Saturday, July 30, 2022

Locke in the Declaration of Independence: A Response to Claire Rydell Arcenas's Argument

Over the years, I have written a lot about Lockean liberalism in American political thought--particularly as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  But a new book by Claire Rydell Arcenas--America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life--argues that this idea that Locke's ideas (particularly in his Second Treatise of Government) influenced the Declaration of Independence is a "myth."  There are, however, two major weaknesses in Arcenas's argument that are illustrated by her handling of the intellectual history of the Declaration of Independence.

Nevertheless, I should say that her book is valuable as an intellectual history of John Locke's influence in America from the colonial period to the present.  She shows that that influence has been so deep and so enduring that Locke can indeed be identified as "America's Philosopher."  I find much of what she says persuasive.

I am not fully persuaded for two reasons.  She is not a careful reader of Locke.  And she employs a deceptive silence that allows her to ignore the best criticisms of her reasoning.  I will explain these two points, and then I will show how they are manifested in her account of the Declaration of Independence.

Although Arcenas's denial of the Lockean character of the Declaration of Independence is only a small part of her history of Locke in America, it is the crucial turn in her general argument.


Arcenas speaks about what "careful readers of Locke's work" know about his writings (50).  Unfortunately, Arcenas offers no evidence that she is one of those careful readers.  On the contrary, she often suggests that either she has not read Locke at all, or that she has only glanced at some passages in Locke's texts with the help of some summaries by some scholarly commentators.  For example, after a brief survey of Locke's life and work, she refers her reader to "some succinct summaries of Locke's work" in The Cambridge Companion to Locke and elsewhere (6, 174, n.18).  When she writes about Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity and his Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, she does not quote or cite any passages in those books, but instead, once again, she cites some scholarly summaries of those books (28-29, 184, nn. 115, 119).

At no point in her book, does Arcenas develop a careful reading of any portion of Locke's texts.  Now Arcenas might respond by saying that she does not present her book as an accurate interpretation of Locke's writing.  She explains: "This, then, is not a book about John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, but rather a book about how Americans over time have understood and made sense of him, his work, his ideas, and his relevance.  I present interpretations of Locke's life, ideas, and works through the eyes of my subjects--not the lenses of modern scholars" (4-5).  But, as we have just seen, she does rely on "the lenses of modern scholars" to provide accurate summaries of Locke's writings.  Moreover, she often corrects what she claims to be distortions of Locke's texts.  For example, she asserts that "careful readers of Locke's works" know that what the Declaration of Independence calls "the pursuit of Happiness" cannot be found in Locke's writing (50-51, 127).


A second weakness in Arcenas's book is that she is deceptively silent about the many good objections to her arguments.  One of the fundamental standards for scholarly writing is that if a scholar takes a position on some controversial topic, that scholar is obligated to explain and then rebut the best arguments for the opposing positions in the debate.  Arcenas does not do that.  Nowhere in her book does she explain to her reader the objections to her reasoning and then refute those objections.  Her silence allows her to ignore her critics without directly engaging them in debate.

She might respond by saying that in fact she identifies her critics by citing their writings.  And, indeed, in a few of the endnotes to her book, she does list some articles and books that argue against her position (176, n. 8, and 190, n. 72, 191, n. 75).  But she never explains the evidence and arguments laid out by these critics, and she never attempts to show how these critics are mistaken.  In this way, she makes it impossible for her reader to weigh the opposing sides in this debate.


Both of these weaknesses are manifest in what she says about "a central myth of the American Revolution"--that the Declaration of Independence shows the influence of Locke's ideas, particularly his political teaching in the Second Treatise (49-51).

The most obvious way to resolve this question is to compare the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the Second Treatise to see if there are any similarities in the language and ideas of these two works.  Surprisingly, Arcenas never does that, although she does argue that the language of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is very different from "Lives, Liberties, and Estates" in the Second Treatise.

A careful reader who compares these two texts will see some remarkable similarities in their language, and these similarities have been noticed by many Americans from the time of the American Revolution to the present as clear evidence of Locke's influence on the Declaration.  Here I will point to ten of these similarities.

1.  In its first sentence, the Declaration appeals to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."  Any careful reader of Locke's Second Treatise will recognize this as similar to expressions used by Locke.  He often speaks of the "Laws of God and Nature" (66, 142, 195), the "Law of Nature" (1, 4), and "God and Nature" (60).  Similar expressions can be found widely in authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  I have written about "Nature's God" as the deity of the Declaration.

2.  The famous second sentence of the Declaration begins by invoking those "truths" that are held to be "self-evident," of which the first is that "all men are created equal."  This echoes Locke's holding the "equality of Men by Nature" as "so evident in it self," there being "nothing more evident, than that Creatures of the same species and rank" should be "equal one amongst another" (4-5).  Locke also speaks of "Men being . . . by Nature, all free, equal and independent" (95).  In Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration, he wrote that "all men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable" (Becker 1942, 142).  Locke's phrase "equal and independent" also appeared in George Mason's Virginia Bill of Rights: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent."

3.  Also in the second sentence of the Declaration, the "unalienable Rights" are said to include "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."  This is the only passage in the Declaration that draws Arcenas's attention.  She says that this language cannot be found in Locke's Second Treatise.  Locke says that in leaving the state of nature, people "unite for the mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property" (123).  Clearly, Arcenas claims, this language in the Second Treatise cannot be the source for the passage in the Declaration.  Most importantly, she asserts, the phrase "pursuit of Happiness" is not Locke's (Arcenas 50-51).  This assertion will seem strange to anyone who has read Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, because this book has a long chapter on "Power" that speaks repeatedly of the "pursuit of happiness" (II.xxi.39, 44, 48, 52-53, 61-63, 70).  It is surprising that Arcenas says nothing about this, particularly since she argues that for most of American history, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding was more widely read and studied than his Two Treatises of Government.  One has to wonder whether she has actually read Locke's Essay.  One also has to wonder why she says nothing about the passage in Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration where he summarizes the Second Treatise in arguing that governments were established to secure people in their lives and property and in the things that contribute to the "Happiness of this Life," while "leaving in the mean while to every Man the care of his own Eternal Happiness" (Locke 2010, 46-47).  In such passages, we see Locke affirming that people have a natural right to the "pursuit of happiness," the same idea that is affirmed in the Declaration.

That Arcenas is unaware of what Locke says about the "pursuit of happiness" is especially surprising because she cites C. Bradley Thompson's book America's Revolutionary Mind, which has a long section on how Jefferson could have borrowed the phrase "pursuit of happiness" from Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Arcenas 2022, 190, n. 72; Thompson 2019a, 206-220).  Arcenas either cited this book without actually having read it, or she did read it but decided to pass over Thompson's argument in silence.

4.  In the third sentence of the Declaration, it is claimed that governments are instituted among men "to secure these rights."  Similarly, the Second Treatise often says that governments are established "to secure" or "preserve" natural rights (87, 131, 222, 225).

5. This establishment of government to secure natural rights is said by the Declaration to be based on "the consent of the governed."  This idea appears many times in the Second Treatise (102, 104-106, 112, 119, 121-22, 138, 140, 168, 175, 198).

6.  When a government fails to secure these rights, then the Declaration recognizes "the Right of the People to alter or abolish it," and to institute a new government that is "most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."  But prudence dictates caution in overthrowing any government that has been long established, "and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."  Locke expresses a similar thought in the Second Treatise, in responding to the objection that if people are taught that they have a right to dissolve a government that they don't like, this will lead to frequent rebellions and thus anarchy.  In fact, Locke insists, people are slow to rebel.  "For till the mischief be grown general, and ill designs of the Rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part, the People, who are more disposed to suffer, than right themselves by Resistance, are not apt to stir" (230).  This phrasing of "more disposed to suffer" is identical in the Declaration and the Second Treatise.

