Tuesday, July 25, 2017

West on the American Founding (2): Midwest Straussianism

I have written some posts on Midwest Straussianism (here) and on Tom West as a former West Coast Straussian who has become a Midwest Straussian (here).

Michael and Catherine Zuckert have pointed to the tension in Leo Strauss's position on American liberal democracy as shown in three propositions:

1. America is modern.

2. Modernity is bad.

3. America is good.

To resolve the obvious contraditions between these three propositions, each of the three schools of Straussian thought has had to deny, or at least downplay, one of the three propositions.  The Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) deny or at least express doubts about the second proposition, because they are impressed by the apparent improvements in the human condition brought by modernity that seem to show clear progress beyond ancient thought.  In this way, the Midwest Straussians cast doubt on what the Zuckerts identify as Strauss's "signature idea"--his "return to the ancients."

I have identified myself as a Midwest Straussian--as someone who combines Aristotelian ethics and Lockean politics, in affirming (contrary to Strauss) that one can embrace both ancient virtue and modern liberty.  If I have anything special to contribute to this Midwest Straussianism, it's my argument that Aristotelian liberalism can be rooted in a biological naturalism that is supported by Darwinian science.

In a comment on one of my posts, Tom West denied that he was rightly identified as a Midwest Straussian.  He observed: "The implication of my argument is that the American Founders do not have to be viewed as breaking with Locke (or as embracing some sort of incoherent 'amalgam' in their political theory) in their simultaneous concern with natural rights and with the moral and religious character of the people."

West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding--is an elaboration of this argument for his interpretation of the American founding as based on a coherent theory of natural rights--and not an "amalgam" of contradictory traditions of thought--that is concerned both with securing individual liberty and with forming the moral and religious character of the community. 

But despite his denial of the label, this is exactly what I see as Midwest Straussianism, which argues that Strauss was wrong to see the Lockean modernity of America as morally and intellectually degrading in promoting liberty for selfish individualism, while failing to cultivate the higher virtues of human excellence, because in fact the Lockean liberalism of the American founding aims to secure both liberty and virtue as being mutually dependent.

That I am right about this is suggested by West's account of the three stages in his intellectual development as shaped by Strauss and Harry Jaffa (ix-x).  First, as a graduate student, he reports, he accepted the idea from Jaffa, Diamond, and others influenced by Strauss that the American founding was based on a Lockean individualism that liberated the acquisitive materialism of human beings, while providing no support for moral or religious duties or for the classical virtues.  At this point, I would say, West was an East Coast Straussian (like Harvey Mansfield, Walter Berns, and Allan Bloom), who accepted the American founding as "low but solid" in securing individual liberty, without any aspiration for cultivating the human excellences as was sought in the ancient regimes praised by Plato and Aristotle.

Later, Jaffa changed his mind and argued that Strauss's Locke of acquisitive individualism was the "esoteric" Locke, but that the Locke as read by the American founders was the "exoteric" Locke who linked himself to Richard Hooker's natural law teaching, who could be seen as an Aristotelian Locke.  West says that he accepted this modified position.  At this point, West was a West Coast Straussian, who believed that the American founders were not purely modern, because they interpreted Lockean modernity as compatible with the ancient Aristotelian tradition.

Finally, West reached the third stage of his thinking, when he began to disagree with the thought of Strauss and Jaffa that "there is something wrong with the unvarnished Locke," and he began to see that the American founders saw correctly that Lockean modernity promoted both liberty and virtue, and therefore there was nothing morally or intellectually dubious about it.  At this point, West has become a Midwest Straussian, who affirms that the modernity of America is good.  1. America is modern.  2. Modernity is good.  3. America is good.

West claims, however, that he does not concern himself in his new book with the question of the European origins of the founders' political theory, and so he does not argue here for Locke as the primary source for the founders' political thought.  He prefers to avoid that debate, so that he can concentrate on the founders' views considered on their own terms, without being distracted by the question of European influence.  But while this is what West says, at the beginning of his book, the book has many references to Locke, indicating that West is reading the founders through the lens of his interpretation of Locke (see, for example, 21-22, 47, 56, 75, 90, 94, 103, 107-108, 172-75, 201, 226-27, 240-41, 311, 315-17, 406).

The Zuckerts originally pointed to Diamond's essay "Ethics and Politics: The American Way" (1992) as the first statement of Midwest Straussianism.  West's book is in some ways a response to and modification of the argument in that essay.

In 1959, the American Political Science Review published Diamond's influential article "Democracy and The Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Founders' Intent," in which he argued that the founders thought that government should not be concerned with shaping the moral character of its citizens.  In making this argument, West says, Diamond "reads the founding through a Straussian lens" that assumes that the Lockean modernity of the American founding rejects the ancient teaching that government must be concerned with the moral formation of its citizens (172). 

West observes that in Diamond's "Ethics and Politics," originally published in 1977, he "substantially revises his earlier argument," and he "admits there that the founders did care about citizen virtue, although he continues to underrate the extent" (170, n. 13).  So while West agrees with Diamond's position in this second essay, West thinks he didn't go far enough in recognizing the extent to which the founders were devoted to forming the character of the citizens.

West seems to disagree with Diamond in two ways.  First, West criticizes Diamond for saying that the founders promoted only what Diamond called the "less lofty" and "modest excellences" of the "bourgeois" and "republican virtues" (181).  In fact, West claims, the founders also saw the need for the "manly and assertive virtues," particularly in wartime, and for all the "higher virtues," including the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life (281-91, 296-306). 

Actually, Diamond seems to agree here with West, because Diamond sketches an ascent of the virtues from the "bourgeois virtues" and the "republican virtues" up to the higher virtues of the "natural aristocracy of virtues and talents," as Jefferson called them, and then finally the intellectual virtues of the "love of learning" (Diamond 1992, 360-63).  So here West is mistaken in seeing a disagreement with Diamond.

On another point, however, there does seem to be a fundamental disagreement.  Diamond and West agree that the American founders wanted America to form a common character among American citizens.  But for Diamond, the founders wanted "character formation, but not by use of the laws" (364), because they separated state or government from society, and while government would be limited to protecting individual rights, the social realm of private life would shape the character of people in their families, churches, schools, and other voluntary associations (345-46).

For Diamond, this separation of state and society is what sets modern liberalism apart from the ancient understanding of politics:

"In the old, broader view, government was inextricably linked with society.  Since it was the task of the laws to create a way of life or to nurture among citizens certain qualities of character, then the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life; there could be no separation of state or government and society, and no limitation of the former with respect to the latter.  But under the new liberal doctrine, with its substantive withdrawal of the character-forming function from the domain of the political, it became natural to think of state and society as separated, and of government as limited to the protection of individual life, liberty, property, and the private pursuit of happiness.  It became both possible and reasonable to depoliticize political life as previously conceived, and that is precisely what happened wherever the new view came to prevail.  Perhaps above all, religion was depoliticized; belief and practice regarding the gods, which classical political philosophy had held to be centrally within the purview of the political community, was largely relegated to private discretion.  Similarly depoliticized were many other traditional political matters, such as education, poetry and the arts, family mores, and many of the activities we now lump under the term 'economics.'  In the premodern understanding, these were precisely the matters that had to be regulated by 'laws with teeth in them,' because they were the essential means by which a regime could form human characters in its own particular mold" (345-46).

But while Diamond thus presented the founders as rejecting the ancient understanding that government must coercively enforce moral character by law, West argues that the founders agreed that the enforcement of moral law was the purpose of government (177-81).  While Diamond thought that the founders separated government and society, and relied on society, rather than government, to enforce morality through family life, churches, and other private voluntary associations, West argues "that according to the founders, virtue is necessary for freedom, and that government cannot rely solely on private institutions such as families and churches to sustain it" (270).  Moreover, according to West's interpretation of the founders' understanding of politics, this governmental enforcement of moral law includes the governmental promotion of religious belief and practice (201-14).  Thus, West seems to present the founders as agreeing with the ancient understanding, as interpreted by Diamond, that in forming the moral and religious character of the citizens, "the laws necessarily had to penetrate every aspect of a community's life."

But then, in some parts of his book, West pulls back from this position and moves closer to Diamond's position.  "No founder," West observes, "wanted an extreme Spartan regimen that inculcates morality at the expense of liberty" (6).  So, one might ask, if the founders did not want "an extreme Spartan regime," did they want a moderate Spartan regime?

West even endorses, in some parts of his book, Diamond's liberal separation of government and society.  The founders rightly separated the public from the private sphere, West argues, and they saw that while the purpose of politics is securing life, liberty, and property, the purpose of life is pursuing happiness.  Government can secure the conditions for pursuing happiness, but it cannot rightly define the content of happiness.  Nor can government rightly define the one true religion.  "The higher things were expected to be found not in public but in private life. . . . The true home of religion and philosophy and science, of revelation and reason, of the family and domestic happiness, is in private society" (301-306, 407-408).  This separation of government and society and the securing of individual liberty in private life from coercive supervision by government makes modern America different from ancient Sparta, although much of colonial America prior to 1776 looked like a Christian Sparta (264, 268, 288).

Notice that West and Diamond seem to agree in seeing Sparta as the model of the ancient understanding of politics, in which the governmental enforcement of a communal moral and religious character makes impossible any individual liberty in a private sphere of life.  Neither West nor Diamond say anything about Athens.  Neither considers the possibility that Athens might have shown an ancient Greek form of liberalism that foreshadowed some of the features of the modern American liberal social order.

West and Diamond--like many Straussians--seem to agree with Fustel de Coulanges (in The Ancient City, book 3, chapter 17) that "the ancients knew nothing of individual liberty," because the state was omnipotent, and there was no private life free from state control.  But as many scholars of the ancient world have noted, this ignores the evidence for some individual liberty in the ancient world, particularly in Athens.

West and Diamond do implicitly refer to Athens by appealing to Plato and Aristotle's understanding of politics.  But West and Diamond are silent about those passages in the writings of Plato and Aristotle that recognize the claims of Athenian liberalism. 

