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.