Sunday, August 28, 2016

Was Westermarck a Darwinian Conservative? A Reply to Antti Lepisto

Antti Lepisto of the University of Helsinki, Finland, has written a paper--"Darwinian Conservatives and Westermarck's Ethics: A Political Dimension of the Late Twentieth-Century Westermarckian Renaissance"--that has just been published as a book chapter in Evolution, Human Behavior, and Morality: The Legacy of Westermarck, pp. 194-227 (New York: Rutledge), edited by Olli Lagerspete, Jan Antfolk, Yiva Gustafsson, and Camilla Krongvist.  The editors are all professors at Abo Akademi University, Finland, where Edward Westermarck (1862-1939) taught from 1918 to 1932.

Westermarck was a prominent social scientist of the first half of the twentieth century, best known for his Darwinian explanations of human marriage, the incest taboo, and moral ideas.  After his death in 1939, he was largely forgotten, until in the late 1970s, his Darwinian theory of incest avoidance was revived by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who thought that this was a prime example of how a Darwinian science of human nature could explain social behavior.  In recent decades, his Darwinian account of morality as arising from evolved moral emotions has become prominent among philosophers and social scientists with a new interest in Darwinian moral psychology.

When my Darwinian Natural Right was first published in 1998, I was just beginning to study Westermarck, and my first thoughts were laid out in my lecture in 1998 at the University of Helsinki at a conference on Westermarck's work and legacy.  I began to argue for Westermarck's work as supporting what I defended as Darwinian natural right and Darwinian conservatism.

Lepisto's paper presents me, James Q. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, and Thomas Fleming as four American conservatives who have appealed to Westermarck's ideas as supporting a Darwinian conservatism.  He explains what this means.  And then he offers some reasons for thinking that this is a mistake, because Westermarck was not himself a conservative.

He sees two themes in the conservative appropriation of Westermarck--the Westermarckian biological explanation of the human family as supporting the conservative defense of the traditional family as natural and the Westermarckian biological explanation of morality as supporting the conservative defense of civil society as opposed to the state.

If monogamous bonding and parental care of children are evolved instincts of human nature, as Westermarck argued, this can be seen by conservatives as a natural grounding for the traditional family.

If the moral order of human life arises spontaneously in human social life as an expression of the evolved moral emotions, as Westermarck argued, this can be seen by conservatives as showing how morality arises as a spontaneous order in civil society--in the natural and voluntary associations of life--without much need for governmental intervention (as in the social programs of the modern welfare state).

Lepisto sees three key themes in this Westermarckian conservatism: "(1) the notion of natural right, (2) the idea of the traditional family, and (3) the libertarian-leaning interpretation of Westermarck's theory of incest."  On all three of these points, however, Lepisto argues that Westermarck does not actually support the conservative position.  I disagree.

(1) Lepisto doubts that Westermarck supports the idea of natural right, because Westermarck identified himself as a moral relativist, which seems to deny natural right.  One of Westermarck's books was entitled Ethical Relativity.

My argument, however, is that Westermarck's understanding of Darwinian moral relativism is compatible with my understanding of Darwinian natural right.  I agree that Darwinian morality is relative to the human species, in that it is grounded in a moral anthropology, but not in a moral cosmology.  Contrary to the claims of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, morality cannot be rooted in any cosmic truth--a Cosmic Reason, Cosmic Nature, or Cosmic God.  But morality still has a species-specific truth in being grounded in the evolved nature of the human species, and therefore morality is true for as long as the human species endures.  Here I agree with Westermarck in rejecting Kantian rationalism and embracing the moral sentimentalism of David Hume and Adam Smith as understood by a Darwinian science of human nature.

(2) Lepisto doubts that Westermarck supports the conservative defense of the traditional family, because he often took a liberal or reformist position on marriage and family life, as in his arguing for liberalizing marriage and family law to make divorce easier.

Here my argument is that if Westermarck is right about marriage and family life as rooted in evolved human instincts, then we can rely on those natural instincts to express themselves without any need for coercive regulation by government to create marriage and family life as artificial constructions.  Throughout most of human history, marriage was a private activity with no need for governmental licensing.  We could return to that situation by privatizing marriage as a contract between consenting adults, and we could expect marriage to continue as an expression of evolved human desires.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I think there is a good Darwinian argument for gay marriage as an expression of the natural human desire for conjugal bonding and parental care among those human beings who are naturally homosexual.  Most human beings in all societies are heterosexual, but some people are naturally homosexual, and this natural homosexuality is biologically natural for human beings, just as it is for some nonhuman animals.  Westermarck makes the same argument in his chapter on "Homosexual Love" in The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.  Many of Westermarck's readers have suspected that he himself was homosexual.  But even so, Westermarck was clear that heterosexuality would always be natural for most human beings, and homosexuality would be natural only for a few.

A liberal conservatism, therefore, can allow for this, recognizing the most human beings will choose to live as heterosexual monogamous partners, but a few will choose to live as homosexuals seeking to satisfy their evolved natural desires for conjugal bonding and parental care. 

Traditionalist conservatives (like Robert George, for example) who think that the legalization of gay marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage and family life falsely assume that heterosexual marriage and family life are artificial constructions of law with no roots in human nature.  This is odd, because traditionalists like George claim to agree with Thomas Aquinas that marriage and family life are natural inclinations that are part of natural law, so that they should not be understood as constructions of positive law.

(3) Lepisto also doubts that Westermarck's theory of morality as arising from moral emotions supports "libertarian-leaning, pro-civil society, and anti-governmental political conclusions" that would challenge the modern welfare state.

I don't know of any place in his writings where Westermarck explicitly comments on the welfare state programs that began to emerge first in Bismarck's Germany and then in Great Britain and later in other European countries and in the United States.  It is clear, however, that Westermarck showed that most social provisioning for those in need--children, the poor, the old, and the disabled--is provided voluntarily through family life and private associations (churches, clubs, mutual aid societies, and so on).  It remains a question, therefore, whether coercive governmental programs for social provisioning solve problems that people could never solve on their own, or whether such governmental programs crowd out some of the caregiving activity of civil society.

Links to my various posts on Westermarck's theory of the incest taboo can be found here.  Other pertinent posts can be found here, here, here., here, here, here, here, here., here., and here.

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