Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Experimental Testing of the Rawlsian Difference Principle

I have often argued on this blog that political philosophy is ultimately an empirical science that makes falsifiable claims about human nature and human history.  In arguing for Darwinian natural right, I am making falsifiable claims about Darwinian moral psychology that can be tested.

One can see this empirical falsifiability of political philosophy in John Rawls's Theory of Justice.  He makes a general claim that our capacity for justice requires a natural sense of justice or moral nature, which is comparable to what Noam Chomsky has identified in linguistics as the instinctive universal grammar that makes the acquisition of language possible (46-53).  He also makes a specific claim that under the conditions of the "original position" that are designed to ensure impartiality, human beings would unanimously choose certain principles of justice, including the "difference principle" that social and economic inequalities are justified only when they maximize the benefits for those who are worst off (60, 302). 

There is, I believe, some empirical evidence supporting Rawls's general claim for an evolved innate moral grammar or moral sense.  I will write about that in my next post.  His specific claim for the difference principle, however, has been empirically falsified.

Although it is impossible to replicate Rawls's original position completely, and thus it must remain a hypothetical thought experiment, it is possible to devise experimental conditions that approximate the original position.  Norman Frohlich, Joe Oppenheimer, and others have organized behavioral experiments in which people are put in conditions that approximate the procedures of the original condition.  Participants come together in small groups, and in choosing from a list of principles of justice for allocating resources in their group, they must reach unanimous agreement on their choice, without the participants knowing what their class position will be in that society.  They are then randomly assigned to high or low social positions, and they receive monetary payoffs based on the principle they have chosen.  Experiments of this sort have been conducted with university students in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Japan, and communist Poland.

Remarkably, the outcome is uniform across all of these cultures.  Rawls's difference principle is almost never chosen.  By far the most common choice (in over three-fourths of the cases) is a floor constraint without a ceiling--that is, there is a minimum income guaranteed for the worst off, but there is no limit on the income that can be earned by the richest.  The next most common choice (in about 12% of the cases) is the principle of maximum income (no floor, no ceiling).  The third most common choice (in about 8% of the cases) is the principle of a range constraint--there could be economic inequality, but the gap between the richest and the poorest would be limited.  The difference principle--that no person's income can go up unless it increases the income of the people at the bottom--was chosen in only 1% of the cases, and they were all in communist Poland.

When participants are asked to explain their choices, they indicate that are trying to balance three distinct ethical claims--need, just deserts, and efficiency.  They think it's fair that those who are least well-off should have their minimal needs secured.  But they also think that those who earn higher incomes deserve this reward.  And they think that higher incomes for those who succeed is economically efficient in providing incentives for productivity that benefits everyone.

The most commonly chosen principle--floor constraint without a ceiling--looks a lot like what Friedrich von Hayek proposes in Part Three of The Constitution of Liberty: a largely free market economy combined with a welfare state that provides a minimal standard of security for all.

This seems to weaken Thomas Piketty's appeal to the Rawlsian difference principle as justifying confiscatory tax rates on high incomes and wealth for the sake of reducing inequality.


Frohlich, Norman, Joe A. Oppenheimer, and Cheryl Eavey, "Laboratory Results on Rawls's Distributive Justice," British Journal of Political Science 7 (1987): 1-21.

Frohlich, Norman, and Joe A. Oppenheimer, Choosing Justice: An Experimental Approach to Ethical Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Lissowski, Grzegorz, Tadeusz Tyszka, and Wlodzimierz Okrasa, "Principles of Distributive Justice Experiements in Poland and America," Journal of Conflict Resolution 35 (1991): 98-119.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Platonic Utopianism of Rawls's "Social Union of Social Unions"

A few weeks ago, I responded to the claim--in Jon Anstein Olsen's dissertation--that my criticism of the utopian Left is a straw-man argument, because the Left today no longer advances a utopian vision of human perfectibility that denies the constraints of human nature. 

I was reminded of that recently while rereading John Rawls, as part of my work on the revisions for the 4th edition of Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.  Rawls's Theory of Justice is the most influential work of political philosophy in the 20th century; and it has been particularly influential as the major philosophical statement of left liberalism.  Rawls himself acknowledged this (in 1987) when he spoke about where his conception of "justice as fairness" might be placed on the political spectrum.  "In the United States this conception has been referred to as liberal, sometimes as left-liberal; in England it has been seen as social democratic, and in some ways as Labour. . . . But these descriptions are for others to make" (Collected Papers, 416).  Since Rawls identified his conception of justice as a "realistic utopia," his left-liberal political philosophy is a good expression of the utopian Left.

In his defense, the Rawlsians might stress that his utopia is a realistic utopia.  It is a utopia because it has never been achieved, and Rawls admited that it might not ever be achieved.  But still it is possible, if we believe, as Rawls did, that human beings have a moral nature that makes justice possible.

Rawls thought that all of "the great evils of human history--unjust war and oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder--follow from political injustice."  Consequently, if human beings were to follow the principles of political justice as taught by Rawls, "these evils will eventually disappear" (The Law of Peoples, 6-7). 

One can see here the moral passion that moved Rawls throughout his life.  That moral passion is first expressed in his undergraduate honors thesis at Princeton that he submitted in December of 1942, which was a theological study of the "origin of evil" as the egoistic denial of community--"A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: An Interpretation Based on the Concept of Community."  He claimed that only human beings and God can experience themselves as persons--rather than objects or things--and persons fulfill themselves in community with other persons.  Justice arises in the full community of persons, while evil arises as individuals or groups fight to dominate others and thus destroy community.  He had intended to attend Princeton's Divinity School and become an Episcopalian minister.  But his war experiences as a US soldier in the Pacific, in 1943-1945, forced him to change his mind.  He saw bloody fighting in the Philippines and elsewhere, and he served in Japan after the surrender, where he saw the devastation from the fire-bombing of Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  He was also deeply disturbed during movie nights for the soldiers when he saw newsreel films about the allied soldiers entering the death camps of the Holocaust in Europe.

Later in life, in "On My Religion" (1990), Rawls explained why he had given up most of his orthodox Christian beliefs by June of 1945:
"How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?  When Lincoln interprets the Civil War as God's punishment for the sin of slavery, deserved equally by North and South, God is seen as acting justly.  But the Holocaust can't be interpreted in that way, and all attempts to do so that I have read of are hideous and evil.  To interpret history as expressing God's will, God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice as we know them.  For what else can the most basic justice be?"
Throughout his career, Rawls struggled over the question of evil and strived to show that human beings were capable of justice.  He had to assume that "human beings must have a moral nature," which makes it possible to achieve justice (Theory of Justice, 494-95, 580).  But he worried about this.  "If a reasonably just society that subordinates power to its aims is not possible and people are largely amoral, if not incurably cynical and self-centered, one might ask with Kant whether it is worthwhile for human beings to live on the earth?" (Political Liberalism, lx; The Law of Peoples, 128).