This is an important point for judging the modern liberal theory of natural rights.  If it is true that all human beings are born free and equal by nature, if the state of nature is really natural in expressing human nature, then one would expect that the natural human propensity for claiming natural rights would manifest itself throughout human history--from the original hunter-gatherer ancestors in the primitive state of nature without government to ancient Athens to modern America.  If for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings never claimed natural rights until the last few centuries, wouldn't that suggest that this idea of natural rights is not grounded in human nature, but is a purely artificial construction of recent liberal thought?  (In some previous previous posts, I have argued that there is evidence supporting the Lockean evolutionary history of politics.)

We know that there were liberal political thinkers in ancient Athens who saw government as arising from a social compact limited to securing individual rights by protecting citizens from violence and enforcing contracts.  We know this because Aristotle identifies Lycophron and Hippodamus as proposing this. 

West quotes the passages from the Politics on this (362).  But he emphasizes that Aristotle rejects these ideas, because the polis of Lycophron and Hippodamus is not concerned with making its citizens virtuous, and therefore it is not truly a polis.  West claims that the American founders would agree with Aristotle's criticism, because they agreed that a good political community must legally enforce moral virtue.

If West is right in distinguishing liberty as the purpose of politics from virtue as the purpose of society, then why shouldn't he respond to Aristotle here by saying that while the purpose of the polis qua society is the virtuous and happy life, it does not follow that the purpose of the polis qua state is to use coercive force against its citizens to make them virtuous and happy?

West invokes Aristotle's argument that a genuine community requires the formation of character through the "associations" (koinonia) of "friendship" (philia).  But West does not mention Aristotle's claim that the political friendship of citizens is only a friendship of utility, not a friendship of virtue, and that the friendships of virtue, including the friendships of philosophers, belong to the private life.  Here we can see the elements of an Aristotelian liberalism, which has been the topic for various posts (here and here.).

West is silent about the evidence that ancient Athens was remarkably liberal in its openness to the free exchange of goods and ideas in a society organized largely through voluntary associations, including private associations of philosophers (like the Academy and the Lyceum).  I have written about this in previous posts (here and here).

West is also silent about the argument for liberal democracy in book 8 of Plato's Republic.  Democracies like Athens are the only cities in which one can freely choose to live the philosophic life, which is why Socrates lived in Athens and not Sparta.  Plato's Socrates concludes: "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 562c).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

West on the American Founding (1): The State of Nature and the Evolution of Religion

At the next convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco (August 31-September 3), I will be on a panel on Thomas West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom.  Many scholars of the American Founding have concluded that the founders' political thought was an amalgam of different, and even contradictory, traditions of thought, such as liberalism and republicanism.  Against this "amalgam" thesis, West argues--persuasively, I think--that the founders largely agreed on one coherent understanding of politics--the political theory of natural rights.  Their disagreements (as in the debates between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians) were disagreements not about the end of government (securing natural rights) but about the best means for achieving this end.

Another recently published book--Randy Barnett's Our Republican Constitution--makes this same argument for the American founders as agreeing on the political theory of natural rights.  West recognizes this, but he claims that "Barnett's libertarian reading is silent on the founders' concern with the people's moral character" (46, n. 10).  For West, this "libertarian reading" of the founding is mistaken in ignoring how the founders' legally enforced morality and religion through the constitutions and laws of the states.  But then, West sometimes contradicts himself and accepts a libertarian interpretation of the founding as seeing the purpose of politics being limited to securing individual freedom, so that morality and religion are shaped in families and the voluntary associations of private society rather than through coercive public legislation.  I will elaborate this point in a future post.

In his explication of the founders' theory of natural rights, West agrees with Philip Hamburger (1993) in seeing that theory as based on five arguments.  First, natural rights are identified as part of the natural liberty that human beings have in state of nature in the absence of government.  This idea of the state of nature is fundamental.  West says: "The state of nature is the basis of the founders' understanding of politics" (409).  And in that state of nature, "self-ownership is the original natural natural right" (396).  Except for children, who are under the temporary natural authority of their parents, all individuals have equal liberty in that no one is under the rule of anyone else without their consent.  But these natural rights in the state of nature without government do not include the acquired rights that exist only as created by government.

Second, natural rights are constrained by natural law.  In the state of nature, human beings can use reason to discover natural law.  So, for example, they can reason that since all human beings seek to enjoy their natural liberty, they will resist and retaliate against those who infringe on their liberty; and therefore, human beings can conclude that the best way to preserve their life and liberty is to respect the equal liberty of others by not harming them.  They can thus see the wisdom in the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--or the Silver Rule--don't do to others what you would not want them to do to you.  They will enforce these rules of natural law as customary norms for society.  But even if many, or even most, human beings can see the wisdom in this natural law, many will not understand it or observe it, and their aggressive attacks on others will make the natural rights insecure in the state of nature where there is no government.

Third, to overcome this insecurity of natural rights in the state of nature, human beings consent to establish governments to secure their natural rights through formal laws and institutions for making, enforcing, and adjudicating those laws.  In submitting to the protection of government, people must give up some of their natural liberty to government so that it can protect the remainder.

Fourth, although the civil law of government is not the same as the natural law in the state of nature, that civil law must approximate the natural law in securing natural rights.  So, for example, the civil laws of property will be highly variable.  But if those governmental laws of property do not adequately protect the natural rights of property, people have the natural right to overthrow the government, return to the state of nature without government, and establish a new government that they judge will better secure their natural rights.

Fifth, as long as the civil laws approximate the natural law, there is no necessary inconsistency between civil law and natural law.  So, for example, the United States Constitution is civil law and not natural law, but constitutional law can be judged by the standard of natural law as to how well it secures natural rights.

Affirming the reality of the state of nature is the first step in this line of reasoning, and it is not enough, according to West, to see the state of nature as purely "hypothetical" or "fictional," because it must be seen as really existing in human history, past and present (96-111).  Whenever human beings are without a government or common superior over them, they are in the state of nature.  In the prehistoric past, all of our human ancestors lived in foraging bands without government, and thus they were in the state of nature.  As I have argued in other posts (here, here, here), the Darwinian account of the evolutionary state of nature largely confirms the reality of this Lockean state of nature among hunter-gatherers.

The state of nature is not confined to the prehistoric past.  Since there is no one world government, the state of nature exists between governments.  And even within societies with governments, individuals can revert to a state of nature when they find themselves threatened by aggressors, and there is no chance to appeal to governmental protection.  Also, when people revolt against a government, they put themselves back into a state of nature.  So when the Americans declared themselves independent of Great Britain, they were momentarily in a state of nature, until they had consented to new governments.

If the political theory of natural rights is correct, natural rights are those rights that human beings have claimed in the state of nature.  I have argued that Darwinian studies of life in the evolutionary state of nature of foraging bands does show that foragers claim equal rights to life, liberty, and property.

But what about the claim to religious liberty as a natural right?  As West and Vincent Phillip Munoz (2015) have shown, it was common in the first American state constitutions to make this claim.  So, for example, the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 declared: "That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience." 

But do we see foragers in an evolutionary state of nature making such a claim to religious freedom?

Hunter-gatherers do not typically show a religion of worshipping "Almighty God."  The monotheistic religions of worshipping a Creator God who enforces a moral law for human beings and intervenes in human affairs for their salvation did not appear in human history until the "Axial Age"--the six centuries before Christ--when Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity appeared for the first time.

The earliest form of religious belief is animism, which has been found among all hunter-gatherers, and which was probably the first form of religious experience for our earliest human ancestors.  In animism, there are no real gods, but there are various kinds of invisible spirits with limited powers that permeate all of nature--plants, animals, and even physical phenomena such as thunderstorms.  These spirits influence human life.  But they do not enforce any moral law for human beings (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016; Sanderson 2014, 339-53).

The first professional religious practitioners were shamans, who have been found in almost all foraging bands, and who continue to appear in some form in almost every society.  Shamans are believed to have the power to transform themselves through ecstatic trances to communicate with invisible spirits to solve problems--most commonly through healing and divination.  Successful shamans provide the service to their customers of interacting with the invisible forces that control unpredictable important outcomes--such as recovering from illness, success in hunting, communicating with the dead, and protecting people from evil spirits and malevolent magic (Eliade 2004; Singh 2017).

After the move from foraging bands to agricultural settlements, and the transition to large-scale chiefdoms and states, "high gods" appear for the first time--gods who are more active and powerful than the spirits of animism.  First, polytheistic religions have many specialized high gods who are much like human beings but more powerful.  Then, in the Axial Age, the monotheistic religions teach that there is one Creator God who transcends the world He created, and who enforces a moral law for human beings.

Evolutionary psychologists have surveyed the evidence that these religions of High Gods or Big Gods arose by cultural evolution in large-scale cities and states to solve collective action problems by persuading people that the social norms of cooperation will be enforced by divine rewards and punishments--perhaps even eternal bliss in Heaven and eternal punishment in Hell.  I have written about this in a previous post.

Evolutionary psychologists, beginning with Darwin himself, have explained the this evolution of religious beliefs and practices as a product of both natural evolution and cultural evolution.  By nature, human beings have the evolved propensity for "mind-reading"--for imagining that their are many intentional agents in the world who act purposefully according to their beliefs and desires.--because it is an evolutionary adaptation for successfully navigating through a world of intentional agents, both human and nonhuman.  This capacity for detecting intentional agents can easily become so hyperactive that human beings imagine the existence of invisible supernatural agents.  Thus, religion can be explained as an evolutionary manifestation of  a "hyperactive agency detection device" in the human brain, which I have written about in earlier posts (here).

