Wednesday, July 19, 2017

West on the American Founding (1): The State of Nature and the Evolution of Religion

At the next convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco (August 31-September 3), I will be on a panel on Thomas West's new book--The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom.  Many scholars of the American Founding have concluded that the founders' political thought was an amalgam of different, and even contradictory, traditions of thought, such as liberalism and republicanism.  Against this "amalgam" thesis, West argues--persuasively, I think--that the founders largely agreed on one coherent understanding of politics--the political theory of natural rights.  Their disagreements (as in the debates between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians) were disagreements not about the end of government (securing natural rights) but about the best means for achieving this end.

Another recently published book--Randy Barnett's Our Republican Constitution--makes this same argument for the American founders as agreeing on the political theory of natural rights.  West recognizes this, but he claims that "Barnett's libertarian reading is silent on the founders' concern with the people's moral character" (46, n. 10).  For West, this "libertarian reading" of the founding is mistaken in ignoring how the founders' legally enforced morality and religion through the constitutions and laws of the states.  But then, West sometimes contradicts himself and accepts a libertarian interpretation of the founding as seeing the purpose of politics being limited to securing individual freedom, so that morality and religion are shaped in families and the voluntary associations of private society rather than through coercive public legislation.  I will elaborate this point in a future post.

In his explication of the founders' theory of natural rights, West agrees with Philip Hamburger (1993) in seeing that theory as based on five arguments.  First, natural rights are identified as part of the natural liberty that human beings have in state of nature in the absence of government.  This idea of the state of nature is fundamental.  West says: "The state of nature is the basis of the founders' understanding of politics" (409).  And in that state of nature, "self-ownership is the original natural natural right" (396).  Except for children, who are under the temporary natural authority of their parents, all individuals have equal liberty in that no one is under the rule of anyone else without their consent.  But these natural rights in the state of nature without government do not include the acquired rights that exist only as created by government.

Second, natural rights are constrained by natural law.  In the state of nature, human beings can use reason to discover natural law.  So, for example, they can reason that since all human beings seek to enjoy their natural liberty, they will resist and retaliate against those who infringe on their liberty; and therefore, human beings can conclude that the best way to preserve their life and liberty is to respect the equal liberty of others by not harming them.  They can thus see the wisdom in the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--or the Silver Rule--don't do to others what you would not want them to do to you.  They will enforce these rules of natural law as customary norms for society.  But even if many, or even most, human beings can see the wisdom in this natural law, many will not understand it or observe it, and their aggressive attacks on others will make the natural rights insecure in the state of nature where there is no government.

Third, to overcome this insecurity of natural rights in the state of nature, human beings consent to establish governments to secure their natural rights through formal laws and institutions for making, enforcing, and adjudicating those laws.  In submitting to the protection of government, people must give up some of their natural liberty to government so that it can protect the remainder.

Fourth, although the civil law of government is not the same as the natural law in the state of nature, that civil law must approximate the natural law in securing natural rights.  So, for example, the civil laws of property will be highly variable.  But if those governmental laws of property do not adequately protect the natural rights of property, people have the natural right to overthrow the government, return to the state of nature without government, and establish a new government that they judge will better secure their natural rights.

Fifth, as long as the civil laws approximate the natural law, there is no necessary inconsistency between civil law and natural law.  So, for example, the United States Constitution is civil law and not natural law, but constitutional law can be judged by the standard of natural law as to how well it secures natural rights.

Affirming the reality of the state of nature is the first step in this line of reasoning, and it is not enough, according to West, to see the state of nature as purely "hypothetical" or "fictional," because it must be seen as really existing in human history, past and present (96-111).  Whenever human beings are without a government or common superior over them, they are in the state of nature.  In the prehistoric past, all of our human ancestors lived in foraging bands without government, and thus they were in the state of nature.  As I have argued in other posts (here, here, here), the Darwinian account of the evolutionary state of nature largely confirms the reality of this Lockean state of nature among hunter-gatherers.

The state of nature is not confined to the prehistoric past.  Since there is no one world government, the state of nature exists between governments.  And even within societies with governments, individuals can revert to a state of nature when they find themselves threatened by aggressors, and there is no chance to appeal to governmental protection.  Also, when people revolt against a government, they put themselves back into a state of nature.  So when the Americans declared themselves independent of Great Britain, they were momentarily in a state of nature, until they had consented to new governments.

