Thursday, December 18, 2014

Markets and Morals

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith distinguishes two kinds of social order:
"It is thus that man, who can subsist only in society, was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made.  All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries.  Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.  All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common centre of mutual good offices."
"But though the necessary assistance should not be afforded from such generous and disinterested motives, though among the different members of the society there should be no mutual love and affection, the society, though less happy and agreeable, will not necessarily be dissolved.  Society may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection; and though no man in it should owe any obligation, or be bound in gratitude to any other, it may still be upheld by mercenary exchange of good offices according to agreed valuations." (85-86)
The first kind of social order that is based on love and affection arises among people bound together by personal relationships of kinship and friendship.  This is possible only in small groups of people who are personally known to one another.  The second kind of social order that is based on mutually beneficial but impersonal exchange, like trade between merchants.  This can encompass large groups of people, because it does not require the close face-to-face relationships of kinship or friendship.

Through most of human evolutionary history, human beings lived in small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers who lived largely in the first kind of social order, because impersonal exchange in markets was limited.  With the establishment of more sedentary societies based on farming and herding, there was more specialization in a division of labor with market exchange; and these agrarian societies became much larger.  Then, over the last four or five centuries, some societies became even more dependent on extended networks of market exchange. 

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith explains this history as a growing extension of market relationships rooted in the natural "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another."  The final stage of this history is a commercial society.  In such a society, everyone depends on the cooperation and assistance of a great multitude of people that they cannot know personally as relatives or friends, and so they cannot expect the help of others from their benevolence only.  "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages" (26-27).  "Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society" (37).

Is it good for us to live in such a commercial society, where everyone is a merchant, where social relationships are organized by buying and selling?  Or is it morally degrading to live in a society where everything can become a commodity to be bought and sold?

In the 18th century, Montesquieu argued for "gentle commerce"--that commerce had a civilizing effect in polishing or softening manners--and thus that commercial societies would bring moral improvement.  But Rousseau argued, on the contrary, that commerce would corrupt our morals.  Since then, both Marxist radicals and traditionalist conservatives have taken Rousseau's side in warning that the spread of the capitalist commercial system would destroy all of the traditional values of love, family, religion, and patriotism (Hirschman 1982).  On Montesquieu's side, defenders of the modern commercial society--for example, Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature--have insisted that commerce really has improved our morals.

A recent expression of the Rousseauist critique is Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy.  Sandel complains that in a commercial society, where almost anything can be bought and sold, markets degrade morals.  Not only are there some things that money can't buy, he argues, there are many things money shouldn't buy.

Sandel notes that a few years ago, there was a Web site where you could buy some good-looking fake "friends" for your Facebook page.  We know this is silly, because a true friendship depends on an emotional bond that cannot be purchased with money.

There are other things that money can buy but shouldn't.  Sandel contends that a human kidney is a possible example of this.  Some people defend the idea that organs for transplantation should be put up for sale in markets.  But others find this morally repugnant.  A transplanted human kidney that has been bought will function as a kidney, and so the buying of the kidney has not ruined it.  And yet, one might still argue that the buying and selling of human organs is morally corrupting, and that there are many goods that ought not to be exchanged in markets.

It is common for economists to argue that turning a good into a commodity that can be bought and sold does not change the character of the good, but it does make the production and distribution of that good more efficient.  That's why economists like to propose creating financial incentives to promote whatever behavior we might want.  After all, the fundamental assumption of modern economics is that in a voluntary market exchange, both parties can be made better off without making anyone else worse off.

Sandel objects to this by suggesting that as markets expand into all areas of life, including those traditionally governed by moral norms, the market commodification of goods destroys our moral motivations and promotes a social life governed by selfishness.  Sandel indicates that one example of how markets crowd out morals is the study of blood donation by Richard Titmuss.  In his book The Gift Relationship, Titmuss compared the British system of blood donation in which all blood for transfusion is given by donors without pay and the American system in which some blood is donated and some bought by commercial blood banks.  Titmuss argued that the British system worked better and that it cultivated an altruistic sense of community, while the American system of commercializing blood created shortages and degraded the community.

In response to Titmuss, economist Kenneth Arrow contended that it was a mistake to rely too much on moral motivations.  He explained:  "Like many economists, I do not want to rely too heavily on substituting ethics for self-interest.  I think it best on the whole that the requirement of ethical behavior be confined to those circumstances where the price system breaks down. . . . We do not wish to use up recklessly the scarce resources of altruistic motivation."  This sounds like Smith's claim that in those many cases where we cannot rely on benevolence to satisfy our needs, we must appeal to people's self-interest through economic exchange.

Sandel objects, however, that this ignores the possibility that benevolence and other moral dispositions are increased through practice, that they are like muscles that are strengthened through exercise.  If this is so, then a commercial society that relies too much on selfishness will weaken our moral character.

If Sandel is right, then we might expect that the most commercial societies would manifest the most moral corruption in comparison with other societies in which markets have been less important.  Some recent cross-cultural studies in experimental economics suggest that this is not true.  I will take this up in my next post.

REFERENCES

Albert Hirschman, "Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?" Journal of Economic Literature 20 (1982): 1463-1484.

Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013).

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Did the Cultural Evolution of Big Gods Make Us Moral?


