Friday, October 28, 2016
I was a student of the late Harry V. Jaffa. One of the seminal moments in my intellectual career took place over two days, when I read Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Anyone who has read that amazing book will sympathize with my experience. When I went to bed on the first night, I was convinced that Stephen Douglas was right in his argument with Lincoln. When I finished the second half of the book the next day, I was persuaded that Lincoln was right: slavery is by nature always and everywhere unjust. I have never revised that opinion, and I have been a natural right thinker ever since.
Another seminal moment came many years later when I was reading a primer on evolutionary psychology. It had occurred to me that, if we want to talk about natural right, we might want to know something about nature. Sitting on my deck one grey afternoon, I realized that Darwinian evolution was not opposed to Aristotle and to the classical natural right that Jaffa championed. On the contrary, evolutionary theory can provide powerful support for the thought of Aristotle. I later concluded that the same was true for Plato.
Most of those who take the writings of the classical philosophers seriously, not as mere historical artifacts but as guides to the truth about morality and politics, see evolutionary thought as utterly opposed to classical thought. A good example of this is the first two paragraphs of a 2013 conference paper written by Steven Forde.
As a political theorist by training, I avoided tackling the problem of Darwin for many years. I suspected that the theory of evolution would call into question the very enterprise of political theory, as traditionally understood. My fears have largely been borne out, as the following indicates. Yet it is impossible in this day and age to deny that evolution is the truth—that human beings, like all existing life forms, evolved out of prior, typically simpler life forms. Our organs, including our brains, are all descendants of organs found in earlier primates. Certain key intellectual capacities, such as the capacity for language, are “hard wired” into our neural makeup. Certain emotional responses appear to be so as well, including some closely tied to our sense of morality. These include such natural responses as empathy and indignation, emotions that have analogues in other primates today, and presumably in our evolutionary ancestors.
These facts, along with findings of neuropsychology concerning gratification received from cooperative and other putatively moral behavior, suggests that morality is hard wired into us. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that it seems we are destined to remain a moral, cooperative species regardless of intellectual or cultural trends. The bad news is that this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage. This is the conclusion I dreaded all the years I avoided this topic of study.
This is an example of what I would call a pious dread. It reminds one of the famous quote from the wife of the Bishop of Worcester who, when informed of Darwin’s theory, supposedly said:
My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.
The most significant passage in that quote is this one:
Morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage.
My question, which I do not think was addressed in Forde’s piece, is what kind of grounding do ordinary human beings think morality has? What kind of grounding does traditional political philosophy seek? Human beings, ordinary or otherwise, are moral animals. We are endowed with moral emotions, including guilt, righteous indignation, and admiration. Perhaps what we seek is an account of moral right that satisfies those emotions. What sort of account might that be?
The most satisfying account is this: justice is what God demands and human beings must choose, or else. Divine law provides powerful support for moral emotions; however, as such, it doesn’t provide much that the philosophically inclined can work with. What does provide that material is the fact that a lot of moral rules seem to be socially functional. Prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and incest, are all defensible by rational argument.
The strongest defense of justice without direct appeal to divine law is found in Plato’s Republic. In the first book Thrasymachus argues that justice is no more than a confidence game played by the strong in any political community in order to persuade the weak to accept their lot. The weakness in that argument is that it can’t explain why the con job works. If all of us want the same things, power, prosperity, revenge, why are moral admonitions useful to the strong?
Socrates argues that even a gang of thieves must observe some rules of justice among themselves if they are to effectively exploit others. In the second book, Glaucon and Adiemantus challenge that answer. Glaucon presents a view of justice that he himself finds repulsive. Most people would like to exploit everyone else but know that they are not powerful enough to do so. Principles of justice are then a mere compromise: we agree not to exploit others so that others will not exploit us. Adiemantus argues that people do genuinely value justice, but what they care about is not the thing itself but the reputation for it. A man who appears just will attract good friends and arrange good marriages for his offspring.
Why are the two brothers unsatisfied with their respective accounts of justice? While these accounts provide objective grounds from justice, they are vulgar rather than noble or, what is the same thing, beautiful. Apparently, only a beautiful account of justice will be genuinely satisfying.