If the political theory of natural rights is correct, natural rights are those rights that human beings have claimed in the state of nature.  I have argued that Darwinian studies of life in the evolutionary state of nature of foraging bands does show that foragers claim equal rights to life, liberty, and property.

But what about the claim to religious liberty as a natural right?  As West and Vincent Phillip Munoz (2015) have shown, it was common in the first American state constitutions to make this claim.  So, for example, the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 declared: "That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience." 

But do we see foragers in an evolutionary state of nature making such a claim to religious freedom?

Hunter-gatherers do not typically show a religion of worshipping "Almighty God."  The monotheistic religions of worshipping a Creator God who enforces a moral law for human beings and intervenes in human affairs for their salvation did not appear in human history until the "Axial Age"--the six centuries before Christ--when Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity appeared for the first time.

The earliest form of religious belief is animism, which has been found among all hunter-gatherers, and which was probably the first form of religious experience for our earliest human ancestors.  In animism, there are no real gods, but there are various kinds of invisible spirits with limited powers that permeate all of nature--plants, animals, and even physical phenomena such as thunderstorms.  These spirits influence human life.  But they do not enforce any moral law for human beings (Peoples, Duda, and Marlowe 2016; Sanderson 2014, 339-53).

The first professional religious practitioners were shamans, who have been found in almost all foraging bands, and who continue to appear in some form in almost every society.  Shamans are believed to have the power to transform themselves through ecstatic trances to communicate with invisible spirits to solve problems--most commonly through healing and divination.  Successful shamans provide the service to their customers of interacting with the invisible forces that control unpredictable important outcomes--such as recovering from illness, success in hunting, communicating with the dead, and protecting people from evil spirits and malevolent magic (Eliade 2004; Singh 2017).

After the move from foraging bands to agricultural settlements, and the transition to large-scale chiefdoms and states, "high gods" appear for the first time--gods who are more active and powerful than the spirits of animism.  First, polytheistic religions have many specialized high gods who are much like human beings but more powerful.  Then, in the Axial Age, the monotheistic religions teach that there is one Creator God who transcends the world He created, and who enforces a moral law for human beings.

Evolutionary psychologists have surveyed the evidence that these religions of High Gods or Big Gods arose by cultural evolution in large-scale cities and states to solve collective action problems by persuading people that the social norms of cooperation will be enforced by divine rewards and punishments--perhaps even eternal bliss in Heaven and eternal punishment in Hell.  I have written about this in a previous post.

Evolutionary psychologists, beginning with Darwin himself, have explained the this evolution of religious beliefs and practices as a product of both natural evolution and cultural evolution.  By nature, human beings have the evolved propensity for "mind-reading"--for imagining that their are many intentional agents in the world who act purposefully according to their beliefs and desires.--because it is an evolutionary adaptation for successfully navigating through a world of intentional agents, both human and nonhuman.  This capacity for detecting intentional agents can easily become so hyperactive that human beings imagine the existence of invisible supernatural agents.  Thus, religion can be explained as an evolutionary manifestation of  a "hyperactive agency detection device" in the human brain, which I have written about in earlier posts (here).

That religious belief really is an evolutionary adaptation and not just an indirect by-product of some truly adaptive function of the brain is suggested by the evidence that religion promotes health and reproductive success.  Devout religious believers tend to have better physical and mental health and longer lives than those who lack such religious devotion.  Religiosity also increases fertility, and the most devout religious believers (like Orthodox Jews) tend to have the highest average number of offspring.  Atheists tend to have the lowest rates of fertility (Sanderson 2014, 344-50). 

This suggests that religion is rooted in evolved human nature, that the desire for religious understanding should be included on the list of 20 natural desires, and that atheists who advocate the abolition of religion are foolish.  This explains why evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides disagree with the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, as I indicated in a previous post.

But let's turn back to my earlier question: if there is a natural desire for religious belief in the evolutionary state of nature, did our foraging ancestors express that as a natural claim to religious freedom?  The animism and shamanism that have dominated the religious life of foragers seem to have arisen voluntarily through the competition of religious practitioners for customers, and there is no priestly or governmental bureaucracy for coercively enforcing belief.

