Friday, June 23, 2017

A Thousand Posts (6)

As has often been the case, some of my writing in 2014 reflected the courses I was teaching--in the spring, a course on "Hobbes, Kant, and Pinker: War, Peace, and Declining Violence," and in the fall, a course on Adam Smith.  Although I retired from NIU in 2012, I continued to teach one course a semester, until my last course in the spring of 2016.

As I reached the end of my teaching career, I thought about the wide diversity of topics that I had been able to teach.  I was grateful to the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University for the freedom I had there to teach almost anything I wanted to teach.  I began to wonder whether there was any topic that I wished I had taught but did not. 

I thought about two topics--intelligence and race.  I had thought often about teaching a course on the scientific study of intelligence, IQ, and race, including the moral and political implications of such research.  I must have begun thinking about this in 1994 when I read Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve and saw the intense academic and public controversy this provoked.  I thought about having a set of readings that would represent all sides of the debate.  But then I could never imagine how I could teach such a course without creating an emotional explosion in the classroom that would be too disruptive to manage.  This explains why few universities even have courses on the scientific study of intelligence:  professors are afraid to teach such courses for fear that they will be branded as racists.

I was able, however, to introduce these topics into some political philosophy courses.  In a class on John Rawls' Theory of Justice, for example, we read some articles on IQ testing and on the argument of Herrnstein and Murray that a society with equality of opportunity might produce a cognitive meritocracy with a class structure based on IQ.  We could then ask: Should we seek equality of opportunity but not equality of result, even when that allows a cognitive elite to become the ruling class?  I introduce this question in my chapter on Rawls in the 4th edition of Political Questions, which allows for a discussion in the book of the debate over Murray's claim that gaps in average IQ contribute to the separation between upper classes and lower classes, and that this is not just a racial problem, but also a problem in white America, because a large portion of the American white population with below average IQ has become a disadvantaged underclass.

This debate came up in some of my posts in 2014 on IQ, race, and human biodiversity (May, June, July, and September).  Many of these posts on the biodiversity of races were connected with Nicholas Wade's book--A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History--which provoked a fierce controversy when it was published in 2014.  One of the critical reviewers of Wade's book concluded:   "So: race is real, and race is genetic, but that does not mean that race is 'really' genetic."  If that's as confusing to you as it was to me, look at my post on this in September.

There were also posts on the Flynn effect--James Flynn's observation that average IQ scores have been rising over the past century--and on Steven Pinker's argument that there might be a moral Flynn effect: increasing intelligence from a culture of scientific Enlightenment might lead to moral progress (such as declining violence) from better moral reasoning.  Pinker has even suggested that the more intelligent people might be more inclined to classical liberalism or libertarianism (May and June).

Charles Murray was one of the speakers at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in the Galapagos in 2013, and my post on his lecture on human nature and human biodiversity (July 2013) was one of my first posts on this issue.  While Murray rejected the idea of equality understood as the sameness of all individuals or as requiring equality of outcomes in life, he affirmed equality of opportunity--that all individuals should have an equal opportunity to pursue their happiness, with the expectation that such free and equal pursuit of happiness will produce different outcomes for different individuals that will manifest their natural human diversity.

Murray's lecture reminded me of the last chapter of The Bell Curve, which is entitled "A Place for Everyone."  He opens the chapter with a question: "How should policy deal with the twin realities that people differ in intelligence for reasons that are not their fault, and that intelligence has a powerful bearing on how well people do in life?"  He answers this with a classical liberal argument for equal liberty.  He rejects the answer that government should create the equality of condition, because this would require an egalitarian tyranny contrary to human nature.  "People who are free to behave differently from one another in the important affairs of daily life inevitably generate the social and economic inequalities that egalitarianism seeks to suppress."  But a free people are equal in their equal rights for pursuing happiness in ways that do not coercively interfere with the rights of others pursuing their happiness.  In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities.  In such a society, equal liberty provides the conditions for everyone to find valued places for themselves.

This debate over whether liberal democratic societies that affirm equality of rights can tolerate social and economic inequality was intensified in 2014 by the publication of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which argues that rising inequality in Western Europe and North America has become so stark that by the middle of the 21st century, the top 1% will own over 90% of the wealth.  To avoid this, we need to expand governmental welfare systems and increase tax rates on the rich to redistribute the wealth, so as to at least moderate the level of inequality.  I wrote a series of posts responding to Piketty's argument in July.