In the body of the Republic, Socrates presents an account of justice as an element in a well ordered soul. In such a soul, intelligence rules the passions and the passions rule the appetites. An ideal regime would reflect that order, with the philosopher (Socrates or someone like him) ruling, the exquisitely trained military class obeying his commands, and the producer class minding its own business by producing.
This account provides a beautiful and coherent solution to the problem. If an individual behaves unjustly, he feeds the worst part of himself and that means that he cannot have the kind of soul that makes for the best possible life. The same is true of political communities. Thucydides supplements this account. Cities that behave unjustly toward other cities encouraged injustice among their own citizens, thus undermining the cooperation upon which their strength depends. What is most beautiful is the human being who lives the most admirable life and the city that governs itself and its foreign policy in a way that makes for the most admirable civil life. If justice contributes to that, then justice is indeed beautiful.
Socrates takes the moral emotions of his interlocutors for granted. He does not try to explain how we became such creatures for whom a beautifully ordered soul and a beautifully ordered regime might be possible. He does suggest that the most natural political community is one that provides for the minimal physical needs of human animals with the least effort. For justice to be genuinely beautiful, it has to provide for a life that includes more than that: noble deeds and, last but not least, the leisure for some to pursue philosophy.
Evolutionary theory explains how we became the kind of animal that Socrates examines. Our moral emotions were shaped by eons of natural selection. They made it possible for us to cooperate on a level far beyond that of other animals. At some point, they made it possible for us to satisfy our basic biological needs and then seek satisfactions beyond those needs. The rise of civilization made it possible for some people (and eventually most people) to stop worrying about the next meal and look instead for something interesting to do.
The best human lives are ones that are not merely physically and emotionally satisfying. They are interesting. What interests us is rooted in our evolutionary heritage but necessarily goes beyond that heritage. We inherit preferences for color, symmetrical lines and objects, and landscapes including mountains and water. That doesn’t mean we have genes for liking a J. M. W. Turner painting. An appreciation for great art depends on evolved dispositions; however, it explores new existential space that cannot be reduced to those dispositions. We inherit preferences for fat, sugar, texture, and color in foods. That doesn’t mean that we have genes for liking a four star Michelin meal. We inherit preferences for certain kinds of sounds and harmonies. A William Parker jazz composition builds on those evolved dispositions to produce something that will not advance the interests of my genes but is simply beautiful.
A house is an artificial product. Houses do not grow as trees do. It is nonetheless natural in so far as it satisfies natural inclinations for a safe, warm, and dry shelter. Political communities are artificial. As Aristotle recognized, we have to build them more or less deliberately. They come to be, he said, for the sake of mere life. That is Darwinian thinking. Political communities emerged in a long history of human beings trying to survive in as comfortable a way as possible. They exist, Aristotle said, for the sake of the good life. Once a political community has achieved self-sufficiency, its citizens can turn to explore the benefits of existential freedom.
This is the ground for morality that Forbes craves. Cooperation based on reciprocity is central to every code of moral behavior. It not only allows individual human beings to form communities that secure the most basic needs; it also allows for the production of surpluses that allow us to live beautiful lives. His pious fear is unfounded.
Friday, October 21, 2016
One thing that occurs to me after years of teaching Introduction to Philosophy is that the central problematic of modern thought is the mind/body problem and that the various subdivisions of modern philosophy‑ epistemology, philosophy of mind, free will, personal identity, ethics, etc.‑will be solved by viewing them all as aspects of the same problematic or they will not be solved at all. It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I also think the solution lies in the phenomenon of life.
As a case in point, I offer the topic of freedom. The various approaches to this topic may be organized around the answers to two questions.
- 1. Is determinism true?
- 2. Are free will and determinism compatible?
Depending on whether you answer those two questions as yes or no, four possibilities present.
Determinism means the doctrine that the past rigidly determines the future. Given the state of the Kosmos at any point in time, one and only one state is possible at any subsequent time. Here “state of the Kosmos” indicates everything in the physical universe, down to the smallest detail. So the position and momentum of every object, every molecule and atom and subatomic particle rigidly determines the state of the same at all points in time.
Free will means that the actions of a human being are determined by the deliberate choices that the human being makes, so that the actor is in some significant sense responsible for those actions.