The monotheistic religions that have arisen over the past few thousand years have often used coercive force to punish heretics and infidels.  But there have also been periods in which monotheistic believers have advocated religious liberty--such as New Testament Christianity during its first 300 years.  Christian advocates of religious toleration and liberty like Roger Williams have defended this as a revival of the New Testament teaching, which might also be seen as a revival of the religious liberty enjoyed by foragers in the state of nature.  The liberalism of religious liberty and toleration could then be understood as a return both to original New Testament Christianity and to the evolutionary state of nature.  (I have written about this here.)


Barnett, Randy E. 2016. Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People (New York: Broadside Books, 2016).

Eliade, Mircea. 2004. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 2nd paperback edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hamburger, Philip A. 1993. "Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions." Yale Law Journal 102: 907-60.

Munoz, Phillip Vincent. 2015. "Church and State in the Founding-Era State Constitutions." American Political Thought 4: 1-38.

Peoples, Hervey C., Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. 2016. "Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion." Human Nature 27:261-82. doi10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0

Sanderson, Stephen K. 2014. Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Singh, Manvir. 2017. "The Cultural Evolution of Shamanism." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, forthcoming.

West, Thomas G. 2017. The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

John Mizzoni's Defense of Kantian Ethics as Compatible with Darwinian Evolution

In May of last year, I read a book manuscript for Lexington Books--John Mizzoni's Evolution and the Foundations of Ethics.  I recommended that it be published, because no other book has done what this book does in surveying the application of evolutionary reasoning to all the major theories of ethics that have been developed by contemporary moral philosophers.

In my report, I did state some disagreements with Mizzoni's arguments.  My most fundamental disagreement was my denial of Mizzoni's claim that Kantian ethics was compatible with evolutionary science's account of human nature and human morality.  I argued that the general conclusion emerging from evolutionary moral psychology is that the Humean sentimentalists are right, and the Kantian rationalists are wrong.  This is clear, for example, in the studies of psychopaths that show that their moral poverty arises not from any deficiency in their capacity for rational judgment but from their lack of moral emotions.  I also argued that in order to defend Kantian ethics, Mazzoni simply assumed, without any supporting argumentation, the truth of Kant's dualistic separation of is and ought as belonging to two worlds--the phenomenal and the noumenal, the realm of nature and the realm of freedom.

I elaborated these points in a post.

Mizzoni's book has now been published.  The book shows some revisions in response to my suggestions and criticisms.  He responds to my major criticisms in two passages.  In the section of his book where he responds to "potential objections," he has added one of my objections.  He writes:
"PO5.  By premising my inquiry on the landscape of moral philosophy, I am making unwarranted assumptions.  It might be objected that by assuming the distinction between is and ought, the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, and separating biological inquiry from normative inquiry, I am assuming a Kantian ethic and a Kantian metaphysics.  The objection implies that I have characterized all normative ethics as Kantian and thereby disallowed a Darwinian explanation of morality."
"I do not think that observing a gap between statements of fact (is) and statements of ethics (ought), or a distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, or separating biological inquiry from normative inquiry commits one to a Kantian ethics, much less a Kantian metaphysics."
 ". . . I take the is/ought dichotomy to be simply a logical distinction: Is-statements function differently than ought-statements.  Likewise, the distinction between normative ethics and metaethics is a logical one.  They are different types of inquiry that ask different questions.  A normative ethical theory must answer the question: What should I do?  A metaethical theory must answer the question: What is the status of ethics?  Normative ethics offers practical guidance about what constitutes ethical conduct."
"So further, since we are agents, we must decide how to act, and we do this from a first-person perspective.  Since metaethics engages with more general questions about the status and origins of ethics, it is a level of inquiry operating at more of a third-person perspective.  Biological science, also, provides a third-person perspective, thus it can be distinguished from a normative first-person perspective ethics."
 "These seem to me to be minimalist assumptions, not uniquely Kantian assumptions, so I do not think I am characterizing all normative ethics as Kantian ethics.  Kant may observe these distinctions, and attempt to shore them up with an extravagant metaphysics, but a Kantian metaphysics is not required to draw these logical distinctions.  As I have mentioned, all ethical theories have some kind of background metaphysical assumptions . . ., but those assumptions can usually be separated from the specifically ethical components.  I think contemporary Kantian deontologists have done this, for example, and sought only to develop and defend the ethical components of Kantian deontology" (238-39).
Mizzoni recognizes that there are many Darwinian critics of Kantian ethics--such as Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Joshua Greene, and Michael Ruse--who say that Kant's categorical imperative does not conform to the world of human experience as studied by biological science.  But Mizzoni denies that this undermines Kantian ethics:  "The fact that a normative ethical principle advises what ought to be done, as opposed to advising to continue what is done in the natural world is not thereby a mark against that normative principle.  Normative principles are meant to do more than simply describe and align with the world as it is" (190).

