Saturday, December 31, 2022

Pope Benedict XVI Dies. A Theistic Evolutionist, a Homosexual, and a Lockean Liberal


                    Pope Benedict XVI with Georg Ganswein (His Homosexual Lover?)

Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) has died.   The New York Times has a good series of articles on his life and an obituary

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was for 25 years the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Church (once the Holy Office responsible for the Inquisition), which was the office charged with defending Church orthodoxy.  When Pope John Paul II (now Saint) died in 2005, Ratzinger was chosen to become the new Pope.  He stunned the world in 2013, when he resigned the Papacy, because that had not been done in almost 700 years.  He continued to live as "emeritus Pope" living on the grounds of the Vatican, which seemed to challenge the authority of Pope Francis, particularly since Benedict was a favorite of the conservative Catholics as opposed to the liberal Catholics who favored Francis.

Benedict's position in the Church was complicated.  In condemning relativism and secularism and defending the traditional orthodoxy of the Church, he seemed to be a conservative.  But he was also a theistic evolutionist, a homosexual who condemned homosexuality, and a Lockean liberal in asking forgiveness for the Church's history of religious violence and in promoting religious toleration.

Over the years, I have written a series of posts on Benedict's moral and theological ambiguity as a manifestation of the intellectual crisis of the Catholic Church.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

How John Eastman's Five Big Lies Failed to Solve the Problem of Trump's Unpopular Populism

John Eastman Speaking at the "Save America" Rally on the White House Ellipse, January 6, 2021

The populist demagogue must distract his audience from seeing the incoherence in all populist rhetoric. The fundamental claim of populist rhetoric is that a society is divided into two groups--the Elites and the People--and the populist demagogue speaks for the People against the Elites, who are the Enemy of the People.  This is deceptive because in fact the populist demagogue speaks only for some faction of the People, and often it's a minority faction, although it can be a large minority.

That has always been Donald Trump's problem:  he's an unpopular populist.  He has been popular with a large number of American voters.  And in some states and congressional districts, Trump and Trump-endorsed candidates can win the majority of votes.  But Trump and Trump candidates can never win the popular vote in national elections.  That has been true in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 and in the mid-term elections of 2018 and 2022.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by nearly three million votes.  Joe Biden's popular vote in 2020 exceeded Trump's by over seven million.  In the mid-term elections, the Trump-endorsed candidates either lost or they underperformed as compared with other Republican candidates.

The populist demagogue has two ways to evade this problem of unpopular populism.  He can argue that those who oppose him do not belong to the body of the People, either because they belong to the Elites, or because they are aliens who do not belong to the community of the People.  Or he can argue that whenever he loses a popular election, the election has been fraudulently stolen from him by the Elites.  He can then use these arguments to justify a military coup to overturn an election and keep himself in power.

As I have indicated in some previous posts (here, here, and here), the people at the Claremont Institute who have been the leading academic intellectuals supporting Trump have employed both arguments.  Amazingly, they acknowledge the problem of Trump's unpopular populism, as when Michael Anton admits: "a national popular vote guarantees a Democratic win in every presidential election."  But then they try to say that those Americans voting against Trump are not real Americans, as when Glenn Ellmers said that the majority of American voters--those who voted for Joe Biden--are not "authentic Americans," because they are more like gerbils, zombies, or rodents.  Also, many of those at the Claremont Institute have supported Trump's claim that the presidential election of 2020 was stolen, although some have admitted that this is a lie.  And some of them (like Anton) have suggested agreement with alt-Right thinkers like Bronze Age Pervert and Curtis Yarvin who have said that what America needs is for someone like Trump to become a military dictator.

The one person at the Claremont Institute who was most influential in planning Trump's attempt to overturn the election of 2020 is John Eastman.  And now that we have the final report of the Congressional Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, we can see that Eastman was the linchpin to Trump's plan for the insurrection and the attempted coup, a plan that failed only because Trump did not have the guts or the guns for becoming a military dictator.


The Report of the Select Committee provides demonstrative evidence that Eastman promoted five lies that were crucial to Trump's plan for overturning the election of 2020.  Moreover, the Report also shows that Eastman knew that these were lies.  This evidence would justify convicting Eastman of federal crimes, such as obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, inciting or assisting an insurrection, and seditious conspiracy.  In fact, one federal judge (Judge David Carter) has already ruled that "more likely than not" Eastman has violated federal criminal law.

Eastman's first lie was his claim that the presidential election of Joe Biden in 2020 was fraudulent.  When Eastman was asked under oath by the Select Committee what evidence he had uncovered that the election was stolen, he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination!  Eastman was part of the Trump legal team that brought over 60 lawsuits in state and federal courts claiming that the election was stolen.  They lost all of those lawsuits.  And in many of them, they admitted they had no proof of election fraud.

The Select Committee also provides massive evidence that many of Trump's closest advisers told him that there was no evidence for election fraud.  This included Attorney General Bill Barr, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Trump Campaign Senior Advisor Jason Miller, and many others.  Eastman and Trump continued to repeat their charges of election fraud despite these many warnings from their own people that these charges were false.

Why did Eastman and Trump continue this lie even while knowing that it was a lie?  Some people in the White House heard Trump explain: "I don't want people to know we lost."

Eastman's second lie was that Vice-President Pence had the constitutional power, as the presiding officer of the Senate, to declare at the January 6th joint session of Congress that some of the electoral votes for Joe Biden from some of the states would not be counted.  Actually, when one of Eastman's colleagues proposed this theory to him before the election, Eastman rejected it:

"I don't agree with this.  The 12th Amendment only says that the President of the Senate opens the ballots in the joint session then, in the passive voice, that the votes shall then be counted. 3 USC sec. 12 [of the Electoral Count Act] says merely that he is the presiding officer, and then it spells out specific procedures, presumptions, and default rules for which slates will be counted.  Nowhere does it suggest that the president of the Senate gets to make the determination on his own.  Sec. 15 [of the Electoral Count Act] doesn't either" (23).

But then, after Biden won the election, Eastman adopted this theory that Pence could refuse to count the Biden electors certified by the states.  Pence and his legal counsel Greg Jacob denied that the Vice-President had this kind of power.  When they argued about this, Eastman admitted that his theory would lose unanimously at the Supreme Court.  Eastman also admitted that he did not think Vice President Al Gore had this power in 2001, nor would Vice President Kamala Harris have this power in 2025.

Oddly, when Jacob wrote to Eastman on January 6th to ask whether he had informed Trump that the Vice President did not have authority to decide the election unilaterally, Eastman responded: "He's been so advised, but you know him--once he gets something in his head, it is hard to get him to change course."  So once again, we see the Eastman knew that his theory was a lie.

Eastman's third lie was a plan devised a few days before the meeting of the Electoral College on December 14th, when the Electors for the winning candidate meet in each state capitol to cast their electoral votes, to have some Trump voters meet and prepare a series of false Trump electoral slates for seven states where Biden had actually won.  They were told to submit their fake electoral slates to Pence, so that Pence on January 6th could declare that he was counting the Trump slates rather than the Biden slates.  Trump's lawyers in the White House testified to the Select Committee that they had told Trump and Eastman that that this was not legal, because the Biden slates of electors had been certified by the seven state governments.

Eastman's fourth lie was his plan to convince some Republican-controlled state legislatures to certify a Trump slate of electors, even though Biden had won the popular vote in their states, and even though the Biden slates had been certified in these states on December 14th.  Not a single state legislature agreed to do this.

Amazingly, in a memo written before the election, Eastman had actually rejected this plan:

"Article II [of the Constitution] says the electors are appointed 'in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,' but I don't think that entitles the Legislature to change the rules after the election and appoint a different slate of electors in a manner different than what was in place on election day.  And 3 U.S.C. sec. 15 [of the Electoral Count Act] gives dispositive weight to the slate of electors that was certified by the Governor in accord with 3 U.S.C. sec. 5" (23).

So, once again, Eastman admits that his theory that state legislatures had the constitutional power to overturn the results of a presidential election was a lie. It is especially shocking that writing in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, Eastman repeated this lie that he knew to be a lie.

Eastman's fifth lie was his plan to persuade the Justice Department to draft letters to the state legislatures of Georgia and other states.  This letter would say: "The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States," and "we have identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia."  This was a lie, because under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department had conducted many investigations of election fraud allegations that found that all of these allegations were unfounded; and therefore the Department of Justice did not have "significant concerns" that fraud "may have impacted the outcome of the election" in any State.

When the top leadership of the Department of Justice refused to send out this letter, Trump found someone in the Department--Jeffrey Clark--who would be willing to send out the letter if Trump appointed him Attorney General.  When Trump suggested he might do this, all of the leaders of the Department of Justice, including all of the Assistant Attorneys General, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone all agreed that they would resign in masse if Trump did this.  This forced Trump to back down.

