Does evolution endorse any particular political ideology? Larry Arnhart – he of Darwinian Conservatism – thinks it does (as the title of his blog might suggest). He elaborates on his notion that evolution suggests liberalism (in the traditional sense*) in an essay authored for the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, entitled Darwinian Liberalism.
It’s well worth a read, as it weaves together a slew of interesting elements of evolutionary theory, moral and evolutionary psychology and political ideology – a synthesis that I think is largely underrated in academia.
I’m inclined to largely agree with Arnhart’s conclusion that liberalism is an effective political ideology, but I’m wary of calling upon evolutionary biology to justify this fact, and I disagree with him in some key details of his argument.
My own view is that evolution is important in understanding humans and what makes us the way we are, but that it doesn’t explicitly endorse any particular political ideology. Instead, as I’ve argued before, I believe that evolution is not only agnostic when it comes to favouring one political ideology over another, but that, if anything, it favours a diversity of political ideologies.
Arnhart argues that evolution supports liberalism because it can tell about what it is that we, as humans, want out of life:
If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.
This is my first point of contention with Arnhart. Just because we have evolved a desire to do x – even if that desire is universal in all human societies – it doesn’t mean that we really should pursue x. And I’m not just talking the naturalistic fallacy, which suggests (in one of its many guises) that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good.
I’m saying that just as we’ve evolved a desire for sweet and fatty foods, today we readily appreciate that pursuing sweet and fatty foods will often do us ill. Likewise, a desire to pursue social status, beauty or property might also do us ill.
What Arnhart is talking about when he lists these desires are the proximate mechanisms, which have evolved to satisfy our ultimate interests, with the latter being – in the evolutionary sense – the interests of our genes. Unless we want to prioritise our genes above all, I think we have good reason to be suspicious of our proximate desires.
Arnhart is aware of my objection, and addresses it such:
My assertion that the good is the desirable will provoke a complaint from some philosophers that I am overlooking the distinction between facts and values or is and ought. They will insist that we cannot infer moral values from natural facts. From the fact that we naturally desire something, they say, we cannot infer that it is morally good for us to desire it.
But I say that there is no merely factual desire separated from prescriptive desire, which would create the fact/value dichotomy. Whatever we desire we do so because we judge that it is truly desirable for us. If we discover that we are mistaken — because what we desire is not truly desirable for us — then we are already motivated to correct our mistake. Much of Darwin’s discussion of moral deliberation is about how human beings judge their desires in the light of their past experiences and future expectations as they strive for the harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, and much of this moral and intellectual deliberation turns on the experience of regret when human beings realize that they have yielded to a momentary desire that conflicts with their more enduring desires.
The ‘philosophers’ would object that just because we desire something doesn’t mean we ought to desire it, which is essentially a rewording of Moore’s Open Question Argument. That’s not my objection, though; as I’ve already argued, I don’t believe the kind of ought that Moore is concerned with actually exists, or is even important.
My objection is that neither proximate not ultimate desires will, qua desires, be a reliable foundation for morality, or politics. Ultimate interests are biological interests at best, genetic interests at worst. Proximate interests are those things that instrumentally (if heuristically) serve the ultimate interests. I think we need to be careful in giving consent to these interests to form the foundation of morality, or politics.
I think a better account of interests needs to find some middle ground between proximate and ultimate interests. What is (instrumentally) good for an individual depends on how that individual is composed, and how they’re composed is dependent in an important way on the facts of evolution.
But the facts of evolution don’t give sanction to those goods – to say so would be to say that the hand evolved to hold a spear, so that what it should continue to do. Instead, we can say that the hand evolved to hold a spear, and that accounts for its properties today, and these properties make some things rather than others (instrumentally) good for the hand. I hesitate to dredge up the word ‘intrinsic’, but I’m inclined to call these intrinsic interests, which are interests by virtue of possessing certain properties. The role evolution plays is in explaining what these properties are, and how they came to be.
Ultimately (no pun intended) I don’t actually think my position is that far from Arnharts, I’m just more cautious about how we should understand interests and desires. Furthermore, I do think that, as a matter of empirical fact, people will tend to pursue their interests, whatever they might be, and however they might vary individual-to-individual. Arnhart would agree. And, given this fact, if we each want to pursue our interests, then we’d be advised to learn how to get along with each other and cooperate – play nice in the game of life, as Ken Binmore puts it – in order to better satisfy our own interests. I think myself and Arnhart are on the same page to this point.
But, and this is my next objection to Arnhart’s argument: I don’t think evolution endorses any one political ideology – any one ‘strategy’ – to achieve this end. That means not socialism, not conservatism, not libertarianism and not even liberalism. If anything, it endorses them all, or it endorses none.
When it comes to solving the problems of coordination that arise by us living as social animals, all furiously pursuing our interests, there’s no one answer. Yes, classical liberalism encompasses this notion of individual interests all push-pulling on each other. But so does communitarianism, just in a different manner – instead of looking at the planets, communitarianism looks at the warped spacetime that results from their mutual gravitational interaction (too obtuse a metaphor?).
If anything, evolution tells us that having a pluralism of values working in tension helps to maintain some kind of equilibrium rather than letting things swing too far in any one direction – as it does in societies that are devoted to either communitarianism or liberalism. As such, the political ideology that evolution (almost) endorses is democracy, because it allows this tension to play out, and it gives a roll to liberal and conservative – and every other – sentiment.
In many ways this is compatible with Arnhart’s view, as he hints in his essay:
If there is no single way of life that is best for all individuals in all circumstances, then the problem for any human community is how to organize social life so that individuals can pursue their diverse conceptions of happiness without coming into conflict. And since human beings are naturally social animals, their individual pursuit of happiness requires communal engagement. Allowing human beings to live together as children, parents, spouses, friends, associates, and citizens without imposing one determinate conception of the best way of life on all individuals is what Rasmussen and Den Uyl identify as “liberalism’s problem.”
Just add to that ‘diverse conceptions of social coordination’, and we’d be in broad agreement.
Evolution and politics is a curly topic. I think evolution has a lot to say when it comes to explaining political phenomena we observe today. I’m just more wary when it comes to drawing any prescriptive lessons from evolution. Like Hobbes, Hume and Mackie, I believe morality and politics are human constructions – surely they’re strongly influenced by our evolved moral intuitions – but it’s up to us to construct the morality and politics that we think will serve us best. Evolution can inform that debate, but it can’t tell us the answers.
* Arnhart defines ‘classical liberalism’ as “the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others”, and thus brings it under today’s broadly libertarian conservative tradition.