So to make human life on earth worth living, we must embrace the correct standard of a reasonably just society.  For Rawls, this required a realistically utopian conception of justice.  Although it's utopian, Rawls thought his liberal conception of justice was realistic insofar as it satisfied two conditions.  "The first is that it must rely on the actual laws of nature and achieve the kind of stability those laws allow, that is, stability for the right reasons.  It takes people as they are (by the laws of nature), and constitutional and civil laws as they might be."  The second condition is that "its first principles and precepts be workable and applicable to ongoing political and social arrangements" (The Law of Peoples, 12-13).

The problem, however, is that Rawls actually embraced two contradictory conceptions of liberal justice, and while one is realistic in conforming to the limits of human nature, the other is not.  Both of these conceptions can be found in Plato's Republic.

Rawls himself recognized this problem in Political Liberalism.  In most of A Theory of Justice, he had argued for a liberal theory of justice that left people free to disagree about their comprehensive conceptions of the good life, as long as these conceptions did not interfere with the equal liberty of others to live by their comprehensive conceptions of the good.  But in Part Three ("Ends") of the book, he had implied that liberal justice required a comprehensive liberal conception of the good to shape a single liberal way of life for all members of the society.  In Political Liberalism, he rejected this latter position as "comprehensive liberalism" in favor of a "political liberalism" that was consistent with the "fact of a plurality of reasonable but incompatible comprehensive doctrines" in a modern democratic society.  The comprehensive liberalism of Part Three of A Theory of Justice was unrealistically utopian in denying this fact of reasonable pluralism (Political Liberalism, xv-xx).  It was also illiberal, because any attempt to enforce a continuing shared understanding of one comprehensive doctrine in a society would require the oppressive use of state power (37).  And yet, oddly enough, even in Political Liberalism, Rawls fell into the same contradiction that he had identified in A Theory of Justice, because he could not give up his utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism in a society united as one cohesive community with one shared understanding of the good.

In Part Three of A Theory of Justice, Rawls has a section on "The Idea of Social Union."  Here he explains how "the congruence of the right and the good depends in large part upon whether a well-ordered society achieves the good of community" (520).  Achieving this good of community requires more than what Rawls calls "private society," which corresponds to what Plato (Republic 369-372) identifies as a society based on the division of labor in the "city of pigs," or what Hegel identified as "civil society" (521).  In such a society, there are many different types of social union--families, friendships, and larger associations.  But the full good of community requires "a social union of social unions" based on a "shared final end."  "When this end is achieved, all find satisfaction in the very same thing; and this fact together with the complementarity of the good of individuals affirms the tie of community" (526).  He stresses this point by repeating it: "when everyone acts justly, all find satisfaction in the very same thing" (527).

This restates the utopian claim of Plato's Socrates that in the perfectly just city, the city will be most like a single human being, with a "community of pleasure and pain," and most people will say "my own" and "not my own" about the same thing and in the same way (Republic, 462c-d).  In this communized conception of humanity, the individual has no identity outside of the social whole to which he belongs.  Because of such communal unity of interests and a single shared conception of the good, the truly just city will be free from all factional conflict (Republic, 464c-65b).  (Of course, the Straussians would tell us that this is all a joke!)

The flaw in such a conception is that it is contrary to the human nature of individual diversity and self-love.  As naturally social animals, we do indeed find our fulfillment in social groups--in families, friendships, and social associations of various kinds.  But there can never be an absolute social unity in which "all find satisfaction in the very same thing."

Plato recognizes this when he considers the alternatives to his best city and identifies democracy as the "fairest of the regimes," because it secures the freedom that makes it open to all kinds of regimes, all kinds of human life, including the philosophic life.  Because of this freedom, "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (Republic, 557a-562c).  Some readers of Plato (like Will Altman, for example) have seen this as Plato's argument for liberal democracy.

Rawls seems to agree with this when he argues in Political Liberalism that political liberalism is superior to comprehensive liberalism, because political liberalism secures the freedom for the expression of all reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines about the good life.  This openness is limited, however, to the "reasonable" conceptions of the good--that is, those conceptions that are compatible with the equal liberty for the expression of all other conceptions.  Liberal tolerance cannot tolerate intolerant doctrines.  In a liberal regime, people are free to form associations to enforce common beliefs and practices among all the members.  But the membership must be voluntary, and so groups that teach that their doctrines can be enforced by violent coercion will be excluded from a liberal regime.  "No society can include within itself all forms of life" (Political Liberalism, 197).  We might say that while a politically liberal regime cannot be a completely open society, it can be a largely open society. 

Even in Political Liberalism, however, Rawls endorses the comprehensive liberalism of A Theory of Justice, because he still affirms the "social union of social unions" as based on "a far more comprehensive good than the determinate good of individuals when left to their own devices or limited to smaller associations" (320-23).  This "more comprehensive good" seems to point to the unrealistically utopian vision of comprehensive liberalism.  And thus Rawls never frees himself from the contradiction of embracing both political liberalism and comprehensive liberalism, because he cannot fully give up his utopian longing for a perfectly cohesive community free from any natural conflicts of interest.

While Rawls's political liberalism is often criticized as radically relativistic, one could see it as recognizing human nature in both its unity and diversity.  There is a natural standard insofar as there is range of natural desires that constitute the universal human good, but the deliberate ranking of those desires over a whole life must vary to conform to the natural diversity of individuals.  An Aristotelian liberalism would recognize those natural desires as setting the generic human good, while also recognizing the need for freedom in expressing the variation in individual nature.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Hume, Smith, and the Myth of Mirror Neurons

For both David Hume and Adam Smith, sympathy or "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" is the psychological ground of our moral experience.  From his reading of Hume and Smith, Charles Darwin adopted this idea of sympathy in explaining the evolution of human morality.

Hume and Smith explained sympathy as a process of "mirroring."  "In general we may remark," Hume observed, "that the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each others emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay by insensible degrees."

In 1996, some Italian neuroscientists reported a remarkable discovery in their study of neural activity in the brains of macaque monkeys.  They found neurons that would fire when the monkeys executed an action (like picking up a raisin with their hands) or when observing the same action executed by someone else (as when the human experimenters picked up a raisin with their hands).  They called these "mirror neurons," and they identified them as the neural mechanism by which both monkeys and human beings understand the actions of others by simulating those actions within their own minds.