7.  Similarly, the Declaration's phrasing of "abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed" repeats Locke's wording in the Second Treatise: "People are not so easily got out of their old Forms, as some are apt to suggest.  They are hardly to be prevailed with to amend the acknowledg'd Faults, in the Frame they have been accustom'd to" (223).

8.  But even though people are slow to rebel against their long-established governments, the Declaration explains, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."  This echoes Locke's language about how a government that shows an evident tendency towards despotism can provoke the people to revolution: "if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, wither they are going; 'tis not to be wonder'd, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected" (225; compare 210, 230).

9.  Next, the Declaration asserts: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.  To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."  This introduces the longest section of the Declaration--a long list of grievances, a factual indictment of Great Britain based on an asserted history of abuses.  This part of the Declaration corresponds to Locke's many references to the political history of England under the Stuart Monarchy, in which he identified acts that might have justified a revolution against Charles II and that did in fact justify the Revolution of 1688 overthrowing James II and installing King William.

10.  Finally, in the last two sentences of the Declaration that formally declare the independence of America from British rule, there is an appeal "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" and to "the Protection of Divine Providence."  Similarly, Locke appeals to the "Supreme Judge of all Men," which is part of his "appeal to Heaven," which is an appeal to the God of Battles to settle the revolutionary dispute between the People and the government in war (21, 240-43).  And, in fact, the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war, an "appeal to Heaven."

The phrase "appeal to Heaven" was coined by Locke, and this phrase was put on the Americans' "Appeal to Heaven" flag, the first flag of the American Navy in 1775.  I have written about this previously.


Arcenas might respond to all this by saying that this is irrelevant to what she has done in her book.  After all, as we have seen, she says that her book is not a book about John Locke or about what scholars today might see in Locke's texts.  Since she is writing about the intellectual history of how Locke has been interpreted by Americans from colonial times to the present, it doesn't matter for this purpose whether scholars today can see verbal parallels between the Declaration of Independence and Locke's Second Treatise.  The question is whether contemporary Americans of Jefferson's time thought that Locke's Second Treatise was a primary source for Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.  "In a word," she says, "the answer is no" (49).

But for Arcenas to say this, she must ignore the historical evidence that Jefferson's contemporaries really did see the remarkable influence of the Second Treatise on Jefferson's writing of the Declaration.  For example, Arcenas is silent about the American debate--during the last 25 years of Jefferson's life, 1801-1826--over whether Jefferson had plagiarized much of the Declaration of Independence from Locke's Second Treatise.  Oddly, in one endnote of her book (191, n. 75), Arcenas cites an article by Brad Thompson (2019b) that tells the story of this debate, but then she never explains the story or explains why this should not be considered crucial evidence against one of the main arguments of her book.

In 1800, Jefferson was elected president in one of the most acrimonious elections in American history.  This was the first presidential election in which two deeply partisan factions fought an ideological battle--with the Federalists led by John Adams and the Republicans led by Jefferson.  A few months after Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, the staunchly Republican New York City newspaper the American Citizen and General Advertiser published a two-part essay by the editors on "John Locke."  They identified Locke as "the first writer on political science that ever justly defined the principles of civil government," and they said that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence had stated those principles as first set forth in Locke's Second Treatise.  In fact, they observed, the reader of the Second Treatise "will find in it all the ideas and nearly the words verbatim, which are contained in that declaration."  They said that the "sentiments" in Jefferson's Declaration were "more elegantly expressed than in Locke's Essay, but the ideas are precisely the same, and the words nearly so."  So these pro-Jefferson newspaper editors in 1801 had seen the same similarities between the Second Treatise and the Declaration that we have just laid out.

Many Federalist newspapers were happy to reprint passages from the American Citizen's editorial as showing that Jefferson's reputation as the great author of the Declaration of Independence was fraudulent because he had plagiarized from Locke.  For example, the editors of Boston's Columbian Centinel said that Jefferson had "stolen all the ideas in the Declaration of Independence from Locke."

Writers for the Republican newspapers then tried to defend Jefferson from this charge of plagiarism.  The editors of Boston's Independent Chronicle said that if "Mr. Jefferson had copied from" Locke, "who was the parent and apologist of the modern revolutionary principles," then Jefferson "would have no reason to blush, nor his friends to be ashamed, that he had the wisdom to adopt the sentiments of that illustrious republican."

As Thompson has shown, this debate continued, off and on, until Jefferson's death in 1826.  And as Thompson indicates, what is remarkable is that everyone in this debate agreed that Locke's influence on Jefferson's Declaration was clear, and many of them compared passages from the Second Treatise and the Declaration to show the verbal echoes that confirmed the Lockean origins of the Declaration.

If the Declaration of Independence was intended to be "an expression of the American mind," as Jefferson said in 1825, then the evidence from this debate, Thompson concludes, supports a syllogism:

Major premise: The Declaration of Independence is an expression of the American mind.

Minor premise: America's revolutionary mind was an expression of Locke's political philosophy.

Conclusion: The Declaration of Independence was an expression of Locke's mind.

In writing her book, Arcenas decided not to confront and refute the evidence and arguments for this syllogism.  That was a mistake.


Arcenas, Claire Rydell. 2022. America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Becker, Carl L. 1942. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage Books.

Locke, John. 1970. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Locke, John. 2010. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Ed. Mark Goldie. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Thompson, C. Bradley. 2019a. America's Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. New York: Encounter Books.

Thompson, C. Bradley. 2019b. "John Locke and the American Mind." American Political Thought 8 (Fall): 575-593.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Donald Trump Splits the Claremont Institute: The Allure of Power in the Politics of Regime Crisis

 As you can see from a selection of my many posts on Trump and the Claremont Institute (herehereherehere, and here), I have struggled to understand why the people at the Claremont Institute decided to become the leading academic intellectuals supporting Trump, even to the point of helping him plan his attempted coup to overturn the presidential election of 2020.  Recently, an article by Ross Douthat and another article in the Washington Post have helped me to think more about this.

The Claremont Institute was founded in 1979 by students of political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, who himself had been one of the leading students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss.  Beginning in 1964, when Jaffa became a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign (as in "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice"), many Straussian scholars of political philosophy have engaged in partisan American politics, usually in support of conservative Republicans.  

This raises the question of the proper relationship between political philosophy and political partisanship.  Should political philosophers avoid such partisan political activity, because the desire for political power tends to corrupt one's philosophic study of politics?  If political philosophers do engage in partisan politics, can their political philosophizing give them standards for partisan political judgment?  So, for example, does the American political founding illustrate how a Lockean political philosophy of natural rights can be applied to American political practice, as Jaffa and his students have suggested?  But even if this is true, how do we decide whether supporting Trump and his political movement is the best way to preserve or revive those principles of the American founding?  It seems that even within the Claremont Institute, and certainly within the scholarly community of Straussian political philosophers, there is disagreement over how to answer these questions.

