Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Does the Evolution of Open Access Societies Show Moral Progress in History?

Looking over the deep evolutionary history of human social order, we can see two great social revolutions.  The First Social Revolution was the Neolithic revolution 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, when our human ancestors for the first time adopted agricultural production as their primary source of food--cultivating domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals rather than gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Eventually, this led to the sedentary life of villages and towns and finally the first bureaucratic states in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus river valley, Mesoamerica, and South America (the Incas).  The Second Social Revolution was the modern revolution that began about 250 years ago that led to industrialized liberal commercial democracies, beginning in Great Britain, the United States, and France.

The First Social Revolution brought a decline in violence and an increase in prosperity and population.  The Second Social Revolution brought an even greater decline in violence and an even greater increase in prosperity and population.

Explaining how and why these social revolutions occurred is one of the fundamental projects for the social sciences.  More than that, explaining these social revolutions has deep implications for how we interpret the meaning of human life on earth.  Has life been getting better in ways that suggest that human history is generally progressive?  Does this include moral progress?  Or is the pattern of history better understood as one of decline?  Or is it neither progressive nor declining but cyclical or random?  Is history purposeful?  Or is it foolish to see any purposeful pattern in history?  If there is any pattern in human history, does that show some divine or cosmic intelligence at work?  Or can any historical pattern be explained by purely human factors?

Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry Weingast have written one of the most instructive books for thinking about such questions--Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge University Press, 2009).  They argue that the two great social revolutions can be understood by asking two questions.  How does a society manage the problem of violence?  And how does a society support and control access to organizations?  In answering those questions, one can distinguish three distinct social orders: the foraging order, the limited access order (also called "the natural state"), and the open access order.

All societies face the problem of how to control violence.  In the foraging order of hunter-gatherers, which was the social order for most of human evolutionary history, violence was controlled through personal knowledge and personal interaction.  Those who initiated violence provoked violent retaliation.  Conflict was mediated through customary norms.  Although violence could be limited in foraging groups, the threat of violence was ever present both within and between small bands and larger tribal units.  Such foraging bands were small--perhaps 25 or so individuals--although they could be occasionally brought together into tribal communities of hundreds of individuals.  The primary organizational form was the family and kinship groups.  The level of violence within and between foraging groups can be very high.

With the development of agriculture in the First Social Revolution, there arose the first large sedentary groups with tens of thousands of individuals, which allowed for the emergence of the first states and of what North, Wallis, and Weingast call limited access orders.  These states were ruled by elites--a small group of powerful individuals exercising political, economic, religious, and social authority over a much larger group of subordinate individuals.  There was a decline in violence because the state provided third-party enforcement of agreements and relationships between individuals and organizations. 

But to assume the Weberian definition of the state as holding a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence is mistaken, because this assumes away the problem of violence:  when many powerful individuals can exercise violence, how can they commit themselves to an agreement to stop fighting?  Even if a single individual is designated as the king, he cannot rule without the support of a coalition of powerful individuals leading organizations.  To control violence, a limited access order must form a dominant coalition of powerful individuals who agree not to fight one another, and they agree to this because membership in the coalition gives them special privileges--most importantly, the privileged access to organizations supported by the state that give them entry to valued resources (such as land, labor, and capital) and valued activities (like religion and education).

The economic benefits of these privileges are what economists today call "rents":  a rent is the excess payment for an economic resource over the amount necessary to keep that resource in its current use.  So, for example, if someone is paid $15 an hour for work he would be willing to do for $10 an hour, then the extra $5 an hour is rent.  Political restrictions on who may enter a field of economic activity can create an artificial scarcity of entrants in the field, which secures excess returns or rents for those with the privilege access.  The practice of doing this is called "rent-seeking" activity.

From the emergence of the first states about 5,000 years ago to the beginning of the 19th century, almost all states were what North, Wallis, and Weingast call limited access orders, because the privilege of forming political, economic, and social organizations that the state would support was limited to elites in the dominant coalition.  There is a great variety in the kinds of regimes that can be recognized as limited access orders--from ancient Mesopotamia to Tudor England to Putin's Russia.

North, Wallis, and Weingast distinguish three levels of development among limited access orders--fragile, basic, and mature.  A fragile limited access order can barely preserve any peaceful order from collapsing into violence, because the dominant coalition is unstable and constantly shifting with the changing fortunes of individual members.  Contemporary examples would be Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

A basic limited access order can preserve a stable organizational structure based on the dominant coalition of elites.  Recent examples would be the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico from the 1940s to the 1980s.

A mature limited access order can sustain durable institutional structures for the state while also supporting some elite organizations outside the state.  Recent examples would be Mexico since the 1990s, Brazil, India, and China.

According to North, Wallis, and Weingast, the transition from mature limited access orders to open access orders began for the first time in the first half of the 19th century--in the United States, Great Britain, and France.  The open access order is distinctive in how it handles the problem of violence and in how it handles access to organizations. 

First, it handles violence by fulfilling the Weberian condition for the state in that the government holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and there are social and political controls on the use of violence by the military and the police.

Second, an open access order allows most citizens to have open access to political, economic, or social organizations that the state will support.  These organisations are free to compete with one another in peaceful ways.

The opening of access to economic and political organizations is clearly seen in the 1840s and 1850s in the United States and Great Britain.  In both countries, there were general laws of incorporation that allowed citizens to form corporations with legally stipulated rights and duties through procedures for registration and minimal conditions impersonally applied.  Previously, corporations had been formed by governments as special privileges for influential elites.  Each corporate charter was separately created, and there was no open access to incorporation.  But with the general laws of incorporation, what previously was an elite privilege was openly available based on impersonal standards for registration as a corporation.  As a consequence, there was a huge increase in the number of corporations in the United States and Great Britain.  And this was correlated with modern growth rates.  The most prosperous societies tend to be those with large numbers of economic organizations.