In the evolution of inequality, I see five stages: simple foraging societies, complex foraging societies, agrarian states, capitalist liberal states, and capitalist welfare states.  In none of these social orders, does one see absolute equality.  Even in the most egalitarian foraging societies, there is inequality, in that some people have a little more status, power, or wealth than others.  If one were serious about achieving something close to equality of condition, one would have to embrace Marxist proposals for abolishing private property, abolishing free markets, abolishing the family, and putting all of economic life under governmental central planning.  Piketty is quite clear in rejecting this as unworkable.

Moreover, Piketty passes over very quickly the possibility of "good inequality"--where there is a lot of mobility into and out of the top ranks of wealth and status, where those in the top ranks have earned their ranking (through advanced education, assortative mating with other highly educated people, entering stable marriages, and so on), and where most of those in the bottom rank are not living in true poverty.  I wrote about this in January and September of 2016.

Piketty seems to be proposing a strong form of democratic socialism like that of the Nordic countries. But as I have indicated in a post (in June), many Marxist socialists have seen this as a betrayal of true socialism. 

The economic success of the Nordic countries has been due not just to their welfare state policies, but crucially to their economic freedom.  In the international indices of economic freedom as formulated by libertarian think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute, all of the Nordic countries rank high, and some rank higher than the United States.  Countries with low levels of economic freedom are not successful. We can explain this as manifesting the natural human desire for freedom as rooted in evolved human nature.

I was impressed by one piece of academic work coming out of a Nordic country in 2014. Jon Anstein Olsen successfully defended his dissertation for his Ph.D. at the University of Oslo (Norway), which is entitled Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States.  This is a fascinating work, and not just because I play a prominent role in it!  It is a thoughtful history and assessment of the argument for a Darwinian conservatism as it has developed in the United States over the past 40 years. 

He identifies me first as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian conservative pessimism," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Thomas Sowell called the "constrained vision" of social life as opposed to the "unconstrained vision."  He also identifies me as a proponent of "neo-Darwinian natural right," in which I make a Darwinian argument for what Leo Strauss called "natural right."

Olsen suggests at least eight possible criticisms of my reasoning.

1.  Straw men.  Olsen charges that in my criticisms of the Left, I loosely associate modern liberalism with socialism, communism, and utopian thinking, which is a straw-man argument, because modern liberals today are not socialists, communists, or utopians.

2.  Moral progress.  He also charges that in my conservative pessimism and in my insistence on how imperfect human nature constrains what we can do, I ignore the moral progress in history that has been brought about by the Left.

3.  The naturalistic fallacy.  Olsen says that my project is "fundamentally and essentially guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy," in trying to infer normative values from descriptive facts.

4.  Emotivism.  He criticizes me for trying to ground all morality on mere feeling or emotion, and thus ignoring the necessity for moral reason to rule over the "vulgar passions."

5.  The interpersonal dimension.  He also criticizes me for saying nothing about the "interpersonal dimension" of human life and thus failing to see that morality is always about the interests or perspectives of more than one individual.

6.  Contemporary issues and human rights.  He claims that I never apply Darwinian natural right reasoning to "issues that are at least remotely controversial in liberal democracies today," and I never consider the possibility that Darwinian natural right might apply to contemporary thought about human rights.

7.  Religion and Darwin.  He emphasizes that the most common criticism of Darwinian conservatism by conservatives is that Darwinian science subverts religious belief and thus subverts the morality that depends on religious belief, and he implies that I have given no good answer to that objection.

8.  Human Biodiversity.  Olsen has a good chapter on the history of American conservatives who argue that the evolutionary science of human biodiversity supports scientific racism and xenophobic nationalism; and although he does not state it as a criticism, some readers might wonder whether I have any good response to this argument for the evolutionary psychology of race differences.  Some of the scientific racists and nationalists that Olsen mentions have recently become prominent as leaders of the "alt-right" movement supporting Donald Trump.

In July, I wrote a series of posts responding to these eight criticisms.

In January, I continued to challenge Hayek's Freudian theory of civilization by looking at two groups of foraging bands that live in the tropical rainforests of South America--the Kayapo in Brazil and the Waorani in eastern Ecuador.  The Kayapo engage in what Hayek would call the "extended order of civilization," because they have trade relations with the commercial towns near their villages.  Thus, as Hayek said, they must "live in two worlds at once." But I see no evidence here that the Kayapo have had to suppress their genetically evolved instincts for tribal life to embrace the purely cultural traditions of civilization.  It seems clear that their instinctive desire to better their conditions of life has led them to participate in the market order of exchange and specialization while preserving as much of their small village life as they can.

Both the Kayapo and the Waorani have historically been extremely violent people, but coming under the control of government has reduced the violence, which seems to confirm Pinker's argument about the success of the "Hobbesian pacification process" when stateless foragers come under the legal system of a government.