This sign has been set up in a public park in Arlington Heights, Illinois, near a Christmas nativity scene.  This morning, the Chicago Tribune is reporting that the sign has been vandalized, and the Chicago Coalition of Reason is offering a reward of $2,000 for anyone who can identify the perpetrators.  Apparently, some religious believers are angered by the claim of atheists that it is possible to be "good without God."

Indeed, throughout the history of moral and political philosophy, there has been a general agreement that the moral order of society requires religious belief in the existence of a God who enforces a moral law by rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Even those philosophers like John Locke who have argued for religious toleration have been unwilling to tolerate atheists.  In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke declared: "Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.  Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.  The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all."

Beginning with Charles Darwin, this has been a controversial topic for evolutionary science.  Many religious believers have argued that the human knowledge of the moral law comes from human beings having been miraculously created by God in His image, and that any atheistic denial of this must subvert our morality.  For Darwin, the evolutionary history of religious belief and morality was complicated.  The anthropological evidence--as surveyed by John Lubbock and others--suggested to Darwin that our earliest human ancestors in foraging societies had no belief in any omnipotent, moral God.  Darwin thought that human mental faculties were inclined to an anthropomorphic animism, so that there was a universal tendency for human beings to project their own mental experience onto the world and to imagine unseen spiritual agencies around them.  In the earliest stage of human evolution, "anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own" (Descent of Man, Penguin ed., 117).  But these spirits were not omnipotent and moral deities concerned with monitoring human life. 

Only very recently in human evolutionary history, Darwin observed, have human beings come to believe in an all-seeing and moral God, and this has contributed to the advance of morality.  This was a product of cultural evolution rather than biological evolution.  This cultural evolution was driven by group warfare in which groups that were cohesive because of their shared religious belief in moralistic Gods would tend to prevail over groups that lacked such religious beliefs.  And now this belief in morality as rooted in reverence or fear of God is "most important, although not necessary."  Now it is possible for people to live by their own moral judgment.  "Man prompted by his conscience, will through long habit acquire such perfect self-command, that his desires and passions will at last yield instantly and without a struggle to his social sympathies and instincts, including his feeling for the judgment of his fellows" (Descent of Man, 138-40, 682; Autobiography, Norton ed., 94-95).

In this way, according to Darwin, the evolutionary history of morality and religion has passed through three stages.  First, in the earliest and longest stage, human hunter-gatherers organized their social lives in small primitive bands through social instincts such as kinship and reciprocity, without any need for a religiously grounded morality.  Then, as human beings formed large, civilized societies, they formulated through cultural evolution religious traditions of believing in omnipotent and providential Gods who enforced a moral law for human beings.  Now, it is possible for many human beings to live by the inner monitor of their consciences without the necessity for believing in a God who rewards the good and punishes the bad.

Over the past 40 years, the growing research in the evolutionary psychology of morality and religion has largely confirmed Darwin's account.  A good survey of this research by Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues will be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

They develop a cultural evolutionary theory of prosocial religions to resolve two interrelated puzzles of human evolution.  The first puzzle is the appearance over the past 12,000 years of large agrarian communities of anonymous strangers cooperating with one another.  Our Paleolithic human ancestors lived in small foraging bands comparable to other primates, in which people could cooperate based on genetically innate propensities to face-to-face relationships of kinship and reciprocity.  Those social instincts cannot explain the large societies that most of us live in today, which must be explained as products of cultural evolution.

The second puzzle is the appearance of prosocial religions with Big Gods or High Gods, Gods who are more powerful, more knowing, and more moralizing than the supernatural spirits of prehistoric religion.  Now the majority of human beings around the world are believers in one of the global prosocial religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Norenzayan and his colleagues argue that these two puzzles are linked.  The cultural evolution of prosocial religions was one of the major causes for the cultural evolution of large agrarian states.  The beliefs and practices of these religions promoted social cooperation in large communities based on the shared belief in a morality enforced by an all-powerful and moralistic God.  Like Darwin, they see this cultural evolution as driven by group selection in war:  groups with prosocial religions were stronger than groups without such religions.

Various kinds of archaeological, ethnographic, historical, and experimental evidence support this theory.  The archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicate that hunter-gatherers in small foraging bands have some religious beliefs in animistic spirits that have limited powers and little moral interest in human beings. 

It was only with the development of agriculture and the establishment of large agrarian societies that we see evidence of priestly religions based on beliefs in powerful, moralistic Gods that sanctify the authority of the social order.  The historical evidence from ancient Mesopotamia to the present suggests that social cooperation was enforced through belief in Gods that punished the bad and rewarded the good.  Beginning with Plato, philosophers have assumed that moral order is impossible without belief in moralistic Gods (as in Plato's Laws, Book 10).  And in religious texts like the Bible, we can see the evolution of God from a morally dubious trickster to a universal moral lawgiver.

There is also experimental evidence that believing in one of the prosocial religions promotes cooperation and fairness.  People around the world playing the Ultimatum Game, the Dictator Game, and the Public Goods Game are more likely to show a sense of fairness if they are religious believers.

And yet, as Norenzayan and his colleagues indicate, there is a dark side to this cultural evolution of moralistic religions.  As a product of group selection, these religions show parochial altruism:  believers are cooperative with their co-religionists, but they can be vicious in their treatment of those outside their religious group.

