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 
Sociological Review
61: 999-1017.

Nichols, Ryan. 2021. "Footbinding, Hypergamy, and Handcraft Labor: Evaluating the Labor Market Explanation of Footbinding." Evolutionary Psychological Science 7: 315-325.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Looking Good: The Darwinian Ethics of Beauty in the Human Body as an Evolved Natural Desire

In Darwinian Natural Right, I said that if the good is the desirable, then human ethics is natural insofar as it satisfies natural human desires that naturally win social approval as useful or agreeable to oneself or to others.  There are at least twenty natural desires that are manifested in diverse ways in all human societies throughout history, because they belong to that universal human nature that evolved on Earth at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, from 250,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The satisfaction of these natural desires constitutes a natural standard for judging social and political life as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required in judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances.  Insofar as a liberal social order allows for the fullest satisfaction of the natural human desires for most people, it can be recognized as the best regime.

One of the twenty natural desires is the desire for beauty.  Human beings generally desire beauty in the human body.  Everywhere human beings distinguish beauty and ugliness in bodily appearance.  They esteem the bodily signs of health and vigor.  They adorn their bodies for pleasing display.  Men tend to find women physically attractive when their physical appearance shows signs of youthful nubility. Women tend to find men physically attractive when their physical appearance show signs of formidibility, muscularity, and high status.  Almost all human beings spend a substantial amount of time every day of their lives engaging in activities that will enhance their bodily attractiveness.

Being a beautiful human being has many benefits.  Beautiful people are perceived to be desirable as sexual mates.  They tend to have more friends.  They are judged to be more trustworthy than people who are not so beautiful.  Beautiful people are more likely to be hired for a job.  And they are more likely to be elected to public office.

In Darwinian Natural Right, I surveyed some of the evidence and arguments supporting this understanding of the natural human desire for beauty.  But in the 25 years since the publication of that book, there has been a lot of new empirical and theoretical research that has deepened the evolutionary account of this natural desire for beauty.  

The latest issue of Evolution and Human Behavior has an article that surveys much of this research: Marta Kowal et al., "Predictors of Enhancing Human Physical Attractiveness: Data from 93 Countries," EHB 43 (2022): 455-474.  With over 200 references, it is a good bibliographic essay on the relevant research over the past 25 years, as well as a report of a new research project.  


This article reports online survey data (collected through the Qualtrics website) from 93,158 participants across 93 countries.  Participants were asked about their behaviors that might enhance their physical attractiveness--such as using cosmetics, grooming their hair, wearing clothing, caring for bodily hygiene, and exercising or following a diet that might improve their physical appearance.  Almost all of the participants (99%) reported spending over 10 minutes a day engaged in such activities.  Women spent on average almost 4 hours a day enhancing their beauty, while men spent on average about 3.6 hours a day.  Younger people (ages 18-30) and older people (over 50) spend more time in such beauty-enhancing activities than do middle-aged people (30-50).  People who are dating spend much more time in these activities than do people who are in a committed relationship, married, or single.

I have written about the pitfalls in online survey research, which can be seen in this article.  The most obvious problem is that survey research relies on the self-reporting of participants, which often is not completely accurate or honest.  But the survey for this article does avoid one of the common problems for online surveys in that most of the participants (about 95%) were not compensated for their participation.  Moreover, the participants were screened by an "attention check" to make sure they were careful in their reading and answering of the questions.  And unlike many other such survey research projects, this one is distinctive in two ways--the large scale of the cross-cultural data and the fact that it is not limited to just one theoretical framework.

Of course, the data for this research is historically limited to the contemporary world, but the article does begin with a one-paragraph survey of the deep historical and prehistorical evidence for the natural human desire for beauty and enhancement of one's bodily appearance.  There is archaeological evidence for the ornamental use of red ochre by Neanderthals and our hominid ancestors as early as 250,000 to 150,000 years ago.  There is evidence for marine shell bead ornaments from 120,000 years ago.  Later, burials from around 25,000 years ago show grave goods that were probably bodily ornaments--such as bone beads, bracelets, fox pendants, stone pendants, and shells.  Ancient Egyptian archaeology shows evidence for cosmetics, skin oils, and dyes for facial adornment.

Marta Kowal and her colleagues use their analysis of their survey data as a way of testing hypotheses about the desire for beauty suggested by five theoretical frameworks: the mating market perspective, the pathogen prevalence theory, the biosocial role theory, the cultural media perspective, and the individualism-collectivism continuum.  Although Kowal and her colleagues clearly favor the mating market perspective, they do indicate that these five frameworks are compatible with one another, and that there is some support in the data for all five.