Since 2006, I have written a series of posts--here, here, here, and  here--suggesting that this theory of mirror neurons provides a neuroscientific confirmation for this Humean, Smithian, and Darwinian account of sympathy as the natural ground of morality and social life generally.  Other commentators have made the same suggestion.  For example, Russell Hardin has done this in his account of "mirroring" in Hume's moral psychology in David Hume: Moral & Political Theorist (Oxford University Press, 2007) (pp. 41-45).

In recent years, however, I have become increasingly suspicious of the mirror neuron theory as the claims of its scientific proponents have become ever more exaggerated and as these exaggerated claims have entered into popular culture.  This has become the new theory of everything about the mind, because it has been invoked to explain everything from empathy and language to stuttering and business leadership.

So I was pleased to see Gregory Hickok's new book--The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition (Norton, 2014)--which surveys the theoretical and empirical weaknesses of the mirror neuron theory.  Hickok is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.  (Hickok has a blog where he comments on some of his research.) 

As he has indicated in a short essay in The New York Times, the myth of mirror neurons follows the pattern of other myths about the brain.  First, there's an interesting discovery.  Then, this discovery is expanded into a grand theory of the human mind.  Finally, this extravagant theory enters pop culture so that people casually appeal to it to explain more and more of human psychology without any awareness of how dubious the theory has become.  In addition to the myth of mirror neurons, Hickok identifies three other such myths about the brain:  the belief that we only use 10 percent of our brain (see the movie "Lucy"), the belief in the left brain/right brain dichotomy, and the belief that mapping the circuitry of the brain will give us a complete understanding of the mind.

Hickok does not doubt that mirror neurons exist in the brains of monkeys and human beings.  But he does doubt that mirror neurons alone can explain how an animal understands the meaning of the actions of other animals.  The great appeal of the mirror neuron theory is that it's so simple in explaining the complexity of the mind.  But that's just the problem--it's too simple.  The system of mirror neurons does whatever it does only in complex interactions with other neural systems throughout the brain.

Hickok points out many problems with the mirror neuron theory.  First of all, we can understand many actions that we ourselves cannot perform.  Smith observed that men can sympathize with women's labor during childbirth despite the fact that men have no direct experience of that themselves.  Moreover, Hickok points out that people suffering disorders of the motor system that make it impossible for them to move can still understand action.  People with damage to motor speech centers cannot speak, but they can still understand the speech of others.  Individuals with cerebral palsy who cannot speak or control their bodies can still understand human social life.  Most dramatically, Christopher Nolan became a successful novelist--showing an acute understanding of human life--although he had been quadriplegic from birth.

Apparently, people like Nolan can gain a conceptual ability for understanding actions that they themselves cannot execute.  This indicates that understanding action must depend on conceptual reasoning that goes beyond physical enactment of the action.  As Hume and Smith recognize, a sympathetic understanding of what others are experiencing requires a conceptual projection of oneself through imagination.

Information is certainly stored in the motor system of the brain, but this is motoric information and not meaningful (semantic) information.  This is indicated by the fact that people who suffer "semantic dementia"--who cannot name objects or understand certain words--have suffered damage to parts of the temporal lobes that do not involve the motor system.

Understanding actions is a complicated cognitive activity that arises from the interaction of many neural systems and not just the motor system.  We can reach this general conclusion even though no one understands yet how exactly this happens in the brain.

Hume, Smith, and Darwin were right to see that social understanding and moral judgment require that the brain mirror or simulate the experiences of others, but this cannot be reduced to a simple activity of the motor system, and the complexity of the neural processes by which the brain does this is not yet fully explained.

Friday, August 01, 2014

How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible

Two men keeping a "fire-bomb watch" at a Freedom School's community library in Holmes County, Mississippi, during the 1964 Freedom Summer.  (Photograph by Matt Herron)

A young man guarding a Black Panther billboard in Lowndes County, Alabama (a place so violent that it was known as "Bloody Lowndes").  This photograph was taken during the 1966 election for county offices.  The year before, only one black person was registered to vote in this majority-black county.  Now black registered voters outnumbered white registered voters and had formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party whose symbol was a black panther.

A video on the Deacons for Defense and Justice, formed in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the summer of 1964.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of a critical period in the history of the American civil rights movement.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provoked many white Southerners into angry resistance, which included renewed violence from the Ku Klux Klan and the white Citizen's Councils.  The major civil rights organizations formed a coalition to support "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi.  Organizers moved throughout Mississippi to register black voters, in a state with the lowest percentage of registered black voters.  Organizers also set up "Freedom Schools" to provide blacks some of the education that they were not receiving in their segregated schools--including reading, mathematics, science, and American history with an emphasis on black history.  The violence against the "Freedom Summer" organizers included the Klan killing of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, whose bodies were found on August 4th.

During this same summer of 1964, some black leaders in Jonesboro, Louisiana, formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was an organization of men trained to provide armed protection for civil rights workers in the South.  As was true for much of the civil rights movement in the South, the leaders were black military veterans who had served in World War II and the Korean War.  Chapters of the Deacons for Defense spread throughout the South over the next few years.

This armed self-defense might seem to be oddly contradictory to the widely professed nonviolence of the civil rights movement.  The Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) all had formally adopted the policy of nonviolence.  Although it had no formal policy on it, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was understood also as committed to nonviolence.  And, of course, Martin Luther King used his prominent position in the movement to preach Christian nonviolence.

Within the movement, however, there was debate over King's message of nonviolence.  In 1964, Hartman Turnbow, a black Mississippi farmer and community leader, warned King:  "This nonviolent stuff ain't no good.  It'll get ya killed."  Hartman was known for driving away Klan night riders attacking his home by returning their gunfire, until the Klan retreated.  The morning after one exchange of gunfire, Turnbow told some civil rights organizers, "I wasn't being non-nonviolent.  I was just protecting my family."

Actually, King himself was known to have been well-armed for self-defense.  After an attack on his home in 1956, his friends noticed that guns were scattered all around his house.  Even when he was not carrying a gun himself, he was surrounded by people who were armed.  In 1966, when he and Stokely Carmichael led a march through Mississippi, they disagreed about the policy of nonviolence; but King allowed the Deacons for Defense to provide armed protection for the marchers.

The importance of armed self-defense for the civil rights movement has been largely ignored, because it contradicts the popular image of civil rights workers as Christ-like martyrs ready to be killed without defending themselves.  Charles Cobb Jr. has set the record straight in his new book--This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014).  Cobb is a journalist, and he was a field secretary for SNCC in Mississippi, so some of his writing is based on his experience.