In February of 2021, I wrote a post with the title "The Claremont Institute Repudiates Trump.  So What Took Them So Long?"  I was writing about the winter 2020/2021 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, which had three articles criticizing Trump--by Andrew Busch, William Voegeli, and Charles Kesler--and only one offering a tepid defense--by Michael Anton.  But I was mistaken to see this as evidence that the Claremont Institute had withdrawn its support of Trump.  As the Washington Post article makes clear, Trump has split the Claremont Institute into two opposing camps.  Charles Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review, has never been enthusiastic about Trump; and Trump's conduct after the 2020 election has convinced Kesler that Trump must be repudiated.  Kesler now says that the Claremont Institute is split between some "who continue to believe that the election was stolen and some who have denied that from the beginning."  He also says that John Eastman was wrong in advising Trump to attempt to overturn the election outcome.  But on the other side of the debate, Ryan Williams, President of the Claremont Institute, has always been enthusiastic in his support of Trump and in support of Eastman and Trump's lie about the election being stolen.

As I have indicated previously, the pro-Trump people at the Claremont Institute have repudiated the political thought of Harry Jaffa.  When I asked some of these people to provide some evidence in Jaffa's writing suggesting that he would have supported Trump, they could not come up with any good answers.  Moreover, Philip Jaffa, Harry Jaffa's son, sent me a long statement about how his father had complained in the last years of his life that the Claremont Institute had rejected his thinking.  Philip said that his father had often repeated these words: "They did not want to bury the teaching with the teacher.  What they are trying to do is put a top hat on Jefferson Davis and call him Abraham Lincoln, and put the dust cover of the Nicomachean  Ethics on Atlas Shrugged and call it Aristotle."  The recent Washington Post article ends by quoting those words.  Would Jaffa have said that supporting Trump's January 6th insurrection is taking the side of Jefferson Davis?

What explains the support for Trump among so many of the Claremont Institute scholars of political philosophy?  Ross Douthat might have the best explanation: it's their "enthusiasm for a politics of crisis."  The Claremont Institute story of the American regime is a story of three regime crises.  First, there was the crisis of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Founding.  Second, there was the "crisis of the house divided" that led to the Civil War and Lincoln's triumphant "new birth of freedom" that was a re-founding of the regime.  Third, there was the crisis of corruption during the Progressive Era in which the Founding was overturned in favor of the Administrative State.  Now, we need a new transformative crisis to restore America to its original founding principles.

A crisis is turbulent, chaotic, violent, and risky.  It might turn out to be a disaster.  But we must take the risk to avoid the triumph of the evil ones who want to destroy America.  That was the message of Michael Anton's "Flight 93 Election" essay.

A crisis is alluring to politically ambitious people who see it as creating an opportunity for them to exercise some political influence in the halls of power during a transformative period of history.  Kesler told the Washington Post: "Trump was such an amateur that he didn't have contacts even with the establishment conservative think tanks in Washington, like Heritage and AEI.  That was an opportunity for us to have a little more influence as an outsider."  And, indeed, people like Anton found positions in Trump's White House.  

Thomas Klingenstein is the chair of the Claremont Institute's board and its main funder.  Appearing on Steven Bannon's "War Room" show last week, Klingenstein said the Claremont Institute has been widely "recognized as the intellectual basis for Trump," making this "a great time for us. . . . Our budget is going way up.  The Washington Post is going to write a hit piece on us, and we take great pride in that. . . . It tells you that they think we're important, and we're not just a group of political philosophers."

That explains it all.  We're important, and we're not just a group of political philosophers.

The Trump supporters at the Claremont Institute think they can be important if they provide "the intellectual basis for Trump" that allows him to lead the country through a crisis in such a way that he can found a new American regime.  Advising Trump as to how he could overturn the presidential election of 2020 was part of this project because Trump needed a second term in office to complete his re-founding of the regime.  

I have seen four problems with that grand project.  And here I am restating some points elaborated in previous posts.

The first problem is that Trump has never clearly defined the content of the new American regime that he is going to found.  For example, the most common theme from the Claremont Institute is the "deconstruction of the administrative state," as Steve Bannon called it.  But there was very little evidence for this in Trump's four years in office.  Although there was some slowing in the growth of new administrative regulations, there was no real reduction in regulation.  The Trump Administration lost most of the court cases involving its regulatory changes.  And Trump relied mostly on presidential decrees that can easily be rescinded by a new President.  If the Trump Administration had been serious about "deconstructing the administrative state," they would have supported legislation to radically reduce the power of the administrative state by having the Congress reclaim the lawmaking powers that it has delegated to the administrative agencies.  There was no attempt to do this.

Trump did not do this because he does not have the moral and intellectual virtues required for transformative leadership.  That's the second problem--Trump's bad character.  This is a man who stumbled through his presidential term, spending most of his time watching television and sending out tweets vilifying those people who don't love him as much as he loves himself.  This man is not Abraham Lincoln.

The third problem is the foolish belief that Trump can become a transformative leader without the democratic legitimacy that comes from winning the support of the majority of the voters.  He has never persuaded a majority of Americans to support him or his policies.  This points to the strange incoherence of Trump's unpopular populism.  Populist rhetoric depends on the claim that there are only two groups--the Elites and the People--and that the Populist demagogue speaks for the People.  But this makes no sense if the Populist leader speaks only for a minority of the People.  I made this point at a Claremont panel at the 2017 American Political Science Convention, and the panel members dismissed this with disdain.

Moreover, the problem here is not just that Trump is unpopular, but that the Republican Party generally is unpopular at the national level.  As Anton has said, "a national popular vote guarantees a Democratic win in every presidential election henceforth."

That explains why John Eastman had to try to overturn the will of the majority in the last presidential election to preserve the power of a minority faction.

This is related to the final problem--the tendency of those in Trump's minority faction to demonize their political opponents--the majority of Americans--by saying that they are not real Americans, and that they are actually subhuman animals.  Last year, the Claremont Institute published an essay by Glenn Ellmers declaring that most people living in the United States--those who elected Joe Biden as President--"are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term."  The only real Americans are those who voted for Trump, who should be identified as "Claremont conservatives."

"Authentic Americans are men, not gerbils--or robots," Ellmers explained.  "If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman.  Real men and women who love honor and beauty, keep reading."  (Amanda Gorman is the young black woman who read one of her poems at Joe Biden's presidential inauguration.)

So now the Trump supporters at the Claremont Institute are dehumanizing the majority of their fellow citizens as being gerbils, zombies, or rodents.  We have heard that kind of hateful political rhetoric before, and it didn't lead to anything good, and it's certainly not going to bring about the re-founding of a great American regime.

For these reasons, we can predict the failure of the Trump political movement.  Especially in the last few weeks, we have seen signs that it's the beginning of the end for Trump.

Oddly, while the Claremont Institute provided intellectual support to Trump's rise to power, it could now determine his fall.  John Eastman was the linchpin to Trump's plan for the insurrection and the attempted coup.  If Eastman were to flip and tell the truth about what was done, it would all be over for Trump.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The "Romantic Freedom" of Philosophers in Adam Smith's Commerical Society: Against Cropsey's Straussian Reading of Smith

At the Adam Smith conference in Bogota, one of the most interesting papers was by Yiftah Elazar and Michelle Schwarze--"Liberty Lost: Adam Smith on Romantic Freedom."  They note that Smith identifies "opulence and freedom" as "the two greatest blessings men can possess" (LJ, 185).  But then they observe that having both at the same time is often hard: in particular, Smith suggests that what they call "romantic freedom"--freedom from restless pursuit, or being "free from labour, and from care, and from all the turbulent passions which attend them, or being free from "toil and anxiety" (TMS, 32, 51, 183)--is hard for individuals to achieve in a modern affluent commercial society, where everyone seems so restless in their striving to satisfy their avaricious and ambitious desires for "bettering their condition," that they give up  all leisure, all ease, and all careless security in their lives, which Smith recognized as a "loss of liberty" (TMS, 51).  Here, Smith seems to accept Rousseau's criticism of the commercial society as depriving human beings of the freedom from restless pursuit that was enjoyed by the savage in the pure state of nature, which anticipates Marx's claim, in his comments on Smith's Wealth of Nations, that greed in capitalist societies drives people to a restless laboring in which they end up "completely losing all their freedom."