The mating market perspective starts from the assumption that the desire for sexual mating is one of the primary drives of our evolved human nature.  (Sexual mating is on my list of the twenty natural desires.)  The desire for bodily beauty can then be explained as rooted in the desire for mating.  When people seek mates on the "mating market," physical attractiveness is one of the traits that is in high demand.  When David Buss and his colleagues surveyed the mating preferences of more than ten thousand people in thirty-seven countries on six continents and five islands, they found that, contrary to a common view that mating preferences vary arbitrarily across cultures, there was a universal pattern of mating desires that conforms to the Darwinian theory of human mating strategies.  And part of that universal pattern is that both men and women rank "good looks" as one of the top ten traits they value in a mating partner.  (Buss's research was prominent in my account of the mating desire in Darwinian Natural Right, 132-37.)

In all thirty-seven countries, Buss found that men prefer to mate with women who are young and physically attractive, while women prefer to mate with men who have economic resources and high social status.  Since the reproductive success of a man depends predominantly on the fertility of his mate, Darwinian theory correctly predicts that the physical cues to fertility in women--such as youth, smooth skin, regular facial features, and good body tone--are sexually attractive to men around the world.  Since the reproductive success of a woman depends predominantly on the ability and willingness of her mate to invest resources in her and her children, Darwinian theory correctly predicts that the social cues to such resources in men--such as wealth, status, older age, and ambition--are sexually attractive to women around the world; and women who appear young and physically attractive will be more successful in mating with men who have the most desirable traits.

The pathogen prevalence theory of the desire for beauty is also rooted in Darwinian theory.  Assuming that the need for protection from infectious diseases has been important in human evolution, as it has been for other mammals, we can imagine that natural selection has favored human preferences for cues of health and absence of pathogens; so that "good looks" or physical attractiveness could be a proxy or indicator of a healthy absence of pathogens.  And, indeed, some studies have shown that cues of pathogenic infection reduce attractiveness.  So, for example, this might explain why women with imperfections in their skin want to conceal them with cosmetics.

The biosocial role theory explains the desire for beauty as emerging from the interaction of the sexually dimorphic biological traits and the cultural norms for gender roles in a society.  Biological differences between women and men--such as women's childbearing and nursing of infants and men's greater strength and physical robustness--create a sexual division of labor.  But these biologically based gender differences can be either accentuated or moderated by culturally learned norms.  So that the more patriarchal cultures will promote stereotypical gender roles, while the more egalitarian cultures will soften the gender/sex differences.  So while the mating market perspective emphasizes the universality of the gender/sex differences, the biosocial role theory emphasizes the importance of culture in either promoting or downplaying those differences, although the differences can never be totally eliminated.

The cultural media perspective sees the desire for beauty as largely shaped by the influence of mass media.  Social media presents us with ideal images of male and female beauty, and we then try to conform to those feminine and masculine standards of beauty, even though they might be unattainable for most of us.

Finally, the individualism-collectivism continuum explains our conceptions of beauty as deeply influenced by whether our attitudes are more individualistic or more collectivist.  A collectivist attitude favors group interests over individual interests.  An individualist attitude elevates self-interest over group interests.  We might predict that individuals and countries with more individualist attitudes will promote the idea that individuals should spend a lot of time enhancing their beauty.

From these five intellectual frameworks, Kowal and her colleagues generated eleven hypotheses to be tested against the data from their survey.  Here is how they frame those hypotheses in Figure 1 of their article:

Mating Market Perspective:

H1:  Women spend more time enhancing their beauty than do men.

H2:  Individuals of reproductive age spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals not of a reproductive age.

H3:  Single individuals spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals in romantic relationships.

Pathogen Prevalence:

H4:  Individuals from countries with higher pathogen prevalence spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals from countries with lower pathogen prevalence.

H5:  Individuals with a more severe history of pathogenic diseases spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals with a less severe history of pathogens.

Biosocial Role Theory:

H6:  Women from countries with higher gender inequality spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women from countries with lower gender inequality.

H7:  Women conforming to traditional gender roles spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women who conform less to traditional gender roles.

Cultural Media Perspective:

H8:  Individuals who spend more time on social media spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals who spend less time on social media.

H9:  Individuals spend more time watching television spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals who spend less time watching television.

Individualism-Collectivism Continuum:

H10:  Individuals from more i8ndividualistic countries spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals from more collectivist countries.