That religious belief really is an evolutionary adaptation and not just an indirect by-product of some truly adaptive function of the brain is suggested by the evidence that religion promotes health and reproductive success.  Devout religious believers tend to have better physical and mental health and longer lives than those who lack such religious devotion.  Religiosity also increases fertility, and the most devout religious believers (like Orthodox Jews) tend to have the highest average number of offspring.  Atheists tend to have the lowest rates of fertility (Sanderson 2014, 344-50). 

This suggests that religion is rooted in evolved human nature, that the desire for religious understanding should be included on the list of 20 natural desires, and that atheists who advocate the abolition of religion are foolish.  This explains why evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides disagree with the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, as I indicated in a previous post.

But let's turn back to my earlier question: if there is a natural desire for religious belief in the evolutionary state of nature, did our foraging ancestors express that as a natural claim to religious freedom?  The animism and shamanism that have dominated the religious life of foragers seem to have arisen voluntarily through the competition of religious practitioners for customers, and there is no priestly or governmental bureaucracy for coercively enforcing belief.

The monotheistic religions that have arisen over the past few thousand years have often used coercive force to punish heretics and infidels.  But there have also been periods in which monotheistic believers have advocated religious liberty--such as New Testament Christianity during its first 300 years.  Christian advocates of religious toleration and liberty like Roger Williams have defended this as a revival of the New Testament teaching, which might also be seen as a revival of the religious liberty enjoyed by foragers in the state of nature.  The liberalism of religious liberty and toleration could then be understood as a return both to original New Testament Christianity and to the evolutionary state of nature.  (I have written about this here.)


REFERENCES

Barnett, Randy E. 2016. Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People (New York: Broadside Books, 2016).

Eliade, Mircea. 2004. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 2nd paperback edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hamburger, Philip A. 1993. "Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions." Yale Law Journal 102: 907-60.

Munoz, Phillip Vincent. 2015. "Church and State in the Founding-Era State Constitutions." American Political Thought 4: 1-38.

Peoples, Hervey C., Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27:261-82. doi10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Sanderson, Stephen K. 2014. Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Singh, Manvir. 2017. "The Cultural Evolution of Shamanism." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, forthcoming. doi.org/10.1017/50140525X17001893

West, Thomas G. 2017. The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

John Mizzoni's Defense of Kantian Ethics as Compatible with Darwinian Evolution

In May of last year, I read a book manuscript for Lexington Books--John Mizzoni's Evolution and the Foundations of Ethics.  I recommended that it be published, because no other book has done what this book does in surveying the application of evolutionary reasoning to all the major theories of ethics that have been developed by contemporary moral philosophers.

In my report, I did state some disagreements with Mizzoni's arguments.  My most fundamental disagreement was my denial of Mizzoni's claim that Kantian ethics was compatible with evolutionary science's account of human nature and human morality.  I argued that the general conclusion emerging from evolutionary moral psychology is that the Humean sentimentalists are right, and the Kantian rationalists are wrong.  This is clear, for example, in the studies of psychopaths that show that their moral poverty arises not from any deficiency in their capacity for rational judgment but from their lack of moral emotions.  I also argued that in order to defend Kantian ethics, Mazzoni simply assumed, without any supporting argumentation, the truth of Kant's dualistic separation of is and ought as belonging to two worlds--the phenomenal and the noumenal, the realm of nature and the realm of freedom.

I elaborated these points in a post.

Mizzoni's book has now been published.  The book shows some revisions in response to my suggestions and criticisms.  He responds to my major criticisms in two passages.  In the section of his book where he responds to "potential objections," he has added one of my objections.  He writes:
"PO5.  By premising my inquiry on the landscape of moral philosophy, I am making unwarranted assumptions.  It might be objected that by assuming the distinction between is and ought, the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, and separating biological inquiry from normative inquiry, I am assuming a Kantian ethic and a Kantian metaphysics.  The objection implies that I have characterized all normative ethics as Kantian and thereby disallowed a Darwinian explanation of morality."
"I do not think that observing a gap between statements of fact (is) and statements of ethics (ought), or a distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, or separating biological inquiry from normative inquiry commits one to a Kantian ethics, much less a Kantian metaphysics."
 ". . . I take the is/ought dichotomy to be simply a logical distinction: Is-statements function differently than ought-statements.  Likewise, the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics is a logical one.  They are different types of inquiry that ask different questions.  A normative ethical theory must answer the question: What should I do?  A metaethical theory must answer the question: What is the status of ethics?  Normative ethics offers practical guidance about what constitutes ethical conduct."
"So further, since we are agents, we must decide how to act, and we do this from a first-person perspective.  Since metaethics engages with more general questions about the status and origins of ethics, it is a level of inquiry operating at more of a third-person perspective.  Biological science, also, provides a third-person perspective, thus it can be distinguished from a normative first-person perspective ethics."
 "These seem to me to be minimalist assumptions, not uniquely Kantian assumptions, so I do not think I am characterizing all normative ethics as Kantian ethics.  Kant may observe these distinctions, and attempt to shore them up with an extravagant metaphysics, but a Kantian metaphysics is not required to draw these logical distinctions.  As I have mentioned, all ethical theories have some kind of background metaphysical assumptions . . ., but those assumptions can usually be separated from the specifically ethical components.  I think contemporary Kantian deontologists have done this, for example, and sought only to develop and defend the ethical components of Kantian deontology" (238-39).
Mizzoni recognizes that there are many Darwinian critics of Kantian ethics--such as Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Joshua Greene, and Michael Ruse--who say that Kant's categorical imperative does not conform to the world of human experience as studied by biological science.  But Mizzoni denies that this undermines Kantian ethics:  "The fact that a normative ethical principle advises what ought to be done, as opposed to advising to continue what is done in the natural world is not thereby a mark against that normative principle.  Normative principles are meant to do more than simply describe and align with the world as it is" (190).

Gould has defended an ethics of hypothetical imperatives--such as the Golden Rule as a principle based on enlightened self-interest--as being superior to a Kantian ethics of categorical imperatives.  Mizzoni responds: "His point against Kantian deontological ethics is that it doesn't fit with a complex and sloppy world.  Maybe so.  But should it?  Kant's point about ethics being about the realm of freedom is because ethics is meant to free us from the world around us" (187).

"The best case for supporting a Kantian ethic," Mizzoni observes, "is to emphasize it as a normative ethic, not as a description of how ordinary humans make moral judgments" (180).  In a footnote to this sentence, he writes: "There may be some passages in Kant, where, caught up in enthusiasm, he may blur the distinction between offering an account of how humans ordinarily make moral judgments, and how humans should make moral judgments" (192).

Is Kant "caught up in enthusiasm" when he tries to believe that acting according to categorical imperatives--acting by pure reason without any motivation by emotion or desire--is possible?  If ought implies can, then the idea of a categorical ought is indefensible in so far as it is impossible.

If the biological study of human nature shows that acting according to hypothetical imperatives is possible, but acting according to categorical imperatives is not, then hasn't biological science thus denied Kantian ethics? 

Mizzoni briefly recognizes the contrast between hypothetical and categorical imperatives in only two passages (187, 192 n. 4).  And he fails to see that the impossibility of acting according to categorical imperatives means that Kantian ethics is impossible, and therefore that the only possible form of ethics is an ethics of hypothetical imperatives that combine reason and desire.  (I have written about the ethics of hypothetical imperatives in a previous post.)

I can agree that Kant was at least partly right in recognizing the importance of general principles in moral judgment--principles like the Golden Rule.  The Humean and Smithian sentimentalists also recognize this: they have defended a natural morality of informed desire, in that the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life.  What Kant says about the universality of moral reasoning is close to what Smith says about the reasoning of the impartial spectator.

But Kant was mostly wrong in assuming that moral judgment ought to be based on pure reason without any motivation by desire or emotion.  This cannot be correct because it's impossible.

In fact, Mizzoni implicitly concedes this when he speaks about the attempts by Mark Timmons and Michael Slote to save Kantian ethics by "joining a deontological normative ethics with an expressivist metaethic" to create a "sentimentalist deontology" (180-81).  But Mizzoni does not recognize that this saves Kantian ethics by destroying it!

This same problem comes up in Mizzoni's response to my argument about the moral poverty of psychopaths:
"Research done on psychopaths reveals that they have no trouble carrying out abstract reasoning, yet they do show deficits in experiencing moral emotions.  Some have taken this as a refutation of Kantian ethics, since if Kant's theory is correct, then supposedly one need not experience emotions to reach ethical conclusions, but only use one's reason in employing the categorical imperative.  But this argument assumes t hat merely because a person has t he capacity to engage in abstract reasoning, then the person will generate defensible ethical conclusions.  Why should we assume that?  As mentioned above, Kant does recommend that we should strive to be idealized rational agents, but he does not assume that people are ideal rational agents.  Also, are psychopaths familiar with the formal ethical principle that Kant calls the categorical imperative?  And even people who are familiar with the principle can still use the principle poorly, such as the Nazi Adolph Eichmann who famously stated that he was familiar with Kant's principle and used it on a daily basis throughout his life (Arendt 1963)" (180).
Mizzoni misses the point in my argument about how the moral poverty of psychopaths refutes Kant.  If Kant were right in claiming that normative moral judgments must be based on pure reason without emotional motivation, then we would assume not that a psychopath "will generate defensible ethical conclusions,"  but that a psychopath "can generate defensible ethical conclusions."  Unless Mizzoni shows us that it is possible for psychopaths to make defensible moral judgments and act on them, even though psychopaths do not feel moral sentiments, he has not refuted my argument for how the biological study of psychopaths denies Kantian ethics.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Thousand Posts (8)

2016
I have often argued for the evolution of a Darwinian liberalism that was first expressed by John Locke and Adam Smith, although there are precursors in the liberal thinkers of ancient Athens and in Lucretius of ancient Rome.  But it might be objected that the English word "liberalism" as a term for a political position did not appear until the 1820s in England.