Religious violence and intolerance have provoked attempts in liberal political thought to overcome the factional conflict stirred by religious belief by promoting religious liberty and tolerance in a free marketplace of religious belief (as proposed, for example, by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations).  But as indicated by Locke, some liberal proponents of toleration have worried that moral order might be impossible without religious belief.

If Darwin is right, the evolution of conscience or of what Smith called the "impartial spectator" can provide a human substitute for religious morality.  Norenzayan and his colleagues agree.  They argue that the spread of secular institutions since the Industrial Revolution--including economic, political, and legal norms for enforcing cooperative behavior--has begun to secure social order without the need for religious belief.  They cite the example of those countries in Northern Europe today that are well-ordered although most people have no deep religious beliefs.

The research of Joseph Henrich and his colleagues that showed that religious belief increased fairness in playing the Ultimatum Game also showed increased fairness in societies with market integration.  People who engaged in a lot of market exchanges tended to develop expectations of fair cooperation and a tendency to punish cheaters.  This might confirm Smith's suggestion that in a modern commercial society, the desire for a mutual sympathy of sentiments in a free society can generate morality as a spontaneous order without any need for divine intelligent design.

If so, then perhaps we can be good without God.

REFERENCES
Ara Norenzayan, Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

Ara Norenzayan, "Does Religion Make People Moral?," Behaviour 151 (2014): 365-84, available online.

Ara Norenzayan, Azim F. Shariff, Aiyana K. Willard, Edward Slingerland, Will M. Gervais, Rita A. McNamara, and Joseph Henrich, "The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (forthcoming).

Joseph Henrich, J. Ensimger, R. McElreath, A. Barr, C. Barrett, A. Bolyanatz, J. Cardenas, "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment," Science 327 (2010): 1480-1484.

Posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here., here., here, here, and here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Deirdre McCloskey and the Evolution of the Bourgeois Virtues

In the natural history of the human species, there are three eras identified by three kinds of social order.  From about 250,000 to 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in foraging societies based on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  From about 10,000 years ago, many human beings lived in farming societies based on herding domesticated animals and cultivating domesticated plants.  Beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some human beings in Northwest Europe and North America--first in the Dutch Republic and later in England, Scotland, and the former British colonies in America--began to live in commercial societies based on innovation generated by free market trading.

Biopolitical philosophy requires a grand theory to explain the natural evolutionary history of those three eras.  Explaining the emergence of the Industrial Revolution and the modern commercial society remains the subject of intense debate among economic and social historians.  One point of general agreement is that commerce, trade, or capitalism were not new.  Commerce is one of the world's oldest professions.  There is evidence for trading networks among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  And some of the earliest written records in ancient Mesopotamia show people engaged in business dealing.  In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber declared: "Capitalism existed in China, India, Babylon, in the classic world, and in the Middle Ages," but this capitalism did not have the same vibrant spirit as modern capitalism (Scribner's edition, p. 52).

Something happened in Northwest Europe around the North Sea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to create the commercial society described by Adam Smith:
"When the division of labor has been once thoroughly established, it is but a small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply.  He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for.  Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society" (Wealth of Nations, 37).
This commercial society has also been called a bourgeois society, using the French translation for a German word for those who lived in walled cities, which became the common term for those middle-class urban people who flourish in a modern commercial society.  The primary cause for the emergence of this society, economist Deirdre McCloskey has claimed, was a change in ideas, so that while previously the bourgeois life had been scorned as vicious, it was for the first time recognized as virtuous.  And yet there is still resistance to the idea of bourgeois virtues--from both supporters and opponents of capitalism--who assume that the bourgeois life is driven only by the vice of greed.  At the beginning of Capital, Marx points to "the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone . . ., this boundless greed after riches."  Recently, Thomas Piketty has lamented the growing inequality of wealth in which a few greedy capitalists control most of the wealth as an unearned inheritance.  Even those on the right, like the Straussians, warn about the "problem of the bourgeois" that was seen first by Rousseau--the problem of a society that produces great wealth and a comfortable existence but without the noble virtue and heroic excellence that would elevate the soul above the level of Nietzsche's "last man."

Against this, McCloskey has made her argument for the bourgeois virtues--first in an article ("Bourgeois Virtue") in The American Scholar in 1994 and then in a series of books published by the University of Chicago Press: The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006), Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (2010), and Bourgeois Equality: How Betterment Became Virtuous, 1600-1848, and Then Suspect (2015).  (In her article, her first name was Donald.  It's a long story.)

In her article, McCloskey separated the new bourgeois virtues from the older pagan and Christian virtues.  The pagan virtues were aristocratic virtues embodied in heroes like Achilles.  The Christian virtues were peasant virtues embodied in saints like St. Francis.  The bourgeois virtues were mercantile virtues embodied in successful men like Benjamin Franklin.

But in her books, she has suggested that the distinction between bourgeois and other kinds of virtues is "mere verbal shading" (Bourgeois Virtues, 350).  So, for example, one could distinguish pagan courage, Christian fortitude, and bourgeois enterprise, or pagan love, Christian charity, and bourgeois affection.

Generally, she adopts the traditional seven virtues of Western culture: courage, prudence, temperance, and justice as the four pagan virtues and faith, hope, and charity as the three Christian virtues.  And she understands the bourgeois virtues as "merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society" (508).  Courage tends to be ranked at the top of the pagan virtues, while prudence tends to be ranked at the top of the bourgeois virtues.  But in some situations, aristocratic courage is required even in a bourgeois society.  And prudence was as much a virtue for Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as for Adam Smith.

