Friday, January 3, 2014
The State of the State of Nature
It looks like I will be on sabbatical next fall, which is a good thing. I am working on two research papers: one on the evolution of autonomy (for the International Political Science Association meeting in Montreal) and the other on state of nature theory (for the American Political Science Association meeting in D.C.) I have also been invited to contribute a chapter to a “handbook of biology and politics” to be published next year. My chapter will concern political ethics and biology. My sabbatical will allow me the leisure to work the papers into publishable form and work on the book chapter.
As it happens, I am teaching modern political philosophy this spring and I decided to introduce a little biopolitics into the course. My usual list of readings includes Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, and Rousseau’s “Discourse on Inequality”. It occurred to me that the last three, at least, all involve conceptions of the state of nature, i.e. the condition of human beings outside of the influence of government, and that this is something that modern biopolitical theory has something to say about.
Accordingly I have added Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior to the reading list. I don’t know why this hasn’t occurred to me before now, but I must be on to something. Boehm mentions Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in the first few pages of his book. I plan to focus the presentation of all three authors on the question of how human nature and human action give rise to political societies and what light contemporary biopolitical research sheds on such questions as whether and in what ways human beings are by nature moral or immoral, cooperative or competitive, inclined toward hierarchy or equality. That is roughly the theme of my APSA paper.
Treating the early modern state of nature theories in light of contemporary anthropology requires an apology before any jury that is well versed in the former. Rousseau clearly intended to speculate about the origins of human societies, though he was very careful to warn the reader about just how speculative his account was. Neither Hobbes nor Locke intended their descriptions of the state of nature to be speculations about prehistorical conditions. They were abstracting backwards, trying to understand the essential character of government by removing its influence, in thought, from human beings as they knew them to be.
It occurs to me now that what the early modern philosophers were doing was, rather oddly, the opposite of what Plato did in his two longest dialogues: the Republic and the Laws. Plato (or his Socrates and Athenian Stranger) tried to understand the nature of politics by abstracting toward a more perfect regime that could exist but that had never existed and probably never would. Plato removes the imperfections and inconveniences. The early moderns worked in the opposite direction, imaging a state that may or may not have existed in the past. The chief difference in the ancients and moderns thus lies in this: the moderns could imagine human beings existing in the absence of laws and government whereas the ancients could not.
The chief difference between Hobbes and Locke on the one hand and Rousseau on the other is that the former concluded that government and laws marked an improvement in the human condition whereas Rousseau thought pre-civilization was better for all or almost all human beings. Almost as important, Hobbes and Locke supposed that human beings are naturally social even if they are not naturally political whereas Rousseau concluded that even social interaction beyond the most basic biological needs is an accident of history. Finally, Hobbes supposed that human beings were by nature amoral and violently competitive. Government is necessary to manage the violence that results from this. Locke thought that human beings are by nature moral animals and that our very sense of righteous indignation is what must be managed by government.
It seems to me that the time has come to work the modern strategy in reverse. What does contemporary research on the actual condition of man prior to civilization tell us about the nature of politics? Who is closer to the truth: Plato or the early moderns, Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau?
Christopher Boehm believes that human nature includes tendencies both towards hierarchy and egalitarianism. Once human beings or our ancestors began to live in bands or tribes, powerful and aggressive individuals were naturally inclined to bully others. These early societies developed in the direction of egalitarianism as the groups came to effectively resist such bullies.
In egalitarian societies… individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition, and they do so for the express purpose of keeping the strong from dominating the weak…
I also incorporate an important evolutionary twist. Rather than concentrating simply on the effects of human nature on political behavior, I also explore the reverse: the long-term effects of human political behavior on human nature…
My main hypothesis is that egalitarian societies are created and maintained by moral communities.
Rousseau was wrong. Human animals became social animals long before they became human. Locke was closer to the truth than Hobbes, but Hobbes had a point. Our ancestors were prone to violent competition for resources and status and sought some way to manage such tendencies. That management was by means of coalitions that were not merely expedient. They were moral communities, maintained over a long enough period to affect our evolution. Plato (and I would add, Aristotle) were closer to the truth than the moderns. Human beings are political animals.
That is enough for now. Class doesn’t start for another week.