At the same time, in the United States and Great Britain, the first party systems emerged, in which ever larger numbers of citizens were free to register as voters identified as members of a political party.  Organizational entry to political competition became as open as organizational entry to economic competition.  Never before in history had people been free to form new economic and political organizations at will.

Although North, Wallis, and Weingast emphasize open entry to economic and political organizations, they suggest that open entry to social organizations was also important for the open access order.  Social organizations would include religious groups, educational institutions, and all kinds of voluntary associations.  One of the crucial manifestations of more open access to social organizations in the 19th century, in the U.S. and England, was the extension of religious toleration to allow for a free competition of religious groups.  Thus, the principle of open access was extended to the polity, the economy, and the society.

North, Wallis, and Weingast draw their fundamental insight about the open access order from Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)--particularly, his  conception of the process of "creative destruction" through free competition.  Open access orders allow creative political, economic, and social destruction through competition, in which successful enterprises proliferate and failed enterprises are eliminated.  Society secures open access to organizations as vehicles for political, economic, and social entrepreneurs to compete in implementing their ideas.  Such free competition in political, economic, and social experimentation allows a social order to achieve adaptive efficiency responding to new and unpredictable challenges.

North, Wallis, and Weingast estimate that as many as twenty-five countries have made the transition to the open access order, and that these countries constitute about fifteen or twenty percent of the population of the world today.  These are the most prosperous and generally the most developed countries in the world.  The rest of the world is still dominated by limited access orders that are less prosperous and less developed.  And yet even these countries with limited access orders benefit from trading with and learning from the countries with open access orders.

The argument of North, Wallis, and Weingast has deep implications for international development policy--as indicated in a new book that they have edited: In the Shadow of Violence: Politics, Economics, and the Problems of Development (Cambridge University Press, 2013).  If they are right, the policies of the World Bank and other international development agencies have failed, because in promoting the adoption of free markets and democratic elections in developing countries, these policies will destabilise the elite coalitions in limited access orders and promote violence rather than economic and political development.  Elections and markets don't work as well in limited access orders as they do in open access orders, and achieving a successful transition from limited access to open access is very hard.  This explains the failures of development policy in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The advice of North, Wallis, and Weingast to agencies like the World Bank is to find ways to promote the movement of fragile and basic limited access orders to mature limited access orders, which provide the doorstep conditions for an eventual transition to open access--conditions such as the rule of law for elites, stable elite organizations inside and outside the framework of the state, and centralized control of the military.

But what about my original question?  Does this movement from foraging orders to limited access orders to open access orders show progress in history--moral, political, and economic progress?

In Violence and Social Orders, North, Wallis, and Weingast deny that there is any historical teleology in their work: "There is no teleology built into the framework: it is a dynamic explanation of social change, not of social progress" (xii).  And they imply that as empirical social scientists who assume the fact/value dichotomy, they cannot scientifically make moral judgments.

And yet they repeatedly use language that indicates not just social change, but social progress.  After all, the very idea of "development" and of distinguishing "developing" and "developed" countries implies a moral teleology.  Similarly, the idea of "mature" forms of limited access orders carries the same implication.

They speak of how "good political institutions" promote prosperity (3).  They speak of how sometimes mature forms of limited access orders can "regress" to basic forms (49).  They also argue that open access orders are "better at constructing effective responses to novel problems," because they have "a greater degree of adaptive efficiency" in promoting experimentation such that "successful adaptations remain while failures tend to disappear" (133, 252).  They conclude that "open access produces enough output to make everyone, elite and non-elite, better off" (188).

Clearly, there is no teleology here if by that one means an inevitably determined movement in one direction towards one final end.  There can be "regression" in the history of limited access orders, falling back from mature forms to basic and fragile forms.  And while no country that has made the transition to an open access order has fallen back into a limited access order, there is no reason to think this could never happen.

And yet there is a teleology here if by that one means that there are better and worse forms of social order, and that recent history has brought better social orders into existence--the orders that provide open access to political, economic, and social competition.

But what's our standard of better and worse?  North, Wallis, and Weingast are vague about this, as when they speak of how "open access produces enough output to make everyone, elite and non-elite, better off."  By "output" they seem to mean material prosperity, and the progress in that respect is clearly and easily measurable.  Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms and Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist survey the evidence for the amazing improvement in the material standard of living brought by open access societies.  And Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature shows the evidence for the equally amazing decline in violence across human history and particularly in the last few centuries.

I would argue for an even broader standard in measuring how open access societies have made us "better off."  As I have often maintained on this blog, there are at least 20 natural desires that constitute the evolved generic goods of life.  An open access order--with its open polity, open economy, and open society--provides the political, economic, and social liberties that constitute the conditions for the fullest satisfaction of those natural desires over a whole life.

This supports the case for Darwinian liberalism--for the idea that open competition of ideas and practices in political, economic, and social life promotes "adaptive efficiency" in pursuing the human goods of life.

It is remarkable that North, Wallis, and Weingast don't follow the logic of open competition in politics to what might seem to be its final end--eliminating the governmental monopoly in violence through a free competition of governments for consumers of security.  That's the conclusion drawn by liberal anti-statists, beginning with Gustave de Molinari, a Belgian-born writer who became one of the leading French liberal economists in the 19th century.  In 1849, in his essay on "The Production of Security," Molinari argued that if free markets can and should provide goods and services at the least cost through free competition, then free markets should likewise provide the services of protection through the free competition of governments.  This would eliminate the present monopoly in the legitimate exercise of violence claimed by the modern state, and thus eliminate the exploitation that such monopoly power conveys to those elite groups that exercise governmental power.  Molinari's argument was debated in 1849 at a meeting of the Societe d'Economie Politique, where Charles Dunoyer criticized Moliari's proposal as unrealistic and claimed that governmental exploitation could be minimized through the open competition of political parties in an electoral system of democratic representation. 