Elazar and Schwarze do suggest, however, that Smith points to one way to regain romantic freedom within commercial societies:  the "prudent man" can resolve to "never come within the circle of ambition," so that he can "live free, fearless, and independent" (TMS, 57), because he "would prefer the undisturbed enjoyment of secure tranquility, not only to all the vain splendour of successful ambition, but to the real and solid glory of performing the greatest and most magnanimous actions" (215-216).  Nevertheless, Elazar and Schwarze admit that "the prudent man's idealized approach to labor" is probably impossible for most common laboring people.

As I read their paper and listened to their presentation in Bogota, I wondered how they would respond to my thought that Smith suggests that romantic freedom from restless pursuit is best found in the philosophic life of people like Smith and Hume.  In quoting from the passages on the "prudent man," they don't quote Smith's identification of the "superior prudence" of the Platonic or Aristotelian philosophers (TMS, 216).  Nor do they quote Smith's explanation that in the restless pursuits of ambition and avarice there are three levels of human beings.  By the "ordinary standard of human nature," most human beings are restless and anxious in their pursuit of distinction.  Those few people who are free from this are either above this level of human nature or below it.  Those below it show a "slothful and sottish indifference to superiority."  Those above it are those "confirmed in wisdom and real philosophy" (57).  The friendships of virtue among philosophers like Smith and Hume show highest perfection of "the wise and virtuous man," who is free from restless labor and striving for ambition (224-25, 247).

In the Wealth of Nations, Smith stresses the importance of philosophy as produced by the division of labor in the most commercial and civilized societies, in which one sees "philosophers or men of speculation, who trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything" (21, 782-84).  Because they live a contemplative or theoretical life, rather than a practical life striving for wealth and rank, philosophers enjoy romantic freedom from restless striving.

As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), I want to show how liberal open societies provide freedom for philosophers to live the philosophic life as a challenge to the claim of Leo Strauss and the Straussians (like Joseph Cropsey) that Smith's commercial society has no place for the philosophic life.  This Straussian account of liberal modernity fails to see how the liberal social order--such as that sketched in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Wealth of Nations, and Lectures on Jurisprudence--secures the conditions for all the lives of moral and intellectual excellence, including the intellectual friendships of philosophers like Smith and Hume.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and the Evolution of Religion and Morality in Bogota


                                           The Church on Monserrate Peak Overlooking Bogota

The Statue of Jesus Christ on Monserrate Overlooking Bogota

                                                               Universidad de los Andes

Recently I returned from Bogota, Colombia, where I participated in a conference at the Universidad de los Andes organized by the International Adam Smith Society (IASS).  The University of the Andes is located near the old colonial center of Bogota at the foot of Monserrate Mountain.  The University was founded in 1948 as the first private nonsectarian (that is, not affiliated with the Catholic Church) and politically neutral university, which was designed to emulate an American liberal arts university.  It is now regarded as the best university in Colombia and one of the best in all of Latin America.

Bogota is a huge city of almost 10 million people.  At an elevation of 8,400 feet, it is the largest city in the world above 8,000 feet elevation.  Overlooking the Bogota savannah, Monserrate peak rises to 10,300 feet.

IASS has posted online the program for the conference, which has links to the papers.

I was a commentator on Ivan Sternick's paper: "Society as a Moral Order: Adam Smith's Theory of Sociability as a Response to Mandeville and Rousseau."  I also presented my own paper: "The Three Waves of Adam Smith's Darwinian Liberal Moral Theory."  I have previously posted some portions of my comments on Sternick's paper, in which I suggested that Smith was an esoteric writer who agreed with Mandeville's satiric criticism of Christian ethics.

The responses to my paper were more favorable than I had expected.  There was almost no criticism of my argument that Smith's theory of the moral sentiments has been confirmed and deepened by Darwinian evolutionary moral psychology.  The commentator on my paper--Dirk Schuck--agreed with my argument, although he admitted that he knew little about the evolutionary science to which I was appealing.

I did detect, however, that some people were reluctant to accept my claim about Smith as an esoteric writer who hid his irreligious skepticism from his religious readers, but who momentarily dropped the cloak of esotericism when he praised David Hume as a "wise and virtuous man," which revealed his secret teaching that religious belief was not necessary for the morality of philosophers like Hume and Smith.

Smith does often appeal to God as the moral lawgiver and divine judge of the world, particularly in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  But the Adam Smith scholars have long debated the question of whether Smith was sincere in his religious teaching or whether he taught this only to satisfy his religious readers, while he himself was a skeptic like his friend Hume.

Shinji Nohara surveyed this debate in his paper--"Adam Smith as a Moralist"--and then he took the side of those who claim that Smith was a sincere religious believer.  "For Smith," Nohara concluded, "the Deity provided human beings with the moral distinction between right and wrong," and thus "only the Deity could be the implicit foundation of morality" (22-23).

But people questioned Nohara as to why he relied so heavily on Smith's "atonement passage" for explaining "Smith's theodicy" (14-22).  The problem is that Smith removed this passage from the 6th and final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was published in 1790, a few weeks before Smith's death.

This passage, which had appeared in the first five editions of TMS, was the only place in all of Smith's writing where he spoke of how man facing the judgment of God in the afterlife must appeal not to God's justice, because no man can be justified by his past conduct, but to God's mercy; and to win that mercy, man needs "the most powerful intercession," so that "the most dreadful atonement has been paid for our manifold transgressions and iniquities" (TMS, 92).  Without explicitly mentioning Jesus Christ, this sounds like a statement of the core doctrine of orthodox Christianity that the original sin of all mankind makes it impossible for men to earn salvation without the intercession of Jesus who was crucified to provide atonement for the sins of mankind.  Moreover, it was only here and in one other passage that Smith has used the word "revelation," which was the one word commonly understood to mean the communication of knowledge by divine or supernatural means (TMS, 92, 128).  But Smith eliminated both of these passages in the 6th edition of TMS.

Many of Smith's Christian readers quoted the "atonement passage" as evidence that Smith was a devout Christian who accepted the New Testament teaching about how the sacrifice of Christ on the cross had redeemed mankind from original sin.  So when some of these Christian readers noticed that Smith had dropped this passage from the 6th edition, they were disturbed.  For example, William Magee, the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, published a book of Discourses on the Scriptural Doctrines of Atonement and Sacrifice, in which he quoted from Smith's atonement passage as showing that a distinguished philosopher had endorsed the Christian doctrine of Atonement; but then he expressed his surprise that Smith had spoken of Hume the infidel as "a perfectly wise and virtuous man," in the 1776 letter on Hume's life and death.

After someone pointed out to Magee that Smith had withdrawn this atonement passage from the last edition of TMS, Magee added a footnote to his book attributing Smith's withdrawal to "the infection of David Hume's society . . . one proof more . . . of the danger, even to the most enlightened, from a familiar contact with infidelity," and then Magee again quoted Smith's offensive praise of Hume in his obituary letter.  D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie have told this story in an Appendix to their Oxford/Liberty Fund edition of TMS (383-401).

These two actions of Smith that his Christian readers found offensive--his praise of Hume as wise and virtuous and his withdrawal of the atonement passage--are the two moments when Smith revealed his secret teaching--that while religious belief is necessary to reinforce the morality of the religious man, it is not necessary for the morality of irreligious skeptical philosophers like Hume and Smith.