As the title of his book indicates, Cobb's claim is that despite the commitment to nonviolent resistance as a tactic for the civil rights movement, the movement would have failed if participants had not been able to defend themselves with arms.  Another way of putting this is that when American blacks demanded their "civil rights," one of the most important right was the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  Cobb quotes one civil rights leader--John R. "Hunter Bear" Salter--as saying in 1994: "I'm alive today because of the Second Amendment and the natural right to keep and bear arms." 

Moreover, as this remark suggests, this right was understood as not just a constitutional right but also a natural or human right rooted in the natural human desire to protect one's life, one's family, and one's property from violent attack.  This is not necessarily contradictory to nonviolence if one understands that this is a right to exercise defensive violence rather than offensive violence as a deterrent to aggressive violence.  Richard Haley, CORE's southern regional director, defended the arrangement by which the Deacons for Defense provided armed escorts for CORE organizers as a way of supporting the policy of nonviolence.  "Protected nonviolence," he observed, "is apt to be more popular with the participants than unprotected."

One can also see here the natural ground of all human rights in what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature" as rooted in the naturally evolved animal inclination to ward off attacks and the resentment against unjust aggression.

Here is one of many good stories in Cobb's book illustrating the need for "protected nonviolence":
"[Margaret Block] stayed with eighty-six-year-old Janie Brewer, the matriarch of a large black family who lived with some of her children and grandchildren on the family farm. . . . 'Mrs. Brewer asked me what did SNCC mean,' Block would later recall, 'and I told her the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  And she stopped me.  [She said] 'You said nonviolent.  If somebody come at you, you ain't gonna do nothing.' . . . She pulled up a big ole rifle. . . . She kept a big rifle behind the chair. . . . [Mrs. Brewer said,] 'Shit, we ain't nonviolent.'  Ideas like this shaped Block's own feelings about nonviolence.  'Since I was living with [the Brewers],' she later explained, 'I had to be what the family was.'"
". . . One night in August 1964, after four of Mrs. Brewer's sons and another local resident tried to register to vote at the county courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, whites in cars began circling the family's farmhouse.  This was not the first time such harassment had occurred; when SNCC staff took local people to attempt to register to vote, whites often followed the groups back home.  On this night, Janie Brewer had already been warned by her local sources of a possible attack, and she instructed her children, grandchildren, and SNCC guests to arm themselves and hide in the cotton fields.  Meanwhile she and Margaret Block began making Molotov cocktails in the kitchen, 'spilling gas everywhere,' Block remembered.  'And I'm like 'Damn if we get burned up in here, everyone was going to swear the Klan did it, and it's going to be Mrs. Brewer blowing us up.'  As the sheriff and a truckload of Klansmen approached the farmhouse, Brewer family members and some of the SNCC workers were still in the fields with rifles and shotguns.  Before the raiders reached the house, someone shone a floodlight on them.  Others fired into the air.  Brewer stood on the front porch ready to hurl a Molotov cocktail.  Everyone, including the sheriff, fled.  Night riders never returned to the Brewer farm."
Of course, armed self-defense cannot prevent people from being killed by hidden assassins.  King was assassinated in 1968 by a shooter hiding in a room across a street from King's motel.  Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 by a hidden killer who shot him as he stepped out of his car in the driveway of his home, and so he had no chance to get to the guns that he kept in his car and in his home.

Some other posts on these themes can be found  here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Olsen and Murray on IQ, Race, and Human Biodiversity

The emotional debate over Charles Murray's work on IQ and racial differences was renewed recently when Congressman Paul Ryan cited Murray, and immediately Ryan was criticized by Paul Krugman and others for relying on a known racist.  Congressman Emanuel Cleaver has said that Murray has spent his life spreading "racist sewage."

In Jon Anstein Olsen's dissertation--Neo-Darwinian Conservatism in the United States--he has a chapter on "Human Biodiversity and Conservative Defenses of Racial Inequalities," in which Murray is prominent.  In his introductory chapter, Olsen explains his hesitation about including this chapter:
"Having begun this project with a main focus on relatively moderate conservative literature, such as Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism, I was unprepared for the extensive engagement with evolutionary psychology I found on the far right, and had to decide whether to define in or out of my studies these reactionary, sometimes outright racist and in part non-academic writings.  Two weighty arguments against including them were immediately obvious.  First, it risks sullying Arnhart and the other moderates with guilt by association--an association that is created in these pages but which in many ways does not otherwise exist.  Second, including--and in part then necessarily reproducing--the race arguments in a study on intellectual conservatism both helps to broadcast them and risks making them appear to some extent more 'respectable.'"
"On the other side, however, there were two reasons that spoke for inclusion,which I deemed weightier.  First, since I at the outset of this project considered myself generally positive--along the lines sketched by Pinker--to the idea of wedding human nature science and political philosophy, it seemed dishonest not to include a presentation of the ways in which I found that Neo-Darwinism was also being used to uphold  more unsavory positions.  This is an especially salient point since this, as indicated above, appears to be an under-researched phenomenon.  Second, including race-oriented neo-Darwinian conservatism serves to show how treacherous a 'box' evolutionary psychology could prove to be, highlighting how important it is to maintain an awareness of all three general grounds for skepticism reviewed above:  the sordid historical record of evolutionary arguments applied to human affairs, the great indeterminacy and variety in evolutionary psychology, and the fact that although empirical premises form one type of input to the lines of reasoning leading up to normative political-philosophical conclusions, it can make all the difference in the world which normative premises are attached to them." (15)
I agree with Olsen that considering the biology of racial differences is both morally troubling--because it can be interpreted as supporting racism--and intellectually necessary for any full account of the Darwinian psychology of human nature.  I disagree with him, however, insofar as he fails to notice that a classical liberal or libertarian like Murray can accept the biology of racial diversity without becoming a racist, because he sees that the classical liberal principle of equal rights is compatible with unequal outcomes in life.

The question of the biological reality of race and racial differences is inescapable for any Darwinian science of evolution.  That's suggested by the full title of Darwin's Origin of Species--On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. If Darwin's theory of the evolution of species by natural selection is correct, then there must be inherited variation in races (or subspecies), so that the struggle for life among these races produces species that are naturally adapted to their environments. 

In Darwin's Descent of Man, the question of human racial differences was fundamental.  "The sole object of this work," Darwin explained, "is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man" (2004, 18).  While some of the defenders of slavery had argued that the human races were actually separate species, Darwin argued that they were only varieties within one human species; and in this way, much of the Descent of Man can be seen as supporting Darwin's condemnation of slavery.