North, Wallis, and Weingast embrace Dunoyer's position, although they seem to be unaware of this debate among the French liberals over Molinari's argument.  The problem, however, is that party competition in a democracy does not eliminate governmental rent-seeking.  In fact, North, Wallis, and Weingast admit this, but they insist that, at least, rent-seeking that benefits only a narrow interest is "much less likely to occur in an open access society than in a natural state" (24, 141).  And yet they also indicate that an open access society tends to promote more growth in the size of government than is the case in a limited access society (122-25).  They defend the growth in the modern welfare state as a way of redistributing wealth that does not disrupt markets.  But if this growth in governmental intervention in the economy and society is unlimited, how can this not disrupt markets and threaten liberty?  If monopolies are necessarily inefficient and exploitative, then won't a government with a Weberian monopoly in the legitimate exercise of coercive violence be inefficient and exploitative?

Douglass North's summary of his book in a lecture can be found here.  Barry Weingast's PowerPoint outline of the book can be found here.

My posts on Deirdre McCloskey's criticism of North's institutionalism for failing to see how the ethical ideas of bourgeois equality and dignity brought the Great Enrichment can be found here.

A post on the theory of "minimum winning coalitions" can be found here.

A post on how "private governance" can replace governance by the state can be found here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Do the Bee Police Enforce God's Law? Or Are They Darwinian Nihilists?

The public cheering of the police in Boston after they successfully hunted down the terrorist bombers reminds us of our dependence on police to protect us from violence. 

Thomas Hobbes might have seen this as confirming his argument that human beings need the artifice of a Leviathan state to protect them from the violence of the state of nature, because human beings are not naturally cooperative like the political animals, and therefore Aristotle was wrong to identify human beings as political animals like ants, bees, and wasps.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I think Hobbes was right about how a centralized state helps to reduce violence, which is supported by the evidence surveyed by Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature.  But I have also indicated that I think Hobbes was wrong in denying Aristotle's claim that human beings are political animals by nature like the social insects.

Hobbes's reasoning about political animals depends on two fundamental assumptions.  First, among the naturally political animals, social cooperation is completely harmonious, because there are no conflicts of interest to create competition.  Second, nature and instinct are necessarily antithetical to artifice and learning, so that social order cannot be natural or instinctive if it depends in any way on artificial or learned activity.  Darwinian biology denies both assumptions.

The second assumption is denied by the evidence that many animals are capable of social learning and behavioral traditions that show animal culture.  (Links to some of my posts on this can be found here.)

But here I want to concentrate on Hobbes's first assumption--that political animals do not manifest the conflicts of interest that throw human beings into a violent state of nature that makes it necessary for human beings to accept the artifice of the Leviathan to resolve their conflicts.

Hobbes was deceived by the appearance of completely harmonious cooperation among the social insects.  Now we know that this is mistaken.  Actually, social insect colonies are full of conflicts and conspiracies.  From a Darwinian point of view, we can see that this must be so, because the individuals in insect colonies are not genetically identical, and therefore they have conflicting reproductive interests.  In recent decades, the evidence for this has been accumulating.

For example, honey bees and other social insects experience internal conflicts that can only be resolved by policing that deters or punishes the selfish behavior of individuals that is contrary to the collective good of the colony.  So we see that it is as true for social insects as it is for human beings that conflicts arise when the interests of individuals differ, which then makes it necessary for there to be some form of government to resolve these conflicts.

It might seem that there is a harmonious division of labor in a honey bee colony.  The queen bee specializes in reproducing offspring, and the worker-sisters specialize in rearing the offspring and doing other work for the colony. 

But there is potential conflict here.  The workers cannot mate, but they have functional ovaries, and since males arise from unfertilized eggs, workers can potentially produce males.  In hymenopteran societies, the reproductive system of haplodiploidy causes workers to be related less to brothers than to sons, while the queen is related more closely to her sons than to workers' sons (her grandsons).

Therefore, the queen is favored by natural selection to prevent workers from successfully reproducing, and thus she should police reproduction by destroying the eggs laid by workers.  Moreover, in colonies with a queen that has mated with many males,  the workers are on average more closely related to the queen's sons (their brothers) than to other workers' sons (nephews).  So, here the workers should be selected to police reproduction by destroying the eggs of other workers.  Studies have shown that this is what happens.  They have also shown, however, that individual workers can sometimes evade this policing.  Just as is the case for human beings, some insect individuals try to cheat while avoiding detection, which creates the social need for policing to detect and punish cheating.  Glaucon in Plato's Republic was right to emphasize this problem for moral and political order.

Two of the leading researchers in the study of conflict resolution among insects are Francis Ratnieks (at the University of Sussex, UK) and Tom Wenseleers (at the University of Leuven, Belgium).  Their explanation for these bee police is that this is an evolutionary adaptation for conflict resolution.

But some creationists have another explanation.  As indicated in a YouTube video, they cite this evidence for bee police as showing how God enforces his moral law among the social insects--"law and order is a gift of God"--in a manner that cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

But shouldn't these creationists be troubled by the fact that these worker bees are murdering their nephews?  This would be immoral for human beings.  Why isn't it immoral for the bees as well?  Does this mean that if the bees were able to formulate their social rules as moral norms, that they would show a moral sense very different from the human moral sense, because bee morality would be relative to the nature of bees? 