Against this Hobbesian logic, some anarchists have argued that the liberty of living in anarchy is better than a predatory government, as illustrated by countries like Somalia.  But then, in many countries around the world today--such as Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan--the weakening or failure of central state power has promoted not individual liberty but the rule of clans that deny individual autonomy.  When there is no powerful central government to enforce law and order and provide public goods, people will not live as free individuals; rather they will revert back to an ancient tribal form of social order in which people are treated not as individuals but as members of their extended kinship groups.  There are good Darwinian reasons for this, having to do with the evolved instincts for kinship, nepotism, and tribalism based on extended real or fictive kinship. 

The moral codes of these clan societies will enforce group honor and suppress individual liberty.  For example, clan societies will enforce the blood feuds, the honor killings, and the attacks on infidels that liberals abhor.  The social order of liberal individualism will not prevail unless there is a powerful liberal state that will deny the customary legal systems of clan groups and protect the autonomy of individuals from coercion by clans.

That's the message of a brilliant new book--Mark Weiner's The Rule of the Clan.  Although he never directly mentions Hobbes, Weiner's argument is Hobbesian in making the case for a Liberal Leviathan.  He disputes the common libertarian assumption that liberty is strongest when the state is weakest or even absent.  While conceding that the state can be used for illiberal ends, he insists that individual freedom cannot exist if it is not enforced by a powerful liberal state.  He develops this argument by showing how weak or failed states have often created a vacuum of power that has been filled by the rule of clans that deny individual liberty.

In January, I wrote about this debate between the anarchists and the Hobbesians.  In June, I wrote about the Marxist critique of socialist anarchism.  I have written other posts on anarchism in 2010 (June) and 2015 (January and December). 

The possibility of anarchism is an important issue for any biopolitical science that must explain the evolution of government.  My argument is that every human society has some form of governance.  Even stateless foraging bands without the formal institutions of government and law have informal governance by leaders and customary law.  Classical liberals strive for limited government with a lot of private governance in civil society and the economy.

Part of the classical liberal argument for limited government is that there should be no governmental enforcement of religious belief, which should be a private matter left up to individual free choice.  And yet we might wonder whether Hobbes was right in arguing that no matter how much religious liberty and toleration is allowed, any government dedicated to keeping the peace must have the ultimate power to reject religious doctrines that promote violence, and thus to that extent the sovereign must be the "supreme pastor."  This argument was part of the second half of Hobbes's Leviathan that was devoted to interpreting the Bible, as if this was a political question.

In his interpreting the text of the Bible, Hobbes began a scholarly tradition of studying the Bible according to what would later be called the "historical-critical method" or "higher criticism."  In their history of this tradition of Biblical scholarship, Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker argue that this was a political interpretation of the Bible to advance classical liberal politics by secularizing politics and privatizing religious belief. 

In February, I wrote a post on this, arguing that this might in fact be a correct interpretation of the Bible--or at least of the New Testament--and this would support Roger Williams in his claim that the New Testament teaches religious liberty and separation of church and state.  In wrote a post on Williams in December of 2012.  Some of this writing went into my chapters on Hobbes and Locke in Political Questions.

But still Hobbes might have been right that the sovereign must always have the authority to act as "supreme pastor" in interpreting religious texts in ways that would keep the peace.  So, for example, after the 9/11 attack in 2001, President George W. Bush declared that the teachings of Islam in the Quran "are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah."  Remarkably, Bush--a "born-again Christian"--was claiming to teach the truth of Islam and the Quran!  Bush seemed to be acting as the "supreme pastor."

But how far can a liberal government properly go in enforcing religious doctrine?  For example, would it be proper to enforce belief in the immortality of the soul with the reward of Heaven for the good and the punishment of Hell for the bad?  Is it plausible, as Locke argues in The Reasonableness of Christianity and as Plato argues in the Republic and the Laws, that belief in a final judgment by God with eternal rewards and punishments will motivate virtuous conduct, and therefore that the atheistic denial of this religious doctrine will subvert virtue?

I have written a series of posts on the evolution of Heaven and Hell (in April and May of 2010) and on the various forms of immortality (in October and November of 2013).  Although I have been generally skeptical about life after death, I recognize that there are good arguments for believing in such a possibility. 

The best statement of those arguments that I have seen is Dinesh D'Souza's Life After Death: The Evidence (2009).  What is most interesting for me is that D'Souza claims to rely primarily on purely rational scientific and philosophic thinking that does not depend on religious faith. In April, I wrote a series of five posts responding to his arguments.  I consider his reasoning based on near death experiences, Kantian dualism, the neuroscience of consciousness and free will, and the cosmic justice of Heaven and Hell as necessary for morality.