In January, I wrote a post on the evolutionary origins of the word "liberalism."  The use of the adjective "liberal" in its political sense derived from Adam Smith's language in The Wealth of Nations, where Smith identified "the liberal system of free exportation and free importation," and where he spoke of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice."  Smith's description of the "liberal system" suggests that it coincides with what he calls the "system of natural liberty," because in both cases, he speaks of a man's freedom "to pursue his own interest his own way." 

Later, in Great Britain, the English noun "liberalism" was coined to refer to this Smithian understanding of "liberal" thought.  The earliest use of "liberalism" that I have noticed is by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on May 24, 1804, in which Humboldt writes: "Your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas have inspired me from my earliest youth."

Although Smith does not use the word "evolution," his account of the "liberal system" does have an evolutionary character to it.  Hayek noticed this and developed it in his account of the liberal idea of "spontaneous evolution" or "spontaneous order."  Smith's system of natural liberty is a spontaneous order that evolves from the bottom-up rather than being designed from the top-down.  It is a natural evolutionary order in that it arises from the natural desire of all individuals to better their condition, which leads to wealth and prosperity whenever the laws secure to individuals the liberty to enjoy the fruits of their own labor.

In the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer elaborated the principle of equal liberty as fundamental for liberalism, and he presented it as part of a cosmic evolution of order in which the whole history of the Universe could be seen as an evolution from simplicity to complexity.  Modern evolutionary classical liberalism is rooted in the tradition of Spencer, and the recent work of those like Matt Ridley, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Pinker confirms Spencer's rational optimism about the evolutionary progressive trend across history towards increasing liberty and declining violence (see my post in March 2014).

In August, I wrote posts on Deirdre McCloskey's argument--elaborated in three books--that modern classical liberalism first arose as part of the "Bourgeois Revaluation" that elevated the "bourgeois virtues."  She embraces an evolutionary theory of bourgeois liberalism that is similar to the evolutionary account of liberalism that has been defended by Jonathan Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Paul Rubin, and me (in various writings as well as on this blog).

The basic idea, as McCloskey says, is that bourgeois liberalism is "reinstating a pre-agricultural equality" by establishing an equal dignity and liberty for ordinary people--including an "equality of genuine comfort"--that restores the equal autonomy of individuals enjoyed in hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years until the establishment of rigid class hierarchies in agrarian societies. 

As I have argued in some earlier posts, this is a restatement of Locke's argument for liberalism as the restoration of the natural liberty and equality that hunter-gatherers had in the "state of nature."  Locke's account of the state of nature depended on the reports of Europeans about the foraging life of native Americans.  "In the beginning," Locke declared, "all the world was America."  Now, after two centuries of scientific studies of the foraging way of life, we can confirm Locke's account of the state of nature as mostly right.  And we can see that the modern liberal ideas of equality, liberty, and dignity can be understood as appealing to that evolved human nature as shaped in the hunter-gatherer bands of our evolutionary ancestors.

And yet, one might object that, as Hayek claimed in his evolutionary account of liberalism, the liberalism of the Great Society--of the extended order of exchange in which millions of people can cooperate anonymously for their mutual benefit--requires a repression of the natural instincts shaped by life in ancient families and small bands.

But, as I have argued in many posts, Hayek is mistaken in his belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a completely socialist or collectivist order with no individual autonomy, and therefore our evolved human nature must be suppressed if we are to live in a free society of autonomous individuals who trade with one another for mutual benefit.  In fact, as McCloskey indicates, there is plenty of evidence for long-distance trading networks among our ancient foraging ancestors.  Even Hayek himself sometimes concedes that there is evidence for ancient trading. 

In October, I wrote a post on some speeches on "Socialism and Human Nature" at the Cato Institute by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Jonathan Haidt.  They indicated that Hayek was partly right in that socialist sharing within families and small bands was one of the evolved instinctive rules of cooperation for foragers, but he was partly wrong in failing to see how the evolved instinctive rules of social exchange and resistance to oppressive dominance could be evoked by modern liberal culture.

Haidt declared: "We evolved to do tribalism and trade."  Living within families and small groups, we are collectivists in evoking the social instincts of our foraging mind.  But in the extended order of markets, we are traders in evoking the foraging instincts for social exchange.  The expansion of trading networks over the past five thousand years and the explosive expansion over the past two hundred years have been cultural extensions of the innate propensities for trade.

We are also libertarians in evoking "liberty/oppression" as one of the moral foundations of our evolved human nature, Haidt argued.  Here he appealed to Christopher Boehm's account of how foragers protect their autonomy as free individuals by resistance to the dominance behavior of those who might become bullies or tyrants.  If this is part of our evolved human nature, as Boehm claims, then this would show how Smith's "system of natural liberty" could be rooted in our innate instincts. If this is so, then the bourgeois liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.

Some anthropologists have objected to looking at hunter-gatherers as models of evolved human nature.  Surely, there is so much variability in the lives of the foraging bands of the past 200 years studied by anthropologists that we cannot generalize about them.  Nor can we assume that their lives are the same as the lives of our ancient prehistoric foraging ancestors.  That's the argument of Robert Kelly in The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, which was the subject of a post in September.

And yet, far from denying human nature, Kelly's book is actually organized around an implicit theory of human nature that is evident in the topics of chapters 3-9 of the book: (3) Foraging and Subsistence, (4) Mobility, (5) Technology, (6) Sharing, Exchange, and Land Tenure, (7) Group Size and Demography, (8) Men, Women, and Foraging, (9) Nonegalitarian Hunting-Gatherers.  Why does he assume that these are the most important topics?  Because they are natural human desires or needs that any human society must satisfy in some manner?  If so, then why can't we judge liberal societies by how well they satisfy those natural desires? 

One of the best surveys of the evidence for these natural desires as grounded in evolved human nature is Stephen Sanderson's Human Nature and the Evolution of Society.  In April and May, I wrote a series of posts on Sanderson's book showing the ways in which he supports my argument for the meaning and purpose of life in 20 natural desires. In particular, Sanderson suggests that capitalist social orders might satisfy the naturally evolved propensities for reciprocal exchange; and he cites Cosmides and Tooby as supporting this in a way that suggests that even they see capitalist social orders as satisfying some evolved propensities of human nature.

Sanderson has suggested that my list of twenty natural desires should be altered to include the natural desire for ethnic identity.  I am not persuaded by his argument, which he derives from Pierre van den Berghe and Frank Salter, that ethnic affiliation is an evolutionary adaptation, in that those who favor their ethnic community over others are practicing an extended form of kin selection that advances their ethnic genetic interests.  Some of the alt-right supporters of Trump have criticized me for not recognizing the evolved natural desire for ethnic genetic identity.

I am persuaded that evolved human nature is inclined to tribal thinking, so that we naturally categorize people as us and them, and we naturally favor our group over others.  And while the social conditions of life have often predisposed people to make this in-group/out-group division along racial and ethnic lines, there is no evidence that this predisposition is an innate adaptation of the human mind. 

On the contrary, there is lots of evidence that while we are innately inclined to look for cues of coalitional affiliation, the content of those cues depends on social learning; and people in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies can be taught to be cooperative without regard for racial or ethnic boundaries.  In fact, Frank Salter implicitly concedes the truth of this point when he laments that ethnic nepotism is not instinctive, and therefore serving ethnic genetic interests requires artificial cultural strategies devised by modern scientific reasoning, and that no ethnic state has ever succeeded in securing an adaptive ethnic group strategy.  I wrote a post on this in May.

A closely related issue is whether evolutionary psychology can explain the demographic transition (rising wealth linked to declining birth rates).  I see the demographic transition as a natural expression of the prudent flexibility of human beings in adapting their parental desires to changing ecological circumstances.  Because of the natural variability in human temperament, some human beings will choose to be childless.  But most human beings in all societies will have a strong natural desire to care for children.  In the socioeconomic circumstances of modern industrialized and technologically advanced societies, parents will want to have small families, so that they can invest resources in their own education, in their careers, and in the education of a few children, and so that those children can become socially successful adults.  Most parents will desire to have no more than two or three children, and where mortality rates are low, this will be enough to sustain current population levels.  I wrote a post on this in March.

In a liberal society, much of our economic life is organized through social exchange in markets that arise as spontaneous orders without central planning.  But in a small family, the parents can have sufficient knowledge of the needs and capacities of their children and sufficient incentives to care properly for their children, so that parents can deliberately plan the organization of their family to achieve the shared ends of the family.  This explains why abolishing the family is impossible: without the family organized around parental care of children, it's unlikely that anyone would have the knowledge and incentives to do as well as parents do in caring for their children.  So while Hayek believes that spontaneous order is the best way to manage an economy, he also believes that deliberate organization is the best way to manage a family. 

Steven Horwitz has written a book about the importance of family life for a Hayekian classical liberalism.  I wrote a post on Horwitz's book in October.

Horwitz shows how in modern life in liberal societies, we must live in two different worlds with different rules.  On the one hand, we live in families and other organizations (like firms and community groups) based on intimate, face-to-face relationships of moral concern for one another.  On the other hand, we live in the extended order of anonymous exchange in complex market economies based on impersonal rules. 

Socialists have argued that our social world would be more just if it were organized like a large family, so that everyone treated one another as brothers and sisters.  But Hayek insisted that this attempt to turn the spontaneous order of the market into the deliberate organization of a family must fail in ways that will destroy the extended order of impersonal exchange that makes modern economic life possible.

The success of a liberal social order depends on the socialization of children in the family so that they learn the social norms and habits of a liberal society, in which people must live in two worlds at once, without applying the rules of one world to the other.  Children must learn the bourgeois virtues necessary for living in a bourgeois liberal society.

With the full expression of bourgeois society in Europe and North America in the 19th century, many bohemian artists and intellectuals reacted with bitter scorn for the bourgeois life.  Gustave Flaubert, for example, showed us how Emma Bovary was forced to have two adulterous affairs and then commit suicide as a heroic protest against the bourgeois mediocrity of her husband Charles.  In a letter to George Sand, Flaubert proclaimed: "Axiom: Hatred of the Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue."