Darwin suggested this in The Descent of Man:
"In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct.  If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.  Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience" (Penguin Classics, 2004, pp. 122-23).
Frances Cobbe in her review of Darwin's book protested that this would destroy all morality, because it was a nihilistic teaching that morality had no grounding in cosmic moral universals that are the same for all rational beings.  Recently, John West and other proponents of intelligent design theory have made this argument.  Last week, at my panel at the Midwest Political Science Convention, Steven Forde made the same argument.  As I indicated in a previous post, Forde insists that morality in the "true or normative sense" requires a cosmic grounding rather than an evolved grounding in the nature of the human species.  To suggest, as Darwin does, that morality is species-specific is to show that Darwinism is nihilism.

As I have said, this argument from people like Cobbe, West, and Forde assumes a Platonic expectation of a moral cosmology--that morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the cosmos as a dictate of a cosmic God, a cosmic Reason, or a cosmic Nature.

I reject this Platonic moral cosmology, because I see no reason why morality cannot rightly be understood as grounded in our evolved human nature, so that what is moral for us would not necessarily be moral for any other species that might develop a moral sense.

Contrary to Cobbe, West, and Forde, I see nothing nihilistic in admiring the bee police for their evolved system of law enforcement, and in seeing this as showing that Friedrich Nietzsche was right to view "the entire phenomenon of morality as animal."


Arnhart, "The Darwinian Biology of Aristotle's Political Animals," American Journal of Political Science 38 (1994): 464-85.

Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), Chapter 3: "Political Animals."

Arnhart, "The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science," Perspectives on Politics 11 (June, 2013).

Wim Bonckaert, K. Vuerinckx, J. Billen, R. Hammond, L. Keller, and T. Wenseleers, "Worker Policing in the German Wasp Vespula germanica," Behavioral Ecology 19 (2008): 272-78.

Francis Ratnieks and P. Kirk Visscher, "Worker Policing in the Honeybee," Nature 342 (1989): 796-97.

Francis Ratnieks and Tom Wenseleers, "Policing Insect Societies," Science 307 (2005): 54-56.

Francis Ratnieks, Kevin Foster, and Tom Wenseleers, "Conflict Resolution in Insect Societies," Annual Review of Entomology 51 (2006): 581-608.

Links to some of my previous posts on insect politics can be found here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hobbesian Political Philosophy as Empirical Science

It has always seemed odd to me that scholars in the history of political philosophy pay so little attention to empirical evidence. 

I was thinking about this while attending some of the panels on political philosophy at the annual conference in Chicago of the Midwest Political Science Association.  Most of the papers for these panels were textual interpretations of classic and contemporary writings in the history of political philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to Rawls and Nussbaum.  In most cases, the scholars on these panels argued about the correct interpretations of the texts being considered without surveying any of the empirical evidence that might confirm or falsify the claims made by the political philosophers.  This is strange because the texts being studied make lots of empirical claims about political life, and therefore one might think that the scholars studying these texts would want to gather and analyse whatever evidence would be relevant to assessing the accuracy of these empirical claims.

For example, much of the debate in early modern political philosophy turns on Thomas Hobbes' argument that government originated as a way to pacify the natural human inclination to violence in the state of nature, in which human beings existed as solitary animals thrown into perpetual conflict.  That Hobbes saw this as an empirical claim is made clear by his references to the American Indians as living in a state of nature and by his references to animal behavior in denying that human beings are political animals by nature.  So it would seem that to judge the truth or falsity of Hobbes' arguments, we need to look at the relevant biological and anthropological evidence.

And, indeed, the critics of Hobbes in his lifetime looked to such evidence in their responses to Hobbes.  For example, Richard Cumberland in 1672--in his Treatise of the Laws of Nature--argued that the biological evidence supported Aristotle's claim that human beings were political animals by nature against Hobbes' claim that they were not.  Cumberland argued that all the natural causes that incline animals to social cooperation--such as parental care, mutual aid, and reciprocal exchange--are just as strong in human beings as they are in some other animals.  He saw the human capacities for speech and reason as the natural instruments by which human beings become more political than the other political animals, just as Aristotle had claimed in his biological writings.

We now have more biological and anthropological evidence than was available to Hobbes and Cumberland, and this new evidence can help us adjudicate this debate.  I would say that the evidence suggests that Hobbes was partially right and partially wrong.

Hobbes was partially right in arguing that the life of hunter-gatherers showed high levels of violence, and that the establishment of formal governments had a pacifying effect.  In recent decades, the archaeological evidence surveyed by Lawrence Keeley and others (including Azar Gat and Steven Pinker) make it clear that Hobbes was right about this, and Rousseau was wrong.  For example, the skeletal evidence surveyed by Richard Steckel and John Wallis shows that the rate of violent death among hunter-gatherers was much higher than that for those who lived in the earliest villages and towns.  Pinker uses this and other evidence to show that Hobbes was right about the "pacification process"--the first big step in the long history of declining violence came 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic revolution, with the establishment of agriculture and the settlement in urban centers with formal governments.

This evidence for the pacification process has forced me to change my mind about Hobbes.  Having criticized Hobbes for many years, I now see that Hobbes was right about this.

Hobbes was partially wrong, however, in suggesting that hunter-gatherers lived as solitary individuals.  The evidence concerning the hunting-gathering way of life--as well as the general evolutionary theorizing of Darwinian biology--indicate that our earliest human ancestors were social animals bound together by ties of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.  And thus Cumberland was right in defending Aristotle's political biology against Hobbes.  Actually, Hobbes himself indicated that life in the state of nature was not totally solitary, because of "the government of small families" based on the ties of "natural lust."

Hobbes was also partially wrong in not seeing that although the first states were beneficial to everyone in lowering the level of violence, those states were also oppressive in allowing ruling elites to exploit the ruled, and thus Locke was right about the need to limit the powers of government.  The evidence of both ancient and modern history would support this.

This application of biological and anthropological evidence to debates in the history of political philosophy will be part of the newly emerging biopolitical science.