H11:  Individuals with more individualistic attitudes spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals with more collectivist attitudes.

The survey data gathered by Kowal and her colleagues support Hypothesis 1, because on average women report that they do spend more time enhancing beauty than do men.  It's the difference between about 4 hours a day on average for women as compared with 3.6 hours a day for men.  Remarkably, however, the time is about equal on average for men and women at around age 30.

This data only partly confirms Hypothesis 2, because both the youngest and the oldest individuals spent more time enhancing their physical attractiveness than did middle-age individuals (30-50 years old), and because the oldest women spent more time enhancing their beauty than did the youngest women.  The most dramatic evidence here against the mating market perspective is that postmenopausal women engage in so much activity for enhancing their attractiveness, even though this cannot increase their reproductive fitness.  Could this be explained by the possibility that the average lifespan for women in the Pleistocene Epoch was so short that few women lived past menopause, and thus there was no evolutionary pressure for postmenopausal women to reduce their investment in beauty-enhancing behavior?  Moreover, we might think that older women have to work harder than do younger women in trying to preserve the appearance of youthful female beauty.

The data do not support Hypothesis 3--that single people spend more time enhancing beauty than do those who are not single--because people who were dating spent more time enhancing beauty than did single people (on average 24 minutes more a day), married people (26 minutes more), and people in committed relationships (29 minutes more).  This could be seen as consistent with the mating market perspective, if we say that some single individuals are people who are not pursuing a mate, and therefore they feel less need to look good for the sake of attracting a mate.

Thus, the survey by Kowal and her colleagues provides some confirmation for the mating market perspective. 

The survey data do not show that in countries with high pathogen stress, people spend more time enhancing beauty than do people in countries with low pathogen stress, which denies Hypothesis 4.  The survey data do show, however, that individuals with high pathogen stress spend more time enhancing beauty than individuals with low pathogen stress, which confirms Hypothesis 5.

In this way, this survey research provides only slight confirmation for the pathogen prevalence theory.

This research strongly confirms the biosocial role theory by showing that women in countries with higher gender inequality tend to spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women in countries with lower gender inequality (Hypothesis 6), and by also showing that women who conform to traditional gender roles tend to spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women less inclined to conform to traditional gender roles (Hypothesis 7).

This research also strongly confirms the cultural media perspective by showing that people who spend more time on social media and watching television tend to spend more time improving their appearance (Hypotheses 8 and 9).

By contrast, this research provides little support for the individualism-collectivism continuum, because highly individualistic countries do not show greater time spent on enhancing beauty than in highly collectivistic countries, and because highly individualistic individuals show only slightly more time spent on enhancing beauty than highly collectivist individuals.


I see this research by Kowal and her colleagues as supporting my project in Darwinian Natural Right by showing empirical evidence that the desire for beauty is indeed one of the twenty natural desires that constitute the ethical life of evolved human nature.  But as is often characteristic of the evolutionary psychologists who want to be "value-free" in their research, Kowal and her colleagues do not recognize the implications of their work for the sort of Darwinian ethics that I defend.  As I have indicated in various posts, the evolutionary psychologists have been slow to accept the idea of evolutionary ethics, although in recent years, evolutionary explanations of ethics have become a vibrant field of study.

Evolutionary scientists often object to the idea of evolutionary ethics by saying that it commits the naturalistic fallacy by falsely inferring a moral ought from a factual is.  So, Kowal and her colleagues might say that from the fact that human beings do desire beauty, we cannot rightly infer that they ought to desire beauty.

But this ignores the fact that human ethics is ultimately based on hypothetical imperatives that are open to scientific study.  In everything we do, we move from "is" to "ought" through some hypothetical imperative in which "ought" means a hypothetical relationship between desires and ends.  For example, "If you desire to be healthy, then you ought to eat nutritious food."  Or, "If you desire safe air travel, you ought to seek out airplanes that are engineered for flying without crashing."  Or, "If you desire the love of friends, you ought to cultivate personal relationships based on mutual respect and affection and shared interests."  Or, "if you desire to look beautiful, you ought to engage in those activities that will enhance your beauty."

Such hypothetical imperatives are based on two kinds of objective facts.  First, human desires are objective facts.  We can empirically discover--through common experience or through scientific investigation--that human beings generally desire self-preservation, health, friendship, and beauty.  Second, the causal connection between behavior and result is an objective fact about the world.  We can empirically discover that through eating good food, flying on safe airplanes, cultivating close personal relationships, and enhancing our beauty, we can achieve the ends that we desire.  For studying these objective facts, the natural sciences of medicine, engineering, and psychology can be instructive.  It is false, therefore, for to say that science cannot tell us anything about the way things ought to be.