It was as true for Smith as for Aristotle and Aquinas that prudence was not the only virtue.  For those economists who explain human beings as rational maximizers of utility, prudence understood as a rational calculation of one's interests would seem to be the only virtue.  But McCloskey argues that the moral excellence of the bourgeois virtues requires a balance of all seven virtues.  As Aristotle saw, happiness requires some development of all of the virtues.

Most importantly, one needs to see that Smith never says that "greed is good."  Of course, there is a lot of greed in bourgeois societies, just as there has always been greed in every human society.  But there is nothing about a bourgeois society that prevents the cultivation of all seven of the traditional virtues as bourgeois virtues.  On the contrary, McCloskey argues, the Bourgeois Revolution that produced modern commercial society has elevated the human moral condition in three ways.

First, since 1800 the bourgeois revolution has increased the amount of goods and services for the average person around the world by about eight and a half.  Even the poorest areas, as in Africa, have seen at least a tripling of average income since the beginning of the 19th century.  And in those places were the bourgeois virtues have flourished the most--like the United States, England, Taiwan, and Hong Kong--national income per capita has increased by a factor of nineteen, which means an increase of eighteen hundred per cent!  Keep in mind what this means:  for the first time in 250,000 years of human history, the majority of human beings are not living in a condition of grinding poverty that ruins their development.

The second great improvement in the human condition brought by the Bourgeois Revolution is the increase in the average human lifespan and in the human population.  More human beings are living longer, healthy lives than ever before in human history.  The population of the Earth has increased from less than one billion to over six billion, and amazingly most of those people are not starving.

But while most capitalist economists point to these material achievements of capitalism in securing longer, healthier lives for more human bodies, McCloskey also sees a third achievement: the bourgeois virtues have made us better people by deepening our human souls.  She writes:
"I claim that actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people.  People have purposes.  A capitalist economy gives them scope to try them out.  Go to an American Kennel Club show, or an antique show, or a square-dancing convention, or to a gathering of the many millions of American birdwatchers, and you'll find people of no social pretensions passionately engaged.  Yes, some people watch more than four hours of TV a day.  Yes, some people engage in corrupting purchases.  But they are no worse than their ancestors, and on average better" (24).
"The richer, more urban, more bourgeois people, one person averaged with another, I claim, have larger, not smaller, spiritual lives than their impoverished ancestors of the pastoral.  They have more, not fewer, real friends than their great-great-great-great grandparents in 'closed-corporate' villages.  They have broader, not narrower, choices of identity than the one imposed on them by the country, custom, language, and religion of their birth.  They have deeper, not shallower, contacts with the transcendent of art or science or God, and sometimes even of nature, than the superstitious peasants and haunted hunters-gatherers from whom we all descend."
"They are better humans--because they in their billions have acquired the scope to become so and because market societies encourage art and science and religion to flourish and because anyway a life in careers and deal making and companies and marketplaces is not the worst life for a full human being. . . ." (28-29).
The way I would put this is that the bourgeois virtues secure a commercial society that is the most desirable society in all of human history, because it tends to provide the fullest satisfaction of the 20 natural desires.  So, for example, four of the natural human desires of our evolved human nature are desires to love and be loved: parental care, conjugal love, familial bonding, and friendship.  And as McCloskey indicates, in our bourgeois economies, over half of the purchases that consumers make are on behalf of their children, their spouses, their parents, and their friends (56-57).  Bourgeois people are not solitary egoists, because, as Smith observed, "the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved" (TMS, 41).

Similarly, we can see the natural desire for intellectual understanding expressed in bourgeois societies.  Scottish philosophers like Hume and Smith saw that the modern commercial society would provide the conditions for people like themselves to satisfy their longings for intellectual inquiry and philosophic friendship.  Socratic philosophy arose in the commercial empire of Athens.  And the arts and sciences are more widely available to more people in our commercial societies today than ever before in human history.

But surely, critics of capitalism like Thomas Piketty will object, we cannot plausibly claim that the wealthiest people in a capitalist society are the most virtuous people.  According to Piketty's data, in the United States today, those people in the top 1% of yearly income take almost 50% of the total national income (Capital, 323).  The top managers of large firms are often paid tens of millions of dollars a year, 50-100 times average income.  Surely, McCloskey will not claim that these rich people are 50-100 times more virtuous than others!

In her review of Piketty's book, McCloskey admits that the inequality of wealth in countries like the United States probably cannot be completely justified morally based on the merit of the rich ("Measured, Unmeasured, Mismeasured, and Unjustified Pessimism: A Review Essay of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century," Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics, 7 [Autumn 2014]: 73-115).  She admits that it would be good if a Smithian liberal society produced the sort of economic equality that Piketty desires.  But she points out that even Piketty's data indicates variation in the patterns of inequality.  The recent growth in economic inequality is characteristic only of the United States, Canada, and the UK, and not of the European countries generally.