Some posts that elaborate some of these points can be found here, herehere, and here.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Nihilism as Disappointed Platonism

Is Darwinism nihilism?

If you are a Platonist, yes.  If you are not a Platonist, no.

Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists--people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal as conforming to Plato's intelligible realm of eternal Ideas.  Moreover, if everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism.  Darwinism is "true but deadly" (as Nietzsche said).  And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.

But if you do not have Platonic expectations, you will not be disappointed by the Darwinian conclusion that everything has evolved, and therefore human beings have evolved.  Without the Platonic assumption that morality must be grounded in a moral cosmology, you will be satisfied with a Darwinian explanation of morality as grounded in a moral anthropology.  Even if morality has no eternal grounding in a cosmic God, a cosmic Nature, or a cosmic Reason, human morality can still have an evolutionary grounding in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  And thus in contrast to the disappointed Platonists, the satisfied Darwinians are not nihilists.

That's my response to Steven Forde's claim that "Darwinism is nihilism."  Forde (a political theorist at the University of North Texas) argues for that claim in his paper on "Darwin and Political Theory" for the 2013 conference of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago.  He and I will be on the same panel, where my paper is on "Nietzsche's Darwinian Liberalism."  Both of our papers can be found on the website of the MPSA.

In considering the implications of Darwinian science for political theory, Forde says that his primary concern is how to answer Glaucon's question in Plato's Republic--Why should I be moral?  If I can cheat successfully--serving my own selfish interests while exploiting others, but always appearing to be perfectly just--why shouldn't I?  Can Socrates give me any reason for a moral obligation not to cheat?

Forde agrees that "evolution is the truth," that human beings have evolved from simpler forms of life, and that human morality is a product of human evolutionary history.  Therefore, "morality is hard wired into us" (1).  The good news is that this shows that we will remain moral for as long as our evolved human nature endures.  But the bad news, he worries, is that "this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought," because "it is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage."  Forde says this is the conclusion that he has "dreaded" during the years that he avoided the study of Darwinian science, because what this means is that Darwinism dictates nihilism, and if Darwinism is true, as it surely is, then we must accept the truth of nihilism.

Darwinism gives no good answer to Glaucon's question, Forde insists, and therefore, we might infer, Glaucon might as well put on the ring of Gyges and live a vicious human life, and even become a tyrant, while appearing to be good.  Forde is silent about whether Plato or Plato's Socrates gives a convincing answer to Glaucon's question, which leaves us with the suspicion that Forde believes there is no convincing answer at all, and so we are left with the nihilism as confirmed by Darwinism that he had always "dreaded."

Of course, Socrates in the Republic does answer Glaucon's question, but Forde's silence suggests that he does not believe that Socrates' answer is convincing.  Socrates teaches us that to know what is truly good, we must transcend the visible realm of Becoming in ascending to the invisible realm of Being, and finally ascending to the Idea of the Good.  But it's not clear that this answer is fully convincing or satisfying.  Socrates concludes the Republic with the myth of Er--a mythic story about eternal rewards and punishment in the afterlife.  The problem with this myth is that it's only a myth, and so it's not clear why we should believe it.  But the earlier answer--the Idea of the Good--is so incomprehensible that it's not clear why we should believe it either.

So what kind of "grounding" for morality is Forde (or Glaucon) seeking?  Forde refers repeatedly to the "true or normative sense" of morality (7, 12, 14, 22, 31-32).  But he never defines, explains, or defends this "true or normative sense" of morality.  Although he does not explicitly say so, Forde's references to Plato's Republic suggest that he assumes that Plato was right to think that the "true or normative sense" of morality required a transcendent, cosmic standard--the Idea of the Good.  But now that Darwinian science has refuted that belief in eternal Ideas in a divinely designed cosmos, Forde suggests, we must conclude that morality in the "true or normative sense" does not exist, and therefore the nihilists are right in their claim that morality rests on . . . nothing.  That's how the disappointed Platonist becomes a nihilist.

Identifying me (along with Hans Jonas and Leon Kass) as a Darwinian "teleologist," Forde identifies my "initial philosophic premise, that what is good for an organic being is 'good' for it in a normative sense."  Forde insists that this won't work:
"As we saw earlier, he applies this principle not only to human beings, but to animals.  Is it morally good then, and not simply adaptive, for the queen bee to kill her sisters, and the newly-dominant male lion to kill all the offspring of his predecessor?  Arnhart is correct to say that biology itself incorporates teleological thinking by speaking of the 'purpose' or 'function' of an eye or heart.  But this kind of 'teleology' is not what is meant when we speak philosophically of teleology.  One is normative, while the other is not.  We might speak scientifically of ways of life that are more successful in terms of survival--serving the Darwinian telos--or even happier, but can we say that these are normatively better?  A further argument, and a different kind of argument, would be required than the one Arnhart gives us, I believe, to establish this" (31).
Forde's reference to queen bees killing their sisters is mistaken.  What he meant to say is that queen bees can kill their fertile daughters to keep them from competing with her in reproductionHere Forde is referring to a passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin says that if some nonhuman species had a moral sense, it would not necessarily be the same moral sense as ours, because it would be adapted to the conditions of their life, which might be quite different from the conditions of human life.  In her review of Darwin's book, Frances Cobbe was shocked by this, because it denied the Platonic and Kantian idea that morality is grounded in a cosmic order of rational imperatives that are the same for all rational beings in the universe, and therefore a rational bee would have the same morality as a rational human being.  To reject this moral cosmology, Cobbe insisted, is to reject all morality and to promote moral relativism or nihilism.  Clearly, Forde agrees with her.

