Douglass's liberal political thought was rooted in the natural human desire and capacity for the self-ownership of one's body and mind. Now we can see how modern neurobiology supports this idea by explaining the neural basis of self-ownership in what neuroanatomist Bud Craig has called "interoception."
This post adds to my series of previous posts on the evolutionary neurobiology of self-ownership in liberal thought, which can be found here, here, here, here, here., and here.
For Douglass, freedom meant self-ownership. So that in making his argument against slavery as violating the fundamental human right to self-ownership, he was making a general argument for freedom. And, indeed, as Nicholas Buccola has shown (in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass [NYU Press, 2012]), Douglass appealed to the principle of self-ownership to support liberalism generally--arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but also for universal suffrage, women's rights, the rights of immigrants, and religious liberty.
Some readers have asked me why I have devoted so much attention in Darwinian Natural Right and in this blog to the debate over slavery. After all, they say, slavery is no longer a controversial topic. My answer is that since human slavery is the most complete denial of human freedom, understanding why slavery is contrary to human nature gives us the understanding of why freedom is according to human nature, which supplies the foundation of liberalism.
Douglass said that even in childhood, he held onto one idea for freedom and against slavery: "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body; or in other words, every man is himself, is his self, if you please, and belongs to himself, and can only part from his self ownership, by the commission of a crime" ("A Friendly Word to Maryland," The Frederick Douglass Papers, 4:42, available online).
In 1848, on the tenth anniversary of his escape from slavery, Douglass wrote an open letter to his former master, Thomas Auld, in which he explained his justification for running away as grounded on the human nature of self-ownership:
"The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner. I therefore see no wrong in any part of the transaction" ("Letter to Thomas Auld," September 3, 1848, Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip Foner, p. 113, available online).One can see here three features of Douglass's argument for self-ownership: the separate and distinct identity of each individual, the equality of human beings in their desire and capacity for self-ownership, and the grounding of this self-ownership in both divine law and natural law.
First, it is a natural fact about human beings that they are separate and distinct individuals in their bodies and their minds. The existence of each individual is independent of the existence of others. "Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours."
Despite the claims of liberalism's critics that this promotes a crudely selfish individualism, Douglass makes it clear that the natural individuality of human nature does not mean that human beings are utterly self-sufficient, because they are naturally social animals who need the love and cooperation of others for their survival and well-being. Indeed, the realm of self-ownership includes all of those people to whom one is attached, particularly one's family and friends. In his letter to Auld, Douglass boasts of the pleasure he takes in his wife and children, who cannot be taken from him by a slaveholder. But even within such tightly bonded social groups, Douglass indicates, each person has an identity distinct from the others.
The second feature of self-ownership is that all human beings are equal in their desire and capacity for it, because it is part of their common human nature. Like Charles Darwin, Douglass rejected the racial science that saw the human races as separate species, and he saw the unity of the human species as the natural ground for human equality of rights. "Human rights stand upon a common basis . . . because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature" ("The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered," July 12, 1854, in Selected Speeches and Writings, 296).
I have written about Darwin's agreement with Douglass--and with Abraham Lincoln--in Darwinian Natural Right (chapter 7) and in some posts (here and here).
In some other posts (here, and here,), I have argued that the modern idea of human rights can be rooted in the universal desires and capacities of human biological nature.
Douglass recognizes, however, that even though each of us naturally desires self-ownership and thus resists oppression, our selfishness often makes it hard for us to see that everyone else has the same natural desire that we must respect. It takes some effort to recognize the moral reciprocity of the Golden Rule, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." Throughout history, slaves have sought freedom through running away or through violent resistance; but even as people have resisted their own enslavement, they have not necessarily resisted the enslavement of others. In fact, those who have escaped slavery have sometimes become slaveholders themselves!
So, as I have indicated in another post (here), some historians have argued that slavery was not abolished by slaves rebelling against it, because the institution of slavery was not abolished until the emergence of abolitionist thought at the end of the 18th century. Douglass's life illustrates this point. He liberated himself from slavery by running away. But he did not begin campaigning for the abolition of slavery until, three years after his running away, he was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to become a speaker for the abolitionist movement. The emergence of abolitionism depended on the modern evolution of liberalism as symbolic niche construction (see my post here).
As I have indicated in some previous posts on the emergence of the first states in ancient Mesopotamia (here and here), the ancient Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom. Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom. Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away. But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery. We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal. That affirmation comes much later in history, in the writing of the English Levelers, Locke, and the Declaration of Independence. This is what I mean by modern liberalism as symbolic niche construction.
The third feature of self-ownership is its grounding in divine law and natural law--God or Nature. The human desire for self-ownership can be seen as a manifestation of God's creation, or it can be seen as a product of the natural order of things. Evolutionary creationists will say that God used natural evolution to carry out his creative design.
Some people today have argued that the idea of human rights depends upon the moral dignity of human beings that comes from the idea that they have been created in God's image, and thus it is impossible to defend human rights without such religious belief. I have argued against that claim (here).
