoted racism, imperialism, coercive eugenics, and Nazism.

          This view of Social Darwinism was largely originated by Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, which was first published in 1944.  Prior to the 1930s, the term “Social Darwinism” was rarely used, and when it was used, it was a label for something that the author was criticizing.  Furthermore, it was not until Hofstadter’s book appeared, that people like Spencer were generally identified as Social Darwinists.  So the idea of Social Darwinism as Hofstadter constructed it seems now to be a distortion of historical reality.

          Moreover, Social Darwinism has almost nothing to do with the writings of Darwin, particularly The Descent of Man.  In fact, Hofstadter in his book never proves that Darwin himself was a Social Darwinist.  Hofstadter almost admits this when he says that “Darwin himself was not an unequivocal social Darwinist” (1955: 238).  Hofstadter offers direct quotations from Darwin’s Descent on only two pages of his book (1955: 91-92).  These quotations suggest that Darwin could not have been a Social Darwinist of the sort portrayed by Hofstadter, because they show Darwin stressing the natural sociality of human beings and their natural moral sense based on sympathy for the needs of their fellow human beings.  “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere,” Darwin declared, “and without coherence nothing can be effected” (Darwin 1871: vol. 1, 162).  If Darwinism should have some clear connection to the teachings of Darwin, then Social Darwinism is not Darwinism.

          From the 1860s to the 1930s, an amazingly diverse range of political thinkers identified themselves as Darwinians.  Classical liberals like Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” required that individuals be free to live as they please, provided that they do not infringe on the equal freedom of all other individuals, and that the coercive power of the state should be limited mostly to protecting individuals from force or fraud.  But there was also a long line of Darwinian socialists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, Annie Besant, Peter Kropotkin, and Ramsay MacDonald, who saw the evolutionary process as a progressive movement towards ever greater cooperation, so that the competitive individualism of capitalism was only a temporary stage on the road to the cooperative society of socialism.

          The scorn for the disreputable ideas associated with Social Darwinism by Hofstadter and others caused a decline in Darwinian social thought after the Second World War.  In recent decades, however, there has been a revival of Darwinian thinking in the social sciences that began around 1975.


Contemporary Biopolitical Theory

The renewal of Darwinian social thought began in 1975 with the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology.  An evolutionary biologist at Harvard University specializing in the study of ants, Wilson defined sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior,” which would use biological concepts to unite the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in the scientific study of the social life of all animals, including human beings (Wilson 1975: 3-6).

          Wilson’s book was condemned by many people who feared that he was advancing a new form of Social Darwinism that would promote a morally repugnant biological determinism.  Marxists and others on the political left charged that sociobiology would try to justify racism, sexism, militarism, and capitalism as grounded in evolved human nature.  Against Wilson’s biological determinism, his critics on the left insisted that human social behavior is not innately determined but socially learned, and therefore it can be changed by social policies of progressive reform.

          At the same time, Wilson’s critics on the political right argued that he was promoting an atheistic and reductionist materialism that denied the free will and transcendent spirituality of the human soul. Renewing a criticism that had been directed against Darwin, religious believers worried that the very idea that human life was naturally evolved from lower forms of life denied the moral dignity of human beings as created in God’s image.

          Despite this controversy over Wilson’s sociobiology, Darwinian social thought has had growing influence in the social sciences in recent decades, although it is most often identified as “evolutionary psychology,” “evolutionary game theory,” or “biopolitics,” to avoid the distasteful connotations of “sociobiology.”  

The basic question in this Darwinian social research is the basic question of all social theory:  If human beings are naturally inclined to selfish competition, how is social cooperation possible?   Aristotle identified the political animals as those naturally capable of working together for some shared purpose.  But he also saw that even the most political animals are inclined to fall into factional fighting because they are divided by conflicting interests.  To explain how human beings and other political animals sustain cooperation against the tendency to conflict, Darwinian social theorists have identified five mechanisms of cooperation:  kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, spatial selection, and group selection.  The reasoning for these five principles has been summarized by Martin Nowak (2011).

Kin selection is the evolutionary mechanism favoring cooperation within a family and among those closely related by common ancestry.  We are more inclined to cooperate with those we recognize as kin than with strangers.   “Blood is thicker than water.” 

Direct reciprocity is the principle of fair exchange—tit for tat.  I will do a good deed for you, because I expect that you will return the favor.  “I’ll scratch your back, and you scratch mine.”

