Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Larry Arnhart's Biopolitical Philosophy

In the essay “On Classical Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss distinguished between the definite activities of the political philosopher, the legislator, and the statesman, in the following way. 
“Political science” as the skill of the excellent politician or statesman consists in the right handling of individual situations; its immediate “products” are commands or decrees or advices effectively expressed, which are intended to cope with the individual case.  Political life knows, however, a still higher kind of political understanding, which is concerned not with individual cases but, as regards each relevant subject, with all cases, and whose immediate “products”‑laws and institutions‑are meant to be permanent...
Every legislator is primarily concerned with the individual community for which he legislates, but he has to raise certain questions which regard all legislation.  These most fundamental and most universal political questions are naturally fit to be made the subject of the most “architectonic,” the truly “architectonic” political knowledge: of that political science which is the goal of the political philosopher. 
I still remember the wonder with which I first encountered this progression from the immediate, to the long term, to the universal.  It came to mind when I read the following conclusion to Larry Arnhart’s essay: “The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science.” 
Biopolitical science would thus explain politics as the joint product of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. The natural propensities as shaped in the genetic evolution of political animals constrain but do not determine the cultural traditions of politics. These natural propensities and cultural traditions constrain but do not determine the practical judgments of political actors about what should be done in particular cases, as in Lincoln’s decision about the Emancipation Proclamation. 
To explain this complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment, biopolitical science would draw knowledge from all fields of traditional political science and from intellectual disciplines across the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
There is grandeur in this view of political life, as originating through the laws of nature for the emergence of irreducibly complex wholes from the cooperation of simple parts, so that, from ants and bees to chimps and humans, endless forms of political order most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The emphasis is mine.  This essay comes from the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics.  It is one of a series of responses to John R. Hibbing’s article: “Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics.” 
The emphasized words constitute one of the most concise and powerful arguments for biopolitical science and, one may go farther here, biopolitical philosophy.  This is evident in the comparison between Strauss’s political philosophy, legislation and statesmanship, and Arnhart’s “natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.”  The objects of political philosophy are the political things in the broadest possible sense: those that do not change or change the least with place and time.  Culture traditions are the products of more or less conscious legislation, as the Greek word nomoi indicates.  Finally, statesmanship is only a special case of individual action, which every citizen necessary participates in. 
The point in Arnhart’s statement is that while nature constrains both culture and individual action, it leaves open a space within which both communities and individuals are able to move, innovate, and make deliberate choices.  That addresses one of the most common objections to biopolitical science: that it amounts to determinism. 
I would add three points here.  One is that nature constrains culture and individual action in two ways.  One is that it limits what is possible.  Someone who believes that she can survive without consuming physical nutrients is mistaken, and no amount of faith or spiritual awareness will supply this limitation. 
Another way that nature constrains the human action is that it limits what is desirable.  It is possible for a person to live the solitary life of a hermit, since hermits occasionally do it; however, human beings being social animals, such a life will never be desirable for most of us. 
The second point is that nature constrains individuals in two ways that can, for some purposes, be distinguished.  Human beings are mammals and mammalian nature is a broad universal.  Individual human beings are also individuals and individuals vary not only by environment but also by biological inheritance.  John Hibbing’s work presents powerful evidence for the inheritance of a wide range of character traits that were, not long ago, assumed to be entirely acquired. 
My last point is that causation works both ways.  Christopher Boehm argues (Cross-Cultural Research, November 2008, 319-352) that
Purposive social selection at the level of phenotype can have parallel effects at the level of the genotype, and that social control has shaped human genetic nature profoundly.
In other words, human cultures, operating within that free space that our natural propensities allow, can bring selection pressure to bear that is sufficient to change those natural propensities.  Boehm begins by reference to the fact that Serbian mountain pastoralists are the tallest “Caucasians” in the world.  He argues that this is in part because of a cultural preference for taller women.  This example, if it holds up, suggests that more or less conscious social selection (the Serbs presumably didn’t know they were breeding for stature) can act relatively quickly.

Boehm’s central target is the evolution of human morality.  He thinks that our capacity for altruism and (my terms) our pallet of moral emotions are the result of selection pressure that originated in the free action of individuals, living in small groups, and over time acting more and more collectively.  I think he is right.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Natural Origin of Moral Cultures

In ancient Greek philosophy the most important dichotomy involved phusis and nomos, nature and convention.  Phusis, which is the root of our word for physics, means growth.  A phuton, or “a growth” was the Greek word for a flower or tree or something else that grew out of the soil.  It is interesting that our word “plant” names such an organism by reference to the act of putting it in the ground whereas the Greek word points to the process that defines the organism.  I will leave it to the students of Martin Heidegger to run with that one.  It is enough to say that phusis is the inner nature of anything, what makes it present itself and behave as it does, prior to any human interpretation. 