Some scientists might respond by saying that even if science can tell us about the ought of a hypothetical imperative, it cannot tell us about the ought of a moral imperative, which must be categorical rather than hypothetical.  But this would ignore the fact that if a categorical imperative is to have any motivating truth, it must become a hypothetical imperative.  So when Kant or some other moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why?  And ultimately the only final answer to that question of motivation is that obeying this ought is what we most desire to do if we are rational and sufficiently informed.

Even Kant implicitly concedes this.  In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says that everyone desires to obey his categorical imperatives, because everyone--"even the most hardened scoundrel"--desires the "greater inner worth of his own person" [einen grosseren inneren Wert seiner Person] that comes only from obeying the moral law and thus becoming a "better person" (Ak 4.454).  In this way, Kant's categorical imperatives are reduced to a hypothetical imperative:  If you desire to be a better person with a sense of self-worth, then you ought to obey my categorical imperatives.  This, then, rests on two kinds of empirical claims--that human beings most desire personal self-worth and that obeying Kant's categorical imperatives will achieve that desired end.

Some of my previous posts on hypothetical imperatives and the fallacy of the is/ought dichotomy can be found here, here, herehere., and here.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

The End of History (Again?). Trump, Putin, and the Triumph of Liberal Democracy


The New York Post has been Donald Trump's favorite newspaper.  I am sure this cover and the article by John Podhoretz has added to his outraged reaction to the midterm elections.  As Podhoretz points out, in every case where a Republican won a primary because of Trump's endorsement, that candidate lost.  

Two of the examples are in my home state of Michigan and in my third congressional district.  Tudor Dixon won the Republican primary for governor and John Gibbs won the Republican primary for the third congressional district because they got Trump's endorsement, and he endorsed them because they enthusiastically affirmed Trump's Big Lie about the stolen 2020 election and embraced the overturning of Roe v. Wade by Trump's Supreme Court.  Both lost.  Dixon lost to Gretchen Whitmer, who had become unpopular with many Michiganders, particularly because of her hard lockdown orders during the pandemic.  Gibbs lost to Hillary Scholten, even though Scholten had lost to Peter Meijer by 7% of the vote in 2020.  Trump wanted to punish Meijer for being one of the Republican congressmen who voted to impeach Trump.  This is the first time in 30 years that Grand Rapids has elected a Democrat as its congressional representative.  This is also the first time almost 40 years that all levels of the Michigan state government--the Governor, the top state executives, and both houses of the legislature--are controlled by the Democratic Party. 

The two primary reasons for these two candidates and other Trump-endorsed candidates losing are their denial of a woman's constitutional right to choose an abortion and their endorsement of Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election.  In Michigan and other states, voters have supported referendums in favor of abortion rights.  In all five of the states where there were referendums on abortion rights (Michigan, California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont), the voters favored the constitutional right to reproductive freedom.  Voters have also been disgusted by Trump's attack on electoral democracy.  As indicated in opinion polls, these were two of the top issues for many voters.

I had predicted that the overturning of Roe by Trump's Supreme Court would be a disaster for the Republican Party, because this was the first time in the history of the Court that it has overturned a long-settled constitutional liberty.  I had also predicted that American Lockean liberal democracy would prevail over Trump's illiberal populist demagoguery.

This confirms what I have said in support of Francis Fukuyama's announcement in 1989 of the "end of history"--that it has become clear that in the human search for the best social order, liberal democracy has prevailed over all the illiberal and undemocratic alternatives.  In recent years, it has been common for political commentators to say that the popularity of the illiberal nationalism of people like Trump and Vladimir Putin proves that Fukuyama was wrong, because it shows that people around the world are turning against liberal democracy.

Putin has attacked "the liberal idea," and he has praised Trump for turning America against liberalism.  Putin has also defended his invasion of Ukraine as part of his striving for a "Eurasian Empire" that will challenge the Western liberal order.  Eurasian nationalists like Alexander Dugin have provided the philosophic defense of Putin's invasion as part of the global expansion of illiberalism.  But I have argued that Ukraine's victory over the Russian invaders will vindicate the powerful appeal of liberal democracy in the battle against illiberal autocracy.