Steven Smith quotes this in his chapter on Madame Bovary in his new book Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Unmaking the Bourgeois from Machiavelli to Bellow. I wrote posts on Smith's book in September.  Smith is a Straussian, and the influence of Leo Strauss permeates his book, including a chapter on Strauss.  According to Smith, Strauss "fulfills the office of the philosopher to the highest degree."

Like most Straussians, Smith scorns bourgeois liberalism because, they insist, it lacks the human excellence, the heroic nobility, and the transcendent longings of life in the premodern world.  As is characteristic of the Straussians, Smith presents his argument through textual interpretations of some books.  As is also characteristic of the Straussians, he almost never looks at any of the empirical evidence that might sustain or deny the claims of the authors he interprets.  He ignores the empirical evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker, Deirdre McCloskey, and others that shows the economic, moral, and intellectual progress achieved in bourgeois societies.

Smith also ignores the fact that even his own account of Ben Franklin as the American model of the bourgeois man contradicts the claims of the antibourgeois writers.  Smith is silent about how McCloskey can look to Franklin as displaying the bourgeois virtues.

Human nature sets the standard for the human good.  By nature the generic goods characterize the human species.  By nature the individualized goods characterize human individuals. The virtue of prudence is required for judging what is best for each individual because of the uniqueness of each individual.

Actually, all animals show individual diversity in their personalities, and thus animal biologists must study the unique personalities of animals in their life history.  As is the case for human beings, we must study not only the generic nature of each animal species and the cultural history of each animal group, but also the individual history of each animal.  A biopolitical science of political animals must move at all three levels.  I wrote a post on this in June.

A bourgeois liberal society conforms best to human nature, because a liberal open society will secure both natural liberty and natural virtue--the liberty of individuals to develop those moral and intellectual virtues that express that ranking of the generic goods of human nature that constitutes the best life for those individuals.  In such a free society, someone like Strauss, who "fulfills the office of philosopher to the highest degree," will be free to live the philosophic life in friendship with other philosophers; and the rest of us will be free to live other kinds of life that best conform to our individual propensities and talents.

Smith concludes his book by declaring that "the narrative of progress is no longer sustainable."  He believes this is true because antibourgeois intellectuals have said that it is true.  He never reflects on the fact that this contradicts the reality of the life that most of us live today in bourgeois liberal societies.  Because of market freedom, cultural pluralism, and the bourgeois virtues, our life today is generally more peaceful, more just, and richer in both material and spiritual goods than has ever been the case for human beings at any previous time in history.  Does Smith really believe that that is not progress?

In November and December, I wrote a series of posts surveying the empirical evidence of global human progress due to the influence of bourgeois liberal ideas and institutions.  Human life today is better than it has ever been in human history, because we enjoy the benefits of two centuries of human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment.  Our time is the best of all times that human beings have ever known.

And yet most human beings around the world deny this.  In surveys asking people whether the world is getting better, most people (94% in the United States, 96% in Great Britain and Germany) say no.  Many of those Americans who believe everything is getting worse voted for Donald Trump, because he appealed to their fear that America and the whole world are in decline, and because he persuaded them that only the leadership of a strongman can save them.

This popular pessimism is contradicted by empirical data that shows more human progress in the past two hundred years than at any time in previous human history.  The Earth today sustains more human lives (over 7 billion) than ever before in history.  Moreover, those lives on average are longer and healthier than has ever been the case.  Life is also more peaceful.  Life shows more equality of opportunity.  Life also shows more freedom--both economic freedom and personal freedom.  Prior to 1800, almost all human beings lived in grinding poverty and mind-numbing ignorance.  Today, only a very few people around the world live in absolute poverty, and most people are literate and have been educated far beyond the level attained by most people in history.  Data collected by various international organizations provides empirical evidence for all of these claims about human progress from the Liberal Enlightenment.

Smith and other Straussians would probably respond to this by arguing that this ignores what they like to call "the problem of the bourgeois":  bourgeois liberalism does improve the material conditions of life for almost everyone--life is healthier, wealthier, and freer--but it does not satisfy the human soul's transcendent longings for heroic excellence, particularly the intellectual excellence of the philosophic life.

But this seems hardly plausible if one notices how a proponent of bourgeois liberalism like Adam Smith defends the "wise and virtuous man" as the standard of moral and intellectual perfection as manifested in the life of philosophic friends. (See my posts in August and September of 2016 and August of 2012.)  He observes that the division of labor in a commercial society allows for the intellectual commerce of philosophers "whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything."  He presents the life of David Hume as showing how a commercial society provides the conditions for the philosophic life--a life that in Hume's case approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."

This language echoes the end of Plato's Phaedo.  Describing the death of Socrates, Phaedo observes: "Such was the end of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most just man."  Thus, Smith is suggesting that Hume shows how a Socratic life of philosophic inquiry is possible in a modern commercial society.

Moreover, Smith saw his account of virtue as compatible with Aristotle's teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics.  This has led Ryan Hanley and other Smith scholars to interpret Smith as an Aristotelian virtue ethicist.  My explanation of this is that Smith's commercial liberalism coincides most closely with Aristotle's teaching about friendship and philosophy in Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, which also happens to be one of the sections of Aristotle's moral and political writing that shows a propensity to liberalism, while also showing many references to his biology.

Aristotle thus manifested the liberalism of ancient Athens, which has recently been brought into view by classical scholars like Josiah Ober.  (See my post in September.)  Like McCloskey and Douglass North, Ober sees the evolution of liberalism as moving through three stages.  In the foraging bands of the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherers lived as equally free in their autonomy, because anyone who attempted dominance over others would be punished by others in the band enforcing customary norms of resistance to dominance.

Then, in the agrarian states that came with agricultural settlements, social hierarchy and exploitation of non-elites by elites arose as the prevalent form of order--"natural states" as North calls them.  But occasionally, after the collapse of these exploitative hierarchical orders, societies could fall back into the norms of rough egalitarianism that prevailed in the prehistoric foraging societies, which showed the human capacity for decentralized cooperation, which had evolved in the foraging environments of evolutionary adaptation.  This is what happened in ancient Greece, after the collapse of the Late Bronze-Age-Mycenaean kingdoms (around 1177 BCE), and the Greeks moved from palace-centered regimes to citizen-centered regimes.  Athens became an "open access society."  But even so, such citizen-centered democratic regimes were rare in the premodern world. 

It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that liberal democratic open access regimes became prominent in the world.  Unlike the natural states, these modern open access regimes show greater adaptive flexibility, which leads to economic, social, and cultural flourishing, because such regimes are rooted in the naturally evolved human capacities for decentralized cooperation.  Through a Darwinian cultural evolution, liberal social orders have emerged as more adaptive than the alternatives.

Ober is persuasive in surveying the evidence against the common assumption of many scholars that ancient Greece was poor and experienced little or no economic growth. In fact, Greece in the classical era (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) had rates of growth in both consumption and population that were much higher than the premodern normal and higher than any other period in Greek history until the middle of the 20th century.  Ober offers a Northian institutional explanation for this: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a context of low transaction costs."

Ober notes that Athens allowed philosophical schools (like those of Plato and Aristotle) to organize themselves as voluntary associations in which philosophers could pursue the philosophic life in friendship with others, and thus the open access order of Athens applied to ideas as well as market exchanges.

Even Plato in The Republic recognizes that democracy is the only regime that secures the freedom that allows people like Socrates to study philosophy, and thus "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live."  Some readers of The Republic have seen this as Plato's endorsement of liberal democracy.

As I have indicated in some other posts, this shows the Aristotelian liberalism of philosophic friendship in a free society that Smith and Hume saw as emerging in the modern commercial society of Scotland in the 18th century.

This evolutionary classical liberalism can be rooted in a universal history of cosmic evolution like that originally presented by Herbert Spencer and recently presented by Eric Chaisson, David Christian, Fred Spier, and others under the term Big History.  I have written a long series of posts on this--in June 2008, March 2014, and January-March and June-July 2016.    I have also written some posts on the ancient Epicurean history of cosmic evolution as presented by Lucretius--in January and June 2012, and November 2015.

Chaisson is an astrophysicist who sees the entire history of the Universe from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago to the present as showing an evolution from simplicity to complexity that passes through eight epochs: the Particle Epoch, the Galactic Epoch, the Stellar Epoch, the Planetary Epoch, the Chemical Epoch, the Biological Epoch, the Cultural Epoch, and the Future Epoch.

Ever since the emergence of human self-conscious awareness, human beings have wondered about how the world came to be, how humans came to be, and how the human place in the world illuminates the meaning of human life.  To answer their questions, human beings have told themselves myths about cosmic history, and generally these myths have appealed to religious beliefs about the powers of supernatural beings. 

Chaisson says that his story of cosmic evolution is also a "cultural myth" (Epic, 426).  But it's a scientific myth that does not rely on beliefs about supernatural beings or philosophical speculation, because modern science as it began in the Renaissance can achieve true knowledge through the scientific method of gathering relevant data, formulating theories, and then testing those theories through rigorous observation and experimental testing and rejecting those theories that fail to be empirically confirmed.  Without mentioning Karl Popper, Chaisson assumes Popper's standard of falsifiability for science: a theory is not truly scientific if it is not in principle empirically testable, and a theory is falsified when it's empirical predictions fail.

I wonder whether this is true, or whether any science of cosmic evolution must confront the ultimate limits to science in facing fundamental mysteries of nature that are not open to observational or experimental study.  Herbert Spencer set forth a scientific account of cosmic evolution that is very similar to Chaisson's.  Like Chaisson, Spencer saw a cosmic evolution from simplicity to complexity, from homogeneity to heterogeneity, which could be explained through natural laws.  But unlike Chaisson, Spencer thought that increasing scientific knowledge reveals "the ultimate mystery of things," and thus provides "a firmer basis to all true Religion."  Modern science shows the power of the human intellect in explaining everything that comes within the range of human experience.  But it also shows the weakness of the human intellect in dealing with all that transcends human experience.