Eastman's five lies motivated the insurrectionists of January 6th in their attempt to stop the Congress from certifying Biden's victory in the Electoral College.


In the early morning hours of December 19th, 2020, Donald Trump sent out this tweet: "Peter Navarro releases 36-page report alleging election fraud 'more than sufficient' to swing victory to Trump.  A great report by Peter.  Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election.  Big protest in D.C. on January 6th.  Be there, will be wild!"

Most of us who saw this tweet at the time didn't think much about it.  But the Select Committee's Report provides massive evidence that this tweet--and over a dozen other tweets urging his supporters to gather for the protest in Washington on January 6th--were interpreted by many far-right groups (such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and others) as a call for them to organize for a violent attack on Congress on that day.  As of today, nearly 500 people have been convicted or pleaded guilty for their violence on January 6th; and most of them have testified that they did this because they thought they were following orders from Trump to use violence in stopping the Congress from certifying Biden's election and thus securing the continuance of Trump's power as president.  After all, isn't this what Trump meant by "Be there, will be wild"?

And isn't this what Trump meant, at the protest rally on the Ellipse on January 6th, when he told his audience to march to the Capitol and "fight like hell" if Pence did not do his duty and overturn the election?  Before this speech by Trump, Eastman made his own short speech at the Ellipse repeating his lies about fraudulent elections and Pence's duty to refuse to certify the election of Biden.

Jeremy Bertino is a Proud Boy who pled guilty to seditious conspiracy as one of the organizers of the January 6th insurrection.  In his plea agreement, he explained that he "believed that storming the Capitol would achieve the group's goal of stopping Congress from certifying the Electoral College Vote," and that "storming the Capitol or its grounds would be illegal and would require using force against police or other government officials" (41).  Many of the insurrectionists have said the same thing.

During the insurrection, at around 3:15 p.m., cameras captured Cale Clayton as he taunted police officers: "Your fucking president told us to be here.  You should be on this side, right here, going with us.  You are an American citizen.  Your fucking President told you to do that.  You too. You too.  All of you guys.  That Tweet was for you guys.  For us.  For you."

Some of the people at the Claremont Institute have argued that this is a misinterpretation of what Trump said in his tweets and in his speech on January 6th, because Trump surely did not intend to incite these people to violence.  But this ignores the evidence of the context of the speech--both before and after the speech--that shows that this is exactly what Trump intended to do.

As the Select Committee's Report indicates, many of Trump's people inside and outside the White House were worried that the protest rally on January 6th would turn violent, and they begged Trump to issue a public statement warning people before January 6th that this rally must be peaceful.  Trump refused to do this.

Moreover, after Trump finished his speech at the Ellipse, at 1:10 p.m., the violence at the Capitol raged for over three hours; and Trump sat watching TV coverage of the violence, without ever making a public statement to tell his supporters to stop the violence, leave the Capitol, and go home.  He refused to do this although dozens of his political advisers and supporters were begging him to do this.  When Trump's Chief of Staff Mark Meadows received many emails and phone calls asking him to persuade Trump to stop the insurrection, Meadows told people that Trump did not want to stop it.

And over the entire day, Trump was never in contact with Pence or others on Capitol Hill to see what he could do to help.  Moreover, he never contacted anyone in the Department of Defense, the National Guard, or local police departments to see they could do to stop the rioters.  Pence was forced to act on his own in calling for military and police reinforcements to stop the insurrection.

At 2:24 p.m., knowing that the riot was underway, Trump sent this tweet:  "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify.  USA demands the truth!"

This tweet immediately provoked more intense violence at the Capitol, and many of the rioters started chanting "Hang Mike Pence."

Counselor to the President Hope Hicks texted a colleague that evening: "Attacking the VP?  Wtf is wrong with him?"

At 4:17 p.m., Trump finally broadcast a video message asking those attacking the Capitol to leave.  He said: "I know your pain.  I know you're hurt.  We had an election that was stolen from us.  It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side, but you have to go home now.  We have to have peace."  As the words of this message spread through the rioters, they started to leave.

At 6:01 p.m., Trump sent his last tweet of the day, in which he tried to justify and even glorify the violence: "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred election landslide victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.  Go home with love & in peace.  Remember this day forever."

"Great patriots"?  "Remember this day forever"?

The day after the attack on the Capitol, Eastman called Eric Herschmann (a senior adviser to Trump) to talk about litigation for the Trump campaign in Georgia.  In response to questions from the Select Committee, Herschmann described his response to this: "And I said to him, are you out of your fucking mind?  Right?  I said, because I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on: Orderly transition.  I said, I don't want to hear any other fucking words coming out of your mouth, no matter what, other than orderly transition.  Repeat those words to me."  

Before hanging up the phone, Herschmann offered one last remark: "Now I'm going to give you the best free legal advice you're ever getting in your life.  Get a great fucking criminal defense lawyer, you're going to need it."

Later, Eastman asked to be put on Trump's list of people to be pardoned.  But Trump did not pardon him.


Trump's attempt to overturn the election and keep himself in power failed.  Why?

As I have argued previously, the answer is that Trump did not have the guts or the guns necessary for becoming a military dictator.  He didn't have the guns because military leaders like General Mark Milley told him and stated publicly that the American military would not obey unlawful orders from the President demanding military intervention in domestic politics.

In response to this, Trump could have declared martial law and then try to force the military to obey him.  But he didn't have the courage to do this.  Commentators who have identified Trump as a "strongman" are wrong.  He is a "weak man."  He doesn't have the martial virtues of a Caesar.

And it's good for America that he lacks these Machiavellian virtues. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Moral Meaning of the Winter Solstice Depends on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life


                                                        The Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

Today (December 21) is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  The winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year, because on this day one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun.  After this day, the Earth's pole will begin tilting back towards the Sun, lengthening the period of daylight, until the maximum tilt towards the Sun on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

In a post that I wrote four years ago, I suggested that the moral meaning of the winter solstice depends on whether one gives it a religious meaning or a secular meaning.  The religious meaning is expressed in religious rituals that sacralize the importance of the Sun as the source of life, which is connected in Christian traditions to Christmas and the birth of the Savior.

The secular meaning comes from the modern cosmological and biological sciences that recognize how all complex forms of life, including intelligent life, depend on the energy of the Sun as captured through photosynthesis on Earth.  Beginning with the formation of the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, there was no life.  Then the simplest forms of life probably emerged among anaerobic microbes that could extract hydrogen and carbon dioxide gases from the atmosphere to get the energy and nutrients they needed to grow and divide, while emitting methane as waste.  Next, around 3.7 billion years ago, the cyanobacteria arose as the first photosynthesizing forms of life--water-using and sunlight-powered bacteria that produced oxygen as a waste product.  Later, with the increase of oxygen in the atmosphere, from 2.5 billion years ago to 700 million years ago, larger and more complex forms of multicellular forms of life arose that used oxygen as a powerful source of energy.  

The rise of animals and ultimately intelligence depended on the rise of oxygen as a source of energy for complex life.  Human beings require on average 100 watts of power per day to run their bodies (25 watts for the brain and 75 watts for the rest of the body), and oxygen is probably the only good source of such energy.  All of this depends on photosynthesis as the process by which the flow of energy from the Sun is captured in the biosphere of the Earth.

This teaches us that for billions of years in the past, there was no life.  And for billions of years in the future, once photosynthesis has shut down, and the Sun has faded, there will be no life in the cosmos.

The secular moral teaching here is that the human good has no eternal cosmic support, because the human good arises from the momentary conditions of human life on Earth, which cannot exist forever.  The cosmos does not care for or about us.  This is what Leo Strauss identified as "the most terrible truth" of evolutionary science in Lucretius.

Whether one adopts the sacred meaning or the secular meaning of the winter solstice depends on the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life.  The sacred meaning assumes that there is an extraterrestrial intelligent design behind the cosmos that cares for and about human beings, and that this philanthropic intelligent designer will secure the cosmic support for the perpetuation of human life, perhaps even for human immortality in an afterlife.  The secular meaning assumes either that there is no extraterrestrial intelligent life, or that if there is, it does not care for human life on Earth, or secure human immortality beyond the Earth.

Hey, this is the debate we should have with our family and friends around our Christmas dinner table!  To prepare for that Christmas dinner debate, you might want to read some of the books by astrobiologist Charles Cockell--Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe (Wiley, 2nd edition, 2020), Taxi from Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe (Harvard University Press, 2022), and Interplanetary Liberty: Building Free Societies in the Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 2022).  Cockell is one of those scientists who defends the secular meaning of the winter solstice and rejects the religious meaning.  If you want to read a scientist who defends the religious meaning, try the astrophysicist Owen Gingerich.  I have written previously about Gingerich's God's Universe (2006) and God's Planet (2014).

