Thursday, July 10, 2014
Natural Right & Natural Selection
Some years ago I was presenting on a panel during some conference or another and I was asked a simple question: why bother with all this Darwin stuff? That is more or less how I remember the question, but I don’t remember it clearly enough to name the person. Suffice it to say that he was a prominent figure among the Western Straussians. If you don’t recognize that term, Leo Strauss was a very influential political philosopher. In a nutshell he argued that all political regimes are grounded in cherished opinions whereas philosophy is the attempt to opinions with knowledge of the most important things. For that reason, philosophy is always potentially destabilizing. That is the essential meaning of the life and death of Socrates.
The key word there is “potentially”. The philosopher may conclude, as result of his investigations, that the cherished opinions on which our community is based are false. Perhaps we believe that we are the best community and our ways are best because we worship the right god: Zog. If the philosopher concludes that Zog does not exist, this obviously undermines the laws and the regime of his community.
On the other hand, the philosopher might come to the opposite conclusion. There is no way to tell in advance, since philosophy is the quest for wisdom and not the possession of wisdom. It is possible, at least, that the philosopher will more or less confirm the cherished opinions of his own people.
If I understand the Eastern Straussians correctly, they think that the cherished opinions of all political communities are false. Since some political communities are better than others, at least from the point of view of the philosopher, the philosopher will take some care to support them. However, philosophy is inconsistent with any genuine, as opposed to merely strategic, patriotism.
The Western Straussians think that at least one political community cherishes opinions that are philosophically defensible. The founding document of the American regime, the Declaration of Independence, speaks of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. It goes on to say that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. This language was adopted by Thomas Jefferson from the modern philosopher John Locke, but most Western Straussians follow Harry Jaffa to defend the principles of the regime in terms of the classical natural right doctrines of Plato and Aristotle. Human beings are, by nature, self-governing creatures, both individually and collectively. A regime is philosophically defensible if and only if it incorporates both kinds of self-government. It must be both democratic and liberal.
Here I lay my cards on the table. I am a Western Straussian. I think that Strauss’s reading of the classical and modern political was the right one. I also think that Jaffa is right. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I first read The Crisis of the House Divided, where Jaffa demonstrated that Lincoln was right and Stephen Douglas was wrong about slavery. I think that Lincoln was right to argue that the people of Kansas had a right to govern themselves but that no man had a right to govern another without his consent.
I noticed, however, that while my fellow WS’s talked incessantly about natural right, they didn’t seem to be interested much (or to know much) about nature. Strauss himself suggested that classical natural right seemed to depend on a teleological view of the Kosmos as a whole, but that that view seems to have been refuted by modern natural science. That much seems to be correct. The movements in the heavens, not to mention the physical processes on the terrestrial plane, would seem to be mechanical rather than teleological, and so provide no support for human ideas of the just and the good.
The life sciences are another story. If the driving forces of evolutionary history are merely mechanical, they have given rise to possesses that are genuinely teleological If the molecules of which all living cells are composed are as lifeless as grains of sand, yet the cells are busy maintaining themselves and thus succeeding or failing. Here is a metaphysical ground for the principles of classical natural right.
I will close with one example. In the Gorgias, Plato’s Socrates argues that the good is self-government. When the better part of the self governs the less better parts, then the person governs himself. Modern biology can tell us a lot about this. One of the basic transitions in evolutionary history occurred when the nervous system of some animals began to bifurcate. One part of the nervous system specialized in governing process like breathing, circulation, and digestion. Another part was dedicated to perception and the movement of the limbs. The latter part became the seat of sentience and, at least in human beings, of reason.
That is the evolutionary history behind the emergence of Plato’s soul. If the metaphysics of physics and astronomy do not support classical natural right, the metaphysics of biology may well do so. And that is the answer to the question I was asked. That is why we should bother with this Darwin stuff.