Thursday, June 18, 2015
Nature, Culture, and Action
Leo Strauss distinguished between statesman, legislators, and political philosophers in this way: the first are concerned with political decisions at a particular place and time; the second, with decisions for a political place but with a mind to the future and perhaps future generations. The last are concerned with the nature of politics across all places and times. I like that neat account and I think it is generally correct. Here, doing a bit of political philosophy, I will add another trichotomy.
We human beings live in regimes. The regime was Strauss’s translation of the Greek term poleteia. This term is sometimes translated as polity or republic. It is the title of Plato’s most famous book. It refers to a political community and includes its social structure, governing body and institutions, and its culture. I suspect that Strauss chose it because of its famous use in the phrase “ancien regime,” which indicated the poleteia in France before the revolution. The most fundamental kind of revolution, as Aristotle and Plato recognized, involves a change of regimes. The people and the place are the same (mostly, as some may have lost their heads) but the social structure, political powers, and ethos have changed in a profound way.
Where do regimes come from? I propose three foundations: nature, culture, and deliberate action. Modern social-political thought since the 19th century has tended to focus on the second. The most influential figures (I suggest Marx, Weber and Freud as examples) tended to reduce deliberate action to a largely derivative role. Human beings act in strictly confined circumstances and when they are supposedly free to act they only express what their culture, class consciousness, etc., have taught them to express. Nature was likewise diminished in most of modern social thought, though it at least appears in Marxism in the form of economic history. Culture has been the dominant theme.
The Nineteenth Century is, finally and blessedly, coming to an end in the Twenty-First. At this point, only prejudice or ignorance or both would allow someone to believe that the biological nature of human beings is not the basic foundation of human minds and human lives, individually and collectively. We are a social and political species because we inherited these traits from our ancestors. Our political and social lives depend upon a pallet of emotions that were shaped by natural selection. Culture can only work on the material that nature has provided. As it is easy to domestic a horse but not a zebra, so it is easy to teach human beings to be nervous about sex but very difficult to teach them to stop doing it.
No one argues that nature is everything but some do argue that culture is everything. The latter have long been at war with those who argue that nature is at least something. There are two ways to end a war: conquest or reconciliation. They are not mutually exclusive. Those who argue that nature is a major factor in human social and political behavior are going to win because they are obviously right. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nature/nurture dichotomy was a false dichotomy.
Human beings are by nature capable of language but they have to learn a particular language. Infants can tell coherent speech, in whatever language, from incoherent babble and they listen hungrily for the former. Linguistic culture is a part of human nature. Children are born with a capacity to recognize moral obligations and a hunger to learn the local rules. They instinctively grasp the difference between harm to an innocent (bad) and transgression of in-group conventions (bad only for us). As we are primed for language, we are also primed for both universal moral principles and local law.
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has demonstrated (to my satisfaction) that the most natural human societies, the ones that we lived in while we became human, were largely if not universally egalitarian. Living in small groups, individuals formed coalitions in order to defend their personal autonomy against bullies and other free riders. This required an egalitarian ethos, which is culture if anything is. Etiquette compelled would be alpha males to suppress their predatory instincts or else they faced ridicule, ostracism, or death. The emergence of egalitarian cultures among small band human communities was itself the result of deliberate actions on the part of many members of such groups. They joined together to defend themselves because they wanted to protect their own autonomy.
This went on for long enough that it shaped human evolution. Our capacity for morality is largely a result of deliberately making social rules and then gradually, over long periods of time, internalizing those rules. Those human beings who did this successfully were able to cooperate in a much more efficient way and so they came to dominate the species. That is how evolution works.
The relation between nature, culture, and deliberate action is not one of mutually independent spheres. It is a dynamic. Each shapes the other over time. Trying to tease them apart is fruitful, sometimes, but always difficult. This is analogous to those who try to determine the genes for any given behavioral trait. At each stage of human development, our nature allowed certain possibilities. Among these was the development of culture. Over time, we became as dependent on culture as we were on language, because we were now dependent on one another. Yet culture was nothing other than the accumulation of decisions made and repeated by individuals interacting with one another. Occasionally, some powerful personality recognized the power of culture and deliberately set to change it, laying down the foundations for a new one. Lycurgus’ founding of Sparta is the classical account. The American founding is a modern one.
Deliberate founding by one or a small set of individuals is rare; but all regimes are deliberately founded in another sense: they are the result of actions of human beings, responding to disparate circumstances, modifying the cultures that they had to work with. Human nature changes slower than culture, yet it is shaped by culture and provides the foundation for culture in turn. I do not hold with those who would abandon the nature/nurture distinction. You can’t understand a dynamic without understand how forces interact with one another. Adding deliberate action to the dichotomy can account for the existence and nature of regimes.