Studying these books suggests the four paths that the search for extraterrestrial life can take.  First, in considering the cosmic location of life, we might look for life within the Solar System (the Moon, other planets, and their moons); or we might look beyond the Solar System (within and beyond our Milky Way galaxy of stars).  Second, in considering the kinds of life in the cosmos, we might look for natural life (ranging from the simplest forms of microbial life to more complex plants and animals and finally to intelligent life); or we might look for supernatural life (God or gods, angels, and even human beings living immortally after death in Heaven or Hell).  Third, in considering the cosmic meaning of life, we might look for evidence that the cosmos has been purposefully designed to support life and particularly intelligent life, and thus displays a cosmic teleology that constitutes a moral cosmology.  Fourth, in considering the astrobiology of politics, we might wonder about how the extraterrestrial conditions of life will shape the political order of human communities in space (such as for human colonies on the Moon or on Mars); and in particular, we might think about whether extraterrestrial colonies will be inclined to liberty or tyranny.

I have written previously (herehere, and here) about how the ancient, medieval, and modern models of the universe have conceived of the distribution of these various kinds of life across the cosmos and how this might, or might not, manifest a moral cosmology.

And while many of us might assume that the search for extraterrestrial life is a recent phenomenon, it's remarkable that the prevalence of extraterrestrial life throughout the universe has been assumed by many people from ancient times to the present.  The documents showing this have been collected by Michael Crowe in his edited source book--The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).  The leading proponents of cosmic pluralism--the idea that beyond the Earth there are many, even an infinite number, of worlds with living intelligent beings--have been the Epicurean philosophers and scientists (like Lucretius and Giordano Bruno).

Up to the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for many people to believe that the Solar System was full of life--particularly, on the Moon and Mars, the planetary bodies nearest the Earth.  But as telescopes became ever more powerful instruments for exploring the planets and moons of the Solar System, it has become clear that there is no clear evidence for extraterrestrial intelligent life beyond the Earth.  Moreover, there has not yet been any evidence for even the simplest forms of life in the Solar System, although many astrobiologists see tantalizing evidence that there might have been at least some microbial life somewhere in the past.  The landing of men on the Moon and of robotic vehicles on the Moon and Mars has extended this exploratory search for the signs of extraterrestrial life in the Solar System.

In 1584, Giordano Bruno (in his book On the Infinite Universe and Worlds) asserted:

"In space there are countless constellations, suns and planets; we see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark.  There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less than this globe of ours.  For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies that may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human earth."

Until recently, however, no planets outside the Solar System had been discovered.  The first discovery of a planet outside our solar system was in 1995.  Now, as of today, NASA lists 5,284 confirmed "exoplanets" in 3,899 planetary systems, most discovered by the Kepler space telescope.  Surely, out of so many planets, there must be some with life, even intelligent life.  Only some of these planets are in the "habitable zone": at a distance from their stars that would allow for the existence of liquid water (that is, not too hot and not too cold); and they also need to be rocky planets, as opposed to gaseous.  According to some current estimates, there are over 80 billion Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone of their stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and probably many more in the trillions of other galaxies.

So far, there has been no evidence of life on any of these planets.  But the problem here is that exoplanets are so far away from us that we cannot even send a satellite to explore them.  The exoplanet nearest to us--Proxima Centauri b--revolves around Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to the Sun.  This exoplanet is in a habitable zone.  But it is about 4.2 light years away (25 trillion miles).  NASA's New Horizons spacecraft flying at 52,000 miles per hour would take 54,000 years to reach this planet!

If Proxima Centauri b had intelligent life and a technologically advanced civilization, then we might expect that they could communicate with us through radio transmissions.  Since radio waves travel at the speed of light--186,000 miles per second--a signal could reach the Earth in 4.2 light years.  But even though scientists have been scanning the cosmos for many years trying to detect such radio transmissions from extraterrestrial intelligence, there is still no evidence for this.

This lack of evidence has provoked what is called the "Fermi Paradox," named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who once asked: "Where is everybody?"  If extraterrestrial intelligent life is common in the cosmos, then why haven't we heard anything from them?  Well, maybe ET intelligence is extremely rare and so far away that we're just not likely to hear from them.  Or perhaps ET civilizations with the technology for interplanetary communication go extinct after a few million years.  Or perhaps they're out there, but for various reasons they choose not to communicate with us.

But at some point we have to consider the possibility that the conditions for the evolution of intelligent life are so exceptional that this has happened only once in the cosmos--on the Earth and nowhere else.  That's the "Rare Earth Hypothesis" of Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, Copernicus, 2000).  The conditions for complex life and particularly intelligent life might be so rare as to be unique to the Earth, and even then only during the last 250,000 years of Earth's history.

The conditions for simple forms of life, such as microbial life, might be so much more common that microbial life might be found throughout the cosmos.  Ward and Brownlee suggest that.  And other astrobiologists (such as Cockell agree).

If the Earth is uniquely adapted for the emergence of human intelligent life, does that mean that the laws of nature have been fine-tuned to support human life on Earth?  If that is so, is that fine-tuning just an accident?  Or does it show purposeful design--by the Divine Intelligent Designer?  Owen Gingerich says yes, and that's why he calls the Earth "God's Planet."  

But as I suggested in my posts on Gingerich, there are some weaknesses in his arguments.  The fine-tuning of the unique conditions for human life on Earth looks mysterious.  But to explain the mystery by saying "God did it" is fallacious because this explains a mystery by positing an even deeper mystery--the mystery of God as Creator.

Moreover, it's not clear that the evolution of life in the cosmos with a special place for intelligent life on the Earth shows a divinely ordained purpose that supports the unique dignity of human life.  After all, for most of the history of the cosmos since the Big Bang, there has been no life; and if the distant future of the cosmos brings the extinction of all life, as many astrophysicists expect, then life, and particularly human life, would seem to be only a momentary blip in the history of a mostly dead cosmos.  That would seem to deny any conception of a cosmic teleology supporting a moral cosmology to guide human life.

But even without such a cosmic teleology, there can be a human teleology rooted in the human purposes of evolved human nature.  And as long as that evolved human nature endures, even without being permanent, it sets the natural ends or purposes of human life.  Isn't that enough?

That could hold true even for extraterrestrial human life--that is to say, when human beings travel in space or colonize a moon or a planet beyond the Earth, they will be moved by the same natural desires that move them on the Earth.  

Or will the extraterrestrial conditions for life distort or frustrate those natural human desires?  For example, when human beings colonize Mars, will the extreme conditions on Mars force the human beings there to submit to a tyrannical government that controls the constraining equipment and regimented institutions that secure the life-support systems necessary for human survival on Mars? Or will human beings organize their social and political order on Mars to secure their individual liberty even in the extreme conditions of Mars?

I will take up those questions in a future post.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

What Might Drive a Grandiose Narcissist Like Donald Trump to Suicide?


Recently, Donald Trump posted a video of himself as the Superhero that America needs, another childish expression of his grandiose narcissism.  He said that a "BIG ANNOUNCEMENT" would be coming. 

Over the past month, however, it has become clear that Trump's popular appeal has faded, even among his most cultish followers.  Increasingly, even his fanatical supporters now see him as a pathetic loser.  This will throw him into a narcissistic rage.  As he begins to feel the humiliation of failure and entrapment, will he at some point feel that the only way out is suicide?

I have written previously about Trump's personality as a grandiose narcissist, and how other American presidents and some alpha male chimpanzees have shown the same personality.  Remarkably, Jane Goodall has said that Trump's personality is familiar to her from her observations of some of the dominant male chimpanzees at Gombe.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):

"A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early childhood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

"(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

"(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

"(3) believes that he or she is 'special' and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

"(4) requires excessive admiration

"(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

"(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

"(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

"(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

"(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes." 

The narcissism of people like Trump can often give them the swagger and charismatic excitement that make them the center of attention in a way that can be translated into political success.  But once the popularity of this bombastic personality fades, the narcissist can feel such a "severe narcissistic injury" (as the psychiatrists call it) that he can suddenly decide that killing himself is his only escape.

Elsa Ronningstam (at Harvard Medical School) is one of the leading psychologists in the study of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and she and her colleagues have noted that the most severe narcissists have a high risk of suicide.   She has observed: 

". . . suicides in individuals with NPD can be sudden, carefully implemented and with high lethality. . . ."

". . . In one such type of sudden suicide, a need for superiority over life and death, with triumph over fear and pain, and with fantasies connecting lethal self-harm with control, active mastery and self-esteem, can endorse suicide.  In this context, there is a detachment in the narcissistic mental processing between the suicidal act and its real meaning, that is, the end of life. . . . a combination of affect dysregulation with self-enhancement and vulnerability can readily trigger suicide-related behavior in the context of interpersonal or life-related narcissistic injuries, limitations, trauma, or defeats" (Ronningstam et al. 2018: 501-502).

After all, what alternative is there for a grandiose narcissist like Trump when he faces humiliating defeat and no way to escape from this except by killing himself?

Trump might kill himself at any time.  Or he might wait until he is in jail, like Jeffrey Epstein.