What happened before the Big Bang?  Are black holes real?  Is the universe that we see only one of an infinite number of universes?  Are such questions answerable through observation and experimentation?  Or do such questions arise from our symbolic imaginations about things that are forever beyond the range of human experience?

We must consider the possibility that the fundamental constituents of nature are either too small, too far away, or too far in the past to be observed directly by us or indirectly through our instruments, and thus nature's secrets are buried so deep or so far away that we have no way to test our theoretical speculations about them.

We must also consider the possibility that the Epic of Cosmic Evolution will not give human beings a privileged position, and that it will predict a future in which human beings and all other forms of life are gone forever, which will confirm the suspicion that the universe does not care for or about us.  Can human beings live with that?  This is what Strauss identified in the science of Lucretius as "the most terrible truth."  Will human beings inevitably turn to religious myths that deny this truth in affirming that it's all about us?

Chaisson agrees that the empirical evidence of the cosmic evolution of complexity as measured by energy rate density shows that human brains and human cultures are some of the most complex systems in the Universe.  And yet he sees no empirical evidence that cosmic evolution follows some grand design leading up to human life as having some privileged position.  While we can hope that the human species will endure into the near future, the empirical evidence of how ordered systems evolve and of the rare conditions required for human life make it clear that human life is unlikely to last for long, and that the eventual death of the Sun will bring earthly life to an end.

In Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014), David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin argue that the scientific origin story of Big History can "give us a powerful sense of meaning," and if this new origin story is taught to high school students around the world, this could provide us with a shared global understanding of our human place in the universe that could help us confront the greatest threats to human existence on earth today--such as nuclear war and global warming. 

Bill Gates has supported their project for providing material for high school teachers to teach Big History.  So that, while previously children were taught the religious origin stories of their various societies, which explained the cosmic meaning of their lives within their social order, the new scientifically grounded Big History can teach children around the world an origin story that depends on scientific evidence rather than religious faith, and which can sustain a global ethics comprehensible to human beings in all societies, who otherwise disagree in their religious beliefs.

By contrast, some scientists today claim that science and religion are compatible, and that the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos, and of the human place within the cosmos, supports the cosmic teleology of the theistic origin stories.  For example, Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and he argues that a scientific history of the cosmos shows evidence of divine purposefulness, because the physical and chemical constants of the universe seem to be fine-tuned for the emergence of a world hospitable to intelligent life.  Thus, science can sustain a cosmic teleology in which human life gains meaning as the fulfillment of God's purposes.

To reach this conclusion, however, Gingerich's view of cosmic history must stop at the present moment, with human intelligent life dominant over the Earth, and thus he refuses to reflect on the cosmic future and the likelihood that in the distant future all life will almost certainly be extinguished, because in that case we might as well conclude that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for eternal death.

If we could look at the entire history of the cosmos, we might see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, would seem to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it would seem that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.

Many other prominent scientists have made claims like Gingerich about how the fine-tuning of the universe supports a theistic view of human life as the fulfillment of divine purposefulness.  This is a new version of the old argument from design (first stated by Plato)--that if nature looks like it has been intelligently designed, then this must point to a divinely intelligent designer.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do not mention such scientific theism as an alternative to their position.  Although they do not explicitly say so, they imply that modern science must be atheistic.  They certainly make it clear that the Biblical origin story must be rejected as false.

My position falls somewhere in between Gingerich and the Big History folks.  I agree with Gingerich that modern science does not dictate atheism, because scientific answers to questions about how things work fall short of answering questions about why they work that way, which are the questions that open up the possibility of divine purposefulness.  Questions about first causes point to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation.  To the question of why nature exists, or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers.  Either we say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we move beyond nature to nature's God as the creator of nature, but then we cannot explain why God is the way He is.  In looking for an ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

If we could imagine ourselves somehow--billions of years into the future--being there to observe the end of all life and the approaching darkness of cosmic death, we might say: Well, it was good while it lasted.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Thousand Posts (7)

2015
In the spring semester, I taught my undergraduate course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature."  This course was cross-listed in the course schedule at NIU for both the political science and the biology departments. So there were biology majors as well as political science majors in the class.  This is good, because it is good for students from different departments to learn how to talk to one another about common topics. 

And in this case, the course brings together the social sciences and the life sciences through Darwinian evolutionary biology as a unifying framework of thought.  So this illustrates what I call "Darwinian liberal education" (see the post in December of 2006).

Like all of my courses, this course was organized around reading intellectually challenging texts, peer-response writing about those texts, and class discussion stimulated by the reading and writing (see the post in February of 2008 on "Liberal Learning Through Peer-Response Journal Writing").

Many of my blog posts in the spring were related to what we were doing in this class.  I also included some of my earlier blog posts as assigned readings for the class.

The course was a study of four debates.  For each debate, there were readings on opposing sides.  The students were free to make up their own minds, as long as they were able to support their positions with good evidence and arguments.


1. THE DEBATE OVER EVOLUTION, CREATION SCIENCE, AND INTELLIGENT DESIGN

The assigned readings were by Duane Gish ("Summary of the Scientific Evidence for Creation"), William Dembski ("Intelligent Design"), and me ("On the Evidence for Evolution," a blog post in January of 2011, and "Can We See Evolution in the Beak of the Finch?", a blog post in July of 2013).

Some of my students were religious believers who saw evolutionary science as a denial of their faith in God as the Creator.  This first set of readings allowed us to debate the evidence for divine creation, intelligent design, or natural evolution.  We also considered the possibility of theistic evolution.

Some of the biology majors were creationists who did not accept the idea of biological evolution.  When I asked them what happened when evolution was brought up in their biology classes, one student answered: "We keep our mouths shut!"


2.  THE DEBATE OVER HUMAN NATURE

The two main texts were my book Darwinian Natural Right, defending the idea of a biological human nature, and Jesse Prinz's book Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind, which argues against a biological human nature.

There were other readings by Carson Holloway, Anne Fausto-Sterling ("The Five Sexes"), Deirdre McCloskey, and John Hare, along with some of my blog posts.

The topics included the possibility of Darwinian natural right, whether there are more than two sexes among human beings, whether biological conceptions of human nature are sexist and racist, whether male and female brains are different, whether the importance of culture shows that there is no biological human nature, and whether the incest taboo is purely cultural and not natural.


3.  THE DEBATE OVER LAW AND EVOLUTIONARY NEUROSCIENCE

The main reading was Morris Hoffman's The Punisher's Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury.  Other readings were by Joshua Buckholtz, et al. ("The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment") and Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld (Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience).

The debate here was over whether Judge Hoffman was correct in explaining law--and particularly the work of judges and jurors--as rooted in evolved human nature, and particularly in the neural circuitry of the brain that supports the human propensity to punish cheaters.


4.  THE DEBATE OVER ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND TRANSHUMANISM

The two main readings were Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and James Barrat's Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.  Other readings were by Alan Turing ("Computing Machinery and Intelligence") and John Searle ("What Your Computer Can't Know").

The debate here was whether human thinking and consciousness could be achieved in a computer and whether artificial intelligence could ever surpass human intelligence.  If human intelligence was produced by the biological evolution of animals, could artificial intelligence be produced by the technological evolution of machines?  And if so, what would this mean for law, morality, and politics?

In January, my post on Carson Holloway's "Strauss, Darwinism, and Natural Right" was the first post coming out of this class.  Leo Strauss thought the crisis of natural right arose because the teleological view of the universe that supported classic natural right has apparently been refuted by modern natural science.  I have argued, however, that a Darwinian understanding of the immanent teleology of life, including human life, can resolve this crisis by supporting a Darwinian conception of natural right.  Holloway has criticized my argument for failing to recognize that any conception of natural right depends on a  "religiously informed cosmic teleology" that is denied by Darwinian science. He suggests that Strauss himself agreed with him on this.

Although I disagree with Holloway's general argument, I do think he has correctly pointed to a strange kind of religious or quasi-religious teleology in Strauss's writing about natural right.
Holloway notes the "certain otherworldliness" in Strauss's "transcendent" conception of the philosopher as standing at the peak of a cosmic hierarchy.  But Holloway does not reflect on how strange this is.  How can this "transcendent" conception be consistent with Strauss's denial of Platonic metaphysical dualism and his insistence that Plato was not a Platonist?  It is true that in some of the passages cited by Holloway, Strauss does seem to endorse the cosmology of the "Great Chain of Being" that dominated Western culture for two millennia through the influence of Plato's Timaeus.  But this contradicts Strauss's claim that this Platonic cosmology is Plato's exoteric teaching, not his esoteric teaching.  If there is a "benevolent cosmic intelligence," as Holloway indicates, would Strauss say that this is the philosopher?

Strauss sometimes suggested that the unnaturalness of slavery--shown by the natural resistance of the slave to his enslavement--is a good illustration of natural right.  In February, I wrote a post arguing that this does not require a "religiously informed cosmic teleology," because it expresses the immanent teleology of human nature.

This writing on Strauss and Darwinian natural right has gone into the Strauss chapter of Political Questions.

Another challenge to my argument for Darwinian natural right that we considered in class was the objection that the fact of there being as many as "five sexes," as argued by Fausto-Sterling, seemed to deny my claim that there was a natural desire for sexual identity as a male or female.

In some posts (in October of 2007 and November of 2010), I have responded by indicating that even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female, I recognize the variation from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites, who combine both sexes, or those who cross from one to the other.  It is natural for human beings to have a sexual identity that is either male or female. But the biological nature of sexual differentiation sometimes deviates from this central tendency.

Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter of cultural tradition and prudential judgment. But the fact that biological nature throws up such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female

In February and March, I wrote posts on Jesse Prinz's book.  I was interested in studying his book, because some of my critics have claimed that his book refutes my Darwinian natural right.  But I must say that Prinz's arguments are remarkably shallow, sophistical, and contradictory.  Oh, well, nobody's perfect!

