Longtime readers of this blog (there are such people!) will know that I have an interest in Darwinian biology and its application to questions of political science and political theory. I recently published an article on Darwin and Lincoln: "Natural Right and The Origin of Species" in Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 39, January-March, 2010, pp. 12-19.
My friend and occasional collaborator Larry Arnhart has responded to my article on his wonderful blog: Darwinian Conservatism. Here is the link to the specific post. Larry and I agree on a lot, so it is fun to find the occasional disagreement.
If you are interested in this at all, go to the second link above and read Larry's comments. They were very thought-provoking, and I have written a reply. I am going to send it to him tomorrow, after I have had time to give it a second reading. Meanwhile, here it is, submitted, as Rod Serling liked to say on the Twilight Zone, for your approval.
Aristotle and Abraham: a Reply to Larry Arnhart
Larry Arnhart and I agree on so much, so often, that I am wary of apparent disagreements. They may or may not be genuine. In his very kind comments on my recent Lincoln/Darwin essay, he does take issue with me on a couple of points. In my account, Arnhart thinks, Lincoln and Aristotle come out too much alike. He thinks their natural right doctrines need to be clearly distinguished, and in connection with this he objects to something I said about libertarians.
With regard to the subject I focused on, I do not believe there is any significant difference between Lincoln's natural right argument against slavery, and Aristotle's natural right argument about slavery. Consider this:
I certainly agree with Larry that Lincoln's modern natural right argument,taken as a whole, is not identical to Aristotle's ancient view; however, I think that difference is frequently exaggerated. I acknowledged the difference between Aristotle's view that political powers ought to be distributed according to virtue, and Lincoln's modern view that they are to be distributed according to the consent of the governed. But surely, like Aristotle, we would want both our rulers and ourselves to be as virtuous as practically possible.
One big difference between the classical view (Plato and Aristotle) and the modern view (Lincoln and Jefferson) is that the former took as their model of political virtue the heroic warrior while the latter took instead the heroic farmer. That is a difference in tastes, but it surely has a big impact on the respective political theories.
The biggest difference, however, is that the moderns explicitly focused on and answered a question that the ancients were a lot quieter about. Plato's two longest works are about founding new cities, but in both cases a pre-existing political authority is supposed. Platonic republics, like Darwinian organism, seem always to be the offspring of their own kind.
Where does political authority come from in the first place? Perhaps the ancients were bashful about this question because the answer was unpalatable and tended to undermine all political authority. That was certainly the conclusion reached by Machiavelli: all political authority originates in criminal violence.
Lockean natural right, by contrast, begins with the obvious fact that all authority requires the willing support of some group of human beings strong enough to sustain it. Founding legitimate government on the consent of the governed begins by making that fact explicit, and by that means points the way to establishing political authority without the necessity of crime. Likewise, Lockean economic liberty removes the necessity for slavery, something that had morally compromised all ancient regimes just as it compromised the legitimacy of the early American republic.
Aristotle produced an account of slavery that, when you think it through, condemns all slavery as it is actually practiced. But as he could see no possibility of civilized life without slavery, he chose not to explicitly state that conclusion. Lincoln, living in a modern regime, could afford to make it explicit.
So, while I acknowledge that Lincoln's modern natural right and Aristotle's ancient natural right do differ in significant ways, I do not view this difference as an opposition. I think that the case is rather analogous to Aristotle's biology: he gets most of it right, astonishingly so, considering what he has to work with. We moderns have had the good fortune to solve a lot of political and scientific problems that Aristotle could not solve.
Finally, Larry defends libertarianism against Aristotle in the following way. Aristotle thought that the regime was responsible for ensuring that people be as good as possible. The regime included the society as a whole, but a society as structured by the political authority. Libertarian natural right, as Larry sees it, distinguishes between the state and society, and thinks that social institutions alone ought to be responsible for making people better. The role of government should be confined to the ends listed by Adam Smith:
I am sure that, for most purposes, Lincoln would largely agree with Adam Smith's list. So would I. But did Lincoln really send hundreds of thousands of men into battle for the sake of a mere business arrangement? He certainly didn't talk that way. Was Lincoln's life's work not as much concerned with preserving American virtues as with anything else? Let me return to the first quote.
Let me say that some of my best friends are libertarians. I am not sure that we wouldn't be a lot better off if our laws were a lot more libertarian in design. But if Lycophron is indeed a good spokesman for libertarianism, it is surely incomplete. Just as surely, it cannot explain Lincoln's great actions.
I didn't know until Larry's thoughtful comments provoked me to think about it, whether I believed that Lincolnian natural right and Aristotelian natural right were the same. I think I am now prepared to say that they are the same on the most important questions.