McCloskey also argues that improving the absolute welfare of the poor has more moral weight than reducing inequality.  Smith was egalitarian in promoting the idea of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN, 664).  He saw the liberty and dignity of ordinary people as based on equality of respect and before the law, but not the equality of material outcome.  A liberal government will protect private property, which includes the property of laborers in their labor (WN, 138, 715, 783).  And while the "system of natural liberty" will allow some people to be richer than others, it will not allow the rich to use the power of government to gain special privileges for themselves and protection from competition in the market.  There will be great inequalities of property in such a free market system, but there will also be "that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people" (WN, 22).  Using the government to coercively redistribute the wealth, as Piketty recommends, would reduce the economic productivity that raises the welfare of the poor.  The pursuit of an absolute equality of condition would create an equality of poverty.

The bourgeois virtues include charity, McCloskey argues.  So we rightly expect rich people in a bourgeois society to be charitable, and we should condemn them if they are too greedy.  And historically, wealthy people in bourgeois societies (like Andrew Carnegie, for example) have felt a moral duty to give away their wealth for the public good.

Some of my posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis That Includes Biopolitical Science?

Last month, there was a debate in the pages of Nature over whether evolutionary theory needs to be reformulated (October 9, 2014, vol. 514, pp. 161-64).  This continues the debate that began in the summer of 2008 at a gathering in Altenberg, Austria, of biologists and philosophers who argued that Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) needed to be replaced with an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). 

At the time, some proponents of intelligent design theory and scientific creationism pointed to this as evidence that Darwinism was "a theory in crisis."  But if one looks at the papers presented at the conference and published later as a book, one can see (as I indicated in some blog posts) that EES is not a denial of Darwinian science but--as their language indicates--an extension of Darwinian thinking.  This is clearly not a denial of Darwinism because it sees no need to disagree with Darwin's claim that the theory of natural evolution is superior to any "theory of independent acts of creation."

Now Kevin Laland and his colleagues are restating their argument that SET is too "gene-centric," and that those drivers of evolution that cannot be reduced to genes must be studied as part of EES.  There are at least four missing pieces:  developmental bias, phenotypic plasticity, niche construction, and extra-genetic inheritance.

In their response, Gregory Wray, Hopi Hoekstra, and their colleagues argue that all of the concepts proposed by Laland and colleagues have already been integrated into evolutionary theory, and that these concepts can even be found in Darwin's own work.  For example, Darwin's last book--The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms (1881)--was a book on evolutionary niche construction, although he did not use that term.

Since Eva Jablonka is one of the co-authors of the article advocating EES, I was disappointed not to see any comments on what she has identified as the symbolic system of inheritance that is unique to human beings.  Such human symbolism might be seen as a form of niche construction, which would include religion, science, morality, and politics.  This could be the theoretical basis for a biopolitical science.

So, for example, one might argue, as I have, that the history of classical liberal philosophy has created an evolutionary niche in which peaceful cooperation and declining violence are adaptive, and this could even drive a genetic adaption for this classical liberal niche.

Some of my posts on these points can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Evolution and the Virtue of Self-Love (2): Smith and Darwin

Like James Otteson (in Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life), Hanley thinks that Adam Smith's moral theory requires a theological teleology in which human beings are seen as created in God's image as part of divinely designed universe serving the benevolent ends of the Creator.  It is certainly true that Smith speaks repeatedly of the Deity as "the Author of nature" and the "Conductor of the Universe."  And the general rules of morality are "justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity" (TMS, 161-70).  And yet Smith also warns that "false notions of religion" can grossly pervert our moral sentiments (156, 170, 176).  He rejects the Christian teaching that all the heroes, poets, and philosophers of the pagan world are to be eternally punished in Hell as contrary to all our moral sentiments (132-134).  He laments that in the medieval Christian universities, both moral and natural philosophy were made subservient to theology:
"Wherein consisted the happiness and perfection of a man, considered not only as an individual, but as the member of a family, of a state, and of the great society of mankind, was the object which the ancient moral philosophy proposed to investigate.  In that philosophy the duties of human life were treated of as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life.  But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come.  In the ancient philosophy the perfection of virtue was represented as necessarily productive, to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life.  In the modern philosophy it was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by the austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man.  Casuistry and an ascetic morality made up, in most cases, the greater part of the moral philosophy of the schools.  By far the most important of all the different branches of philosophy, became in this manner by far the most corrupted" (WN, 771).
Smith recommends that political regimes should never adopt or legally enforce the tenets of any religious sect.  If the government "allowed every man to chuse his own priest and his own religion as he thought proper," then there could be a great multitude of religious sects, perhaps thousands, freely competing for believers without any sect having the power to persecute members of other sects.  This free marketplace of religions "might in time probably reduce the doctrine of the greater part of them to that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established" (WN, 792-93). 

These little religious sects might become "disagreeably rigorous and unsocial" in their morals, but the government without using violence could correct this in two ways (796).  First, promoting the study of science and philosophy among people of the middle and upper classes could advance the scientific knowledge that is the "great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition."  The second remedy is to protect the liberty for public entertainment such as dancing, poetry, painting, music, and dramatic presentations.