But why does one have to take for granted the Platonic or Kantian assumption that morality cannot have a true grounding if it is not grounded in a moral cosmology?  Why can't morality be grounded in moral anthropology--in the human sources of moral order, in human nature, human culture, and human judgment?  This might not give us categorical imperatives, but it can give us hypothetical imperatives: if you wish to live a flourishing, happy human life, then some ways of life are better suited for this than others.  For Forde the appeal to human happiness or flourishing has no "normativity," because it is not woven into the fabric of the cosmos, because while it might be part of the enduring nature of the evolved human species, it is not eternal.

Against Forde's Platonic moral cosmology, I see no reason why we can't be satisfied with a moral anthropology in which the human good is as objectively real as any trait of our evolved human species.  Someday, our human species will go extinct, and then the human good will no longer exist.  But we could still say, it was good while it lasted.

As suggested by my paper on Nietzsche, Forde's disappointed Platonism and his ambivalence about Darwinian evolution are similar to what one sees in the writings of Nietzsche.  In his early writings, Nietzsche worried about Darwinism as "true but deadly" in its denial of any Platonic or religious conception of moral cosmology.  In his middle writings, he accepted Darwinian moral anthropology as supporting an aristocratic liberalism.  But in his later writings, he turned away from this and rejected Darwinism as he embraced an aristocratic radicalism based on a mythopoetic Dionysianism that would give human life "the imprint of eternity."  Thus, in his early and late writings, Nietzsche showed the contradictions of a disappointed Platonist, which I also see in Forde's paper.  By contrast, the Nietzsche of the middle period accepts the evolution of human nature as a grounding for human moral and intellectual excellence, as having no eternal grounding but as human, all too human.

My conclusion is that it is better to be a satisfied Darwinian than a disappointed Platonist.

I have developed these points in some other posts that can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Abbey, Franco, and Johnson on Nietzsche's Middle Period

I have written a long series of posts defending the writings of Nietzsche's middle period as superior to his early and late writings, and I have argued that the strength of those middle writings depends largely on Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian science.  As I have indicated, my thinking here has been much influenced by Lou Salomé's argument that the scientific skepticism of Nietzsche's middle writings is free from the delusional Dionysian longings that ruin his early and late writings.  I agree with Salomé about this, although I stress more than she did the Darwinian character of the science that Nietzsche adopted in his middle period.

In recent years, some scholars have given some attention to Nietzsche's middle period, but none of them have properly responded to Salomé's account.  Here I will briefly comment on three of them--Ruth Abbey, Paul Franco, and Dirk Johnson.

Abbey's Nietzsche's Middle Period (Oxford University Press, 2000) revives Salomé's position in presenting Nietzsche's middle writings as the most defensible of his writings, because these middle writings are free from the extremism of his other writings, and it was this extremism that was so easily appropriated by the Nazis.  Abbey recognizes that this division of Nietzsche's writing into early, middle, and late originated with Salomé, but Abbey is silent about Salomé's argument that the early and late writings were ruined by an unscientific religious longing.

Abbey recognizes that Nietzsche in his middle period appeals again and again to the natural sciences, but she doesn't see very clearly the specific influence of Darwinian science (coming through Paul Rée and others) (17, 145-46).  She sees five general themes running throughout the middle period: genealogy, naturalism, rationalism, custom, and community life.  But she does not see how all of these themes were shaped by Darwinian science, particularly as coming from Darwin's Descent of Man.  Although she recognizes Nietzsche's preoccupation with the "evolution of morality," she doesn't consider the Darwinian origins of this concern.  This is more than just a minor scholarly quibble, because if one sees the Darwinian foundation of Nietzsche's middle period, then one can see the possibility that Nietzsche's thinking from this period might be open to verification or falsification by contemporary Darwinian science.

In contrast to Abbey's argument for setting Nietzsche's middle writings apart from, and above, his early and later writings, Franco--in Nietzsche's Enlightenment: The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period (University of Chicago Press, 2011)--claims that the middle writings are part of a continuous development of Nietzsche's thought with no sharp breaks or contradictions. 

Oddly enough, Franco ignores Salomé's reading of Nietzsche, but Franco does quote from Nietzsche's remarks to Salomé about how his completion of Book 5 of The Gay Science represented a break from the "free spirit" of his middle writings.  Franco dismisses these explicit statements of a sharp break in his intellectual development by saying: "Nietzsche no doubt simplifies his philosophical development here, exaggerating the break between his free-spirit writings and the emerging outlook of his later writings" (161). 

Franco also ignores the many places in Nietzsche's middle writings where he explicitly rejects the teachings that emerge in his later writings--the Ubermensch, will to power, eternal recurrence, and Dionysian intoxication.  Franco does admit, however, that the artist-philosopher of Nietzsche's late writings uses religion in a way that "sharply differentiates" him from the free spirit of the middle period (188, 216-17).  Franco also passes over the distinctive endorsement of liberal politics in Nietzsche's middle period, although he admits that what Nietzsche says in Human, All Too Human "sounds almost liberal" (192). 

Unlike Abbey, Franco does recognize the importance of Darwinian science for Nietzsche's middle period (31, 60-63).  But then he doesn't reflect on the fact that the teachings of the later Nietzsche have no grounding in empirical science.  Franco observes: "Unfortunately, Nietzsche's attempts to scientifically prove the eternal recurrence as a cosmological theory all seem to fail" (159).  But then he moves on without any further thought about the oddly fictional if not delusional character of Nietzsche's teachings in his later writings.

In Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Dirk Johnson gives more attention to Darwinism in Nietzsche's writings than do Abbey or Franco.  But whereas Abbey defends Nietzsche's middle writings as superior to his later writings, Johnson dismisses this in one sentence: "I am skeptical of her negative assessment regarding the final period" (2).  Beyond that one sentence, he never directly responds to Abbey--or to Salomé.