As I have indicated in my blog post on Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning," we should consider the possibility that living forever is not desirable, because living timelessly and changelessly would not be really living, and that in living the lives that we have, "death is the mother of beauty."  In another post (October of 2016), I suggested that the natural human lifespan--no more than about 115 years!--is enough.

Also in April, I wrote some posts on whether Steven Pinker has distorted the evidence for prehistoric war and for declining violence in modern history.  Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature has over 115 figures--an average of one for every 6 pages of text.  Many of these figures are visual presentations of data to support his arguments for prehistoric war and for a historical trend towards declining violence from the Stone Age to the present.  These figures are based on data found in thousands of cited sources.  This is one of his most impressive rhetorical techniques for persuading his readers that his reasoning is based on a meticulous statistical analysis of data.

Most readers will not take the trouble to read the sources for each figure to see whether Pinker is being accurate in his presentation of the data.  But some of his critics have done this for some of the figures, and they are accusing Pinker of manipulating the data to make it look more supportive of his argument that it really is.  Having looked into this myself, I think this is a fair criticism, although it's not fatal to his argument.  If Pinker had been totally honest about the gaps and uncertainties in the data, he could still have made a plausible argument for his conclusions. 

Some of my writing here went into my chapter on Pinker in Political Questions.  Some of these issues were discussed in March of 2014 at a Liberty Fund conference that I directed on "Liberty and Violence: From Auberon Herbert to Steven Pinker" at the Westward Look Resort in Tucson.

In March, I wrote some other posts on the questions that came up at the Liberty Fund conference. Is there a mutual relationship between increasing liberty and declining violence?  Does the history of violence show a pattern of decline?  If so, is this history of declining violence largely explained by a history of increasing liberty?  If so, is this a Darwinian process of biological and cultural evolution towards liberty and away from violence?  And if all this is so, does this provide historical confirmation for classical liberalism?

We saw that Auberon Herbert begins with the first principle of classical liberalism--self-ownership.  (In some previous posts, I have traced this liberal principle of self-ownership back to Richard Overton and John Locke.)  Herbert then defends the principle of liberty as opposed to the principle of force by arguing that liberty respects each person's ownership of himself and his property, while force allows some people to own the persons and property of others.  The fundamental question in human life is the choice between liberty and force--between a social life based on individual self-ownership and voluntary cooperation or a social life based on some people owning others and enforcing compulsory cooperation.  (In some previous posts, I have indicated how Abraham Lincoln's reasoning in the debate over slavery manifests this choice between liberty and force, and how Lincoln's choice for liberty of self-ownership constitutes his classical liberalism.)

As I have argued in some previous posts, this Lockean conception of individual personhood as embodied self-conscious awareness of, and emotional concern for, the survival and well-being of the body can now be confirmed as manifest in the human nervous system as a product of mammalian evolution.  If we follow Antonio Damasio's "somatic marker hypothesis" and Bud Craig's neuroanatomical explanation of conscious self-awareness in human beings, we can identify the self-ownership of the person as the activity of the anterior insular cortex of the brain in constituting the subjective awareness of the individual in caring for one's self and for others to whom one is attached.
Herbert sees the history of liberty and force as a progressive evolutionary history towards declining force and increasing liberty, because he thinks that liberty allows the free development of individual energy and genius through spontaneous enterprises of voluntary cooperation, which will be more productive than coercive systems based on force.  Thus, cultural evolution by natural selection favoring greater human survival and well-being will generally favor liberty over force.  This shows the "universal law of progress."  James Payne's History of Force develops this conception of history, and Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature elaborates Payne's history of declining violence and increasing liberty and peace.

This sort of thinking was most fully developed by Herbert Spencer.  In March, I wrote a post on Spencer, indicating that I had finally become convinced that modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and that the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Shermer, Paul Rubin, and Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence.

If evolutionary classical liberalism is correct, then liberal societies must be evolutionarily more adaptive, more functional, or more productive--economically, morally, and intellectually--than illiberal societies.  And, consequently, despite the occasional turns towards illiberal social orders, the arrow of history in the long run points to liberty.

Another post in March ("Classical Liberalism as Evolutionary Niche Construction") came out of the Liberty Fund conference.  At the conference, Frances White--the leading observer of bonobos in the wild--explained that in the wild, bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.

