Human Nature and Guassian Morality

I am anxiously awaiting the publication of David Buller's Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychlogy and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature(link to PDF table of contents). I took Buller's evolutionary psychology course in 1997, and I think it was the best course I've ever had. David's amazing crisp clarity enabled him to convey huge amounts of empirical information while simultaneously framing the philosophical debates surrounding philosophy of biology and evolutionary psychology in vivid and compelling terms. David's been working on this book since then, at least, and I expect it to be outstanding.

It's because of this course that I gave up on my facile Randian views about “human nature.” If I'm not misremembering, I think an earlier iteration of the book's tite was . . . the Persistent Myth of Human Nature. I'm not sure if this is David's own view, but I was eventually persuaded, despite very strong initial resistence, by the Hull/Ghiselen argument that species are not really natural kinds at all, but are rather a special kind of individual, like a very old club.

The members of a species are not members of a kind bound together by a shared essence. Members of a species are more like members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, bound together by a geneological fact. You and I are both part of the club of humanity because we have a shared ancestor: the first human. This, however, implies nothing about our having a metaphysically deep shared natured. Evolution works on selection over natural variation. That is, evolution works because members of a species are not homogenous. So at any time, there is simply a distribution of traits throughout a population. Maybe the distribution is a normal curve. Maybe it isn't. In any case, the distribution changes over time, and thus so do the traits of the “typical” member (if there is one). There simply is no non-contingent common core of traits that ties us together other than our shared lineage and consequent genetic similarity.

This is why I find the idea that there is a right way to live according to nature extremely dubious. (This is all me, from here on out, and not Buller, or anyone else.) We have no “deep” nature. Right now, in this neighborhood of our evolutionary history, there is a distribution of traits that one might call “typical” in a statistical sense. But this has no more deeply normative significance than would the fact that 90% of us prefer almonds over pistacchios. It makes no sense to argue that we thus ought to prefer pistacchios. People with statistically “deviant” behavioral dispositions are by definition not “normal,” but their behavior is not a scintilla less “natural” than that of the normals.

Gauss2.JPGThis is not to say that our contingent, temporary statistical “nature” is normatively irrelevant. Far from it. Our intuitions about morality, justice, and so forth, and our behavioral dispositions arise from within this “nature.” Our understanding of what we have reason to do isn't seperable from what we happen to be like. The ends we take ourselves to have reason to pursue depends on what we happen to be like, and what we happen to be like tells us a great deal about the necessary means to those ends. Given the ends that most of have, and take ourselves to have reason to realize, together with what most of us are like, it is possible to get fairly stable general principles about what we ought to do.

But we mustn't kid ourselves. These principles simply aren't universal, or universally binding, because there is no unviversal human nature. Some “deviants” will find a society hospitable to the lives of “normals” incompatible with their needs. And this is simply tragic, no more, no less. The deviant will either be unhappy or will act contrary to the principles of normals. If the latter is threatening to the order required by the normals, then they will lock up, institutionalize, or otherwise rid themselves of the deviant menace. But it is important to see that although the deviant is acting wrongly from the perspective of “morality,” construed as the system of rules that facilitates decent life among the normals, from a broader perspective they are just very unlucky. Foreign cells rejected from a host body have done nothing wrong; they are just incompatible with the principles governing the local order.

There's a lot more to say about this, but that's all for now.

If God is Dead, Everything is Permitted . . .

It seems that I'm constantly getting into arguments–arguments that don't even interest me that much–about whether moral behavior is even possible if people don't believe in God, or Aristotelian natural ends, or natural rights, or whatever. It's boring because, well, it's just plain as an Amish girl that you don't need to believe in anything special to do the right thing. Nevertheless, I often hear arguments that go something like this:

god.jpg“If people don't believe in God, then we won't be afraid to do terrible things, and won't have any motivation to do good things, and then there'll just be CHAOS, which would be horrifying.”

To which I usually sit with a stunned and expectant look on my face. Because the next step seems perfectly obvious to me. If chaos is so terrible, isn't that reason enough for people to, you know, avoid it. No one much wants to step over corpses on the way to Starbucks, or hose the blood off the sidewalks each morning. We'll all be much better off if we constrain ourselves in certain ways, and if we exert a little extra effort in certain cases.