The events of the last few days have presented new evidence for this.  The Russian military commanders have announced that they are retreating from Kherson--another sign that Ukraine is winning the war.

At the same time, on Monday, some Russian oligarchs publicly bragged about how yes, of course, they have interfered in U.S. elections to help the Trump Republicans, and they have continued to do this in the midterm elections.  But then, yesterday, it was reported that Russian TV commentators are expressing their shock that the Trump Republican "red wave" has become hardly a ripple.

Fukuyama should publish a new article entitled "The End of History--Again."

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Partisan Polarization and the Threat of Civil War in America's Most Dangerous Election: The Election of 1800

The partisan polarization in this American election was so intense that it became a political war.  Many people expected the country would fall into a violent civil war.  There were charges of voting irregularities that were part of a conspiracy to steal the election.  The party in control of the national government had used the force of the government to suppress freedom of speech by arresting their political opponents and charging them with sedition.  State legislatures controlled by one party claimed that they had the power to select their state's presidential electors without allowing a popular vote.  Those state legislatures that did allow the popular election of presidential electors found ways to rig the counting of the popular votes to favor the candidate preferred by the legislature.  

This was the election of 1800.  President John Adams was running for reelection as the leader of the Federalist Party.  Adams's opponent was Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, who was running as the leader of the Republican Party.  The election became a triumph for the Republicans, who took control of both the House and the Senate in the Congress.  Jefferson was elected President, but only after a deadlock in the Electoral College threw the outcome of the presidential election into the House of Representatives.  Oddly, Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr had received an equal number of votes for president in the Electoral College.  After taking 36 rounds of voting over a week's time, the House finally voted for Jefferson.  Later, Jefferson called this the "Revolution of 1800."  

Some historians have identified this as the first time in history that a popular election brought the peaceful transfer of power between parties who detested one another.  But even if it ultimately turned out to be peaceful, the election was turbulent, and it expressed enraged political passions that could easily have broken out into a bloody civil war.  And, of course, 60 years later, in the election of 1860, another turbulent election did lead to the American Civil War.

Now that Americans have once again been divided by vicious passions of political polarization, it is time to study the election of 1800 to see if it gives us any lessons about how to prevent political party competition from becoming a political civil war.  (Of the many scholarly studies of that election, one of the best is John Ferling's Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 [Oxford University Press, 2004].)


The roots of the partisan split between the Federalists and the Republicans originated in the factional rivalry within George Washington's presidential administration (1789-1797).  Adams was the Vice-President.  Alexander Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury.  Jefferson was the Secretary of State.  All four of these men had a passion for fame, and thus all four wanted to be the President, because, as Hamilton had said in Federalist Number 72, the American presidency was designed to appeal to those moved by "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  All four saw the American Revolution and the American Founding as providing them the opportunity for becoming famous as statesmen founding a new form of government.  In 1777, Adams told Richard Henry Lee: "You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live.  How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making election of government . . . for themselves or their children."

Although all four sought the fame of becoming great statesmen, they disagreed about what was the best form of statesmanship.  In a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1811, Jefferson related a story from the days of Washington's administration.  Jefferson had invited Hamilton and Adams to dine at his lodgings to discuss some matters that needed to be resolved.  After the discussion was over, they turned to casual conversation.  Hamilton asked Jefferson about the portraits hanging in Jefferson's room.  Jefferson told him that these were pictures of the three greatest men in the history of the world--Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.  Hamilton paused for some time, and then said: "The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar."  Since Caesar had overthrown the Roman Republic, Jefferson took this as confirming his suspicion that Hamilton wanted to overturn the American Republic so that he could become a new Caesar ruling over an American Empire.

In that same conversation, according to Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton got into a discussion of the merits and defects of the British constitutional monarchy.  Adams thought that that if the defects were removed, this could become the best form of government.  But Hamilton thought that even with its defects, it was still the best form of government.  This indicated to Jefferson that they were both monarchists: Adams wanted a reformed monarchic republic that would balance the three orders of society (the one, the few, and the many), while Hamilton wanted a monarchic republic in which the president would be an elected monarch with a lifetime term in office.  Jefferson thought that Hamilton had revealed his monarchic plan of government in his speech at the Constitutional Convention on June 18, 1787.

Jefferson saw here a contrast between the Anglophilic attachment to the British monarchic form of government and his own attachment to the radically democratic and anti-monarchic politics of the French Revolution.  When war broke out between Great Britain and France, this provoked a division in Washington's administration between those Federalists who favored Great Britain and those like Jefferson who took the side of France.  This dispute continued under the presidential administration of Adams, who was elected president in 1796, with Jefferson as his Vice-President.