Two contradictions run throughout Prinz's argument for going "beyond human nature."  The first contradiction is that he begins his book by saying that biological determinism is a straw man, because almost none of the naturists defend biological determinism; but then throughout the book, he criticizes the naturists as biological determinists.

The second contradiction is that he insists that he never denies the importance of biology, because explaining human traits always requires that we see the interaction between biology and culture; but then he says that culture can eliminate biology.

An example of the first contradiction is that he criticizes Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray as biological determinists in their account of IQ in The Bell Curve, even though they clearly and emphatically reject biological determinism and acknowledge the importance of environmental factors.

Both of these contradictions arise in Prinz's account of gender differences.  First, even though he has said early in his book that naturists are not biological determinists, he declares: "Naturists tend to be biological determinists.  They tend to think that gender differences are indelibly etched in our genetic building blocks."

He also shows the second contradiction.  He insists: "An adequate theory of gender differences in cognition must implicate both biology and socialization."  But then two paragraphs later, he declares: "Culture can also erase biological differences."

Prinz argues for emotivism and cultural relativism in his account of human morality.  In doing this, he employs the sophistical technique of deceptive silence.  In presenting the research relevant to his topic, he picks out those findings that seem to support his arguments, while passing over in silence those findings that contradict his arguments. 

For example, he sets up a stark debate between Kantian rationalism and Humean emotivism in explaining the basis of human morality; and he argues that empirical research supports emotivism by showing that moral judgment is purely emotional and not rational at all.  This is deceptive in two respects.  First, he does not tell his readers that Hume argued for a combination of reason and emotion in explaining moral judgment. 

The second deception is in Prinz's reporting of the experimental research on moral judgment.  He correctly reports that the research shows the power of emotion in motivating moral judgment.  But he is silent about how that research--for example, as presented by Joshua Greene--shows the complex interaction of reason and emotion in ways that confirm Hume's position. 

According to Prinz, "every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait," because "every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment."  Consequently, "there is no sharp contrast between nature and nurture."  "Nurture depends on nature, and nature exists in the service of nurture."

Oddly, in saying this, Prinz does not realize that he is endorsing E. O. Wilson's sociobiological argument that the necessary interaction of genes and culture constitutes human nature.  If human culture is part of human nature, then it's hard to see how Prinz's argument for the importance of human culture takes us "beyond human nature."  Strangely, only a few sentences after stating that "nurture depends on nature," Prinz concludes his book by declaring that through nurture, "we transcend nature" (368). 

Here we see the fundamental contradiction that runs throughout Prinz's book--first rejecting the nature/nurture dichotomy as a false dichotomy, but then embracing the dichotomy and insisting that nurture transcends nature.

In contrast to Prinz's transcendentalist dualism, one of the best illustrations of the gene-culture coevolution of human nature is the incest taboo as explained by Edward Westermarck's Darwinian theory.  Prinz's attempt to refute that theory shows the incoherence and deceptiveness of his reasoning.

In April, I wrote a post on Hoffman's book and his fundamental claim that "evolution built us to punish cheaters."  Hoffman explains our punishment of cheaters as moving through three levels.  Through first-party punishment, we punish ourselves with conscience and guilt.  Through second-party punishment, we punish our tormentors with retaliation and revenge.  Through third-party punishment, we act as a group in punishing wrongdoers with retribution.  Judges and jurors are acting as third-party punishers.  Hoffman's argument is that the human brain has been shaped by biological evolution to have the instinctive propensities for punishment at all three levels.

Moreover, he argues, at all three levels, we are guided by three rules of right and wrong rooted in our evolved human nature to secure property and promises.  Rule 1: Transfers of property must be voluntary.  Rule 2:  Promises must be kept.  Rule 3:  Serious violations of Rules 1 and 2 must be punished.

Hoffman interprets "property" in a broad sense as starting with self-ownership and encompassing one's life, health, and possessions, as well as the life, health, and possessions of one's family and others to whom one is attached.  (Although he does not mention John Locke, Hoffman here echoes Locke's argument for self-ownership as the ground of property rights.  Indeed, it seems to me that Hoffman's whole argument for the evolution of punishment supports Locke's account of how the instinctive propensities for punishment sustain social order.)  Understood in this broad way, Rule 1 embraces criminal law and tort law, while Rule 2 embraces contract law.

Classical liberals or libertarians could embrace this as a good statement of their claim that the primary purpose of law is to punish force and fraud and secure the liberty of individuals to live as they please so long as they do not harm others.
I largely agree with Hoffman, because most of what he says I see as the application of Darwinian natural right to the study of law.  My only disagreement is that in relying on neuroscience, and especially brain-scanning experiments, he does not acknowledge, much less respond to, the many criticisms of what Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have called "mindless neuroscience"--the exaggerated claims for brain-scanning as mind-reading that ignore the problems in inferring the thoughts and feelings of the mind from neural correlates in the brain.

I have written posts on the "brain-imaging fallacy" (March 2007, June 2008).  The fundamental problem is the mystery of consciousness--that our only direct access to conscious thoughts and feelings is through our own internal subjectivity, and that any inference of what's happening in the mind from what is happening in the brain must always be uncertain and imprecise.  Hoffman could have acknowledged such problems in neuroscience and brain-scanning without weakening his general argument, which is supported by many different lines of reasoning.

Hoffman is a trial judge in Denver.  Much of the attraction of his book for my students was from his anecdotes about his experiences as a judge.  But some of my students were disturbed by his conclusion that the evolutionary science of punishment confirms his personal experience that his judgments of criminal blameworthiness are ultimately based on "gut feelings."

If that is so, could we someday replace Judge Hoffman with a judicial robot programmed with the right gut feelings and the knowledge of the law, so as to judge blameworthiness and set the appropriate punishment?  Or is it impossible for even the most artificially intelligent robot to replicate human judgment?  If Judge Hoffman's mind is the product of a natural evolutionary process, as he believes it is, then why could we not produce an artificially intelligent mind through a mechanical evolutionary process? 

We raised these questions in class, and I wrote a series of posts on this in April.  Some of this writing went into my chapter on Descartes in Political Questions.

I have argued for explaining the human mind as an emergent property of the human brain once it passed over a critical threshold of size and complexity in the evolution of the primate brain.  If that is true, then one might wonder whether technological evolution could do for robots what biological evolution has done for humans.  Is it possible that once computer technology passes over a critical threshold of complexity, comparable to the complexity of the human brain, could a mechanical brain equal or even surpass the intelligence of human beings? 

And if that is possible, what moral, legal, and political questions would this raise?  Must we soon be ruled by robots who are smarter than us?  Or will we use this technology of artificial intelligence to extend our human intelligence, so that we will be as super-intelligent as our machines?  Will our super-intelligent robots demand to be treated as persons with rights?  Will they have a morality like ours?  Or will they be moved by a will to power that is beyond human good and evil?

We can anticipate that such questions about advances in artificial intelligence will become the deepest political questions of the twenty-first century.

Many years ago, when I first began thinking about this, I was persuaded by Searle's famous Chinese Room argument against the Turing Test for human-level intelligence in a machine.  But now, I think Kurzweil is right in arguing that Searle's Chinese Room doesn't refute the Turing Test.

The Turing Test is the common name today for what Turing originally called the Imitation Game.  He proposed this as the best test of whether a digital computer has achieved intelligence comparable to human intelligence.  (Actually, Descartes proposed a similar test for machine intelligence in his Discourse on Method.)  Put a computer and a human being in separate rooms.  Ask a human being to try to detect which one is the computer by asking questions typed onto pieces of paper slipped under the doors of the rooms.  The computer and human being will answer the questions on pieces of paper, with the computer pretending to be a human being, and the human being trying to show that he is the human being.  If the computer has the intelligence for communicating in language in ways that a good human speaker of the language would interpret as showing human intelligence, then the computer has passed the test.  Writing in 1950, Turing thought that digital computers would begin to pass the test by the year 2000.

IBM built the chess-playing machine Deep Blue that defeated Gary Kasparov, the reigning world champion in chess, in 1997.  This was impressive, but it did not show that AI machines are capable of general intelligence and flexible judgment comparable to that of human beings.  Chess is a restricted domain with clear rules and a clear objective (capturing the King).  By contrast, success in playing the television game Jeopardy! requires general knowledge of history, culture, literature, and science.  It also depends on flexibility in interpreting puns, metaphors, and other nuances of language. 

The IBM scientists decided that if they could build an AI machine that could defeat a Jeopardy! champion like Ken Jennings, this would show that artificial intelligence was finally moving towards general intelligence like that of human beings.  In 2011, Watson did indeed defeat Jennings in playing the game.

From his experience in competing against Watson, Jennings decided that Watson was a lot like the human players of Jeopardy.  “Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy player,” Jennings observed.  “It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.”

But does Watson really think?  John Searle answered no, the day after Watson won the Jeopardy competition.  “IBM invented an ingenious program—not a computer that can think,” he declared.  “Watson did not understand the questions, nor its answers, nor that some of its answers were right and some wrong, nor that it was playing a game, nor that it won—because it doesn’t understand anything.”

In November, I wrote a post on a movie Ex Machina that raises the question--Can robotic love pass the Turing test?  Could a young man be seduced by a beautiful robot--knowing that she is a robot--into believing that she feels love for him?  I suspect that Ava, the robot, has no moral emotions, and so she's a psychopath who can cheat without conscience.

In March, I wrote a post on the neural basis of psychopathy.  Hoffman says that pure psychopaths do not experience first-party punishment, because they do not feel guilt or shame.  And so, since they don't punish themselves for cheating, they will become successful cheaters, unless they suffer the second-party punishment from retaliation and revenge or the third-party punishment from retribution.