She also observed that bonobos--like all primates--show a range of personality types, so that some individuals have more violent temperaments than others, and consequently the occurrence of violence can depend on the contingency of whether there are such violent individuals in the group.  She said that many of the deaths of the males comes from "testosterone poisoning"--young males vigorously displaying their virility in the forest canopy can kill themselves by slamming into a tree.

She also said that if dominant males are grouped together in zoos without females who can moderate their male conflicts, then nasty fighting is likely to break out.  She explained then that what the females are doing in the wild groups in pacifying conflicts is "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.

In response to her comment, I suggested that the history of classical liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, and that this is a big part of Pinker's argument: the history of classical liberal philosophy has created a cultural moral environment of liberalism in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive.  This is what Deirdre McCloskey would identify as the work of rhetorical entrepreneurs in the marketplace of ideas who have used moral persuasion to create a liberal culture that honors the bourgeois virtues.

I have claimed that the arguments for evolutionary classical liberalism have recently been confirmed by the experimental evidence for evolutionary moral psychology.  As I indicated in a post in August, the experimental testing of how people respond to the famous "trolley problem" illustrates this.

These stories about the runaway trolley headed towards killing five people tied to the track might seem too cartoonish to be taken seriously as moral dilemmas.  But in recent decades, ever since they were first proposed by philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, they have become some of the most debated thought experiments among moral philosophers.  They have also been introduced into scientific experimentation conducted by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists to test whether our moral intuitions about the trolley problem manifest an innate and universal moral sense shaped by human evolution and written into the neural circuitry of the brain.  This shows how a fundamental question in moral and political philosophy can be translated into experimentally testable propositions.  This trolleyology (as it has been called) has become a crucial part of the recent movement towards "experimental philosophy."

Of the hundreds of thousands of people all around the world who have participated in formal trolley problem surveys, most people (up to 90% in some studies) would divert the trolley in the Spur case, but they would not push the fat man in the Footbridge case.  What is most striking about this is that most people react differently to the two cases although pulling the switch and pushing the fat man have identical consequences--one person dies to save five.

Most of the writing for this post went into my chapter on Rawls in Political Questions.

Similarly, much of my writing on Adam Smith and on how evolutionary moral psychology supports Smithian liberalism, in a series of posts from August to December, went into my chapter on Smith in Political Questions. 

The scholars of Adam Smith have long debated the Adam Smith Problem--the problem that Smith apparently contradicts himself by assuming in The Wealth of Nations that human beings are moved only by self-interest, while arguing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that human beings are moved by their concern for others to act virtuously so that they can enjoy a mutual sympathy of sentiments.

I have argued, however--in some posts in August of 2012--that the new Darwinian social science overcomes the Adam Smith Problem by supporting the fundamental idea running through all of Smith's writing--the evolution of unintended order--and in doing that, it supports Smithian liberalism, or what Smith calls "the system of natural liberty."  That the evolution of unintended order is the unifying theme of all of Smith's writing has been well stated by James Otteson.  He contends that Smith applies a "market model" to explain the origin, development, and maintenance of all extended human institutions as unintended orders, which includes morality, the economy, law, and language.  What he calls "unintended order" is what Michael Polanyi and Friedich Hayek call "spontaneous order" and what Vernon Smith and others call "emergent order."  Otteson defines "unintended order" as "a self-enforcing, orderly institution created unintentionally by the free exchanges of individuals who desire to satisfy their own individual wants."

An unintended order is contrasted with an intentional order that has been rationally designed by some mind or group of minds for a deliberately planned purpose.  The contrast between these two kinds of order underlies a fundamental debate in social theory between the constructivists and the evolutionists: between those who think that a good social order must be deliberately and rationally designed for some foreseeable end-state and those who think a good social order arises through a process of free exchanges between individuals acting for individual ends with no overall end in mind.  Since the success of unintended order depends on individual liberty constrained only by rules of justice protecting life, liberty, and property, the idea of unintended order is the fundamental idea of classical liberalism in the Smithian tradition.

My posts on Smith in the fall of 2014 included posts on the debate over mirror neurons, Jonathan Haidt's libertarian moral psychology, Joshua Greene's "dual process theory" of moral reason and moral emotion in the brain, Joseph Cropsey's Straussian attack on Smith, Joe Henrich's use of cross-cultural experimental games in the "Roots of Human Socialtiy Project," the cultural evolution of Big Gods that made humans moral, "how Adam Smith predicted the financial crisis of 2008," and Deirdre McCloskey on the evolution of the bourgeois virtues.


W. Bond said...

These are great summaries. Congratulations on your output, and many thanks from this devoted reader.

Larry Arnhart said...


You have been a remarkably insightful commentator over the years.