Oh, and what was the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT promised by Trump?  Donald Trump Digital Trading Cards with pictures of Trump as a Marvel Superhero.  You can begin your collection with a credit card and pay only $99 for each!

But you should hurry.  Because Michael Anton, Curtis Yarvin, and other Trump enthusiasts at the Claremont Institute will be buying up these trading cards as a record of Trumps profound authoritarian statesmanship. 


Ronningstam, Elsa, Igor Weinberg, Mark Goldblatt, Mark Schechter, and Bejamin Herbstman. 2018. "Suicide and Self-Regulation in Narcissistic Personality Disorder." Psychodynamic Psychiatry 46 (4): 491-510.

Friday, December 09, 2022

The Lockean Constitutional Originalism of Abraham Lincoln and Harry Jaffa

The John Birch Society's "Impeach Earl Warren" Billboards Were Common in the 1960s in the American South

Now, more than ever before, we need to understand the jurisprudential philosophy of constitutional originalism that has been developed by American conservative Republicans over the past fifty years.  The effort of the conservative originalists to take control of most of the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has succeeded, for the first time in American history.  This effort--led by the Federalist Society--reached its consummation during Donald Trump's presidency.

Of the three Supreme Court justices appointed by Trump--Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett--Gorsuch and Barrett are self-professed originalists, and Kavanaugh is sympathetic to originalism.  Justice Clarence Thomas is a proud originalist.  Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts often vote with the originalists.  Because of their ages, we can easily imagine that these six justices will be the majority on the Court for at least ten to twenty years.  At the time of her confirmation, Barrett was forty-eight years old; and the other conservative justices were fifty-three (Gorsuch), fifty-five (Kavanaugh), sixty-six (Roberts), seventy (Alito) and seventy-two (Thomas).  This originalist majority will have many years to radically transform American constitutional politics.  They have already begun to do that--particularly with the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Is the Republican originalist philosophy of the Constitution correct or not?  What are the likely consequences (good or bad) of having a Supreme Court controlled by Republican originalism?  Is there a good alternative to originalism, such as the idea of the "living constitution" favored by liberal Democrats?  Or is there perhaps another form of constitutional originalism that is better than the Republican originalism that has taken over the Court?  

I have argued for a Lockean and Lincolnian originalism that interprets the original meaning of the constitutional text in the light of the philosophic principles of the Declaration of Independence and Darwinian natural right.  In some respects, this is similar to what Jack Balkin has called "living originalism."  Some of my previous posts on this can be found herehere, and here.

I have been thinking about these questions ever since I taught my first constitutional law class at Rosary College (now Dominican University), in River Forest, Illinois, in the fall of 1977.  I am now prepared to argue that by comparison with the legal positivism of Republican originalism, the better form of originalism is the legal naturalism of the Lockean constitutional originalism of Abraham Lincoln.  Those of you who know the work of Harry Jaffa will recognize his influence here on my thinking, although I am not sure that Jaffa would have fully agreed with my grounding of Lockean/Lincolnian natural rights in Darwinian natural right.


Conservative Republican originalism rests on a positivist understanding of law as ultimately the command of a lawmaker enforced by punishment of those who disobey the law.  By contrast, the naturalist understanding of law is that the ultimate standard for legal justice is the natural justice of natural law or natural rights--or "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  The legal positivist says that this naturalist understanding confuses the objective judgment of a law's validity and the subjective judgment of a law's morality.  The legal positivist recognizes the validity of any law enacted by the lawmaking institutions of a society as an objective fact, in contrast to the subjective value-judgment of that law as good or bad, just or unjust.  Consequently, a positivist originalist will say that judges must interpret constitutional laws exactly as they were originally understood by those who wrote and ratified those laws, and the judges must not impose any personal moral judgment of right or wrong, just or unjust.  And so, for example, judges must recognize as constitutional rights only those rights expressly enumerated in the Constitution, without claiming any supposedly natural rights that are not expressly enumerated in the constitutional text.

The conservative Republican campaign for positivist constitutional originalism began in 1954 as a reaction against the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education striking down racial segregation in public schools as an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Newly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren deftly persuaded a divided court to sign onto a unanimous opinion written by Warren.  This was the beginning of the modern civil rights movement for abolishing racial segregation.

Conservative Republicans and southern Democrats denounced Brown and other decisions attacking segregation as an exercise in political power that was contrary to the text of the Constitution, because those who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend that this would forbid racially segregated public schools, and because such decisions violated the constitutional principle of state's rights that allows state governments to enforce racial segregation.  The right-wing John Birch Society promoted an "Impeach Earl Warren" campaign that included billboards scattered around roads in the American South.  Because of this refusal to accept the Brown decision, many public-school systems remained segregated in the South, even into the late 1960s.  

I had some personal experience with this.  When my parents moved in 1962 from DeSoto, Missouri, to Wills Point, Texas, I entered an all-white public high school that was separated from the high school for black students, which was different from the racially integrated schools in DeSoto. When my parents then moved in 1964 to Big Spring, Texas, I discovered that Big Spring High School had been one of the few public schools in Texas that became racially integrated immediately after the Brown decision in 1954.

As the alternative to the "judicial activism" of the Warren Court, conservative Republicans insisted that the Supreme Court should adhere to "strict constructionism," so that judges would be guided by the text of the Constitution and the original intent of the Founding Fathers and of those who amended the Constitution, rather than the personal moral and political values of the judges.

The modern history of the movement for an originalist jurisprudence took a new turn in 1971 with the publication of an article in the Indiana Law Review by Robert Bork--"Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems."  Initially, this article received little attention.  But later, as Bork became a famous proponent of originalism, it became one of the most cited law review articles ever written.

Bork's article was written largely as a response to Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which Bork identified as "a typical decision of the Warren Court" (7).  Griswold struck down as unconstitutional a Connecticut law making it a crime, even for married couples, to use contraceptive devices.  The Court said that this law violated the constitutional "right to privacy."  

The obvious objection to this claim is that there is no express declaration of a "right to privacy" anywhere in the Constitution.  But in his opinion for the Court, Justice William Douglas argued that the right to privacy was within the "penumbras" of the Bill of Rights:

". . . specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. . . . Various guarantees create zones of privacy.  The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen.  The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers 'in any house' in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of that privacy.  The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the 'right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.'  The Fifth Amendment in its Self-Incrimination Clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment.  The Ninth Amendment provides: 'The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.'"

Although Douglas did not identify this as a natural right, he came close to saying that in at least one passage: "We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights--older than our political parties, older than our school system.  Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred."  Is this suggesting that marriage is so deeply rooted in human nature that we should recognize a natural right to marriage--and to the right to make marital decisions such as concerning birth control?

When I first discussed the Griswold decision with my students at Rosary College, I was skeptical about Douglas's appeal to the "penumbras" of the Bill of Rights.  Since "penumbra" was not part of my vocabulary, I looked it up in some dictionaries.  I learned that it was a word borrowed from Latin meaning "a partially shaded area."  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced the penumbra metaphor into constitutional jurisprudence.  In The Common Law, Holmes said: "Legal, like natural divisions, however clear in their general outline, will be found on exact scrutiny to end in a penumbra or debatable land."  This corresponds to what the OED identifies as the third sense of "penumbra"--"a faint intimation of something or a peripheral region of uncertain extent."  The OED also says that Douglas's use of "penumbra" in Griswold is considered "the locus classicus for this usage."

To speak of an unenumerated constitutional right of privacy as a penumbral emanation of the enumerated rights in the Bill of Rights sounds remarkably fuzzy.  It's so fuzzy that Bork complained that Griswold was an "unprincipled decision," because the Court was expressing its subjective value judgment endorsing the right of privacy that could not be justified by any objective principle of jurisprudence.

". . . We are left with no idea of the sweep of the right of privacy and hence no notion of the cases to which it may or may not be applied in the future.  The truth is that the Court could not reach its result in Griswold through principle.  The reason is obvious.  Every clash between a minority claiming freedom and a majority claiming power to regulate involves a choice between the gratifications of the two groups.  When the Constitution has not spoken, the Court will be able to find no scale, other than its own value preferences, upon which to weigh the respective claims to pleasure. . . ."

"In Griswold a husband and wife assert that they wish to have sexual relations without fear of unwanted children.  The law impairs their sexual gratifications.  The State can assert, and at one stage in that litigation did assert, that the majority finds the use of contraceptives immoral.  Knowledge that it takes place and that the State makes no effort to inhibit it causes the majority anguish, impairs their gratifications."

Bork went on to observe:

". . .  Unless we can distinguish forms of gratification, the only course for a principled Court is to let the majority have its way . . . . There is no principled way to decide that one man's gratifications are more deserving of respect than another's or that one form of gratification is more worthy than another.  Why is sexual gratification more worthy than moral gratification? . . . There is no way of deciding these matters other than by reference to some system of moral or ethical values that has no objective or intrinsic validity of its own and about which men can and do differ.  Where the Constitution does not embody the moral or ethical choice, the judge has no basis other than his own values upon which to set aside the community judgment embodied in the statute.  That, by definition, is an inadequate basis for judicial supremacy. . . ."