Kent Kiehl has shown that while the intellectual intelligence of psychopaths can be high, as indicated by high IQ, their emotional intelligence is low; and he can show that this low emotional intelligence is correlated with low activity and low gray matter density in the paralimbic and limbic systems of the brain, which include bilateral parahippocampal, amygdala, and hippocampal regions, bilateral temporal pole, posterior cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex.  Deficits in these parts of the brain are associated with deficits in emotional processing, which could explain why psychopaths lack the moral emotions of guilt, shame, love, and empathy that sustain the moral sense of most people.  (Does this cast doubt on the argument of Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer for a "moral Flynn effect"--the idea that increases in IQ can bring moral improvement?)

This is why in Darwinian Natural Right, I identify psychopaths as "moral strangers" who are not open to moral persuasion, because they lack any natural moral emotions.  This refutes any Kantian rationalist conception of morality as based on pure a priori reasoning freed from emotion or desire.  This topic of psychopathy stirred lively discussions in class.

After the spring semester was over, I turned to working on a paper for the convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco--"The Biopolitical Science of Locke's State of Nature."  Some of my thinking for this paper came from Hoffman, because Hoffman's argument for the naturally evolved propensity to punish cheaters largely confirms what Locke says about the natural right to punish in the state of nature.  Many of my posts from May to August went into this paper.

Some libertarian anarchists see Locke's state of nature among foraging bands as showing how human beings for most of their history have lived in anarchy without government.  Some anarchists think that much of human life even in modern states is still anarchic in being organized by private governance--through private police, private arbitration of disputes, and private courts.  Does this show how individual liberty is best secured through the evolution of spontaneous order without any need for government?  Or does an anarchic state of nature tend to fall into feuding and war if there is not at least a limited government to keep the peace?  Do government agents (politicians, regulators, police, and courts) always have the knowledge, incentives, and ability to solve public problems in a low-cost way?  Or is private governance generally better at solving public problems? 

I raised these questions about anarchism in some posts in January and December.  Much of this writing went into my chapter on Smith in Political Questions.  My post on Edward Stringham's Private Governance has been published in the Review of Austrian Economics (2017).

In the fall semester, I taught my course on "Natural Right and Law," which included Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on Law."  From June to November, I wrote a long series of posts on the theme of Thomistic natural law as Darwinian natural right.

This began in June with posts on Thomistic natural law in Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision--Obergefell v. Hodges

I am not convinced that Mike Huckabee was right in condemning the Supreme Court for trying "to unwrite the laws of nature and the laws of nature's God" in upholding gay marriage as a constitutional right.  Although he does not explicitly appeal to Thomistic natural law, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges implicitly engages in Thomistic natural law reasoning.

"The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just," Kennedy observes, "but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest."  So what seemed natural and just can now be understood to be unnatural and unjust.  Natural justice requires extending the right to marry to same-sex couples.

The dissenters in this case insist that the only standards for determining constitutional rights come from "history and tradition," and therefore there can be no constitutional right for same-sex marriages, because "history and tradition" restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.  But Kennedy argues that in exercising "reasoned judgment" about how choices about marriage express "our common humanity," "history and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries."  Once we understand that sexual orientation is part of our "immutable nature," and that homosexuals have the same natural desires for marital love and parental care of children that heterosexuals do, then we can see that same-sex marriage is rooted in human nature.

According to Thomas Aquinas, marriage is natural insofar as it satisfies two natural ends--securing the parental care of children and securing the conjugal bonding of male and female in the household.  Kennedy agrees with this, although he sees same-sex marriages as securing the same two natural ends.

Aquinas accepts the biblical teaching (in Paul's Letter to the Romans, 1-2) that homosexuality is "contrary to nature."  By contrast, Kennedy believes that homosexual inclinations express the "immutable nature" of homosexuals. Aquinas concedes that in their sexual desires, human beings differ in their "temperamental nature," in that a few human beings will naturally choose to be celibate, such as those (like Aquinas himself) who choose to take religious vows of celibacy.  But he never concedes that homosexuality might also express "temperamental nature."  So here is the one fundamental point of disagreement between Aquinas and Kennedy.


As I noted in posts in October, Aquinas thought that homosexuality must be unnatural for two reasons.  Nonhuman animals do not engage in homosexual conduct.  And homosexuality does not lead to procreation and parental care of children.

We now know, however, that Thomas was mistaken about both of these points.  Scientists have observed homosexual behavior in 471 animal species.  Scientists have also observed that same-sex pairs have successfully reared young in at least 20 species.  In some cases, one or both partners are the biological parent(s) of the young they raise together.  In other cases, the partners adopt and care for young without being the biological parents.  Moreover, in some cases, the same-sex couples seem to be more successful in their parenting than opposite-sex parents.

We also now know that homosexuality is biologically natural in that it arises through the interaction of many biological factors in the early development of fetuses and children--genes and sex hormones shape the body and the brain in early life so that people are naturally predisposed to become heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual.  And while there is no single "gay gene," there are probably many different genes interacting with one another in various ways that influence sexual orientation.


In defending the natural law of gay marriage, I continue my argument against the claim of Robert George and Ryan Anderson that only heterosexual marriage can be "real marriage."  In October, I wrote a post challenging Anderson's critique of the Obergefell decision.

Natural law reasoning is an empirical science insofar as it makes falsifiable predictions about the failure of laws that deny human nature.  So, for example, if one agrees with George and Anderson that the monogamous marriage of a man and a woman is the only kind of marriage that can secure the two natural ends of marriage--conjugal bonding and parental care of children--and that same-sex marriage is not real marriage because it cannot secure these two natural ends, then one can predict that legalizing gay marriage will fail because it cannot satisfy the natural human desires for marital bonding and parental care.  Justice Kennedy agrees that marital arrangements are to be judged by whether they can achieve these two natural ends, but he argues that same-sex marriages can be as successful as opposite-sex marriages in securing these two ends.

Now that Obergefell has established gay marriage as a national constitutional right, we can begin to accumulate the evidence for deciding between these two falsifiable predictions--George's prediction that gay marriage will fail and Kennedy's prediction that it will succeed.  But in the responses to the Obergefell decision that I have seen, I have not seen many people making this point.

Thomas agrees with Aristotle that the end of all human action is happiness.  Natural law is about how we pursue happiness by satisfying our natural inclinations.  So, for example, marriage naturally contributes to our happiness by securing two natural ends--the parental care of children and the spousal bonding of husband and wife in a household.  These natural ends are achieved most fully, Thomas argues, in a heterosexual life-long monogamous marriage.  In principle, Thomas's claim that monogamous marriage is naturally conducive to happiness is empirically testable.

Some of my students in my fall class disagreed with Thomas's claim.  They thought it was obvious that unmarried people were just as happy as married people, and that the children of unmarried single parents were just as happy as the children of married parents. 

To provoke some discussion, I distributed some excerpts from Charles Murray's book Coming Apart, presenting data about rates of marriage, divorce, and reported happiness among white Americans between the ages of 30 and 45.  In 1960, almost everyone was married, divorce rates were close to zero, and most people reported being "very happy" in their lives.  Forty years later, most of those in the upper class were still like this and still happy; but many of those in the lower class were unmarried and unhappy.  Murray worries about the condition of this new white underclass in America.  Some of the students criticized Murray's presentation and analysis of his data.  But we did agree that this does suggest ways in which Thomistic natural law might be empirically testable.  I wrote a post on this in September.

In January and July, I wrote posts on Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (2014), which provides massive evidence and argumentation in defense of Leo Strauss's claim that political philosophers have written esoterically for thousands of years, which was necessary to protect philosophy and society from mutual harm, although in the past two centuries, this has been largely forgotten. 

And yet, Melzer's book also suggests that modern liberalism's success over the past two centuries shows that esoteric writing is not necessary or desirable in a liberal open society, which appears to refute Strauss's core teaching that the philosophic life of the few as the only naturally good life must be in conflict with the miserable life of the many that depends on moral, religious, and political delusions. That the philosophic life as based on truth must threaten the social life based on opinion is perhaps true for the traditional societies that have dominated most of human history, but it is not true for the modern liberal societies that have emerged in many parts of the world over the past two centuries. 


According to Strauss, the premodern philosophers believed that "the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature," and that "public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times."

If Strauss agreed with this, then that would mean that he thought that liberalism must be a dangerous delusion, and that he must write esoterically to hide his opposition to liberalism.  As Strauss wrote, "if I know that the principles of liberal democracy are not intrinsically superior to the principles of communism or fascism, I am incapable of whole-hearted commitment to liberal democracy."  We would then have to wonder what kind of alternative he had in mind--what kind of illiberal closed society he would prefer. 

Melzer is completely silent about Will Altman's argument that Strauss did engage in esoteric writing in promoting an illiberal alternative to liberal democracy.  He is also silent about Strauss's professed devotion to "fascistic, authoritarian, imperial principles" and his refusal to crawl to the cross of liberalism (in a letter to Lowith in 1933).  (See my post on this letter in March 2014.)


So far, I have not seen anyone who can clear up this apparent contradiction in Strauss's writing.  Nor have I seen anyone who can plausibly deny that modern liberalism really has succeeded in creating a largely open society with no need for esoteric writing.  In such a society, the philosophic life is not the only naturally good life restricted to a few, but it is rather one of the natural goods of life that is open to all human beings.

Where's Strauss's demonstration that the life of philosophy or science is the only good life for a human being? If the philosophic life is the life of relentless questioning and inquiry where one accepts nothing as true unless it has been proven to be true based on what we can see and know for ourselves, rather than relying on faith in what others have told us, then it is self-contradictory to choose such a life as the best life without demonstrative proof that it is so.

Although Strauss generally assumes that the philosophic life is superior in dignity to any moral life, I cannot think of any place in Strauss's writing where he carefully lays out a demonstrative proof that the philosophic life is the only truly good life for a human being.  (See my post on this in July 2011.)

Most of this writing on Strauss and esotericism has gone into my Strauss chapter in Political Questions and into an article in Perspectives on Political Science (July/September, 2015), which has a symposium of articles on Melzer's book.