Johnson likes the Nietzsche of the later writings, but he doesn't like Darwin or naturalistic morality.  So he defends the anti-Darwinism of the later Nietzsche, and he tries to show that even in his middle period, Nietzsche is departing from Darwin.  To do this, he makes some strange arguments.  For example, he claims that when Nietzsche rejected a sharp dichotomy between "altruism" and "egoism," he was attacking an idea that was fundamental for Darwin.  But Johnson doesn't mention the fact that Darwin does not even use the word "altruism" in either the Origin of Species or The Descent of Man.

Since Johnson never confronts Salomé's position, he never responds to her argument about how Nietzsche's religious longings motivated the teachings of his later writings.  He insists that Nietzsche's teaching of eternal recurrence "is neither a new faith, nor a cosmology, nor a metaphysical doctrine, but an anti-faith" (72).  But Johnson repeatedly recognizes that eternal recurrence is tied to Nietzsche's "Dionysian spirit"  and the "redemption" of the world by the Ubermensch (77, 200, 202, 206, 208, 210, 212).  Johnson ignores the religious character of this teaching, which Nietzsche explicitly identifies as a "faith" (for example, TI, "Skirmishes," 49).  Johnson offers an extensive (and confusing) commentary on the Genealogy of Morals.  But he never reflects on the religious imagery of that book in its prophecy of "the redeeming man of great love and contempt" who must come one day to redeem the earth and give hope to man (GM, 3.24).

As I have indicated in some previous posts on Ayn Rand and evolution, she seemed to have the same kind of strange ambivalence about Darwinian evolution that one sees in Nietzsche.  Like Nietzsche, she was a fervent atheist.  But also like Nietzsche, she wanted to say that man "transcends" nature, and this heroic transcendence suggested some kind of atheistic religiosity in rejecting Darwinism as a threat to human dignity.  And yet, at the same time, Rand often spoke of "man's rights" as conditions for the survival of the human organism--suggesting a teleological conception of human biology that was elaborated by Harry Binswanger.

There is some value in all of this recent scholarship on Nietzsche's middle period.  But in some fundamental respects, Lou Salomé's book on Nietzsche is still unsurpassed in the depth of its account of Nietzsche's science in his middle period and his religiosity in his early and late periods.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Nietzsche--Aristocratic Radical or Aristocratic Liberal?

Bruce Detwiler's Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism (University of Chicago Press, 1990) is the best single study of Nietzsche as a political philosopher.

I have three reasons for saying that.  First, Detwiler makes a good case for aristocratic radicalism as the political teaching of Nietzsche in his early and late writings.  Second, he recognizes that Nietzsche's endorsement of liberal democracy in the writings of his middle period contradicts what he says in his other writings.  Third, Detwiler concludes his book with some of the best criticisms of Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.

My step beyond Detwiler is to argue that the political teaching of the middle period is superior--morally, politically, and intellectually--to the political teaching of the early and late writings, because the teaching of the middle period is rooted in a Darwinian anthropology that supports an aristocratic liberalism that escapes the criticisms that Detwiler directs at Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.

In November of 1887, the Danish scholar George Brandes wrote a letter to Nietzsche praising his writings and endorsing his "aristocratic radicalism."  Nietzsche responded by accepting this label: "The expression Aristocratic Radicalism, which you employ, is very good.  It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself."  Detwiler's insight was to adopt this expression as the best term for conveying Nietzsche's political teaching.  On the one hand, Nietzsche was not an "aristocratic conservative," because he was an atheistic radical in affirming the death of God and the death of all ultimate standards.  On the other hand, Nietzsche was not an "egalitarian radical," because he was aristocratic in affirming that there was an order of rank by which one could recognize a few human beings as "higher men" who deserve to rule over the inferior majority of human beings.  Nietzsche thus became "the first avowed atheist of the far Right" (189-90). 

This is, I think, Leo Strauss's Nietzsche as initiating the "third wave of modernity" that led to fascism and National Socialism (see 83-84).  The Straussian influence on Detwiler could have come through Werner Dannhauser, who directed Detwiler's dissertation at Cornell.

The fundamental idea of aristocratic radicalism is that "Nietzsche's response to the demise of all ultimate ends is to make the highest human being the ultimate end" (191), and that highest human being is the Dionysian artist-philosopher who exercises his will to power by tyrannically legislating new values for all of humanity.  This is most clearly expressed in Beyond Good and Evil and The Will to Power.  European democracy must ultimately transform itself into "a new and sublime development of slavery," in which the "herd animal" is enslaved to the "leader animal" (WP, 954, 956).  Thus, "the democratization of Europe is . . . an involuntary arrangement for the cultivation of tyrants--taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual" (BGE, 242).

This tyrannical rule of the artist-philosophers will require "conscious breeding experiments," "terrible means of compulsion," and even "the annihilation of millions of failures."  This is necessary for the "domination of the earth" by a "new, tremendous aristocracy . . . in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be made to endure for millenia," and the rule of this "new caste" over Europe will unify it into "one will" (BGE, 208, 251; WP, 764, 954, 960, 964).

But after showing how this aristocratic radicalism constitutes the fundamental political teaching in all of Nietzsche's early and late writings, Detwiler admits (in chapter 8) that this teaching is contradicted by Nietzsche's apparent endorsement of liberal democracy in his middle writings--especially, Human, All Too Human and The Wanderer and His Shadow.  In this middle period, Nietzsche was committed to a modern natural science of history in which the highest life is the dispassionate pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake.  This free-spirited science refutes the metaphysical and religious claims to superhuman authority that have supported the traditional state's legitimacy in subordinating individuals to its rule.  Consequently, the state as "a mysterium, a supernatural institution" must disappear, and increasingly individuals will judge the state as either useful or harmful to them (HH, 472).  This favors modern liberal democracy, which claims no superhuman authority, because it is understood as merely instrumental to the security and freedom of the individuals that it serves.