That "pure and rational religion" sought by all wise men might conform to "the idea of that divine Being, whose benevolence and wisdom have, from all eternity, contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe, so as at all times to produce the greatest possible quantity of happiness," which is "certainly of all the objects of human contemplation by far the most sublime" (TMS, 236).  Such an idea supports the universal benevolence of the wise and virtuous man, who must be disturbed by any suspicion that this idea is false.
"To this universal benevolence, on the contrary, the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections; from the thought that all the unknown regions of infinite and incomprehensible space may be filled with nothing but endless misery and wretchedness.  All the splendor of the highest prosperity can never enlighten the gloom with which so dreadful an idea must necessarily over-shadow the imagination; nor, in a wise and virtuous man, can all the sorrow of the most afflicting adversity ever dry up the joy which necessarily springs from the habitual and thorough conviction of the truth of the contrary system" (TMS, 235).
The wise and virtuous man's Christian virtue of universal benevolence, Hanley infers, could not be sustained if he believed in a "fatherless world."  "His capacity for such activity is sustained not by sentiments but by his love of the whole, which is supported by his belief in the existence of God" (188).

But while Smith is affirming the calming effect of the idea of the universe as intelligently and benevolently designed by God, it's not clear that he is affirming the truth of this idea.  Moreover, while Smith often recognizes the importance of religious belief in reinforcing our moral sentiments, he also indicates that even atheists who have no belief in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments still have the moral sentiments that support their moral conduct.  Even atheists dread the thought of doing something that would make them the proper objects of hatred and contempt.  And even if they thought that their contemptible conduct would be forever concealed from anyone's view, their imagination of how they would appear to the impartial spectator would still trouble their conscience.  Nothing could free them from "these natural pangs of an affrighted conscience" except "the vilest and most object of all states, a complete insensibility to honor and infamy, to vice and virtue" (TMS, 116-18).   Today, we might recognize such "complete insensibility to honor and infamy" as the condition of pure psychopaths.

From his reading of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Smith was aware of the weaknesses in the argument for a natural theology of intelligent design, and of the possibility of explaining the apparent design in the universe as a product of unintelligent natural evolution.  But when Hume asked Smith to supervise the publishing of the Dialogues after Hume's death, Smith refused, saying that he was "uneasy about the clamour which I foresee they will excite," and that he preferred that they remain in manuscript to be read by only a few people (Correspondence, 211, 216).

From his close friend James Hutton, Smith heard about the evidence that the Earth was probably millions of years old, in contrast to the six thousand years suggested by the Bible, and that the Earth was being continuously changed by natural forces rather than cataclysmic acts of divine creation.  This made Darwin's theory of evolution possible.

Part of Darwin's theory was a theory of moral evolution.  And for that, Darwin was deeply influenced by Smith, Hume, and the Scottish philosophers.  He concluded that in the evolution of morality, "with the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity had had a potent influence on the advance of morality" (Descent of Man, Penguin edition, 682).  And yet even without belief in God, human beings could develop morality through their desires for a mutual sympathy of sentiments that could generate a sense of conscience:
"A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.  A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly.  A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires, and recollections.  he then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts.  If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the greatest pleasure on this earth.  By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts.  His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.--As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science" (Autobiography, Nora Barlow edition, 94-95).
In enjoying the self-approbation of his conscience and his devotion to a life of science, Darwin shows how moral and intellectual virtues can be motivated by self-love as rooted in evolved human nature.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here., here, and here.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Evolution and The Virtue of Self-Love: Mandeville and Smith

One of the common assumptions of the modern social sciences, biology, and moral philosophy is the distinction between self-love and altruism and the claim that true morality must be altruistic in its selflessness and thus free from any motivation by self-love.  I doubt this.  Having evolved to be both naturally selfish and naturally social animals, it seems to me, we extend ourselves into others for whom we feel some attachment.  Thus, our concern for ourselves includes a concern for others who have some connection to us.  Our other-regarding dispositions are extensions of our self-love.  This also means that absolutely disinterested and universal love is impossible.

Adam Smith would seem to agree this.  After all, in the index of The Wealth of Nations, self-love is identified as "the governing principle in the intercourse of human society" (Liberty Fund edition, 1069).  And the reference for this is the famous passage about how we persuade the butcher, the brewer, and the baker to provide us our dinner:
"Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.  He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.  Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this.  Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.  It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.  Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens" (26-27).
Smith's language here echoes the language in some passages of Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits (Liberty Fund edition, 2:349-50).  Mandeville's book was one of the most scandalous books of the 18th century because of his famous claim conveyed in the subtitle that private vices are public benefits.  If we define virtue as self-denial in acting contrary to all of one's natural passions or desires, and thus denying one's selfish interests in serving the good of others as dictated by pure reason, then human beings are almost never virtuous, because they generally act out of self-love to satisfy their selfish passions and desires.  They are social animals who need the cooperation of others and who crave the praise and recognition of others to satisfy their selfish vanity.  For this reason, they will not deny their passions, but they will conceal them in order to appear to be virtuous.

A civilized society of wealth and refinement would be impossible if most human beings were really virtuous, because in living a life of ascetic self-denial, they would never generate the luxury and grandeur that is achieved in commercial societies where everyone actively pursues the wealth and honor that will gratify their selfish desires.  And thus it is that our private vices are turned into public benefits.

Many readers of Smith's Wealth of Nations have seen it as adopting Mandeville's argument for how a commercial society generates all the economic, social, and intellectual benefits of a free market society where everyone is motivated by self-love.  Much of the modern economic theory of capitalism has been based on the assumption that human beings can be seen as selfish egoists whose selfishness can be channeled through free market exchange to generate gains from trade that benefit everyone.