So here I would say that evolutionary neurobiology can support Douglass's grounding of human rights in the natural desire and capacity for self-ownership. The biological character of self-ownership is clear in Douglass's language. "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body." "I cannot breathe for you, or you for me, I must breathe for myself." Now we can see how this human sense of each person's self-ownership arises in the evolved neuroanatomy of the brain to serve the survival and well-being of the human animal.
We can see this experience of self-ownership as expressing what neuroscientists today call interoception--the self-aware perception of the state of the body (Erik Ceunen, Johan Vlaeyen, and Ilse Van Diest, "On the Origin of Interoception," Frontiers in Psychology 7 [May 2016]: 743).
A. D. (Bud) Craig has surveyed the research on interoception in How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self (Princeton University Press, 2015), which brings together the work from his articles that I cited in my previous posts on interoception. Craig has provided a good summary of his thinking in a lecture that he gave in 2009, available as a video.
These charts show Craig's neuroanatomical maps for interoception:
Craig's fundamental idea of interception is that our self-awareness arises from the feelings that we have from our bodies as a neural integration in insular cortex of the signals of the condition of the body. The interoceptive neural network, having its core in the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, provides the basis for the subjective awareness of our bodily emotions and social feelings, including pleasure, anxiety, trust, and anger.
The first chart above shows the neural pathway for generating interoceptive self-awareness--from the spinal cord to the medulla and brainstem, to the thalamus, and finally to the cerebral cortex (particularly, the insula and the anterior cingulate--that is unique to primates. Humans have this primate neural pathway, but humans are unique in the size and complexity of the cortical structures at the highest levels of the brain.
Interoceptive awareness can be measured quantitatively by heartbeat awareness--by asking a person to count the number of heartbeats he or she feels in time intervals of 30, 45, and 60 seconds, and then comparing these numbers to real counts from an electrocardiogram recording or finger pulse oximeter. Heartbeat awareness varies greatly across individuals. Individual heartbeat awareness scores are correlated in fMRI images with increased activity in the right anterior insular cortex. They are also correlated with the size of the right anterior insular cortex. And, remarkably, better heartbeat perceivers are better at reading their own emotional feelings and the feelings of others; they are also better at making good decisions for themselves. Better interoceptive awareness as measured by heartbeat perception also correlates with greater efficiency in rejecting unfair offers in playing the Ultimatum Game. This shows how our bodily awareness supports our self-awareness, social awareness, moral awareness, and awareness of the world generally.
The human neural circuity for interoception integrates sensory information from all tissues and organs of the body, which includes information about the internal state of the body, about the physical environment outside the body, and about the social environment of interactions with other human beings. As one example, of the assessment of the social environment, the left anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing trustworthy faces, and the right anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing untrustworthy faces. The emotional assessment of this sensory information as indicating painful or pleasurable circumstances--threats or opportunities--can then send signals to those parts of the cortex that control and motivate behavior.
This neural circuitry for emotional assessment and behavioral decision-making integrates information not only about the present state of the organism but also about past emotional experiences stored in memory and about the projected future as simulated in imagination. Thus, this neuroanatomical system allows us to act in the present in the light of past experiences and future expectations, so that we can act for what seems most desirable for us in promoting our survival and well-being.
The anterior insular cortex (AIC) is involved not only in interoceptive self-awareness but also in the social emotions that support cooperation and fairness. Observing pain in others activates parts of the neural network that are also activated when we experience pain in ourselves. Empathy for the pain of others activates the most anterior parts of the AIC, which overlaps with activation related to pain experienced in oneself. But the activation associated with the experience of pain in oneself encompasses a much larger portion of the insula (including the middle and posterior insular cortex). To some degree, then, the neural activity for self-concern is extended to concern for others. But still our self-concern is distinguished from our concern for others.
Craig's survey of the research on the neuroanatomy of interoception explains the basis in the brain for Douglass's principle of self-ownership in human nature (see Craig, 3-9, 191, 195-97, 204-10, 223-24, 243, 258).
The feeling of self-awareness--the feeling of being alive--arises from the integration in the cortex of the brain of the feelings from one's own body. This gives one a sense of ownership of one's body. This is confirmed by the fact that damage to the insula from a stoke or a tumor can result in a patient having no feeling of ownership of a limb of the body. A patient can feel that his leg is not really his.
Comparing brain activation in people viewing photographs of their own face or body as compared with people viewing photographs of the face or body of someone they know, researchers have seen that viewing one's one face or body selectively activates the right anterior insular cortex and the right cingulate cortex. This is functionally equivalent to the mirror test of self-awareness--being able to recognize oneself in a mirror. By about 18 months, most human infants can pass this test.
The brain's evolved capacity for a feeling of self-ownership includes feeling whether other people are likely to be helpful or harmful to oneself, as in the brain's ability to discriminate trustworthy faces and untrustworthy faces or to punish people who make unfair offers in an Ultimatum Game. Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves from threats and to seek out cooperative relationships in ways that secure our survival and well-being.
In running away from his slave master, and then in arguing for the abolition of slavery, Douglass expressed the evolved natural propensity of the human brain for self-ownership and for moral resentment against those who would threaten the natural human right to self-ownership.