This political disagreement over what position the U.S. should take in the war between Great Britain and France led to an acrimonious debate in the party press, with Republican-supported newspapers attacking Adams and the Federalists as monarchists and Tories who wanted to overturn the American Revolution.  These attacks from the newspapers provoked the Ultra-Federalists in the Congress into passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798.  The Sedition Act provided for fines up to $5,000 and jail terms of up to five years for those who uttered or published "any false, scandalous, and malicious" statement against the United States government or its officials.  This was a blatant violation of the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."  The Federalist newspapers demanded this.  For example, John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States declared: "It is patriotism to write in favor of government--it is sedition to write against it."  Sedition and seditious libel were criminal offenses under the English common law, but the Jeffersonian Republicans argued that such a law violated American Republican liberty.  This was one of the major issues in the election of 1800.  In 1799, Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Republican congressman, was reelected while serving jail time after being convicted under the Sedition Act.


From his survey of political history and political philosophy, Adams had concluded that every society shows three social orders--the one, the few, and the many.  First, in every society, there must be a "first magistrate" or "principal personage."  Some one person of sufficient talent and ambition will rise to the top of society.  He might be a "great genius" or a "masterly spirit," who draws all eyes to himself.  Second, there must also be a small group of people whose influence elevates them to some aristocratic preeminence based on wealth, noble birth, or other abilities that make them the center of public attention.  Third, the great majority of people will generally defer to the rule of the dominant leader and the preeminent few unless they feel so oppressed that they resist or even overthrow their superiors.  These three social orders can be based on inherited positions as in the eighteenth-century British social class system of monarchs, nobles, and commoners.  But even in America, where there is no such hereditary order of classes, Adams observed, there can still be a constitutional arrangement of offices that reflects these three orders.  

Adams thought that these three social orders--one leader, an ambitious few who want to rule, and many others who defer to the ruling few but who don't want to be oppressed--could be seen not just in human societies but in the societies of other political animals.  I have written about this evolved political psychology of dominance, deference, and counter-dominance among political primates.

Adams thought that a constitutional republic like the United States could achieve a balance of the three social orders that would be free from violent disorder and despotic rule.  But achieving this would require constitutional procedures by which disputes over the positions of leadership could be settled in a peaceful and orderly way through popular elections.  The election of 1800 suggested, however, that the constitutional procedure for electing the president through the Electoral College was not an effective way to do this.


One of the most complicated and confusing debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was over how to elect the President.  The delegates finally decided on having the President selected by an Electoral College.  But the first two contested presidential elections--in 1796 and 1800--exposed the flaws in the Electoral College procedures--flaws that have continued to create problems for presidential elections throughout American history.

Here's the text from Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution:

"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress . . . ."

"The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.  And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the the United States, directed to the President of the Senate [who is the Vice President].  The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.  The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President.  But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice.  In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.  But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by ballot the Vice President."

For many years, I taught courses on American Government and American Constitutional Law for college students; and I regularly assigned my students to read this constitutional text in preparation for a class discussion of what it means.  Every time I did this, I found that almost all of the students found this text to be incomprehensible.  Moreover, I have found that most American citizens generally cannot understand this; and so they cannot understand how their presidents are elected.  Isn't that enough to justify amending the Constitution to strike out this section and replace it with a simple statement of how the President and Vice President should be elected by a national popular vote?

At the beginning, everyone assumed that George Washington would be the first President, and no one would dare to challenge him; and so it was easy for the Electoral College to select him for two terms.  But then by the end of Washington's second term, a two-party system had emerged, which had not been foreseen by the constitutional framers.  James Madison offered the first explanation of this new party system in an article ("A Candid State of Parties") for the Republican newspaper National Gazette on September 26, 1792.  He claimed that there had been three party systems in America.  First, during the American Revolution, one political party was comprised of those people who supported the Revolution, while the other party was comprised of the Loyalists or Tories who opposed the Revolution.  The second party system arose during the ratification debates over the Constitution of 1787--one party supporting ratification of the new Constitution (the Federalists) and another opposing it (the Anti-Federalists).

Finally, the third party system emerged during Washington's presidency; and this third division "being natural to most political societies, is likely to be of some duration in ours."  On the one side, are those people who favor the rule of those with wealth and high rank, because they think "mankind are incapable of governing themselves."  On the other side, are those who believe "that mankind are capable of governing themselves," and that hereditary power is an outrage to the rights of man.  It's the party of the few (the antirepublican party) against the party of the many (the Republican party).  Madison suggests that this is "natural to most political societies" because of the natural propensity of human beings to divide themselves into the privileged few and the common multitude.