Darwin agreed with the work of his cousin Francis Galton, who argued--in Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences--that racial differences extended not only to physical traits but also to moral and mental traits.  And Darwin saw much of human evolutionary history as a struggle between "savage" and "civilized" races.

For many of Darwin's opponents, this proves that Darwinian science is inherently racist and should therefore be rejected as morally repugnant, because scientific racism denies the equal dignity of all human beings.  And yet, for Darwin the intellectual and moral evolution of human beings must lead them to reject savage tribalism and to extend their humanitarian sympathies "to men of all races" (2004, 147-51, 159).

But even if Darwin himself was not a racist, it was easy for racists to interpret his theory of human evolution as supporting a scientific racism.  In reaction against this tradition of Darwinian racism, it became common for people to reject any application of Darwinian science to the study of human behavior. 

Consequently, those who revived Darwinian social psychology in the 1970s and 1980s had to find some way to protect themselves from the charge of racism.  One popular rhetorical strategy employed by evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby was to argue that the evolution of human nature in the Stone Age had produced a universal human mind shared by all human beings, and that individual and racial differences were not important for evolutionary psychology.  The only important innate differences in the human mind, Cosmides and Tooby have argued, are sexual:  men and women are different in their evolved psychological propensities.

The problem with this, however, is that it ignores the evidence that beginning with Darwin himself, the science of evolutionary psychology has shown biological diversity in the human species at three levels--biological differences between individuals, between the sexes, and between racial groups.  To evade the charge of biological racism, evolutionary psychologists like Tooby and Cosmides refuse to recognize the biological reality of race.  I saw this last year at the Mont Pelerin Society conference in the Galapagos Islands.  When Murray spoke about the racial biology of human diversity, Tooby and Rob Boyd challenged him in the question and answer period, because they insisted that racial differences had no deep evolutionary roots.

As Olsen indicates, Murray is a leading member of a group of scholars who stress the evolutionary grounds of human biodiversity as including racial differences, and particularly differences in average IQ.  This group includes Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, J. Philippe Ruston, Richard Lynn, Steve Sailer, and John Derbyshire.  Olsen rightly identifies some of these people as racists, because they justify racism as a naturally evolved expression of ethnic nepotism, and because they argue that American national identity depends on the biological identity of the white race, and therefore immigration should be either stopped or restricted in ways that preserve the white racial identity of the United States.  But Olsen does not see that Murray's classical liberal argument for recognizing both the natural equality and the natural inequality of human beings denies racism.

Olsen doesn't realize that in criticizing the racism of "neo-Darwinian race conservatism," he is agreeing with Murray.  Although Olsen stresses that "empirical race claims" of scientific racists are controversial among scientists, he admits that these empirical claims could prove to be at least partly correct (243-46).  But even so, he argues, the "normative premises" of the scientific racists can be refuted (237-39).

Olsen intimates that his ultimate objection to the empirical claims of racial science is not that they are false, but that they are true in ways that can only be harmful to society.  "What the race scientists are doing," he suggests, "seems to many people not to be the kind of thing we should be doing, period" (244).  That sounds similar to what Nathan Glazer wrote in The New Republic (October 31, 1994) in response to an article by Herrnstein and Murray that was an excerpt from The Bell Curve: "Our society, our polity, our elites, according to Herrnstein and Murray, live with an untruth: that there is no good reason for this inequality, and therefore society is at fault, and we must try harder.  I ask myself whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth."  Are they suggesting that the American principle of natural human equality is a noble lie?

Any claim that the causes of the black/white IQ gap are entirely genetic is surely false.  But there is plenty of evidence that the causes are partly genetic and partly environmental.  A good survey of this evidence is J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen, "Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability," Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11 (2005): 235-294, which is available online.

And yet even if it is true that there is some genetic basis for the black/white IQ gap--the American black average IQ being at least 15 points below the American white average IQ--this would not support the normative claims for racism, Olsen argues (237-39), because of three reasons stated by Peter Singer in his Practical Ethics (1993).

Singer's first point is that if a race suffers a disadvantage because its genetic nature creates a low average cognitive capacity, this should strengthen, rather than weaken, the moral duty of society to help this race that suffers from an undeserved disadvantage.  People do not earn their genetic endowment, and so the distribution of genetic capacities and propensities is unfair.  Justice demands that we help people who suffer from genetic defects through no fault of their own.

Singer's second point is that since the statistical generalizations about racial averages tell us nothing about individuals, they give us no reason to abandon our individualist principle that we should treat people as individuals and not as members of a group.  Since the bell-curve distributions of traits for whites and blacks overlap, they cannot tell us whether any black individual is more or less intelligent than any white individual.

Singer's third point is that the statistical generalizations of racial science give us no reason to reject the moral principle of "equal consideration of interests," which is the principle of equal rights as affirmed in the Declaration of Independence and in other texts of modern liberal thought.  In Practical Ethics, Singer explains:
"The principle of equality is not based on any actual equality that all people share.  I have argued that the only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have suggested that the most important human interests--such as the interest in avoiding pain, in developing one's abilities, in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter, in enjoying warm personal relationships, in being free to pursue one's projects  without interference, and many others--are not affected by differences in intelligence" (31).
Singer then quotes from Thomas Jefferson who insisted that the natural equality of rights belonging to Africans did not depend on their natural intellectual capacities: "whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights.  Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property of person of others."  Singer comments: "Jefferson was right.  Equal status does not depend on intelligence.  Racists who maintain the contrary are in peril of being forced to kneel before the next genius they encounter."

Oddly, Olsen does not notice that Murray agrees with all three of these points.  First, he agrees that the inheritance of cognitive ability is not earned, and therefore it's unfair.  We can hold people responsible for how they develop and use whatever capacities they have received, but we cannot hold them responsible for whatever nature or nurture has given them.  And so, we are morally obligated to help those who suffer from inherited disadvantages that are undeserved (The Bell Curve, 21, 142, 418, 442, 445, 500, 527, 535, 547).  Murray agrees with John Rawls's "difference principle," arguing that giving higher salaries to high-IQ people than to low-IQ people is justified not as a matter of just deserts but as a way of producing compensating benefits for the least advantaged members of society (Bell Curve, 527).

Second, Murray agrees that we should treat people as individuals and not a members of a group.  In The Bell Curve, he and Herrnstein repeatedly stress this (21, 68, 117, 270-71, 312-15, 385, 450, 500).  In doing this, they embrace the classical liberal principle of individualism.  "A person should not be judged as a member of a group but as an individual.  With that cornerstone of the American doctrine once again in place, group differences can take their appropriately insignificant place in affecting American life" (550).

