Friday, August 1, 2014
Biology & Political Ethics
I am writing a chapter in a forthcoming Handbook of Biology & Politics. My chapter will focus on Biology & Political Ethics. Here are some first reflections on the topic.
Political Ethics concerns the field of right and wrong behavior in a political context. As is common with term ethics, it can indicate both ethical behavior in politics and the study of such behavior. Modern political ethics as a field tends to focus on the distinction between public and private morality, with the former indicating the actions of any political officer from a chief executive down to a voter or jury member, and the moral evaluation of policies. Classical political ethics (Plato and Aristotle) tended to gravitate between two perspectives that were presented as complete in themselves: the political community (or polis) as a whole, which consisted of classes, villages, families, and citizens, and the individual as a whole, whose life involved such roles as husband, father, friend, citizen, solider, etc.
In the light of that distinction, a problematic becomes visible for anyone wanting to write about biology and political ethics. The classical political philosophers understood human beings to be political animals. Every actual polis was in some sense artificial‑the work of particular human beings acting at a particular time. Moreover, the life in a polis made affordable more pleasures and leisure than biological necessity required, and so and so taught human beings to desire such things. Nonetheless, the tendency to form political communities is as much an expression of human nature as the formation of the pack is an expression of lupine nature.
The early modern political philosophers, by contrast, understood man as a solitary animal by nature. Political institutions are artificial, the result of human inventiveness applied to the inconveniences of nature. They allow human beings to conquer both human and non-human nature, but have as much to do with biology as a bear taught to ride a bicycle. This has been the dominant view of moral and political thought until very recently.
To argue that biology has something to offer political ethics is thus to side with the ancients against the moderns. I am inclined to think that this is inevitable but it doesn’t mean that it is possible or necessary to reject the history of work in modern political ethics. It does mean that we must reinterpret it.
Ethics is about morality. Morality is an existential dimension of the human being, along which possible choices are arrayed between those that are obligatory, those that are forbidden, and those that are neither. Because it involves a choice between possible actions, the right is a subspecies of the good. The good is the choice worthy. Whenever something‑an objection or action, a state of mind or physical experience, is worth choosing, to that degree it is good. Thus the healthy is good and the unhealthy bad. When something is simply good, there is reason to choose it and no reason not to choose it, then morality is not involved. There is no ethical weight. Often, however, there are some reasons to choose something and some reasons to avoid choosing it and it is necessary to weigh the one against the other. Often enough, one is tempted to do what one ought not to do, which is to say that what looks good is not the same as what is really good. Whenever that happens, morality is involved. That is what Ethics is about.
Human beings may be more than animals but we are at least animals. However marvelous our powers of conscious deliberation may be, they are elaborations of mental schema that are much older than our species. The dilemmas that other animals face are the result of a tension between distinct evolved inclinations. The coyote wants the bait but has learned to be wary of the trap. Human beings are social animals and many of our moral emotions have been fashioned by natural selection to encourage cooperation. Not all of our evolved psychological mechanisms encourage cooperation and some of them are designed precisely to avoid the costs of cooperation or to allow us to cut and run when cooperation collapses. We are, as my sainted Grandmother put it, a piece of work.
When we act politically at any level we are employing the capacities with which our evolutionary history has provided us. No matter how artificial our political institutions and processes may be, we are still political animals making choices. Political ethics cannot be understood without rooting it in human biology.