Of course, Hamilton and Adams refused to be identified as "anti-republican."  One might say that the contest was between three kinds of republicanism.  The oligarchic republicanism of Hamilton, the balanced republicanism of Adams, and the democratic republicanism of Jefferson.

In any case, once Washington had announced his political retirement, the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 became politically polarized elections contested by the Federalists led by Adams and Hamilton and the Republicans led by Jefferson and Madison.  In 1796, the Republicans in the Congress agreed to support Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice President; the Federalists in Congress endorsed Adams for President and Thomas Pinckney for Vice President.  In 9 of the 16 states, the electors in the Electoral College were chosen by the state legislature rather than popular vote.  There were 136 presidential electors in the 16 states.  Adams received 71 votes, which was just one vote over the 70 required for a majority.  Jefferson received 68 votes, so he became Vice President.  This strange outcome--a Federalist President and a Republican Vice President--resulted from the fact that the Constitution required the electors to cast two votes without distinguishing between a vote for President and a vote for Vice President.

In 1800, the Federalist Congressmen agreed to support Adams for President and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for Vice President; and the Republican Congressmen again supported Jefferson for President and Burr for Vice President.

One Republican newspaper (Aurora, October 14, 1800) listed the differences between the parties as viewed by the Republicans (Ferling, p. 148):


1.   Condemned the principles of 1776

2.   Monarchist

3.   Bent on war with France

4.   Hatred of the people

5.   Had made victims of new immigrants

6.   Inaugurated an economic bonanza for the affluent

7.   Supporters of established churches

8.   Increased the public debt and taxes

9.   wished to meddle in Europe to preserve the balance of power

10. Used the Sedition Act to destroy a free press

11. Favored an established church and powerful priesthood


1.   Longed to restore the principles of the Revolutionary patriots

2.   Foes of monarchy

3.   Wished peace with the world

4.   Appealed through reason to the people

5.   Prefer equal laws for all citizens and would-be citizens

6.   Would call to account those who plunder the public

7.   Would separate church and state

8.   Favored a reduction of both taxes and the public debt

9.   With Washington, prefers not to meddle in Europe's affairs

10. Favored freedom of the press

11. Favored religious freedom

State legislatures chose the presidential electors in 11 of the 16 states.  In those 5 states with popular voting, the state legislatures could influence the outcome by altering how the popular votes were counted--for example, whether it was a winner-take-all system across the state, or whether the votes would be counted by congressional districts.

On election day--December 3--as required by the Constitution, the electors met in each state and cast two votes, one of which had to be for someone outside their state.  Although the slate of electors was chosen by the parties, the electors are not required by the Constitution to keep their pledge to support their party's nominees.  In 1796, about 40% of the electors departed from their party's recommendations.  In 1800, only one elector of 138 broke ranks.

With 138 electors, a majority would be 69.  When the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr tied at 73, while Adams had 65, and Pinckney had 64.  Consequently, according to the Constitution, the House of Representatives would have to decide whether Jefferson or Burr was the president, with each state congressional delegation casting one vote.  

The House met on February 11, 1801, with Inauguration Day, March 4, only three weeks away.  Of the 16 states, the Republicans controlled 8 delegations (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee), the Federalists controlled 6 (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and South Carolina), and 2 were deadlocked (Maryland and Vermont).

There were secret machinations in which the Federalists negotiated with Jefferson and Burr to see which one would give them the best deal in exchange for their votes for president.  Jefferson and Burr were being asked to promise that the Federalists would have some control over policies or appointments in the new presidential administration.  After 33 ballots over four days, the deadlock was not broken.  There were rumored threats from Jeffersonian Republicans that they would use force if Jefferson was not selected, or that Virginia would secede from the Union.  At the same time, there were rumors that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Jefferson.  Later, Adams said that "a civil war was expected" during this time.

Finally, after 36 ballots over a week's time, Jefferson was elected.  Although Jefferson publicly denied it, it was generally believed that he had agreed to some kind of bargain with the Federalists for their votes.

At the Inauguration, March 4, Jefferson delivered an eloquent inaugural speech stating his principles and attempting to reconcile the party divisions--declaring "we are all republicans, we are all federalists."  Adams was not at the inauguration, because he had left Washington hours before to return to his home in Massachusetts.  Adams and Jefferson would never meet again for the next quarter century.  They would die on the same day--July 4, 1826.