Third, Murray agrees with the principle of equal rights as equal consideration of interests or an equal chance to pursue one's happiness.  Human beings are "unequal in every respect except their right to advance their own interests" (Bell Curve, 531).  In the last chapter of The Bell Curve--entitled "A Place for Everyone"--Murray and Herrnstein elaborate this thought as the ground of their classical liberalism.  Freedom is the condition for "finding valued places for everyone," so that "every citizen has access to the central satisfactions of life" (551).  What Murray calls "the central satisfactions of life" or "the stuff of life" corresponds to what Singer calls "the most important human interests" and to what I call "the 20 natural desires."

Like Singer, Murray also quotes Jefferson as supporting this idea that equal rights does not mean equal outcomes, because equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will allow the "natural aristocracy of virtues and talents" to freely express itself (Bell Curve, 530-31).  In a free society, natural human inequality will show itself, and this will allow those of high intellectual ability to become a cognitive elite.  But in such a free society, even those with low cognitive ability can secure their happiness, because "most people by far have enough intelligence for getting on with the business of life" (536).  "There is no inherent barrier to happiness for a person with a low level of education holding a low-skill job" (Coming Apart, 267).

Murray is worried, however, that the primary condition for everyone achieving some lasting happiness in life--what he calls "the founding virtues" or industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity--is being weakened among the new lower class in America.  In both The Bell Curve and Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Murray argues that in America's increasingly complex and technological society and economy, we see "the increasing market value of brains," so that the top 5% of people in cognitive ability are becoming a new upper class that is isolated from the rest of America, while a new lower class is sinking into despair.  The separation in these classes is not just economic but moral.  Those in the cognitive elite still show the "founding virtues," but those in the new lower class do not.  This separation of classes is even becoming genetic insofar as there's "assortative mating," with those of high cognitive ability marrying others like themselves and thus passing on their cognitive endowments through their offspring (Coming Apart, 61-68).

This is as much a problem for white America as for black America.  And that points to one of Murray's main arguments that has been ignored by those proponents of human biodiversity who want to explain America's social problems as purely racial.  Murray insists: "America is coming apart at the seams--not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class" (12-13, 223, 251, 269-77).  Most of Coming Apart is devoted to showing the data indicating the great gulf in white America between the social health of the new upper class and the social decay of the new lower class.  When Murray expands his data to include blacks and Latinos, the patterns look almost exactly the same.  Remarkably, when Steve Sailer reviewed Murray's book, he was silent about this point.

Far from being a racist, Murray hopes for "progress toward a healthy multiracial society" (Bell Curve, 448, 475, 491, 525-26).  He also argues for immigration law being based on "individual characteristics" rather than race (Bell Curve, 5, 549).

Murray argues that a classical liberal society--like that established by the American founders--is better as securing the equal rights to the pursuit of happiness than is a welfare state, because in a welfare state, we see "the loss of the framework through which people can best pursue happiness," when people are free to live as they please so long as they don't injure others and take responsibility for their lives, their families, and their neighbors (252, 279-85, 296-301).

Although Murray has argued for completely abolishing the welfare state (in What It Means to be a Libertarian), he has also argued for replacing the welfare state by taking the over one trillion dollars spent every year by the American national government on transfer payments and dividing it up so that all adults over 21 could receive $10,000 a year for life.  He observes:
"America's population is wealthier than any in history.  Every year, the American government redistributes more than a trillion dollars of that wealth to provide for retirement, health care, and the alleviation of poverty.  We still have millions of people without comfortable retirements, without adequate health care, and living in poverty.  Only a government can spend so much money so ineffectually.  The solution is to give the money to the people" (In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, 1).
Notice the crucial assumption of classical liberalism here--that solving social problems is best achieved by securing the freedom of people to solve their problems themselves through voluntary cooperation in their families and their neighborhoods, so that everyone takes responsibility for their actions in the serious affairs of life.  Those with superior cognitive abilities are important in providing social leadership in such a free society.  But every normal human being will have enough intelligence to contribute something to such a society where there is "a place for everyone."

By contrast, social democrats--like Thomas Piketty or James Flynn, for example--assume "that the hallmark of high social capital--neighbors helping neighbors cope with their problems--is inferior to a system that meets human needs through government programs, because only the government can provide help without the moral judgmentalism associated with charity" (Coming Apart, 252).

Some of these points are developed in other posts here, here, here., and here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: The Utopian Left and the Denial of Human Nature

A fundamental claim of my argument for Darwinian conservatism--as combining traditionalist conservatism and classical liberalism--is that Darwinian science supports the constrained or realist view of human nature as fixed that is embraced by conservatism, as opposed to the unconstrained or utopian view of human nature as malleable that is embraced by the Left. 

Olsen says that I am arguing here against a straw man, because even if the Marxist Left can be rightly identified as utopian in its denial of human nature, the social democratic Left cannot.  But while the Marxist Left is more aggressively utopian in its denial of human nature, I would argue, the social democratic Left is still utopian in assuming that human nature can be changed in the pursuit of human perfectibility.

Marxism is the purest expression of leftist utopianism, in that Marx assumed that once human beings enter the social environment of communism, they will become utterly selfless in their collectivist solidarity, and society will be organized on the principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.  The failure of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and other Marxist regimes taught many leftists that this utopian vision is a foolish and dangerous fantasy.

And yet, the welfare state program embraced by the social democratic Left is utopian in its own way, because it assumes a malleability of human nature that is denied by Darwinian science.  Consider, for example, five assumptions about human malleability that are implicit in the modern welfare state.  (Here I am making some of the same points that Charles Murray makes in Coming Apart [2012].) 

The first assumption is that people will not respond in selfish ways to the incentives created by the welfare state.  For example, that poor people will not work less when they can make themselves eligible for generous unemployment benefits; and that rich people will not engage in tax avoidance and evasion to avoid the confiscatory tax rates necessary for redistributing their wealth.

The second assumption is that all human beings are equal in their innate talents and character traits.  If this is true, then a society that provides a fair equality of opportunity will produce the same outcomes for all groups of people--such as men and women, blacks and whites, poor people and rich people.  So when the outcomes are not the same for all groups, that must be assumed to be the consequence of some unfair discrimination that must be overturned by governmental intervention.

The third assumption is that human beings are not responsible for their actions.  Those who do well do not deserve their success, because it was due to some undeserved advantages.  And those who do poorly do not deserve their failure, because it was due to some undeserved disadvantages.  This provides moral justification for confiscating most of the property of the rich--Thomas Piketty recommends tax rates of 80% to 90% for the richest people--and for never holding people responsible for their failures.