Bork concluded: "Legislation requires value choice and cannot be principled in the sense under discussion.  Courts must accept any value choice the legislature makes unless it clearly runs contrary to a choice made in the framing of the Constitution."

In support of this originalist view of constitutional jurisprudence, Bork spoke in 1982 at the founding meeting of the Federalist Society, which became the preeminent organization for lawyers and law professors who wanted to advance the originalist philosophy of law.  This position was strengthened in 1985, when Edwin Meese, Attorney General in the Reagan Administration, gave a speech to the American Bar Association pledging to promote a "jurisprudence of original intention."  In 1986, President Reagan appointed Associate Justice William Rehnquist to become the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Antonin Scalia to take his place as a new associate justice.  Rehnquist and Scalia became forceful champions of originalism.  

In 1987, Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court.  Since Bork had been a professor of law at Yale Law School, the Solicitor General of the United States, and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, he seemed to be so highly qualified that he would be quickly confirmed by the Senate.  But the liberal opponents of Bork's originalism decided to launch a national campaign against Bork's confirmation.  The twelve days of confirmation hearings, presided over by the young senator from Delaware--Joe Biden--who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, were televised, and they captured the attention of the whole country.  

Bork was questioned intensely about his opposition to the Griswold decision, because the claim that there was a constitutional right to privacy had become one ground for the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1972 that there was a constitutional right to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, and the liberal opponents of Bork feared that he would vote to overturn Roe.  Bork argued that while the Connecticut law prohibiting contraception was wrong and even silly, this was a political question for the citizens and legislators of Connecticut and not a legal question for the Supreme Court, because there was no express constitutional language about the "right to privacy."  He also said that he would respect the Roe decision as a well-established precedent, even if he found the reasoning in Roe weak.

Bork was also questioned about whether his originalist interpretation of the Constitution would have supported Roger Taney's opinion in the Dred Scott case in 1857 upholding slavery as a constitutional right to property.  After all, Taney cited those provisions of the Constitution that protected slavery.  Senator Howard Metzenbaum quoted from Taney's opinion about protecting slavery as part of the "original intent" of the Framers.  Bork's response was to say: "the Devil can quote Scripture."  Amazingly, he seemed thereby to concede that Taney was correct in his constitutional originalism.  Bork did add, however, that Taney's decision was wrong in usurping the power of Congress by declaring unconstitutional the limitation on the extension of slavery in the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

The Senate rejected Bork's nomination by a vote of forty-two in favor and fifty-eight against.  This was one of the biggest defeats for a Supreme Court nominee in American history.  Some of Bork's supporters drew from his failure the lesson that he had answered the hostile questions in his confirmation hearings too honestly and directly.  Since then, originalist judges nominated to the Supreme Court have been evasive or even deceptive about their views in their confirmation hearings.  For example, the justices who voted last summer to overturn Roe had been careful in their confirmation hearings to deceptively create the impression that they would always uphold the precedent of Roe.

Bork could have won confirmation in 1987 if he had reaffirmed what he had said in a 1968 article in Fortune magazine about the Griswold decision, which was very different from what he had said in his 1971 Indiana Law Review article.   In that Fortune article, Bork argued:

 "A desire for some legitimate form of judicial activism is inherent in a tradition that runs strong and deep in our culture, a tradition that can be called 'Madisonian.'  We continue to believe there are some things no majority should be allowed to do to us, no matter how democratically it may decide to do them.  A Madisonian system assumes that in wide areas of life a legislative majority is entitled to rule for no better reason than that it is a majority.  But it also assumes there are some aspects of life a majority should not control, that coercion in such matters is tyranny, a violation of the individual's natural rights.  Clearly, the definition of natural rights cannot be left to either the majority or the minority.  In the popular understanding upon which the power of the Supreme Court rests, it is precisely the function of the Court to resolve this dilemma by giving content to the concept of natural rights in case by case interpretations of the Constitution" (170).

At first glance, it might appear that there is nothing in the text of the Constitution to support this, because the term "natural rights" never appears in the Constitution.  Nevertheless, Bork argued, Justice Arthur Goldberg, in his concurring opinion in Griswold, could rightly see an implicit appeal to natural rights in the Ninth Amendment: "The enumeration, in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."  Goldberg had explained: "the Ninth Amendment shows a belief of the Constitution's authors that fundamental rights exist that are not expressly enumerated in the first eight amendments . . . and an intent that the list of rights included there not be deemed exhaustive."

At his confirmation hearings, Bork was asked about his view of the Ninth Amendment.  Instead of recognizing it as pointing to unenumerated natural rights, as he had in 1968, he dismissed it as a meaningless provision of the Constitution:

"I do not think you can use the Ninth Amendment unless you know something of what it means.  For example, if you had an amendment that says 'Congress shall make no,' and then there is an inkblot, and you cannot read the rest of it, and that is the only copy you have, I do not think the court can make up what might be under the inkblot."

As I have said previously, this scorn for the Ninth Amendment illustrates the incoherence of Bork's originalism.  On the one hand, originalists insist that every provision of the Constitution must be given some meaning.  On the other hand, they throw out the Ninth Amendment because it denies their claim that the Constitution does not protect unenumerated rights.

A coherent originalism could recognize the importance of the Ninth Amendment in pointing to the principles of the Declaration of Independence--the Lockean philosophy of natural rights--as the philosophic foundation for interpreting the Constitution.  That was the originalism of Abraham Lincoln that was restated by Harry Jaffa.


"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Proverbs 25:11).  After Alexander Stephens in a letter reminded Abraham Lincoln of this verse from Proverbs, Lincoln wrote out this passage sometime around January of 1861, shortly before his inauguration as President, and four months before the start of the Civil War with the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter:

"All this is not the result of accident.  It has a philosophical cause.  Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity.  There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart.  That something, is the principle of 'Liberty to all'--the principle that clears the path for all--gives hope to all--and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all."

"The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate.  Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government and consequent prosperity.  No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters."

"The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us.  The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.  The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it.  The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture."

"So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken" (Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln4: 168-169). 

Although there is no evidence that Lincoln ever used this language in any of his public speeches or writings, its imagery does vividly capture the main idea of his philosophic constitutional originalism:  the text of the Constitution is the silver frame around the golden principles of the Declaration of Independence, and thus the original meaning of the constitutional text must be interpreted in the light of the Declaration of Independence and its Lockean philosophy of natural rights. 

In some ways, Lincolnian originalist jurisprudence resembles Ronald Dworkin's philosophic moral reading of the Constitution, in which the Constitution is interpreted as expressing the Lockean moral philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.

Jaffa claimed that Bork came close to this Lincolnian originalism in his 1968 article, although he failed to recognize the importance of the Declaration as the authoritative statement of natural rights.  But then in his 1971 article and in his 1987 confirmation hearings, Bork turned away from this by embracing a legal positivist interpretation of the Constitution that denied natural rights.

There are two obvious objections to Lincolnian originalism.  The first is that the text of the Constitution says nothing about the Declaration of Independence.  The second is that the constitutional protections for slavery (the Fugitive Slave Clause, for example) seem to uphold slavery and thus deny the Declaration's fundamental premise that all people are equally free and endowed with rights.

Consider the first objection:  when one looks at the constitutional picture framed in silver, one does not in fact see an apple of gold anywhere in the picture!  That's what Bork and Scalia said whenever Justice Clarence Thomas invoked the Declaration of Independence in interpreting the Constitution.  The Constitution never affirms the Declaration to be part of constitutional law.

There is evidence, however, in the constitutional text and in the history of the American Founding to support Lincoln's claim that there really is an apple of gold in the constitutional picture of silver.  Jaffa surveyed this evidence in his book Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution (1994).

As I have already suggested, the Ninth Amendment's declaration that "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" affirms constitutional protection for unenumerated rights; and to say that these rights are "retained by the people" implies that these rights arose in the Lockean state of nature prior to the establishment of government.  This was indicated in Roger Sherman's version of the Ninth Amendment in his original draft of the Bill of Rights:  "The people have certain natural rights which are retained by them when they enter into Society."  James Madison indicated the same idea when he said that some of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights were "natural rights."  One cannot dismiss the Ninth Amendment as an "inkblot" on the Constitution, as Bork did, unless one denies the reality of natural rights.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Constitution also implicitly points to the natural rights of the people in a state of nature.  "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."  By what right did We the People ordain and establish a new government for the United States?  