This conception of the liberal state defended in the middle period contradicts the aristocratic radicalism of Nietzsche's early and late writings, because this latter requires "a new kind of superhuman authority"--the superhuman authority of the Superman or the artist-philosopher who must create a new religion for humanity.  Here the indispensable goal is "the establishment of a sense of devotion to the superhuman in a world without God" (187-88).

Detwiler sees no way around this contradiction--"in the middle period, Nietzsche appears to turn suspiciously against himself" (183).  The contrast with the rest of his writing is stark:
"Although there is little enthusiasm for democracy in The Wanderer and His Shadow, there is no advocacy of new ruling castes or master races or conscious breeding experiments, and there is no talk about the domination of the earth or the annihilation of millions of failures or about philosophers working as artists upon men to produce a higher sovereign species.  Indeed, democracy does not appear as a new, subtle form of slavery in The Wanderer and His Shadow; rather, democracy appears as a bulwark 'against physical and spiritual enslavement,' and as that which sees 'independence for as many as possible.'" (177-78)
Well, yes, I would say, and doesn't this show the superiority of the middle Nietzsche over the early and late Nietzsche?  Isn't it sensible not to advocate master races, breeding experiments, the annihilation of millions of human beings, and the creation of artistic-philosophical tyrants?  Isn't it reasonable to defend democracy if it can protect us "against physical and spiritual enslavement" and promote "independence for as many as possible"?

Detwiler doesn't consider this possibility.  Nor does he consider the importance of Nietzsche's Darwinism in his middle period as shaping his aristocratic liberalism during that period.

And yet, Detwiler does indicate the serious problems with Nietzsche's aristocratic radicalism.  At the end of his book, he offers five criticisms of Nietzsche.  First, he suggests that Nietzsche shows "an impoverished sensibility" when he denies that the lives of most human beings have any value--that "the majority of mortals" are "physiologically deformed and deranged," and that "a people is a detour of nature to get six or seven great men" (GM, 3.1; BGE, 126).  It shows a strange blindness to the reality of human experience to say that there is nothing worthwhile in the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings (193-94).

Detwiler's second criticism is that Nietzsche never offers a convincing argument for his claim that life is will to power.  He offers no empirical proof for this as either a metaphysical or psychological hypothesis (194-95).  In fact, much of what Nietzsche says about the will to power is clearly deficient as an account of human experience.  As one can see, for example, when he claims that love is just will to power, because love is "at bottom, the deadly hatred of the sexes" (EH, "Why I Write Such Good Books," 5).

His third criticism is that Nietzsche's teaching that the human drives are totally chaotic with no innate order at all is empirically false (195).  Surely, the human drives show neither total harmony nor total disorder.  Even if we are the "undetermined animal," in that nature does not perfectly define or arrange our drives, and thus psychic definition or arrangement depends on social culture and individual choices, it is still likely that there is "a significant level of innate order among the drives, and even a significant level of order common to all human beings."  By totally separating art from nature, Nietzsche makes his Dionysian philosopher an omnipotent god.  But this denies what we know by experience as to how human nature puts limits or constraints on human art.

Detwiler's fourth criticism is his questioning of whether Nietzsche is correct in asserting that all gods have died, and therefore that all the foundations of morality in the Western world are gone (195).  Is it possible that Nietzsche has not properly understood the foundations of Western morality?

Detwiler's fifth criticism is that Nietzsche's immoralism is so excessive in its immoderation that we should all rightly reject it because it is so disturbing (195-96).

My response to all of this is to point out that in the writings of his middle period, Nietzsche embraced a Darwinian liberalism that escaped all five of these criticisms.

First, his Darwinan liberalism recognized human inequality and the excellence of those few human beings who devote themselves to scientific and philosophic inquiry, but it also recognized the dignity or worth of ordinary human beings living ordinary lives that can display some of the beauty and sweetness of human life.  Darwinian liberalism affirmed the individual freedom of a liberal society as the primary condition for the diverse expression of human excellence at all levels of human potentiality. 

Second, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism did not try to explain all life as will to power, although it did recognize the drive for domination and warn about the need to control it. 

Third, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism recognized "a significant level of innate order among the drives, and even a significant level of order common to all human beings."  Nietzsche's Darwinian science saw that evolved human nature constrains but does not determine human culture, and that human nature and human culture together constrain but do not determine human judgment.  Our natural desires--perhaps the twenty natural desires that I have identified--constitute an innate order that is universal to the human species, although there is cultural and individual variation in the particular expressions of that universal human nature.  Consequently, a Darwinian political science requires a complex study of the interaction of natural history, cultural history, and individual history.  Although  the innate order of the human drives does not precisely determine the moral and political orders of human life, it is not true that those human drives are so completely chaotic as to impose no constraints at all on a supposedly superhuman Dionysian philosophy.  Indeed, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies that any human being can claim to be "superhuman" (ubermenschlich), because we are all human, all too human.

Fourth, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies that all the foundations of Western morality have collapsed, because it affirms the reality of human morality as rooted in evolved human nature.  And while Darwinian liberalism allows for religious belief as a possible support for morality, it does not make such religious belief indispensable for moral and political life.

Fifth, Nietzsche's Darwinian liberalism denies immoralism by affirming the natural moral sense as a product of human evolution.

Finally, as I have indicated in some previous posts, Nietzsche's aristocratic liberalism is based on a Darwinian anthropology that is open to empirical verification or falsification, while his aristocratic radicalism is based on mythopoetic fictions--the will to power, eternal recurrence, the Ubermensch, and Dionysian religiosity--that are beyond empirical testing.

From all of this, I conclude that Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.

Some of my other posts on Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism are here, here, and here.