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.
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.
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.
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."