Nomos originally meant an enclosed pasture, within which animals were allowed to roam free.  The Greeks used the word metaphorically to indicate the written and unwritten laws that govern human social intercourse.  Human beings corral themselves by drawing their wagons into a circle.  The corral is merely a set of agreements or conventions made by particular communities.  We bury our dead.  They burn theirs.  We drink alcohol.  They eat pork.  Just as the pasture is enclosed by an artificial barrier, so the nomoi are human-made.  The nomoi exist by agreement or convention. 
Phusis is the same everywhere and always.  Fire always reaches toward the sky, whether in ancient Athens or today in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  Nomoi vary both between communities and within the same community over time.  For the Greek philosophers, phusis was existentially superior to nomos.  Philosophy was the attempt to replace opinions about the whole of things with knowledge.  If you properly understand something that never changes, you will never be wrong about it.  This kind of understanding is possible (at least in principle) regarding the natural things.  It is not possible even in principle to know something that is valid only by convention.  What is true by convention is worth knowing for practical reasons but uninteresting for theoretical reasons. 
Two corrections regarding the classical view are necessary in light of the modern science of phusis, which today we call biology.  First, natural things are more subject to change than the ancients had supposed.  Both modern biology and even modern physics are evolutionary sciences.  Second, it is no longer possible to view nomos and phusis as mutually exclusive explanations for human behavior.  The creation of norms and other conventions is something that human beings do by nature.  Thus nomoi are as much an expression of human nature and as revealing as the fact that we huddle around a fire when it gets cold. 
One of the things that led me to rethink this is the marvelous article by Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish: “Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality.”  (Annual Review of Psychology, 2013, 64: 231-255).  Tomasello and his large collection of partners work both with apes and young children in order to understand human nature and how it is both very similar and very different from our near Darwinian relatives.  This bit (p. 246-247) jumped out at me:
Further evidence for young children’s understanding of the basic workings of social norms is provided by their selective enforcement of different types of social norms depending on group membership. Thus, children not only distinguish moral from conventional norms on multiple levels (see, e.g., Turiel 2006), but they also enforce the two distinctly.
In particular, when 3-year-old children see a moral norm being broken by an in-group member and an out-group member (as determined by their accents), they protest equivalently. But when they see a conventional norm being broken by these same agents, they protest more against an in-group member than an out-group member (Schmidt et al. 2011).
In this way as well, then, 3-year-olds have a sense of the conventional nature of conventional norms, that is, that these norms have been decided on by, and thus apply only to, one’s own group but that members of other groups may not be aware of or need not follow the same conventions. The same is not true of moral norms involving harm, toward which they take a more universalist approach.
According to this research, 3-year-old children are capable of distinguishing between conventional right (rules of conduct that are valid only because our group has agreed to them) and natural right (rules of conduct that are valid across all human associations).  Assuming that the children in the study are not students of political theory and have not been carefully coached by grad student parents, they seem to have an instinct grasp of the difference between nomoi and phusis.  They instinctively understand the difference between rules that are valid because we agreed on them and thus valid only for those who are part of the agreement and rules that bind everyone. 
If this holds up, it is dynamite for political philosophy.  It means that culture and nature are not in opposition, as social and political theory have supposed since the early moderns.  Culture, or social construction, is not something that takes place in some realm isolated or at least insulated from nature.  Instead, culture is a subcategory of nature.  Fish swim, dogs pee on fire hydrants, and human beings make table manners.  This gives full weight to the conventional nature of conventional norms and at the same time allows us to recognize universal standards by which those norms may be judged.  It makes it possible to respect and tolerate culture differences but also satisfies an apparently natural human yearning to know that some things are simply right and others wrong. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Inequity Aversion and the Limits to Human Social Integration
My friend Ron White raises the following question on the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page:
Ronald F. White Ken Blanchard Jr.....why not get back to Book 5 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics? Why not explore the evolution of retribution and distribution based on MERIT, NEED, EQUALITY, and UTILITY? And of course the conflicts that arise at different, times, places and degrees. I've always found this "cooperation research" to be a bit left-leaning....overly focused on need and equality. Don't you?
I reply: no.  I think cooperation research captures the tension between Aristotle’s two moral/political books.  The Nicomachean Ethics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the deliberate action of some individual human being:
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good. 
The Politics begins with the assumption that the human thing is the cooperative association
Every polis is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for human beings always act in order to obtain that which they think good.
As usual, I think Aristotle’s approach is perfect.  You can’t understand human beings without looking at us from both points of view.  Having digested de Waal and Brosnan’s article in Science, I think it supports Aristotle’s approach. 
“The Evolution of Responses to (Un)fairness” distinguishes two forms of inequity aversion.  First Order IA presents when a partner in some cooperative activity objects to a distribution of the fruits of the partnership that weighs to the objector’s disadvantage.  This form of inequity aversion has been found among a range of species that routinely cooperate. 
Second order IA presents when a partner responds negatively to an inequitable distribution of the fruits of cooperation that benefits the objector.  If I read the article correctly, this form has been found only in chimpanzees and human beings. 