Gould has defended an ethics of hypothetical imperatives--such as the Golden Rule as a principle based on enlightened self-interest--as being superior to a Kantian ethics of categorical imperatives.  Mizzoni responds: "His point against Kantian deontological ethics is that it doesn't fit with a complex and sloppy world.  Maybe so.  But should it?  Kant's point about ethics being about the realm of freedom is because ethics is meant to free us from the world around us" (187).

"The best case for supporting a Kantian ethic," Mizzoni observes, "is to emphasize it as a normative ethic, not as a description of how ordinary humans make moral judgments" (180).  In a footnote to this sentence, he writes: "There may be some passages in Kant, where, caught up in enthusiasm, he may blur the distinction between offering an account of how humans ordinarily make moral judgments, and how humans should make moral judgments" (192).

Is Kant "caught up in enthusiasm" when he tries to believe that acting according to categorical imperatives--acting by pure reason without any motivation by emotion or desire--is possible?  If ought implies can, then the idea of a categorical ought is indefensible in so far as it is impossible.

If the biological study of human nature shows that acting according to hypothetical imperatives is possible, but acting according to categorical imperatives is not, then hasn't biological science thus denied Kantian ethics? 

Mizzoni briefly recognizes the contrast between hypothetical and categorical imperatives in only two passages (187, 192 n. 4).  And he fails to see that the impossibility of acting according to categorical imperatives means that Kantian ethics is impossible, and therefore that the only possible form of ethics is an ethics of hypothetical imperatives that combine reason and desire.  (I have written about the ethics of hypothetical imperatives in a previous post.)

I can agree that Kant was at least partly right in recognizing the importance of general principles in moral judgment--principles like the Golden Rule.  The Humean and Smithian sentimentalists also recognize this: they have defended a natural morality of informed desire, in that the good is the desirable, and reason judges how best to satisfy the desires in the most harmonious way over a whole life.  What Kant says about the universality of moral reasoning is close to what Smith says about the reasoning of the impartial spectator.

But Kant was mostly wrong in assuming that moral judgment ought to be based on pure reason without any motivation by desire or emotion.  This cannot be correct because it's impossible.

In fact, Mizzoni implicitly concedes this when he speaks about the attempts by Mark Timmons and Michael Slote to save Kantian ethics by "joining a deontological normative ethics with an expressivist metaethic" to create a "sentimentalist deontology" (180-81).  But Mizzoni does not recognize that this saves Kantian ethics by destroying it!

This same problem comes up in Mizzoni's response to my argument about the moral poverty of psychopaths:
"Research done on psychopaths reveals that they have no trouble carrying out abstract reasoning, yet they do show deficits in experiencing moral emotions.  Some have taken this as a refutation of Kantian ethics, since if Kant's theory is correct, then supposedly one need not experience emotions to reach ethical conclusions, but only use one's reason in employing the categorical imperative.  But this argument assumes t hat merely because a person has t he capacity to engage in abstract reasoning, then the person will generate defensible ethical conclusions.  Why should we assume that?  As mentioned above, Kant does recommend that we should strive to be idealized rational agents, but he does not assume that people are ideal rational agents.  Also, are psychopaths familiar with the formal ethical principle that Kant calls the categorical imperative?  And even people who are familiar with the principle can still use the principle poorly, such as the Nazi Adolph Eichmann who famously stated that he was familiar with Kant's principle and used it on a daily basis throughout his life (Arendt 1963)" (180).
Mizzoni misses the point in my argument about how the moral poverty of psychopaths refutes Kant.  If Kant were right in claiming that normative moral judgments must be based on pure reason without emotional motivation, then we would assume not that a psychopath "will generate defensible ethical conclusions,"  but that a psychopath "can generate defensible ethical conclusions."  Unless Mizzoni shows us that it is possible for psychopaths to make defensible moral judgments and act on them, even though psychopaths do not feel moral sentiments, he has not refuted my argument for how the biological study of psychopaths denies Kantian ethics.