But in recent decades, many social scientists have challenged this conception of Homo economicus as too narrow to explain the full range of human motivation, which must include truly other-regarding behavior as well as purely self-regarding behavior.  And many of these social scientists have turned to Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments  as presenting the moral psychology of Homo moralis--of human beings as moved by moral concerns for the good of others that go beyond self-interest.

Smith's rejection of Mandeville's argument is announced in the very first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it" (9).

This first sentence seems to begin in the middle of a conversation.  Apparently, some people--such as Hobbes or Mandeville--have argued for the natural selfishness of human beings.  Smith is responding by suggesting that even if we agree with this, we should see that there are other principles in human nature that interest a man in the happiness of others.  He goes on to identify pity or compassion as obvious examples of those "original passions of human nature" by which we enter into the pleasure or pain of others.  "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation."  We do this through imagination in projecting ourselves into their situations.  This supports our experience of "sympathy," which Smith defines broadly as "our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" (10).

We have a natural desire for the pleasure of mutual sympathy.  Nothing pleases us more than to see that others sympathize with our emotions, and nothing disturbs us more than the sense that others cannot share our emotions.  Smith anticipates that those like Hobbes and Mandeville will try to explain this as an expression of self-love.
"Those who are fond of deducing all our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain.  Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance; and grieves whenever he observes the contrary, because he is then assured of their opposition.  But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.  A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself.  On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause" (13-14).
Here we see Smith's common method of reasoning, in which he appeals to some ordinary human experience--such as the pain we feel when those around us don't laugh at our jokes--to confirm a general claim about human nature.  He indicates that this shows a concern for how others see us that cannot be explained as self-interested.  But Hobbes and Mandeville would point to the desire for applause as showing the vanity of the comic entertainer.

This desire for the pleasure of mutual sympathy is seen by Smith as the fundamental motivation for morality.  In praising or blaming one another, indicating whether we can or cannot share one another's emotions, we create social norms of good and bad conduct.  We judge our conduct by whether it is approved or disapproved by those around us.  We discover that those spectators are sometimes mistaken in their judgments if they are uninformed, misinformed, or biased.  But then we can imagine how a fully informed and impartial spectator would judge us, and we can then internalize that imaginary impartial spectator as our conscience.  That conscience can then give us the social approbation that we seek--as self-approbation--even when those in our social circle fail to give us the approbation that we deserve.

We must wonder, however, whether this really refutes Mandeville's position.  Some of Smith's readers during his lifetime--such as Thomas Reid--said that his "system of sympathy" was "only a refinement of the selfish system" of Mandeville.

In the last part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith has a chapter on Mandeville entitled "Of licentious Systems" (VII.ii.4.4, pp. 306-314).  He declares that Mandeville's ideas are "wholly pernicious" and "in almost every respect erroneous," although "there are, however, some appearances in human nature, which, when viewed in a certain manner, seem at first sight to favour them" (308).  We might suspect, then, that there is at least some partial truth to what Mandeville says.

Smith responds to Mandeville with two claims.  First, he claims that Mandeville's argument that all appearance of praiseworthy conduct is actually motivated by vanity fails to distinguish two higher levels of passion that go beyond vanity.  Second, he claims that Mandeville deceptively assumes that all virtue requires complete self-denial and ascetic repression of all our natural passions, which obscures the idea that virtue requires not the denial of the passions but their moderation.

Vanity is the passion or desire for praise even when we do not deserve it, Smith explains, and that passion or desire is rightly despised.  But this is different from the passion or desire for acquiring praise by really deserving it.  And this is different from the passion or desire for rendering ourselves praiseworthy without any regard for whether we are in fact praised by others.  The second is the love of true glory.  The third is the love of virtue.  Vanity is rightly blamed.  But the love of true glory and the love of virtue are rightly praised.

The lover of true glory is like the vain man in that both desire to be praised.  But unlike the vain man, the lover of true glory desires to be praised because he really is praiseworthy, and thus he is morally superior to the vain man.

The lover of virtue is like the lover of true glory in that they both deserve to be praised.  But unlike the lover of true glory, the lover of virtue cares not whether he is actually praised by anyone, because he cares only to deserve praise.  "The man who acts solely from a regard to what is right and fit to be done, from a regard to what is the proper object of esteem and approbation, though these sentiments should never be bestowed upon him, acts from the most sublime and godlike motive which human nature is even capable of conceiving" (311).

The lover of virtue has a happiness from his own self-approbation that makes him independent of fortune and of the opinions of those around him.  He cannot be mortified by the foolish opinions of those who do not recognize his virtue.  As a man of real magnanimity he cannot be disturbed by undeserved blame.  And yet Smith admits that this is rarely achieved: "It seldom happens, however, that human nature arrives at this degree of firmness" (311).

Mandeville has a response to this claim that the lover of virtue is morally superior to the vain man.  He recognizes that some people perform good deeds in silence and out of public view, because they love doing what is praiseworthy for its own sake, regardless of whether they are actually praised.  Mandeville observes:
"Such Men, I confess, have acquir'd more refin'd Notions of Virtue than those I have hitherto spoke of; yet even in these (with which the World has yet never swarm'd) we may discover no small Symptoms of Pride, and the humblest Man alive must confess, that the Reward of a Virtuous Action, which is the Satisfaction that ensues upon it, consists in a certain pleasure he procures to himself by Contemplating on his own Worth: Which Pleasure, together with the Occasion of it, are as certain Signs of Pride, as looking Pale and Trembling at any imminent Danger, are the Symptoms of Fear" (1:57).
The lover of virtue, who understands virtue as character that is praiseworthy, is proud in praising himself, and thus satisfying his passion or desire for approbation, even if it's only his own self-approbation.  Such pride expresses self-love, and therefore it cannot be virtue in the traditional Christian sense of self-denial.