What I make of this is that selfish reciprocity (I cooperate only in so far as I benefit) has much deeper evolutionary roots than conscientious reciprocity (I am concerned both for me and my partner).  Human beings are capable of cooperation on a level that leaves all the other primates far behind.  The emergence of human moral and political is a result, in large part, of the runaway selection for second order IA.  That indeed points toward a “socialist” view of man.  Nonetheless, second order IA is dependent upon first order IA, and the latter has deeper roots.  Anthropoi are not, and will not be in any practical timeframe, hymenoptera.  Human beings remain individuals, each with his or her own interests.  Any cooperative community can flourish only if the interests of each of the members is implicit in the interest of the whole.  The human community that is most in accord with human nature is one in which the rights of individuals are fundamental. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Evolution of Fairness

I have had the pleasure of meeting Franz de Waal on two occasions.  The first time was during an NSF Summer Institute at Dartmouth and the second was when he graciously agreed to sit on a panel I organized.  He is a very nice fellow. 
Since 2003, de Waal and Dr. Sarah Brosnan have been studying fairness behavior in monkeys.  Their basic research questions, as I understand it, is to what extent do nonhuman primates recognize and respond to situations of fairness and unfairness and how can this be explained by evolutionary theory?  The pair have published a paper surveying the literature and their findings in Science.  I don’t have access to the paper yet, but I have just read a summary of it at  Here is Brosnan’s description of their hypothesis:
"This sense of fairness is the basis of lots of things in human society, from wage discrimination to international politics," Brosnan said. "What we're interested in is why humans aren't happy with what we have, even if it's good enough, if someone else has more. What we hypothesize is that this matters because evolution is relative. If you are cooperating with someone who takes more of the benefits accrued, they will do better than you, at your expense. Therefore, we began to explore whether responses to inequity were common in other cooperative species."
Obviously, the question of the evolution of a sense of fairness in monkeys and nonhuman apes bears of the question of the natural history of human fairness.  Human beings are extraordinarily cooperative animals.  Our capacity for cooperation is possible in large part because we are capable of a sense of obligation toward others and a tendency toward righteous indignation when others fail to oblige in return. 
It is not immediately obvious how either capacity emerges in our evolutionary history.  The sense of obligation means that we give unto others when we don’t have to do so, which entails a cost in resources.  If I share what I have in my hands, I have less for myself.  The indignation means that I may refuse to accept a share from another that I regard as unfair, thus getting nothing (and perhaps getting into a fight) rather than getting something.  In a situation where resources and needs are marginally related (which was our situation for most of our time as a species on this earth) getting something rather than nothing would seem like the obviously better choice. 
It turns out that the indignation part of the equation is easier to explain.  Here is a summary of their 2003 paper in Nature. 
In this study, brown capuchin monkeys became agitated and refused to perform a task when a partner received a superior reward for that same task. To view video footage of the study, visit Since then, Brosnan has tested responses to inequity in nine different species of primates, including humans. She has found that species only respond to inequity when they routinely cooperate with those who are not related to them.
Here I am speculating on what de Waal and Brosnan have found and what it might mean.  Animals that cooperate with non-kin face a problem that animals who cooperate only with closely related individuals mostly do not.  Instincts for cooperation will be selected for only if they advance the reproductive success of the cooperator.  If cooperative associations reap benefits that are not available to conspecific non-cooperators, then the one will outbreed the other.  The species will evolve toward greater cooperation. 
However, what is true between the cooperators and non-cooperators will be true within the population of cooperators if some routinely exploit others.  Let us consider an over-simplified scenario in which two version of a key gene are evenly distributed across a population of cooperators.  One version (RI1) codes for righteous indignation whenever that animal doesn’t receive a fair share of the benefits of cooperation and the other version of the gene (RI2) does not.  Assuming that RI2 results in a smaller payoff from cooperation (and it only has to be a very small difference) then RI2 will gradually disappear from the general population. 
The really neat thing about this is that it doesn’t matter how big the payoff is.  Whether the population is small or large, struggling or flourishing, within the population of cooperators, the indignant will increase and the complacent will wither away.  So when someone says “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing”, they are expressing something that has a long evolutionary history.  An inherited sense of morality will maintain itself in the population only if it cares as much about the principle as the profit. 
The evolution of obligation is rather more difficult.  It is easier to see why an animal would be offended by a smaller share than feel an obligation to share when she has more than her partner. 
Responding to getting less than a partner is not the only aspect of fairness. For a true sense of fairness, it also matters if you get more. Brosnan and de Waal hypothesize that individuals should be willing to give up a benefit in order to reach equal outcomes and stabilize valuable, long-term cooperative relationships. Thus far, this has only been found in humans and their closest relatives, the apes.
A willingness to share equitably with others when you could take more for yourself means that you are (more or less consciously) concerned about maintain a reputation as a good cooperator.  That requires a more sophisticated psychology than we see in most primates. 
I close by noting that Plato was right.  The idea of justice is as real as the idea of a triangle.  The one governs the architecture of certain animal societies as much as the other governs the architecture of roofs.