There was already a national government under the Articles of Confederation as ratified by the states in 1781.  The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were originally supposed to propose revisions to the Articles of Confederation.  But instead of that, they wrote a totally new constitution.  In Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation, it was prescribed that any "alteration" of the Articles would have to be approved by the Congress of the United States and by the legislature of each state.  But Article 7 of the Constitution prescribed that its ratification would require only the ratification of state conventions in nine states.  Thus, the ratification of the Constitution was an unconstitutional overthrow of the Articles of Confederation!

In The Federalist (Number 43), Madison explained that justifying the revolutionary overthrow of the Articles of Confederation and the ratification of the Constitution required an appeal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence--"to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed."  Thus, the legitimacy of the Constitution as ordained and established by the people depends on affirming the laws of nature and of nature's God as recognized in the Declaration of Independence and as superior to the positive laws of the Articles of Confederation.

Those who framed the Constitution of 1787 and proposed it for ratification by the people in the states saw themselves as reverting to a state of nature in which the people have a natural right to "institute new government."  As I have said in some previous posts, those in the First Continental Congress of 1774 also saw themselves as in a Lockean state of nature, with the natural right to revolt from Great Britain and establish new governments for the United States, which they proceeded to do.  The Declaration of Independence in 1776 was an affirmation of those "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" that legitimated what they were doing.

The constitutions of eight of the thirteen original states explicitly affirmed the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the grounding in nature for their right to establish new governments by consent of the people.  For example, the Declaration of Rights in the Virginia Constitution proclaimed:  
"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Similarly, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 asserted: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights."

This is the language of the Declaration of Independence.  And that is why, in 1825, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, speaking for the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, recommended to the professors "the Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these States" (Jefferson, Writings, Library of America, 479). 


It is true, of course, that the Constitution as it looked before the Civil War amendments (13-15) might seem to contradict the Declaration because of those constitutional provisions protecting slavery as it existed in the slave states.  But these were understood by the framers of the Constitution as prudential compromises to win the support of the slave states, with the expectation that over time slavery would be gradually abolished.  That explains why, as James Madison observed, the Constitution never uses the words "slaves" or "slavery," Those constitutional provisions pertaining to slaves refer to them as "persons."  This points to the inherent contradiction in slavery in treating slaves as both "persons" and "property."

That the Constitution was not really a proslavery document became clear when the Confederate States adopted their new constitution in March of 1861.  Remarkably, most of the Confederate Constitution is copied word-for-word from the U.S. Constitution.  But if you read them side-by-side, you can see that the drafters of the Confederate Constitution made important changes, and most of these changes are designed to emphatically endorse slavery and to make the right to own slaves as property permanent.

For example, Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution includes this provision:  "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."  

Here is the corresponding provision in the Confederate Constitution: "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed."  The Congress of the Confederate States was thus prohibited from passing any law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.  The Congress of the United States was not.

Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution includes this provision:  "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States."  

Here is the corresponding provision in the Confederate Constitution: "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slavery shall not be thereby impaired."  The Congress of the Confederate States was thus prohibited from passing any law denying or impairing the right of slaveholders to take their slaves from one state to another.  The Congress of the United States was not.

The Confederate Constitution is clearly a proslavery constitution.  The U.S. Constitution is not.

This also demonstrates that the primary reason for the secession of the Southern States from the Union was to protect slavery by enacting a constitution that would be reliably proslavery in a way that the U.S. Constitution was not.

This was made clear by Alexander Stephens' famous "Cornerstone Speech."  Stephens was the Vice-President of the Confederacy.  As a delegate from Georgia, he participated in the drafting of the Confederate Constitution, and he signed it on March 11, 1861.  Ten days later, he gave a speech in Savannah, Georgia, explaining the importance of this new constitution for the Confederacy as being superior to the old constitution for the Union.

He explained:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.  Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, ass the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.'  He was right.  What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.  But whether he full comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.  The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.  This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.  The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day.  Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'"

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

          . . .

". . . It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.  Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature.  Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws.  With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law.  Not so with the negro.  Subordination is his place.  He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system."

The reference here to "the curse against Canaan" refers to Noah's "cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren" (Genesis 9:25).  Southern Christians interpreted this as a curse upon the black race in Africa.  This was part of a general argument that the Bible ordained slavery.  As I have written about this, Fred Ross's Slavery Ordained of God was one of the most influential of the studies of the Bible's support for slavery.  Ross denounced Jefferson's Declaration of Independence as an atheistic denial of God's law of human inequality.

It should also be noted that while Stephens was emphatic in his speech in 1861 about the dispute over slavery being the cause of Southern secession, after the Civil War was over, Stephens argued in his Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States (1868) that the secession of the confederate states was only to affirm states' rights, and that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.  He thus contributed one of the primary ideas for the Myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which sought to glorify the Confederacy as a noble cause.  That Myth of the Lost Cause lives on among those Americans today who wave the confederate battle flag as the mythic symbol of the Old South.

As I have indicated in some other posts, the defense of the Confederate Constitution founded on slavery as superior to the U.S. Constitution founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence continues today among the neoreactionary authoritarians like Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug).

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Evolutionary Ethics of Beauty in Chinese Footbinding and Female Circumcision


                                                Chinese Footbinding: "Lotus Feet" and "Lotus Shoes"

Having written in my previous post about the Darwinian ethics of beauty as an evolved natural desire, I can imagine that many readers want to object that there is no universal moral standard of beauty, because there is no agreement across individuals or across cultures about what counts as beauty.  If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then aren't judgments of beauty subjective, arbitrary, and culturally relative?  

Chinese footbinding and female circumcision are often mentioned as two examples of this.  For almost a thousand years, many Chinese women mutilated their feet by binding their toes under the soles of their feet, breaking bones and crippling themselves so badly that it was hard for them to walk.  They did this because they thought women with tiny feet were beautiful, and men would not marry them if their feet were unbound.  Most of us find this grotesquely ugly.

Similarly, hundreds of millions of women across central Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia have had their genitals mutilated by their mothers when they were children:  their clitorises were cut off (clitoridectomy), and sometimes the sides of the vulva were sewn together (infibulation), leaving only a tiny hole for the flow of urine and menstrual blood.  To make sexual intercourse possible, their husbands must rip them open.  These women believe that clitoridectomy and infibulation make their genitals beautiful, and that men will not marry women who have not gone through this.  Once again, most of us find this repulsive rather than beautiful.

I contend, however, that the mere fact of moral disagreement about beauty and other human goods does not prove that there are no natural, universal standards for moral debate.  I begin by identifying the four sources of moral disagreement and arguing that such moral controversy allows us to engage in moral deliberation in which we appeal to a universal pattern of natural human desires as the norm for settling our disputes.  I then turn to Chinese footbinding and female circumcision as illustrations of moral debates that can be resolved by moral persuasion.


There are four sources of moral disagreement: fallible beliefs about circumstances, fallible beliefs about desires, variable circumstances, and variable desires.  Consequently, ethics is not a demonstrative science in which one properly seeks certainty and precision.  Because of its uncertainty and imprecision, ethics requires the sort of practical judgment rooted in experience--what Aristotle and the Greeks called prudence (phronesis)--that cannot be reduced to abstract rules.  But still, the ultimate standard for ethics is the pattern of natural desires that belongs to our evolved human nature.

Fallible beliefs about circumstances.  Moral judgment is often uncertain and imprecise because our knowledge of the circumstances of action is uncertain and imprecise.  We often disagree about moral questions, even when we agree in our principles, because we have differing views of the relevant circumstances.  In fact, much of our moral reasoning is devoted to gathering and assessing the facts pertinent to our practical decisions.

For example, if parents believe that the social circumstances of their life make it impossible for their daughters to marry well if they are not mutilated (by footbinding or female circumcision), then many parents will force their daughters to be mutilated.  But if parents believe there are ways to resist or change those social circumstances, so that their daughters can marry well without being mutilated, they will do so. 

Fallible beliefs about desires.  The good is the desirable.  But we are often unsure about what we truly desire, because we often desire what we discover is not truly desirable.  Even when we think we know what we desire at some particular moment, it is not always clear whether satisfying that momentary desire will impede the satisfaction of a more important desire in the future.  Much of our moral deliberation with ourselves and with others requires reasoning about the consistency or contradiction of diverse desires over a complete life.  Furthermore, we often disagree about whether individually or socially arbitrary desires properly specify our natural desires.  

For example, while some women in some societies have believed that to satisfy their natural desires for sexual mating, familial bonding, and having children, they must have their genitals or their feet mutilated, these customary desires for female genital mutilation and female footbinding are founded on mistaken beliefs that frustrate the natural desires of both men and women.

Variable circumstances.  The variability in the practical circumstances that distinguish one individual from another and one society from another requires variability in our moral judgments.  Although the pattern of natural human desires is universal, satisfying those desires in different individual and social circumstances requires different patterns of conduct appropriate to the circumstances.