Smith objects to Mandeville's appeal to Christian virtue.  In every case, Mandeville pretends that human nature "falls short of that complete self-denial which it pretends to, and, instead of a conquest, is commonly no more that a concealed indulgence of our passions" (312).  "Some popular ascetic doctrines which had been current before his time, and which placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all of our passions, were the real foundation of this licentious system" (313).

Some commentators on Mandeville--such as F. B. Kaye, the editor of the edition of The Fable of the Bees published by Liberty Fund--see his book as a satirical reductio ad absurdum that refutes traditional Christian and rationalistic conceptions of virtue that require complete self-denial by showing how contrary they are to our natural moral experience.

In contrast to the ascetic Christian virtues of self-denial, which almost no human beings really follow, Mandeville sees that most human beings in civilized societies follow the "doctrine of good manners," according to which human pride motivates people to conceal their pride in pretending to care more about others than about themselves (2:66, 2:109, 2:145-56).  Most human beings care about appearing to be good in conforming to public standards of good conduct because they are afraid of being shamed by the public exposure of their vices.  Men of honor are even more careful about appearing to conform to the highest standards of conduct by showing the most praiseworthy character and achievements. 

Men of honor will pretend to be religious believers, because disbelief is shameful, but they cannot be "real believers" (1:269, 1:308; 2:97, 2:102).  Moreover, Mandeville suggests, "men of reflection" are prone to infidelity (2:313-317).  Although Smith uses religious language, especially in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his friendship with David Hume brought him under the suspicion of atheism.

Ryan Hanley--in his book Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue--argues that far from rejecting Christian virtue, however, Smith embraces it as the highest human excellence.  Hanley sees the love of praise as governed by the commercial virtue of prudence, the love of true glory as governed by the classical virtue of magnanimity, and the love of virtue expressed in beneficence as the Christian virtue.

For the highest level of virtue, we need religion, Hanley argues, because "religion provides the longing for self-transcendence with an object and is thus an important ally in efforts to overcome self-preference" (143-44).  This claim that Smith is looking for a Christian virtue that provides "self-transcendence" is confusing, however.  Hanley generally presents Smith as showing a "continuum of self-love" (98) moving from the lowest form of self-love (vanity) to the higher form (love of true glory) to the highest form (love of virtue).  Hanley speaks of the "elevated form of self-love" (147), "noble self-love" (151), or "refined self-love" (156).  But this suggests that there has not been any complete transcendence of self-love, because even the most refined form of self-love is still self-love.

This suggests to me that Smith is implicitly drawing on the ancient Aristotelian teaching that the good man loves himself and loves his friends as reflections of himself (Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a29-1170b20).  If so, then Smith is rejecting the Christian teaching of virtue as self-denial and affirming the virtue rooted in self-love that is taught by Mandeville.

Smith sees the peak of human excellence in the "wise and virtuous man," and Smith does use some religious language in describing this man's grasp of "divine perfection."  But this religious language could be explained as a rhetorical gesture by Smith that is necessary to protect himself against the charge of infidelity or atheism.

The only time that Smith identifies anyone in particular as a "wise and virtuous man" is when he identifies Hume as approximating the "perfectly wise and virtuous man" as closely as any human being could.  This remark concluded his letter about Hume's calm facing of his own death, a letter that provoked a storm of bitter condemnation from Christians.  In a letter to Alexander Wedderburn,  Smith described Hume as dying "with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God" (Correspondence, 203).  Hanley notices this identification of Hume as the "wise and virtuous man," but Hanley is silent about Smith's implication in this that the highest wisdom and virtue can be attained by an infamous atheist (192).

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Government Marriage and Civil Marriage

Opponents of gay marriage like Robert George have argued that if gay marriage is licensed by the government, real marriage--the marriage of a man and a woman--will be abolished.  I disagree, because I think that since real marriage satisfies some of the deepest desires of our evolved human nature, it will endure as a matter of natural law, regardless of marriage licensing law.  We are going to see which of us is correct, because gay marriage will soon be legalized throughout the United States.

In a liberal regime, marriage should be a creation not of government but of civil society.  It should be part of the social order shaped by the natural and voluntary associations of civil life, including families and religious organizations.  Religious believers will want to sanction marriage as a matter not just of natural law but also of divine law.

As R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has indicated in some recent articles, some Christians have now reached the conclusion that the proper response to the legalization of gay marriage is for priests and pastors to refuse to participate in the governmental licensing of marriage.  Ministers should no longer act as agents of the state in signing marriage certificates.  They should distinguish between government marriage and civil marriage, and they should agree to preside only over those weddings that conform to the Christian standards of real marriage.

This would be a good step towards the best resolution of the debate over gay marriage--the complete privatization of marriage.  I have elaborated some of my reasoning for this in some posts on George's arguments here, here, here, and here.