The fourth assumption is that those who manage the welfare state--politicians and bureaucrats--will do so for the common good and not for their own selfish interests.

The fifth assumption is that the coercive welfare state is absolutely necessary for solving social problems, because if people were left free and held responsible to solve their social problems for themselves and their families in voluntary cooperation with others, they would fail, because they lack the natural ability or inclination to do this.

A biological science of human nature denies these five assumptions.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Olsen's Criticisms: Religion and Cosmic Teleology

Olsen has a long chapter on how some of my critics--such as John West, Carson Holloway, and Richard Hassing--have criticized me for defending a Darwinian natural right that is not grounded in religious belief and cosmic teleology (247-82).  He suggests that my argument cannot be persuasive if I cannot answer these criticisms.  Since he never mentions any of my many responses to West, Holloway, and Hassing, he leaves the reader with the impression that I cannot answer their criticisms.

In fact, I have answered them many times--in "Vindicating Darwinian Conservatism" in Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question (222-45), in "Defending Darwinian Natural Right" in Interpretation (spring 2000), and in many blog posts.

I have made four arguments on these issues.  First, I have argued in defense of Darwin's adoption of the idea of "dual causality."  The religious belief in God as the "primary cause" of everything is compatible with the scientific study of the "secondary causes" of natural evolution. 

Second, I have argued that the Darwinian scientist can accept the importance of religious belief in the cultural evolution of human morality.  Darwin was explicit in recognizing religious belief in moral evolution.

Third, I have argued that although religion can support morality, our evolved morality can stand on its own natural ground.  That's important, because we sometimes need to correct those religious beliefs that violate our natural moral sense.  Otherwise, we would be trapped in a divine command theory of morality that would make it impossible for us to question religious beliefs that are morally dubious.

Fourth, I have argued that we do not need a cosmic teleology as long as we can ground natural right in the immanent teleology of human biological nature.

Olsen has not explained why he thinks these arguments fail.

Olsen's Criticisms: The Interpersonal Dimension and Human Rights

Olsen writes:  "Despite his strong emphasis on the natural basis in our evolved psychology for various types of care and concern for others, Arnhart in fact utterly fails to make room in his theory for any genuinely interpersonal perspective in ethics" (191).

This makes no sense to me.  If I strongly emphasize the naturalness of our care and concern for others, which is true, then how can it be true that I make no room for the interpersonal perspective in ethics?

I am also perplexed by Olsen's claim that I say nothing about how Darwinian natural right might apply to "issues that are at least remotely controversial in liberal democracies today" (195).  He then goes on to criticize me for not recognizing that Darwinian natural right could illuminate the current debate over the foundations of human rights (196-98).

In fact, throughout Darwinian Natural Right, Darwinian Conservatism, various articles, and many blog posts, I have discussed many contemporary issues, including human rights.  Olsen says that the debates over slavery and female genital mutilation are no longer controversies today.  But the point of my account of the debates over slavery and female genital mutilation was to show how the appeal to human rights is an appeal to human nature (see Darwinian Natural Right, 157-59).  And to say that female genital mutilation is not controversial today is strange, given the intense debate today across Europe and North America as to whether parents have the right to cut the genitals of their daughters and the debate as to whether parents in Africa and the Middle East have a cultural right to do this.  Just yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new policy to prosecute cases of female genital mutilation in England and Wales.  But Olsen insists that this is not a contemporary issue.  I have written about these current controversies here and here.

I have written extensively about human rights in various posts here, here, and here.  Olsen endorses Alan Dershowitz's argument for how we derive "rights from wrongs" (196-97).  He does not mention my post analyzing and supporting Dershowitz's argument.  Olsen refers to Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach" to human rights (197).  He does not mention that I cite Nussbaum's reasoning as compatible with my account of natural desires (Darwinian Natural Right, 30).

In my blog posts, I have commented on many contemporary issues--including abortion, gay marriage, transhumanism, the stem cell research debate, and genetic engineering. 

Would Olsen say that such issues are not "remotely controversial in liberal democracies today"?

Olsen's Criticisms: The Naturalistic Fallacy and Emotivism

Olsen accuses me of committing the naturalistic fallacy (18-19, 154-55, 180-81,184-86, 190-91, 193-95).  I have written a long series of blog posts--a dozen or more--responding to this objection.  Olsen is totally silent about what I have said, so I have no way to know what he thinks is wrong with my response.  My most recent post on this was published a few months ago, and it contains links to the many previous posts published during the time that Olsen was writing his dissertation.

In everything we do, I have argued, we move from "is" to "ought" through some hypothetical imperative in which "ought" means a hypothetical relationship between desires and ends.  For example, "If you desire to be healthy, then you ought to eat nutritious food."  Or, "If you desire safe air travel, you ought to seek out air planes that are engineered for flying without crashing."  Or, "If you desire the love of friends, you ought to cultivate personal relationships based on mutual respect and affection and shared interests."

Such hypothetical imperatives are based on two kinds of objective facts.  First, human desires are objective facts.  We can empirically discover--through common experience or through scientific investigation--that human beings generally desire self-preservation, health, and friendship.  Second, the causal connection between behavior and result is an objective fact about the world.  We can empirically discover that through eating good food, flying on safe air planes, and cultivating close personal relationships, we can achieve the ends that we desire.  For studying these objective facts, the natural sciences of medicine, engineering, and psychology can be instructive.  It is false, therefore, to say that science cannot tell us anything about the way things ought to be.

We can restate this in Aristotelian terms--as suggested by Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:  If you want to live a happy or flourishing life, if you want to have a deep and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole, then you need to cultivate the moral and intellectual virtues that are instrumental to achieving deep and lasting satisfactions in life.  A science of ethics can study the empirical claims of such a hypothetical imperative.

Olsen might respond by saying that even if science can tell us about the ought of a hypothetical imperative, it cannot tell us about the ought of a moral imperative, which must be categorical rather than hypothetical.  But this would ignore the fact that if a categorical imperative is to have any motivating truth, it must become a hypothetical imperative.  So when Kant or some other moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why?  And ultimately the only final answer to that question of motivation is that obeying this ought is what we most desire to do if we are rational and sufficiently informed.