The elections of 1796 and 1800 showed a sectional split: the Federalists were stronger in the North, the Republicans stronger in the South.  This split was rooted in slavery.  Adams had never owned slaves, and he condemned slavery as a violation of the equal liberty affirmed by the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson owned many slaves, and while he admitted that slavery was wrong, he made no effort to abolish slavery.  The Federalists--particularly Hamilton--scorned Jefferson for the hypocrisy of affirming equal natural rights while owning slaves.  Moreover, Jefferson would not have won the election of 1800 without the Constitutional provision that counted 3/5 of the slaves towards state representation in the Congress.

In 1798, Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that affirmed the sovereignty of the states and the right of the states to nullify national laws, which would become the basis for the Southern nullification and secession movement to protect slavery in the South that would lead to the Civil War.

The moral corruption that comes from slavery was particularly evident in Jefferson's case because he took one of his slave women--Sally Hemings--as his concubine.  As I have indicated in a previous post, there is plenty of evidence that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children, and that his sexual use of her began when she was 16 years old, and he was 46.  It is also clear that Hemings' father was Jefferson's father-in-law, and so she was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha.

In the election of 1800, there were rumors of this.  Then, beginning in 1802, some Federalists openly condemned Jefferson for this.  Jefferson refused to say anything about it.

In some ways, the legacy of slavery in America continues to corrupt American politics through polarizing debates over Black Lives Matter, the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and the White Supremacist Movement.


We can also see in the election of 1800 the political polarization over whether America should be seen as a Christian Nation.  In the election, some ministers preached sermons warning that Jefferson was an infidel or an atheist, and therefore Christians should not elect him President.  For example, John Mitchell Mason, regarded as one of the greatest pulpit orators of his day, delivered a sermon in 1800 with the title "The Voice of Warning to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States," and it was widely circulated as a pamphlet.  

From his reading of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Mason found four kinds of evidence for Jefferson's atheism.  First, Jefferson denied the truth of Noah's Flood by claiming that such a universal flood over the Earth was "out of the laws of nature."  Second, Jefferson's account of the differences in the human races seemed to deny the common origin of mankind in Adam and Eve.  Third, Jefferson implied that there was never a "chosen people" of God.  Fourth, he denied that religious belief was necessary for social order, because he said that "it does me no injury for my neighbors to say there are twenty Gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  This passage from the Notes on Virginia was often quoted by many Federalists as evidence that Jefferson was an "infidel" or atheist.

Mason admits that "the federal Constitution makes no acknowledgment of that God who gave us our national existence," but that means that "to wipe off the reproach of irreligion," Christians must be careful not to elect an atheist like Jefferson.  Mason conceded that Washington and Adams were hypocrites who vaguely professed some religious belief without being true Christians.  But still, he argued, it was better for Christians to vote for a hypocrite like Adams than an atheist like Jefferson, because at least hypocrisy does not directly challenge the identity of America as a Christian Nation.

The question of whether we should recognize America as a Christian Nation or should affirm the separation of church and state continues today to disrupt American political debate.  The Trump Republicans have insisted that the Democrats want to expunge America's Christian tradition.  As I have said in a previous post, some of the Republicans have claimed that Trump is "God's Chosen One."  And a few days ago, Ron DeSantis's campaign organization broadcast a video claiming that DeSantis had been specially created by God--on the eighth day of Creation!--to be the "fighter" for true Americans.

                                                      And God Created Ron DeSantis


As I have said, once Jefferson was inaugurated president in 1801, he and Adams never met again for the rest of their lives.  They did not even write letters to one another until 1812.  But in that year, they resumed their correspondence; and from 1812 to 1826, when they both died, they exchanged over 150 letters.  In my post on this correspondence, I have noted the deep philosophic topics that came up in this correspondence.  Adams and Jefferson had competed for political fame, and Adams left office resentful that Jefferson had become the more famous one, particularly in claiming to be the author of the Declaration of Independence.  But in this correspondence over the last 14 years of their life, having retired from politics, Adams and Jefferson could resume their philosophic friendship, and in doing that, rise above politics and the pursuit of political fame.

Amazingly, Jefferson and Adams both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--July 4, 1826.  As the news spread across America, this was seen as a remarkable, perhaps even providential, sign that these two men, who had been so long divided by their partisan political rivalry, were ultimately united in common death and immortal fame as Founding Statesmen of America.