Indirect reciprocity is based on the idea that individuals benefit from having a good reputation for cooperation.  We cooperate with those whom we believe to be trustworthy.  “I scratch your back, and someone else will scratch mine.”  Among human beings, language is important for communicating the reputation of individuals, and that’s why so much of our communication is gossip about who has done what with whom.

Spatial selection is the idea that our cooperation is organized into social networks in which some individuals form clusters and interact with one another more than with others.  This means that the structure of a population can affect its social evolution.

Group selection is the idea that evolutionary selection works not only on individuals but also on groups.  In the competition between groups, those groups with members willing to sacrifice for the common good are likely to prevail over those groups whose members are too selfish to sacrifice for the good of the group.  As a result of this, we have evolved for tribalism, because we are inclined to help our friends and hurt our enemies.

Our evolved human nature inclines us to enforce these mechanisms of cooperation through moral emotions.  We feel love and care for our family and friends.  We feel gratitude toward those who cooperate with us.  We feel indignation toward those who cheat us or otherwise harm us.  We feel guilt or shame when we have betrayed our family, our friends, or our community.  We feel pride in our reputation for good character.  We feel fear in losing our good reputation with others.  We feel honor in serving our country and fighting its enemies.

These five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation—and the moral emotions that enforce them--can all be found in Darwin’s writings.  They can also be found in the tradition of moral and political thought that includes Aristotle, Hume, and Smith.

Although Darwinism has been criticized both by some people on the political left and by some people on the political right, the recent achievements of Darwinian social thought have led a few individuals to argue for a Darwinian left and a few others to argue for a Darwinian right.

In A Darwinian Left, Peter Singer tries to persuade his friends on the left to accept a Darwinian view of human nature.  Those on the left want to promote an egalitarian society in which the powerful cannot exploit the weak.  In pursuit of this goal, Singer argues, leftists need to be realistic about the limits of human nature as revealed in Darwinian science. 

The left has traditionally believed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction, and therefore social problems can be solved through utopian programs that would make human nature conform to rational norms of social harmony.  Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels accepted Darwinism in explaining the animal world, they thought that human history manifested the uniquely human freedom to transcend nature.  Marxist biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould continued this tradition by insisting on human freedom from the constraints of biological nature. 

Rejecting this utopian tradition of the left, Singer argues that a Darwinian left would accept “that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like.”  Such a left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one’s kin) cannot be immediately abolished.  He concedes that that this will be hard to accept: “In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved.  That is, I think, the best we can do today” (Singer 1999: 60-62).

In response to Singer, Larry Arnhart has defended “Darwinian conservatism,” which he explains as a fusion of traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism based upon a Darwinian understanding of human nature.  He argues that Singer’s “sharply deflated vision of the left” might be largely acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy.  For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the public good.  Thus, Singer’s attempt to justify a Darwinian left actually helps us to see the justification for a Darwinian right.  Arnhart claims that a Darwinian science of human nature supports traditionalist conservatives and classical liberals in their realist view of human imperfectibility, and in their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments.

Even those Darwinian social theorists who might reject most of Arnhart’s Darwinian conservatism might accept the idea of the imperfectability of human nature as revealed by Darwinian science.  After all, one of the fundamental conclusions of Darwinian social theory seems to be that our moral and political life will always be torn by tragic conflicts of interest.  Because of the multileveled character of evolutionary selection, human beings experience moral ambivalence arising from the conflicting pressures of different units of natural selection.  What is good for the individual can conflict with what is good for the family.  What is good for the family can conflict with what is good for the tribe.  And what is good for one tribe can conflict with what is good for another tribe.  We feel the conflict between our natural selfishness and our natural sociality, and even in our sociality, we feel the conflict between competing social groups.

Darwinian social thought can illuminate but it cannot resolve these tragic conflicts of our social life.


References and Suggested Readings


Arnhart, Larry  (1998)  Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Arnhart, Larry  (2009)  Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.  Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Darwin, Charles  (1859)  On The Origin of Species.  London: John Murray.

Darwin, Charles  (1871)  The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 2 vols.  London: John Murray.

Hofstadter, Richard  (1955)  Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Nowak, Martin A.  (2011)  SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.  New York: Free Press.

Singer, Peter  (1999)  A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Wilson, Edward O.  (1975)  Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O.  (1998)  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stack, David  (2003)  The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914.  Cheltenham, UK: New Clarion Press.

Wilson, James Q.  (1993)  The Moral Sense.  New York: Free Press.