Even Kant implicitly concedes this.  In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says that everyone desires to obey his categorical imperatives, because everyone--"even the most hardened scoundrel"--desires the "greater inner worth of his own person" [einen grosseren inneren Wert seiner Person] that comes only from obeying the moral law and thus becoming a "better person" (Ak 4.454).  In this way, Kant's categorical imperatives are reduced to a hypothetical imperative:  If you desire to be a better person with a sense of self-worth, then you ought to obey my categorical imperatives.  This, then, rests on two kinds of empirical claims--that human beings most desire personal self-worth and that obeying Kant's categorical imperatives will achieve that desired end.

Olsen's insistence on the is/ought dichotomy is closely connected to his criticism of my argument as being crudely emotivist (122, 160, 187-90, 193-94).  To show that I am an emotivist who believes that morality is merely a matter of following moral emotions, Olsen quotes from Darwinian Conservatism where I speak of Adam Smith as claiming that "our natural feelings often diverge from what purely rational principles might dictate" (160).  Olsen ignores the fact that on that same page of Darwinian Conservatism (43), I indicate that my point is that "the moral sense is not a product of pure reason alone but is rather a humanly unique capacity for moral judgment that combines social emotions and rational reflection."  Thus, as I indicate on the next page (44), "morality requires a combination of reason and emotion."

In Darwinian Conservatism (35-45, 124-29) and in Darwinian Natural Right (17-21, 24-25, 46-49, 70-73,  223-30), I have argued against those like Peter Singer who make the Kantian claim that morality is based on an abstract logic of pure reason alone without emotion or desire.  Psychopaths prove that this cannot be true.  Psychopaths are often intelligent people with a high capacity for abstract reasoning.  But they are moral monsters because they do not feel moral emotions such as guilt, shame, pity, and love, and thus they can deceive, injure, and even brutally torture and murder their fellow human beings without any moral feelings.

Although he does not elaborate the point, Olsen seems to accept Singer's claim that morality is based purely on abstract reasoning free from moral emotion or desire (160).  As I have indicated in one of my posts on Singer, he has suggested doubts about this in the "Afterword" to a new edition of The Expanding Circle.  He notes "how ambivalent I was about the idea of ethics being objectively true and rationally based," and now "I no longer believe that this argument succeeds."

Olsen thinks that in grounding morality on 20 natural desires, I have no rational principle by which to rank those desires when they conflict, and thus I have no way to resolve moral disputes.  He makes this point with the example of slavery.  He writes:
"If we consider his example that slavery is naturally wrong because it violates the desire for justice as reciprocity, the question which it is most important that Arnhart answers is this:  If 'justice as reciprocity' is only one of our natural desires, why should it trump the others, such as the desires for wealth and social ranking, both of which are on Arnhart's list?  He refers favorably to Lincoln's comments about being 'consistent,' but the question is why the slave owner should care about consistency.  If morality can be based in full on our desires, Arnhart's argument must presumably be, at the very least, the (quite plausible) claim that we have a natural desire for logical consistency.  But, if this is the unstated premise, is Arnhart then saying that we are more motivated by this particular motivation than by other motivations, or that we ought to be?  If the latter: why?  Is it because satisfying our desires for reciprocity and logical consistency are more conducive of our own long-term happiness than satisfying the desire for selfish gain through exploitation of others--or because they are somehow morally superior?  Again, either Arnhart is sneaking morality in the back door, since he has nothing beyond desires to ground his ought, or he must assume that satisfying our desires for reciprocity, justice and logical consistency is more conducive of long-term happiness for the agent than satisfying other, competing desires.  Even if this latter assumption could be defended empirically, however, it might be asked whether neo-Darwinian natural right theory has produced a persuasive reason for why slavery is wrong if the reason is derived solely or primarily from a strong desire against it on the part of would-be slave owners?  Similarly, Arnhart finds it relevant to argue that female genital mutilation makes intercourse less pleasurable for men, and that it in part for this reason does not really serve men's interests either" (193).
Olsen here is referring to my account of Lincoln's five arguments for why slavery is wrong, which I identify as the historical argument, the Euclidean argument, the biblical argument, the intuitionist argument, and the biological argument (Darwinian Natural Right, 193-201).  Lincoln shows that any attempt to defend slavery as just either contradicts the American political tradition, or contradicts itself, or contradicts the Bible, or contradicts our natural sense of right and wrong, or contradicts our shared humanity as members of the same species.  The fifth argument--the biological argument for our shared humanity--is the most fundamental since the other arguments presuppose it.

Olsen is specifically pointing to what I call the Euclidean argument.  Lincoln reasons as follows:
"If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.--why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?
"You say A. is white, and B. is black.  It is color, then; the lighter, have the right to enslave the darker?  Take care.  By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.  You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them?  Take care again.  By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
"But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another.  Very well.  And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you."
No rational person would argue for his own enslavement.  But any person who argues for the enslavement of others must appeal to some human difference that could be the basis for his own enslavement.  Therefore, no rational person can endorse slavery without contradicting himself.  Human beings differ in an infinite number of ways--color, intellect, interests, and so on--but each person believes that he has a right to liberty simply by virtue of his humanity--his human desire to be free from exploitation.  Yet if I affirm that I as a human being have a right to liberty, then to be consistent, I must also affirm that other human beings have a similar right.

In our natural human inclination to secure the benefits of social cooperation while protecting ourselves from being exploited by others, we appeal to reciprocity as the fundamental principle of fairness in social relationships, which makes it impossible for us to justify enslaving others without contradicting ourselves.  "This is a world of compensation," Lincoln declared, "and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave."  This is so because human social life is a world of reciprocal exchange in which exploiters are ultimately punished by the moral aggression of those they exploit.

But as long as slavery satisfies the slaveholder's natural desires for wealth and status, Olsen asks, why shouldn't he allow this to override his natural desire for justice as reciprocity?  I have a twofold answer.  First, as a fact of human psychology, while a psychopathic slaveholder would feel no desire for justice as reciprocity, normal slaveholders would; and indeed Southern slaveholders either elaborated moral justifications for slavery as beneficial for the slaves, or they admitted their moral guilt in being caught in a tragic conflict between self-interest and justice.

Second, the ultimate natural enforcement of justice as reciprocity is the natural inclination of the exploited to retaliate against their exploiters.  The deepest fear of the Southern slaveholders was slave insurrection, because they knew that their slaves were not naturally adapted to slavery, and, on the contrary, they were naturally adapted for resisting their enslavement by violence if necessary.  As classical liberals like John Locke have noted, the ultimate ground of natural rights is the natural human tendency to violent resistance to oppression.

Olsen seems to think that he has an alternative to this grounding of natural right in natural desires.  But he never explains what that alternative is.  He does imply that he thinks there is some Kantian cosmic normativity that is grasped by pure abstract reason without any grounding in human desires, but he never clearly explains or defends this idea.