Friday, October 28, 2016

Good News about Evolution and Classical Political Philosophy

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.  


  1. This is a well-crafted, well-reasoned post, and a joy to read.
    That said, a couple of questions.

    1) Your paragraph that begins “The best human lives are ones that are not merely physically and emotionally satisfying. They are interesting” seems to be a (perhaps broader) version of the argument in favor of the superiority of the philosophic life. Am I correct in this interpretation? If so, it would be nice to see this line of thought expanded upon. What does it mean to be “interesting,” and why is this best? What are the definitions, the parameters, the caveats, the difficulties here? Is this superior, for example, to the life of the moral man who is a devout believer? On what basis?

    2) On justice. Clearly, a virtue ethics based on our human nature is narrower than a morality with its basis in the divine. However, one could argue that when we consider not petty theft, nor rude behavior, but truly ghastly and heinous crimes our natural moral sentiments seem to desire such a cosmic morality, or at least something closer to it. If this is true, then it is our evolved human nature itself that desires a morality grander in scale than can be supplied by the natural right based on that human nature alone. Perhaps, for example, Strauss could have accepted the broad bases of your argument (as he hints at them in the introduction to NRH), but would have been skeptical of them as being a sufficient ground for most "non-philosophers'" conception of justice?

    On the other hand, when compared with the more common, current, happy-go-lucky nihilisms of one form or another that abound, it may be all that is needed.

  2. Thank you for the interesting comment. I would certainly consider the philosophical life as the best model of a life that is interesting beyond ordinary animal needs for physical and social comforts. The transition beyond Socrates' city of sows towards the mature polis in the Republic reflects this difference. As I indicated, the pursuit of the arts is also evidence. Because what is interesting in the highest sense [the beautiful in all its dimensions] transcends animal needs it is both purer and more durable than base satisfactions.

    We human beings are very fortunate in so far as we can lead interesting lives; however, the very range of soul that makes that possible means that we are capable of behavior that is, as you put it, truly ghastly. Our moral emotions can respond appropriately both to the noble as well as to the horrific.

    Fortunately, those emotions do not require a knowledge of their basis in our evolutionary history in order to operate properly. I do not doubt that religion is more useful in supporting the moral emotions than philosophy or science in general. Religion is ubiquitous. Philosophy, rather rare.

  3. Thank you, kindly, for the reply. Your blog is a pleasure to follow.

  4. Thank you very much. If you like the blog, please continue to comment. It gets lonely here.

  5. Do you have the rest of this paper from Forde? I'd appreciate it if you can refer me to the rest. And yes, Straussians seems to be hostile - and at best ambivalent - to sociobiology. Roger Masters and Larry Arnhart (I am not sure if he is really Straussian) were the only ones I know who wholeheartedly embrace it.