Although I call this Smith's "secret teaching," there are a few passages in TMS where Smith comes close to stating this openly.  Consider, for example, this passage:
"When the general rules which determine the merit and demerit of actions, come thus to be regarded as the laws of an All-powerful Being, who watches over our conduct, and who, in a life to come, will reward the observance, and punish the breach of them; they necessarily acquire a new sacredness from this consideration.  That our regard to the will of the Deity ought to be the supreme rule of our conduct, can be doubted of by nobody who believes his existence. . . ."

"It is in this manner that religion enforces the natural sense of duty; and hence it is, that mankind are generally disposed to place great confidence in the probity of those who seem deeply impressed with religious sentiments.  Such persons, they imagine, act under an additional tie, besides those which regulate the conduct of other men.  The regard to the propriety of action, as well as to reputation, the regard to the applause of his own breast, as well as to that of others, are motives which they suppose have the same influence over the religious man, as over the man of the world.  But the former lies under another restraint, and never acts deliberately but as in the presence of that Great Superior who is finally to recompense him according to his deeds.  A greater trust is reposed, upon this account, in the regularity and exactness of his conduct.  And wherever the natural principles of religion are not corrupted by the factious and party zeal of some worthless cabal; wherever the first duty which it requires, is to fulfil all the obligations of morality, wherever men are not taught to regard frivolous observances, as more immediate duties of religion, than acts of justice and beneficence; and to imagine, that by sacrifices, and ceremonies, and van supplications, they can bargain with the Deity for fraud, and perfidy, and violence, the world undoubtedly judges right in this respect, and justly places a double confidence in the rectitude of the religious man's behaviour" (TMS, 170).

Notice how the "religious man" who believes in the existence of God is set apart from "other men" or "the man of the world."  While some men are motivated to be moral purely by "the natural sense of duty," the religious men are motivated by this but also by "an additional tie"--their belief that moral laws are the sacred laws of the "Great Superior."  But this works only as long as the religious men follow the "natural principles of religion," which are concerned with the obligations of morality, rather than "frivolous observances," "sacrifices," or "ceremonies," that have nothing to do with morality.  And notice the implication that "the man of the world" can be naturally motivated to be moral even though he is not a religious believer.  Notice also that the "natural principles of religion" enforce the same "natural sense of duty"--the same natural morality--that is recognized by the irreligious "man of the world."

We should also see here two more important features of Smith's account of religion and morality.  First, this natural religious morality does not depend on any supernatural revelation.  Second, the enforcement of this natural religious morality does not depend on any political enforcement of a religious establishment that would deny religious liberty and toleration.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "revelation" denotes "the communication of knowledge by divine or supernatural means."  As I have already indicated, the two passages in TMS that used the word "revelation" were withdrawn by Smith in the 6th edition.  Thus, Smith is silent about the reason/revelation debate between those who seek truth by purely natural reason and those who seek truth from supernatural revelation, but Smith is clearly on the side of reason rather than revelation.  That is why he withdrew the passage on atonement, because the doctrine on atonement depends on faith in the revelation of the supernatural miracle of Christ's Resurrection.  In the original passage on atonement, Smith had said that "the doctrines of revelation coincide, in every respect, with those original anticipations of nature" (TMS, 92).  But that cannot be true, because the doctrine of Atonement depends on faith in the revelation of a supernatural truth.

The publication in 1779 of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, three years after his death, turned the secret debate over reason and revelation into a public debate, which indicated the success of the Liberal Enlightenment in making esoteric writing unnecessary.   Previously, I have written about how this allowed Darwin and Leo Strauss to openly debate reason and revelation herehereherehere, and here.

Smith refused to consider the possibility that religious faith could be based on the supernatural truth of revelation.  Instead, like Hume in his Natural History of Religion, Smith explained religious belief as a natural psychological propensity for anthropomorphic projection of human mental experience, so that human beings imagine that there are invisible spirits with minds like their own.  And since human beings have moral sentiments and passions, they imagine that these divine beings have the same moral sentiments and passions.  In this way, religion sanctions morality as sacred law, and thus provides religious support for a natural sense of moral duty (TMS, 163-64).  (I have written previously about this Humean and Darwinian explanation of religious belief as rooted in evolved human nature here and here.)

Smith's refusal to take seriously any claim of faith in the supernatural truth of revelation explains why in his account of the religious supports for morality, he is silent about the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love).  As Thomas Aquinas explained it, the natural virtues (such as justice, temperance, courage, and prudence) are directed to man's natural happiness, and they can be known by his natural principles.  But the supernatural or theological virtues (as identified by Paul in the New Testament) are directed to man's supernatural happiness--his eternal salvation and knowledge of God--and this surpasses human nature, because it requires divine revelation: these theological virtues "are not made known to us, save by Divine revelation, contained in Holy Scripture" (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 62, a. 1).

Since Smith has no interest in the possibility of supernatural happiness, he is only concerned about how religious belief might support those natural virtues that promote natural human happiness in our earthly life.  For Smith, religious belief seems to be both supportive and subversive of our moral sentiments.  The religious belief that God shares our natural moral sentiments can strengthen our morality.  But religious fanaticism can promote violence and intolerance taht corrupt our morality.  What we need, then, Smith argues in The Wealth of Nations, is "that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established" (793).  This could be achieved if government dealt equally and impartially with all religious sects, and everyone was free to choose his own religion.  There might be a free marketplace of religions, with hundreds or thousands of different religious sects competing for believers; and if no sect was allowed to use violent coercion against any others, the competition for believers could induce "philosophical good temper and moderation," such as one could see in Pennsylvania, where the Quakers had established religious liberty, and the law does not favor one sect over others.  Thus did Smith embrace John Locke's policy of religious toleration, but unlike Locke, Smith did not deny toleration for atheists.

As I toured Bogota and read about the history of Colombia, I wondered about whether the evolution of religion in Bogota might illustrate Smith's natural history of religious morality.  My wife and I travelled to Zipaquira, a city about 30 miles outside of Bogota, to see the Salt Cathedral, an underground cathedral carved out of salt in an old salt mine.  I later learned that one of the oldest archaeological sites in Latin America--El Abra--is located on the eastern edge of Zipaquira.  This is a rock shelter and cave system for hunter-gatherers that is dated at around 12,400 years BP (Gomez Mejia 2012).  They lived by hunting mammals such as deer, fishing, and gathering plants.  There is also evidence within this occupation zone that beginning about 5,000 to 3,000 years BP, the people here began cultivating and domesticating plants.

There is some evidence of religiosity in their funeral burials, which include artifacts associated with offerings.  As I have indicated in some previous posts, the evolutionary history of religious belief and morality beginning with hunter-gatherers is complicated.  The anthropological evidence--as surveyed by John Lubbock and others--suggested to Darwin that our earliest human ancestors in foraging societies had no belief in any omnipotent, moral God who was "a Creator and Ruler of the universe."  In that sense, they had no moralistic religion.  But they did show the nascent religiosity of animism--the belief that all of nature is animated by unseen spiritual agencies--although these unseen spirits did not actively intervene in the lives of foragers to enforce morality.  At the earliest stage of religiosity, Darwin observed, "anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own" (Darwin 2004, 116-117).  This anthropomorphic animism as the original source of religiosity was also suggested by Smith: "Those unknown intelligences which they imagine but see not, must necessarily be formed with some sort of resemblance to those intelligences of which they have experience" (TMS, 164).