For example, in societies with social conventions that make female footbinding or female circumcision a requirement for a woman attracting a good husband, women cannot violate those conventions without being punished, which makes these conventions self-enforcing.  Consequently, to succeed in gradually abolishing those conventions, women and men will have to join social movements in which many people agree that they will not impose footbinding or circumcision on their daughters, and they will not allow their sons to marry women with bound feet or mutilated genitals.

Variable desires.  There is both normal and abnormal variation in human desires.  By "normal," I mean the central tendency in the distribution of a trait.  By "abnormal," I mean a wide deviance from the central tendency.  The normal variation arises from age, sexual identity, and individual temperament.  Natural human diversity is such that on average the young do not have exactly the same desires as the old, men do not have exactly the same desires as women, and individuals with one temperament do not have exactly the same desires as those with another temperament.  (I have written about the importance of individuality, historicity, and animal personalities in biological nature.)

The abnormal variation in desires arises from abnormality in innate dispositions or in social circumstances.  For example, while human beings are normally social animals with social desires that incline them to sympathize with the pleasures and pains of those close to them, a few human beings are innately predisposed to become psychopaths who do not feel these sympathetic emotions.  Consequently, the most extreme psychopaths are moral strangers to the rest of us, because they do not share our moral sentiments; and to protect ourselves from them, we must either ostracize them (lock them up) or execute them.  (I have written about the biological psychology of psychopaths.)  And sometimes abnormal social circumstances such as the customs of female footbinding and female circumcision promote arbitrary desires that frustrate natural desires.


In China, from the Song dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing dynasty (1636-1912), many Han Chinese girls and women had their feet regularly wrapped tightly to keep their feet small.  Oten toes were broken as the feet were rolled into an morbidly tight ball.  The ideal was to compress the arch of the foot, even breaking it, so that the foot was no longer than about 4.5 inches long, although this ideal was rarely achieved.  Bound feet were thought to be beautiful and sexually attractive to men, so that men preferred to marry women with bound feet, and unbound natural feet were regarded as ugly and disgusting.  Footbinding caused many physiological and orthopedic maladies for these women throughout their lives, including difficulty in walking that reduced their physical activity (Levy 1966; Ko 2005).

This practice of footbinding was originally concentrated among elite Han Chinese, but over the years it spread to other classes.  Although there is little data about the number of women who had footbound feet, there were probably at least one or two hundred million footbound women.  And yet although this custom of footbinding was traditional for many centuries in China, it was largely abolished within a few decades around the beginning of the twentieth century.  

In the efforts of social scientists to explain the origin, maintenance, and cessation of Chinese female footbinding, there have been two prominent theories.  According to the Hypergamy Hypothesis, parents used footbinding to increase the likelihood that their daughters would marry up (to richer and higher status men) at higher rates in open marriage markets in competition with natural-footed girls.  It began with Midred Dickemann's papers on female claustration, female genital mutilation, and footbinding (1979, 1991, 1997).  

Dickemann's insight was that hypergamous marriage was rooted in evolved mate preferences.  Men (on average) want to mate with women who show the physical beauty of youthful fertility; and in long-term mating, men want women who will assure them of paternal certainty, so that the men are not cuckolded.  Women (on average) want to mate with men who have the wealth and status to provide for them and their offspring; and to persuade men to make a long-term investment in them and their children, women will provide cues of sexual fidelity, particularly for the most desirable men.  Hypergamy becomes especially important in societies that are highly stratified, that have high patriarchal inequality, and that practice polygyny (multiple wives).  High-status wealthy men have the resources to outcompete men with less resources in winning the most desirable young brides.  In such circumstances, young women will often prefer to be a second or third wife of a wealthy man rather than the only wife of a poor man.

Although all men have faced the problem of paternal uncertainty (especially before DNA testing)--not knowing for sure that they are the biological fathers of the children born to their wives--this problem becomes acute for polygynous men who have multiple wives to guard.  And, again, these men will want to mate with women who show the signs of sexual fidelity.

All of these conditions are true for traditional China.  And in ancient China, it was believed that binding the feet of women would reduce the chances of there being unfaithful to their husbands, because women with bound feet have less physical mobility, and thus they are less likely to wander away from home to have sexual trysts.  Bound feet were also perceived as beautiful because men prefer women with small feet.  Therefore, Chinese parents who wanted their daughters to marry well would bind their feet so that they could outcompete natural-footed women in the marital competition for high-ranking men.  Daughters often resisted being bound and complained about the pain and suffering it caused, but parents insisted that without this they could never marry well.

This is the Hypergamy Hypothesis that evolutionary social scientists have offered to explain the origin and maintenance of Chinese footbinding.  This hypothesis can also explain the cessation of footbinding in the early decades of the twentieth century, once the social circumstances changed so that natural-footed women could marry well.

Over the past thirty years, a few social scientists have offered an alternative to the Hypergamy Hypothesis in explaining Chinese footbinding--the Labor Market Hypothesis.  Melissa Brown, Laurel Bossen, and Hill Gates have been its leading proponents (Bossen and Gates 2017; Brown 2016; Brown et al. 2012; Brown and Satterthwaite-Hillips 2018).  The idea is that footbinding was a form of labor control by parents to use their daughters for handicraft work within the home--carding cotton, spinning thread, and twisting hemp that brought in cash or goods necessary for the survival of the family.  As Brown says: "five-year-olds like to run and play, not sit in one place for the hours required to produce such quantities of thread (or other products).  By making it hurt to walk, footbinding served as labor control to keep girls at their handwork" (Brown 2016, 517).  Brown and her colleagues can then explain the cessation of footbinding beginning at the end of the nineteenth century by saying that this was when the mechanized production of cloth and its distribution through railways eliminated the need for such handicraft work.  They also try to show the falsity of the Hypergamy Hypothesis by presenting evidence that there was no correlation between footbinding and marrying up.

It is difficult to test these two hypotheses against one another because there is so little quantifiable data about footbinding in Chinese history.  Brown, Bossen, and Gates have assembled a database based upon interviews with elderly Chinese women at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century.  In the early 1990s, Gates interviewed women in Sichuan Province.  In 2006-2011, Brown and Bossen interviewed women in three other regions of China--the Central, North, and Southwest.  These were all inland and primarily rural areas, because it was only here that there were numbers of living women at the end of the 20th century who had experienced footbinding, since footbinding had been ended in coastal areas and urban centers before these living women had been born.  These elderly Chinese women were asked a series of questions about their experiences in growing up in China.  Brown, Bossen, and Gates built their database through a sample of these participants: 36 participants from the Central region was added to 261 from the North and 142 from the South, for a total of 439 participants; this was then added to the much larger total from Sichuan of 3,275.  Thus, they had a grand total of 3,714.

From their analysis of this data, Brown, Bossen, and Gates conclude: "for most regions, we found no statistically significant difference between the chances of a footbound girl versus a not-bound girl in marrying into a wealthier household, despite a common cultural belief that footbinding would improve girls' marital prospects.  We do find regional variation: Sichuan showed a significant relation between footbinding and marital mobility" (Brown et al. 2012, 1035).  They also say: "For most women, throughout most of the 20th century, FB [footbinding] made no significant difference in their ability either to marry at all or their ability to marry 'up'" (Brown and Satterthwaite-Phillips 2018, 2).  They also conclude that there was a correlation between the footbinding of daughters and their handicraft labor.  They claim that this refutes the Hypergamy Hypothesis and confirms the Labor Market Hypothesis for explaining footbinding.

But notice the contradiction in what they say here.  On the one hand, "for most women," there was no significant correlation between footbinding and marrying up.  On the other hand, they concede that there was a significant correlation between footbinding and marrying up among their Sichuan participants, who comprised 87% of their total number of participants!

Ryan Nichols has pointed to this contradiction as one of the many weaknesses in the reasoning of Brown, Bossen, and Gates.  They obfuscate this contradiction by saying that "for most regions," there was no correlation between footbinding and hypergamy, which obscures the fact that for most of their participants (particularly those in Sichuan), there was a correlation (Ryan 2021; Chowdhury, Zhang, and Nichols 2022).

By saying that "for most regions" (that is, three out of four regions), there was no significant correlation between footbinding and marrying up, Brown, Bossen, and Gates treat the Central region (with only 44 total participants, of whom only 6 were footbound) as evidentially equal to the Sichuan region (with 3,327 total participants, of whom 994 were footbound).  As Nichols points out, readers have to carefully study the actual numbers to see how the language of "for most regions" distorts the evidence.

Moreover, as Nichols suggests, the correlation between footboundness and hypergamy would probably have been even higher than it is if Brown, Bossen, and Gates had not reduced the data prior to testing by throwing out all data from cohorts of women in which a majority were not footbound.

Nichols has identified other flaws in their reasoning.  Brown, Bossen, and Gates speak about the Labor Market Hypothesis and the Hypergamy Hypothesis as if they were mutually exclusive.  But this ignores the possibility that once parents have decided that footbinding will improve the mating prospects of their daughters, they might use their daughter's labor in handicrafts as a strategy for mitigating their costs.  Consequently, the Labor Market Hypothesis and the Hypergamy Hypothesis are mutually compatible.  Brown, Bossen, and Gates say nothing about this possibility.