So isn't this all we need to believe: that being good is a net winner over baby-raping anarchy? God, natural rights, or whatever, don't seem to get you anything extra. The horribleness of immorality does a pretty good job of making morality look pretty good without any special help. So why all the insistence on overdetermination? Insurance?

More Political Libertarianism

I'm happy and flattered to see that Randy Barnett of The Volokh Conspiracy has linked to and quoted approvingly from my TCS piece.

Judging from the comments thread at TCS, it seems that I failed to adequately convey that political libertarianism is by no means an amoral theory. Political libertarianism assumes that a peaceful, stable, fair, extended social network of mutually advantageous cooperation — liberal order — is, if not morally good in itself, at least good as a means to other moral ends. The point, however, is that people with different commitments can support a liberal order, and can account for the moral value of the order in different ways. When you live in a large, incredibly pluralistic society like ours, the problem of how we all can live together, despite our differences, is a serious problem no matter what you happen to believe. A minimal set of social principles that accomodates the broadest array of commitments and worldviews can be seen by all sorts of people as the best solution to that problem.

This also does not imply that comprehensive justificatory strategies are false. Suppose, say, Ayn Rand is right. Then Ayn Rand is right. But the probability that everyone comes to agree with Ayn Rand is, well, zero, give or take. (The probability that the people who claim to agree with Ayn Rand will come to agree with each other is probably no better.) Whatever the correct comprehensive theory is, it's probably never going to be the case that everyone believes it. An authoritarian order can probably coerce agreement, to an extent, by restricting freedom of thought, speech, and inquiry. But that's not the kind of society we want. And a small, homogenous community, a group of Hutterhites, for example, might share a common conception of the good. But we're talking about a huge, diverse society.

So, one might arrive at the one true theory of the good, and even do a bang up job of spreading the word, but still be swamped by Babelian pluralism. The problem simply isn't how to get everyone to agree on fundamentals, because it's a problem that won't get solved in a big, free society. What we're left with is a sort of engineering problem. What terms of association, what social principles, can accomodate all these people, and all these diverse commitments, in a manner (almost) everyone has reason to affirm. The hypothesis is that political libertarianism is the best solution to the engineering problem.

Now, I'm by no means sure that this hypothesis is correct, or even exactly what political libertarianism entails (and thus what the hypothesis really is). I think I'd just want to call my own view liberal minimalism. I'm receptive to the idea that some small-scale redistribution might be a condition for stable liberal order, putting me in the company of Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Loren Lomasky. While people tend to identify these thinkers as libertarian, people also tend to think libertarianism by nature rules out redistribution. So I'm not quite sure what to call myself, not that it matters much.

Don't Just Vote, Do Something!

Random Hippies2.jpgThe convention provides a welcome occasion to reflect on the ways in which politics distorts our identity, sours our relations to others, and makes our lives generally lousier. Brian Doherty's lovely essay sounds a lot of themes I've been harping on. I especially like the point of the opportunity costs of political activism. Since electoral political activity has almost zero impact, why not spend that time just trying to live the way you think everyone ought to? The point of thinking you know how you ought to live is that you live that way, not that you waste your life trying to get other people to live that way, since wasting your time telling other people how to live probably isn't part of what it is you think you know about how to live.

The Surreal Awesomness of Gmail

When there aren't many good ads to show you, Gmail instead serves up helpful links to “Related Pages” – that is, related to the text of the email thread you currently have open. Well, in a set of emails to the editor of TCS regarding my piece in TCS, Google gives me this related page:

How freakin' cool is that?

More Mansfieldiana

Rob Light, who I guess likes to sends me stuff he knows will aggravate me, sent me a little sermon Harvey Mansfield delivered at Harvard and published in the Summer 2004 Claremont Review of Books. It's reproduced after the jump, for those who want to get a bit clearer on what Mansfield is really saying about science: it should be religion's bitch.
Continue reading “More Mansfieldiana”