Recent surveys of the studies of hunter-gatherer societies have shown that some form of animism is universal.  Belief in an afterlife and shamanism are almost universal--in about 80% of these foraging bands (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016; Sanderson 2018).  Of course, the hunter-gatherers that have been studied by anthropologists over the past 200 years are not necessarily direct analogues or direct descendants of our Pleistocene ancestors, but they do at least provide a window onto those earliest human ancestors (Marlowe 2005).  Belief in an afterlife is the belief in the survival of the individual personality after death (Bering 2006).  Shamanism is the belief that a shaman has access to an unseen world of spirits, that he can enter into a trance state in a ritual to practice divination and healing, and thus mediate between the earthly and spirit worlds (Eliade 1964; Singh 2018).

Notice that this animistic and shamanistic religiosity of our original hunter-gatherer ancestors does not provide any religious enforcement of morality, because the beings in the unseen spirit world are not omnipotent and moral deities actively concerned with monitoring human life.  Only very recently in human evolutionary history, Darwin observed, have human beings come to believe in an all-seeing and moral God, and this has contributed to the advance of morality.  This cultural evolution was driven by group warfare in which groups that were cohesive because of their shared religious belief in moralistic Gods would tend to prevail over groups that lacked such religious beliefs.  And now this belief in morality as rooted in reverence or fear of God is "most important, although not necessary."  Now it is possible for people to live by their own moral judgment.  "Man prompted by his conscience, will through long habit acquire such perfect self-command, that his desires and passions will at last yield instantly and without a struggle to his social sympathies and instincts, including his feeling for the judgment of his fellows" (Darwin 2004, 138-40, 682; Darwin 1959, 94-95).

In this way, according to Darwin, the evolutionary history of morality and religion has passed through three stages.  First, in the earliest and longest stage, human hunter-gatherers organized their lives in small bands through social instincts such as kinship and reciprocity, without any need for a religiously grounded morality.  Then, as human beings formed large, civilized societies, they formulated through cultural evolution religious traditions of believing in an omnipotent and providential God who enforced a moral law for human beings.  Now, it is possible for many human beings to live by the inner monitor of their conscience (or what Smith identified as the "impartial spectator") without the necessity for believing in a God who rewards the good and punishes the bad.  Over the past 40 years, the growing research in the evolutionary psychology of morality and religion has largely confirmed Darwin's account (Norenzayan 2013, 2014; Norenzayan et al. 2016).

One can see these three stages in the history of morality and religion in the history of Bogota and Colombia.  When my wife and I toured the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) in Bogota, we saw beautiful displays of pre-Columbian gold artifacts from all regions of Colombia.   Many of these artifacts were from the Muisca, the indigenous people of the Bogota savannah before the Spanish conquest.  The Muisca replaced the El Albra Culture sometime between 1,000 years BC and 500 AD.  The Muiscas moved moved from being hunter-gatherers to becoming sedentary farmers.  When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the Muisca were organized as a tribal confederation with each tribe ruled by a chief.  The tribes united in the face of a common enemy under the command of one ruler.  They fought against the Spanish, but they were completely defeated by 1540.

The moral and political order of Muisca civilization was grounded in their religion.  There is a good animated video about the religious creation story of the Muisca.

They worshipped a variety of deities at sacred sites and in temples, with priests performing sacrifices.  Their gods included a Supreme Being who had created light and Earth, and gods and goddesses of the Moon and the Sun..  Their rituals included consuming psychotropic plants such as coca.

All of this was swept away after the Spanish conquest when the Spanish established the Catholic Church as the state church for their Latin American colonies.  After the struggle for independence from Spanish colonial rule, Simon Bolivar captured New Granada in 1819; and he was elected the first president of the Republic of Gran Columbia.  The Catholic Church was still the state church, but there was a continuing debate over whether the Church should remain the established church.  

Colombian politics has been dominated by two political parties--the Conservatives and the Liberals--and while the Conservatives have been in alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, the Liberals have wanted a separation of church and state.  In 1848, Ezequiel Rojas, a leading liberal thinker, wrote an influential newspaper article supporting the candidacy of Jose Hilario Lopez as president, which is generally seen as the beginning of the Liberal Party in politics.  In his article, Rojas declared:

". . . the Liberal Party wants a government organized to benefit the governed.  It wants a republic, a truly representative system, an independent congress, an executive branch with powers limited by law and responsible for an independent judiciary, good laws, and an unmistakably national and American executive power with impartial justice for all, which by its actions takes into account nothing but the public benefit.  It wants all this so the obedient will not be slaves to those who govern; so there can be true liberty; so we can liberate ourselves from theocratic government; so those of Granada can truly ensure ownership of themselves and their properties" (Rodriquez and Ramirez 2022, 148).

This began a long liberal period dominated by the Liberal Party in government--from 1848 to 1880--during which the liberal effort to "liberate ourselves from theocratic government" led to assaults on the power of the Catholic Church and to constitutional guarantees for religious liberty in the Constitution of 1863.

But then when the Conservatives gained office in 1880 with the presidency of Rafael Nunez, they overturned many of the liberal reforms, including a restoration of the Catholic Church's supremacy.  In 1888, the Conservative Party government signed a concordat with the Vatican that began by declaring:

"The Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion is the religion of Colombia; the public powers recognize it as an essential element of social order, and they are obliged to protect it and make it respected."

A hundred years later, this was reversed by the Colombian Constitution of 1991, which disestablished the Roman Catholic Church and declared (in Article 19) that "freedom of religion is guaranteed."

In travelling around Bogota today, one can see evidence for a deep Christian, and particularly Catholic Christian, culture.  The Catholic Cathedral and the giant statue of Jesus standing on the peaks of Monserrate overlook the entire city.  In the Cathedral on Monserrate, there is statue of Jesus behind the altar that has been associated with many miracles.  People come from far away to make a pilgrimage to there, where masses are conducted every day.  On Sundays, the Cathedral is full.  Around the city, my wife and I went into some of the beautiful old churches, and there were always some people there praying or attending mass.

Surveys indicate that 90% of Colombians identify themselves as Christians, 70% identify as Catholic.  But less than 30% of the Catholics regularly attend mass.  It seems, therefore, that while Christian religious practice is greater in Colombia, and in most of Latin America, than is the case in North America and Europe, even there the tendency to secularization has been strong.

I am reminded of Smith's letter to Alexander Wedderburn (August 14, 1776), in which he reports on Hume's decline towards death.  Smith said that Hume told him that he was trying to come up with some excuse to give to Charon to delay his being carried into Hades on Charon's boat: "At last I thought I might say, Good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of people; have a little patience only till I have the pleasure of seeing the churches shut up, and the Clergy sent about their business; but Charon would replay, O you loitering rogue; that wont happen these two hundred years; do you fancy I will give you a lease for so long a time?  Get into the boat this instant."

Was this Hume's joking way of suggesting that he foresaw the churches being shut up in maybe 200 years--towards the end of the 20th century?  Can't we see a lot of evidence that that decline in fervent religious belief and practice has been occurring in many parts of the world?

And if so, can we also see that the moral order of society has endured without much support from religion?  Can we see that Smith was right that for some people, perhaps even for many people, the impartial spectator of conscience, as part of our evolved human nature, can take the place of God as moral monitor?  

Can we be good without God?

Or should we take seriously the complaints of the Catholic Integralists and the Christian Nationalists that in fact secularizing liberal societies are showing moral decline and social disorder, and that the only way to restore moral order is to establish theocratic states that will enforce Christian morality?


Bering, Jesse. 2006.  "The Folk Psychology of Souls."  Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (5): 453-498.

Darwin, Charles. 1958.  The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Ed. Nora Barlow. New York: Norton.