They also ignore the fact that to test the Hypergamy Hypothesis, there must be an open marriage market in which there is sufficient competition between footbound and natural-footed women.  If there is a largely closed market, in which almost all of the women are footbound, then there is no test for the Hypergamy Hypothesis.  Notably, in the Sichuan data, there is a slightly more open market, because footbound girls were less than 90% of birth cohorts.

This is a devastating critique of the attempt to refute the Hypergamy Hypothesis.  As far as I know, Brown, Bossen, and Gates have never responded to this critique.  I have sent messages to them asking for some reply to Nichols.  Brown and Gates answered my messages but offered no reply.  Brown indicated that she might write a reply sometime in the future.


Consider now how our moral judgment about Chinese footbinding can be based on the four sources of moral disagreement: fallible beliefs about circumstances, fallible beliefs about desires, variable circumstances, and variable desires.

Parents naturally desire that their daughters should be mated with good husbands who will provide well for their daughters and their children.  So if parents believe that the circumstances in their society make it unlikely that their daughters can marry well if their feet are not bound, then many parents will force footbinding on their children.  But this belief can be mistaken.

Indeed, we know that across traditional China, there was great variability in the practice of footbinding across time, region, and class.  Most Chinese parents did not bind the feet of their daughters because they did not believe this was necessary for the daughters to marry well, and that it would impose unnecessary suffering on their daughters.  From the origins of the practice in the Song dynasty, there were scholars who criticized the practice as wrong.  

Other than the Han Chinese, most Chinese ethnic groups--such as the Manchus, Mongols, and Tibetans--did not engage in footbinding.  Even among the Han, many Han Chinese (such as the Hakka Han) rejected footbinding.  Moreover, those Chinese parents who did practice footbinding provoked resistance from their daughters.  Many footbound daughters loosened their bindings or ceased binding after marriage.  Most bindings were not maintained over an entire life.  When Brown, Bossen, and Gates asked their interviewees about whether they found footbinding desirable, almost half of them said it was not, and only about a fifth of them said they accepted it in some manner.  So there was widespread disagreement among the Chinese as to whether footbinding was desirable, which allowed for a moral debate, in which the critics of footbinding could argue that it frustrated natural human desires.

A popular campaign against footbinding was based on the argument that footbinding was "unnatural," and that "natural feet" were desirable for both women and men.  The first Natural Foot Society was founded in 1895.  Then many natural foot societies began to appear.  This and similar groups engaged in three kinds of activity (Levy 1966; Mackie 1996).  They promoted an educational campaign on the advantages of natural feet and the disadvantages of bound feet.  They showed that the rest of the world did not practice footbinding, and that China was losing respect in the world because of it.  Finally, following the example of American temperance societies campaigning against alcohol, members of natural foot societies pledged neither to bind their daughters nor to allow their sons to marry women with bound feet.

As suggested by Gerry Mackie's evolutionary game-theoretic analysis, footbinding was an evolutionarily stable strategy for parents only when it was a self-enforcing social convention.  As long as this convention was generally accepted in a social group, parents who tried to violate it by refusing to bind their daughters' feet would be punished because their daughters could not be married to the most desirable men.  But once enough parents could be persuaded to join natural foot societies and pledge not to bind their daughters' feet nor to allow their sons to marry footbound women, they created a new mating market in which natural-footed women could find good mates.


There has been a similar moral debate over the desirability of female circumcision, in which parents mutilate the genitals of their daughters because they think this will make them more desirable for marriage.  Actually, the debate is even evident in the dispute over the proper terminology for this practice.  Calling it "female circumcision" suggests that it is no worse than "male circumcision."  But critics insist that clitoridectomy and infibulation are much more harmful to women than is cutting off the foreskin is for men.  Some people prefer the more neutral language of "female genital cutting."

Since I have already written a series of posts on female circumcision, I don't need to say much more about it here.  I will only point out that the moral debate over female circumcision shows the same character as the moral debate over footbinding: it's a dispute over fallible beliefs about circumstances, fallible beliefs about desires, variable circumstances, and variable desires.

For example, consider the debate between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Fuambai Ahmadi over the morality of female circumcision.  Ali was born in Somalia. She was raised as a Muslim, living in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. As a child, her genitals were mutilated by family members practicing "female circumcision" as a way of ensuring female virginity by excising the clitoris and sewing up the vagina. In 1992, she fled to Holland as she ran away from a forced marriage to a cousin who was a Somali Canadian.  Now, Ali has become a fervent opponent of female genital mutilation and the Islamic beliefs that support it.  She also denounces those feminist multicultural relativists who argue that some African women have chosen to embrace the cultural tradition of female circumcision, and that any criticism of this by Westerners is cultural imperialism.  Ali rejects this multicultural relativism by appealing to universal human rights based on natural human desires that set a standard for condemning traditional practices like genital mutilation.

On the other side of this debate is Fuambai Ahmadu, who was born in Sierra Leone and reared in the United States, and became an anthropologist who has studied female circumcision among her native Kono ethnic group in Sierra Leone. At age 22, she decided to travel back to her native village so that she herself could be circumcised. She now provokes intense controversy by writing and lecturing in which she criticizes people like Ali for their campaign against female circumcision as Euroamerican cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism. She claims that she herself has not felt any impediment to her sexual life or any other harm from her circumcision, which was an excision of her clitoris. Moreover, she insists that most circumcised African women find deep satisfaction in their circumcision, which refutes all of the reports about the supposed harms from female circumcision.

The ultimate question in this debate is whether female circumcision is truly desirable for those African mothers and daughters who have practiced it.  Ali says it is not.  Ahmadu says it is.  This is a factual question.  For various reasons, I think Ali makes the better argument.

One reason for this is that Ahmadu's position becomes confusingly incoherent.  On the one hand, she says that the African mothers and daughters engaged in female circumcision find it desirable.  On the other hand, she admits that many African women have rejected it, and many have organized themselves into groups pledging to one another that they will not circumcize their daughters or allow their sons to marry a circumcized girl.  And there is evidence of a drastic drop in Africa in the rate of female genital mutilation, comparable to what happened in China with the cessation of footbinding.

Ahmadu even admits that forcing girls to be circumcized is wrong, and that women should remain uncircumcized until they are young adults and able to decide for themselves whether they want this.

Ahmadu is also confusing about her own decision as an adult to be circumcized in her African tribe.  She says that she has not lost the capacity for clitoral orgasm, which makes us suspect that she did not have her clitoris completely cut off.  She might have had only a ritual scratch or mark on her clitoris.  This is one way that African women have avoided the most harmful forms of female circumcision.

In all of this, we see that if the good is the desirable, then we can debate the goodness of practices like footbinding and female circumcision by judging whether they are truly desirable in satisfying the evolved natural desires of universal human nature.


Bossen, Laurel, and Hill Gates. 2017. Bound Feet, Young Hands: Tracking the Demise of Footbinding in Village China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brown, Melissa. 2016. "Footbinding, Industrialization, and Evolutionary Explanation: An Empirical Illustration of Niche Construction and Social Inheritance." Human Nature 27: 501-532.

Brown, Melissa, Laurel Bossen, Hill Gates, and Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips. 2012. "Marriage Mobility and Footbinding in Pre-1949 Rural China: A Reconstruction of Gender, Economics, and Meaning in Social Causation." The Journal of Asian Studies 71: 1035-1067.

Brown, Melissa, and Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips. 2018. "Economic Correlates of Footbinding: Implications for the Importance of Chinese Daughters' Labor." PLoS ONE 13 (9): e0201337.

Chowdhury, Laura Smith, Yile Zhang, and Ryan Nichols. 2022. "Footbinding and Its Cessation: An Agent-Based Model Adjudication of the Labor Market and Evolutionary Sciences Hypotheses." Evolution and Human Behavior 43: 475-489.

Dickemann, Mildred. 1979. "The Ecology of Mating Systems in Hypergynous Dowry Societies." Social Science Information 18: 163-195.

Dickemann, Mildred. 1991. "Women, Class, and Dowry." American Anthropologist 93: 944-946.

Dickemann, Mildred. 1997. "Paternal Confidence and Dowry Competition: A Biocultural Analysis of Purdah." In Laura Betzig, ed., Human Nature: A Critical Reader, 311-328.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ko, Dorothy. 2005. Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levy, Howard. 1966. Chinese Footbinding. New York: Walton Rawls.

Mackie, Gerald. 1996. "Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account." American 
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Nichols, Ryan. 2021. "Footbinding, Hypergamy, and Handcraft Labor: Evaluating the Labor Market Explanation of Footbinding." Evolutionary Psychological Science 7: 315-325.