Monday, May 27, 2019

The Evolutionary Psychology of the Harm Principle: Are Lieberman and Patrick Libertarians?

I have long been puzzled as to why evolutionary psychologists--like Jon Haidt, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby--do not affirm explicitly the libertarianism that is implied in what they say about the evolved human nature of morality and politics.  I have written about that hereherehere, and here.

I continue to be puzzled by that same question in trying to interpret Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick's Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law.  In arguing for reducing or even eliminating the influence of moral disgust in the law, they repeatedly appeal to the principle of no harm--that people should not be legally punished for conduct that affects only themselves and does not harm others (4-5, 12-13, 117, 123, 125-27, 130-31, 139, 141, 147-48, 163, 187, 203, 205).  But except for one casual reference, they do not identify this as the famous principle of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (see 203, 235, n. 23).

In On Liberty, Mill contends that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."  This has been called not only the "harm principle" but also the "nonaggression axiom"--the idea that a legal order is a mutual nonaggression pact in which all agree not to injure others by force or fraud, but with the understanding that all have the right to defend themselves against the aggression of others.  This idea has an ancient history beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers Lycophron and Epicurus.  In modern liberal thought, it was affirmed by John Locke that in the state of nature "being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions," and that all have the "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who initiate aggression against others.  This same principle has been reaffirmed by a long line of classical liberals, such as Herbert Spencer: "Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

In the entry on "John Stuart Mill" in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, Aeon Skoble writes: "The general principle that conduct that does not harm others should not be legally proscribed virtually defines libertarianism."  If that is so, then Lieberman and Patrick are libertarians in their promotion of that principle.  It's also notable that The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism has an entry on "Evolutionary Psychology" written by Cosmides and Tooby, which includes a criticism of Marxist communist regimes for denying the reality of evolved human nature by assuming "that human desires, emotions, and motivations are infinitely plastic social constructions that can be easily molded into any form."  (I have written about Cosmides and Tooby as libertarian critics of socialism here.)

In this video, being interviewed by Michael Shermer, Lieberman says that her evolutionary psychology of disgust provides a "platform for promoting freedom," for "just freedom in general" (go to 1:22:40), because it teaches us how "free trade" overcomes Us/Theming, so that we allow people to live as they please in their various groups as long as they do not harm others.  This is her clearest statement of her libertarianism.

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