Darwin, Charles.  2004. The Descent of Man. New York: Penguin.

Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gomez Mejia, Juliana. 2012. "Analysis of Bone Markers of Stress in Populations of the Middle and Late Holocene of the Savannah of Bogota, Colombia." Colombian Journal of Anthropology 48: 143-68.

Marlow, Frank W. 2005. "Hunter-gatherers and Human Evolution." Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 54-67.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2014. "Does Religion Make People Moral?" Behaviour 151: 365-84.

Norenzayan, Ara, A. F. Shaariff, W. M. Gervais, A. K. Willard, R. A. McNamara, E. Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39: 1-65.

Peoples, Hervey, Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27: 261-82.

Rodriguez, Sebastian, and Gilberto Ramirez. 2022. "Liberalism in Colombia." Econ Journal Watch 19 (1): 142-65.

Sanderson, Stephen K. 2018. Religious Evolution and the Axial Age: From Shamans to Priests to Prophets. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Singh, Manvir. 2018. "The Cultural Evolution of Shamanism." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41: 1-61.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Explaining the Stupidity of Believing Trump's Big Lie: Madison's Fear of "Domestic Faction and Insurrection" and Out-Group Animosity in Social Media

Written in 1787 to support the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison's Number 10 of The Federalist is entitled "The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection."  He explained that the causes of faction are innate in human nature:

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.  A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts" (58-59).

As a leader "ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power," Donald Trump has persuaded many Americans to believe his lie that the presidential election of 2020 was stolen from him, which has motivated his supporters to "domestic faction and insurrection," and that should make us wonder whether Madison's Constitution as a safeguard against such factional violence has failed.

We might argue that Madison's constitutional safeguards have worked in exposing Trump's lie as a lie.  The Constitution sets up a system of the rule of law and congressional oversight that has forced Trump and his supporters to present evidence that the presidential election was stolen from him, and they have so completely failed to present such evidence that the falsity of Trump's lie should be evident to everyone.

After the election, Trump and his supporters filed 64 cases in federal and state courts containing 187 counts in the six key battleground states--Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  They also used procedures under state law to demand recounts of votes and investigation of the voting process.  In all of these court cases and all of the state reviews, they failed to find any evidence that the election had been stolen from Trump.  In some of my posts after the election (here and here), I pointed to Trump's failure to win court cases in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, even when the judges had been appointed by Trump!  Now, we have a massive study by some prominent conservative Republicans that surveys every court case and every state procedure for investigating the election, which shows that Trump and his supporters failed every time to present any evidence that the election was stolen.

Now, with the congressional investigation of Trump's insurrection of January 6, 2021, we can see that most of Trump's own advisors told him that there was no evidence of fraudulent voting, and those few advisors who encouraged him to overturn the election could not give him any evidence that the election had been stolen.

In all of these ways, America's constitutional system of government has worked to show that there is no evidence to support Trump's lie and thus no good reason to justify the factional violence of his supporters.  And yet some public opinion surveys indicate that as much as one-third of the American electorate still believes Trump's lie.  How can we explain this stupidity of the Trump faction?

Recently, Jonathan Haidt has argued in The Atlantic that what we see here is the stupidity arising from the evolved moral psychology of xenophobic factionalism that has been inflamed by online social media over the past ten years.  If this is right, Madison could have seen this as an example of how the causes of faction are "every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society."  Online social media is a unique circumstance of our modern civil society, but it might be provoking a propensity to out-group animosity that has always been latent in our evolved human nature.

Haidt points out that in 2009, Facebook for the first time allowed users to "Like" posts by clicking a button; and Twitter introduced the "Retweet" button that allowed users to not only endorse a post but also share it with all their followers.  In 2012, Facebook introduced its own "Share" button.  These innovations made it much easier for posts to go "viral."

Empirical studies of Twitter and Facebook have shown that posts with moral-emotional words are most likely to spread widely, and this diffusion is stronger within liberal and conservative networks than between them (Brady et al. 2017).  These studies have also shown that posts with words expressing animosity towards the political out-group is the strongest predictor of shares and retweets--that is, increased virality (Rathje et al. 2021).  Moreover, false political news diffuses faster and more broadly on social media than does true political news, apparently because false news provokes fear, disgust, and surprise, so that it is more emotionally arousing (Vosoughi et al. 2018).  And those individuals who report hating their political opponents are most likely to share political fake news to derogate their opponents (Osmundsen et al. 2021).

What this shows is that social media is promoting the moral and political polarization in American politics, and thus promoting what Madison feared--"domestic faction and insurrection"--because it inflames the evolved propensity to out-group animosity and in-group identity.  I have written about this (here and here) as the evolutionary psychology of "parochial altruism"--loving those who belong to one's group and hating those outside one's group.

It's not clear how social media platforms could be changed to mitigate this inclination to xenophobic factionalism.  Any effort to regulate the content of social media easily devolves into censorship.  But Haidt does point to one possible change that does not become censorship: the "Share" function on Facebook could be altered so that once a post has been shared twice, the third person would have to copy and paste the content into a new post.  This would not suppress anyone's free speech, but it could slow the spread of false and hateful posts.

Another way to reduce the influence of factional extremists would be to alter the procedures for party primaries and general elections.  We could end closed party primaries, so that candidates would compete in an open primary, and the top several candidates would advance to the general election.  We could also use ranked-choice voting, like that adopted in Alaska.  It's notable that in his recent rally in Alaska, Trump denounced Senator Murkowski's support for ranked-choice voting, because this would make it unlikely that his favored candidates could win.  If ranked-choice voting had been used in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, Trump would probably have lost, because while his minority base of voters would have ranked him at the top, the majority would have ranked him at the bottom.

Another possible constitutional procedural reform would be to abolish the Electoral College, without which Trump could not have been elected in 2016.  There is no reason to believe that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution anticipated that the Electoral College as it functions today can favor an extremist factional candidate like Trump who wins a minority of the popular votes.


Brady, William J., Julian Wills, John Jost, Joshua Tucker, and Jay Van Bavel. 2017. "Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (July 11): 7313-7318.

Danforth, John, Benjamin Ginsburg, Thomas B. Griffith, David Hoppe, J. Michael Luttig, Michael W. McConnell, Theodore Olson, and Gordon H. Smith. 2022. "Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election."  Lost-Not-Stolen-The-Conservative-Case-that-Trump-Lost-and-Biden-Won-the-2020-Presidential-Election-July-2022.pdf (

Haidt, Jonathan. 2022. "Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid."  The Atlantic, May 2022.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1961. The Federalist. Ed. Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press.

Osmundsen, Mathias, Alexander Bor, Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Bang Petersen. 2021. "Partisan Polarization Is the Primary Psychological Motivation Behind Political Fake News Sharing on Twitter." American Political Science Review 115: 999-1015.

Rathje, Steve, Jay Van Bavel, and Sander van der Linden. 2021. "Out-Group Animosity Drives Engagement on Social Media." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118: e2024292118.

Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. 2018. "The Spread of True and False News Online." Science 359: 1146-1151.

Saturday, July 02, 2022

The Secret Teaching of Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville on the Mistakes in Christian Ethics

In preparation for the International Adam Smith Society conference in Bogota, Columbia, July 11-13, I have been reading some papers on Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville.  This has stimulated me to think more about Smith's comments on Mandeville, particularly regarding Christian ethics.  I foresee that in some of the discussions in Bogota, I will suggest a way of reading Smith’s response to Mandeville that differs from readings offered by others at the conference.  

            I see Smith as an esoteric writer, who conveys a surface teaching that differs from his secret teaching.  His surface teaching will be popular with his orthodox Christian readers.  His secret teaching will be unpopular with those readers.  He felt compelled to write this way to avoid persecution.