If you say that determinism is true and that free will and determinism are incompatible, you are a hard determinist. Determinism means that all events are rigidly determined by previous events. Human decisions are events. Since the past is not something over which individuals have control, for no one has control over the past, decisions are not something over which individuals have control. Consequently, no human being can be responsible for his or her actions.
If you agree that free will and determinism are incompatible but you insist that free will is real, then you must reject determinism. That makes you a libertarian, in the lingo of the tradition. Libertarians will allow that some causation is event causation, where each event rigidly determines the next event. Think of billiard balls striking one another. However, there are special cases of agent causation. Human beings are agents, capable of initiating chains of causation by making uncaused decisions. We have something like a clutch, which disengages us from the chain of causation and allows us to act with genuine, metaphysically robust free will.
Because these two positions agree that free will and determinism are incompatible, they are described as incompatibilist positions. Soft determinists agree with hard determinists on one point: determinism is true. Our decisions were determined in advance, from the very beginning of the coherent Kosmos. They argue that free will is nonetheless genuine. How so? Free will does not depend on why I want what I want. That is indeed determined by forces beyond my control. Instead, free will depends on whether I can do what I want to do. Am I free to leave the room I am sitting in now? The answer is yes, if the door is unlocked.
Compatibilists argue that I have acted out of genuine free will if the following criteria are met:
- If I had chosen otherwise, I would have done otherwise.
- The choice is unforced.
Someone offers me vanilla or chocolate ice cream. I choose vanilla, but if I had chosen chocolate I would have gotten chocolate. Nobody put a gun to my head or tortured me. My choice of vanilla was an act of free will, regardless of the fact that my genes predispose me to like vanilla or that I got sick when eating chocolate ice cream when I was a child.
Let’s arrange the positions in a nice, four box chart.
Are free will and determinism compatible?
Is determinism true?
You will notice that one box is unoccupied. That happens to be my position. I agree with the soft determinists that freedom turns on whether I can do what I want, not on why I want one thing rather than another. What matters is whether I am the one doing the choosing. All the forces acting on me, from my past and my present, have to act through me. Here we can draw from another field of investigation: the mind/body problem. Functionalists argue that the mind is an information processor. Information gathered from the environment (the ice cream vendor) is processed into better information or directly into behavior. The human mind is almost certainly more than that but it is at least that.
On the other hand, I regard determinism as one of the myths of modern thought. It is like Santa Claus. Einstein wanted to believe in it (God does not play dice with the universe!) but there is no reason to believe in it. Science requires that the past influences the future, but only within some margin of error. It might be that we could determine the outcome of any experiment with perfect precision if only we could incorporate all the relevant factors with perfect precision. There is no reason to suppose that we can ever do the latter, so there is no reason to suppose the former.
Moreover, quantum mechanics indicates that Kosmos may be, at very small levels, fundamentally indeterministic. In a deterministic world, everything is at one place at one time. In the quantum world, a single photon may pass through one slit in a barrier and through the other slit, and both, and neither, all at the same time. A particle may decay at this moment or not, without anything causing it to so the one or the other.
When we put aside the myth of determinism, what are we left with? The human mind is, at the very least, a decision generator. In this respect, it is no different from the minds of similar creatures such as chimpanzees or beagles. We are conscious, in our choosing, of sensations (it hurts or it feels good), passions (I love this or fear this) and concepts (this is just and that is unjust). Why have such existential states of mind emerged over the course of evolutionary history?
The only reasonable answer is that at some point in the evolution of animals, they became free in a metaphysically robust sense. They no longer responded mechanically to environmental stimuli but got to pick and choose. This capacity was selected for because it dramatically expanded the creativity with which animals could respond to their environments. Animals can explore their world, looking for opportunities that their genetic inheritance could not predict.
The flip side of that freedom was an existential stake in their existence. Freedom could only be selected for if it secured reproductive success. Sensations and later emotions are means by which existentially free creatures can be bribed to pursue the paths that secure the latter.
We do not know how biological organisms can achieve genuine, metaphysically robust freedom. Neither do we know how it is possible for moist robots, consisting of cells consisting of molecular mechanisms, to achieve consciousness. We don’t even know how to begin asking the question in a way that might lead to an answer. We do know that consciousness was achieved, for we sense and feel. We know that we are free because we are faced with choices.
We can only make progress on these central question of modern philosophy if we look for the answers in our nature as living creatures.