          The clearest evidence for this is the one time in his life in which he publicly, if only momentarily, removed the cloak of esotericism—his Letter to William Strahan in 1776 on the life and death of David Hume.  In the last paragraph of that letter, Smith identified Hume as “a perfectly wise and virtuous man,” which meant that an irreligious skeptic could be morally and intellectually virtuous. 

This provoked an angry reaction from Christians that lasted for the rest of Smith’s life and even after his death.  As John Ramsey of Ochtertyre wrote at the time, the Letter to Strahan “gave very great offence, and made [Smith] henceforth be regarded as an avowed skeptic, to the no small regret of many who revered his character and admired his writings.”

          Seeing Smith as an esoteric writer allows us to explain the complexity of his comments on Mandeville.  His surface teaching was that Mandeville’s moral theory was “licentious” and “erroneous,” because Mandeville was deceptive in identifying all self-love as vanity, and because he mistakenly defined all virtue as “complete self-denial,” so that what were popularly thought to be virtues were disguised vices.

          Smith’s secret teaching, however, was that Mandeville correctly saw that all virtue was motivated by proud self-love, and therefore that the Christian definition of virtue as humble self-denial and “ascetic abstinence” was wrong.  Although Mandeville’s surface teaching assumed the Christian definition of virtue, Mandeville’s secret teaching in The Fable of the Bees was a comic satire of Christian virtue that employed a reductio ad absurdum argument to refute the Christian understanding of virtue.  It was this secret teaching of Mandeville and Smith that allowed Smith to identify Hume as “a perfectly wise and virtuous man.”

          Christian theologians—like Saint Augustine in The City of God, for example—had long taught that all human beings were by nature so depraved by the original sin of pride that they could never be truly virtuous in their earthly life. The worldly pretense of virtue is corrupted by a proud “self-love, even to the contempt of God.”  True virtue could be achieved only through a humble “love of God, even to the contempt of self” (14.28). 

Therefore, Augustine insisted, there can be no true virtues without true religion.  In their natural experience of social life, human beings want to be virtuous because they want to be praised for their virtues to satisfy their self-love.  But virtues motivated by this self-loving desire for praise are really vices not virtues.  Even those who seek virtue for its own sake—to be praiseworthy regardless of whether anyone actually praises them—are still moved by the self-loving desire for human praise, even if only in praising themselves for being praiseworthy.  True virtue is achieved only through humble self-abnegation in submitting to the transcendent law of God that promises eternal salvation in the afterlife (19.25).

This Christian understanding of virtue denies the ancient teaching of pagan philosophers like Aristotle that the good man should love himself, that the “great-souled” or magnanimous man should be properly proud of himself, and that humility is not a virtue (TMS, 258-59).  It is notable, therefore, that Smith identifies Aristotle’s account of virtue as corresponding “pretty exactly” with his own (TMS, 270-72).

          As Smith suggested, even if only by subtle implication, Mandeville correctly saw the mistakes in this Christian understanding of virtue and vice (TMS, 308-14).  Mandeville saw that if vanity is the desire for undeserved praise, then, according to the Christian doctrine of total human depravity, all self-loving desires for praise or praiseworthiness are vanity, because no human beings deserve praise for their self-loving conduct.  Mandeville also saw that according to the Christian definition of true virtue as “complete self-denial” and “the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions,” such virtue could never be achieved among men, and any pretense of such virtue was fraudulent.  Moreover, even if such perfect Christian virtue could be achieved, this would be “pernicious to society.”  That’s why, as Mandeville famously and scandalously declared, “private vices are public benefits.”


Friday, July 01, 2022

Liz Cheney for President: Reagan's "Time for Choosing" Speech

Last Wednesday evening, Liz Cheney delivered an eloquent and widely reported speech at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in California.  The speech is easily available--on C-SPAN and elsewhere.

To me, this speech sounded like the beginning of her campaign for the presidency in 2024.  She argued that America is at a crisis point, testing whether America's devotion to freedom as secured by the Founder's Constitution will endure.  Donald Trump's takeover of the Republican Party and his attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 has created this crisis.

The cult of Trump has promoted a xenophobic political rhetoric in which people see their political opponents as evil people who are not real Americans, who must be destroyed.  Against this, Cheney argued for restoring civility in political debate as a necessary condition for constitutional government.  She told the story of a Democratic colleague who told her: "I hope someday we can disagree again."  She observed that in the past she had tried to understand her Democratic opponents in Congress as patriotic Americans sincerely devoted to policies they thought best for the country.  Even though she might passionately disagree with those policies, she could debate those people without hating them.

If you really believe that your party is the only patriotic party, and that your partisan opponents are anti-Americans, then you will not agree to the peaceful transfer of power when your candidate loses an election.  You might even promote the lie that the election was fraudulent.  Trump and the Trump Republicans have done that.  In her work on the January 6 Committee, Cheney has challenged that, and she is presenting this as part of a political campaign to restore the truthfulness, civility, and respect for the rule of law that sustain constitutional government.

It might seem unlikely that she could prevail in the republican presidential primaries, where the power of the Trump cult will be hard to defeat.  But if both Trump and Ron DeSantis run, they will divide the Trump vote, which could create an opening for Cheney.  (Oddly, then, it might be in Cheney's interest that the January 6th Committee's investigations fail to end Trump's political career!)

In her speech, Cheney played up her appeal as a relatively young woman and mother of five children, who is also smart, well-educated, and experienced in government.  She praised the courage of young women like Cassidy Hutchinson--conservative Republican women who have become disgusted by Trump's immorality in trying to hold onto power through illegal means.  And one of Cheney's most quoted remarks was "men are running the world, and it is really not going that well."

And although it might sound crazy, I think Cheney should consider Justin Amash as a possible running mate.  As a Republican turned Libertarian, Amash could appeal to the Independents who belong to neither of the two major parties.  Of course, Cheney and Amash would have to agree to disagree about a lot of issues, where Amash's classical liberalism would diverge from her neoconservatism.

Cheney's speech was part of a "Time for Choosing" speaker series at the Reagan Library.  "Time for Choosing" was the title of Reagan's nationally televised speech for Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964--the one speech that initiated his political career beginning with the governorship of California in 1966.  (I remember clearly watching Reagan's speech as a 15-year-old high school kid in Big Spring, Texas.)  Cheney's speech echoed the language and themes of Reagan's speech.

Reagan referred to his speech as simply "The Speech."  For years, he had been travelling across the country giving basically the same speech that he practiced and polished.  If you compare his speech with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, you will, I think, see some similarities, particularly in its three-part structure.  If you look at some of Reagan's major speeches as President, such as his State of the Union addresses, you will see the same similarities.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has three parts corresponding to its three short paragraphs--that move from the American past (the Founding) to the American present (the political crisis over whether the Founding principles will endure) to the American future (the "new birth of freedom" that "shall not perish from the earth").

Following the same pattern, Reagan began by invoking the principles of the Founding and wondering whether they would endure: "Well I think it's time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers."

In the middle of his speech, Reagan went over the present political debates (between LBJ and Goldwater) over policies bearing on the interpretation of the Founding conception of freedom.

At the end of his speech, he wondered whether that freedom could be preserved: "We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."  The idea of America as "the last best hope of earth" came from Lincoln's Message to Congress of December 1, 1862.

Cheney's speech echoes these themes and phasing in expressing her hope that America will pass through the present crisis and preserve the American promise of freedom for her children and their children--the "new birth of freedom" sought by Lincoln and Reagan.