Sunday, August 05, 2012

Adam Smith and the Darwinian Evolution of Unintended Order

The revival of Darwinian social science that began with the publication in 1975 of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology has stimulated almost four decades of theoretical and empirical research in the biological roots of human social behavior.  Research across many disciplines--including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, evolutionary anthropology, social neuroscience, evolutionary game theory, and behavioral genetics--is now coming together into a general framework for the behavioral sciences founded upon Darwinian science.  Applying this new Darwinian social science to the history of political philosophy supports one general conclusion:  Adam Smith was right.

That conclusion has been suggested both by some of the new Darwinian social scientists and by some of the scholarly interpreters of Smith.  Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life (MIT Press, 2005) is a collection of papers by researchers contributing to the new Darwinian social science edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr.  In their introduction to the book, the editors present this research as belonging to the tradition of Smith: "The ideas presented in this book are part of a continuous line of intellectual inheritance from Adam Smith and his friend and mentor David Hume, through Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Emile Durkheim, and more recently the biologists William Hamilton and Robert Trivers" (3).  Indeed, the title of their book--Moral Sentiments and Material Interests--points to the two themes predominant in Smith's two books published in his lifetime: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  Simultaneously, some of the scholarly commentators on Smith's writings have in recent years indicated that this new Darwinian social science can be seen as confirming Smith's teaching.  For example, this is suggested in James Otteson's book Adam Smith's Marketplace of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and in Michael Frazer's book The Enlightenment of Sympathy (Oxford University Press, 2010).

But if this new Darwinian science supports Adam Smith, we might wonder which Adam Smith does it support?  The scholars of Adam Smith have long debated the Adam Smith Problem--the problem that Smith apparently contradicts himself by assuming in The Wealth of Nations that human beings are moved only by self-interest, while arguing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that human beings are moved by their concern for others to act virtuously so that they can enjoy a mutual sympathy of sentiments.  Gintis, Bowles, Boyd, and Fehr indicate that while the research in their book supports the view of moral cooperation in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Smith's legacy also led in another direction, through David Ricardo, Francis Edgeworth, and Leon Walras, to contemporary neoclassical economics, that recognizes only self-interested behavior," as seems to be the teaching of Smith's Wealth of Nations.  Similarly, Bowles and Gintis in their book A Cooperative Species (Princeton University Press, 2011) argue that in explaining the Darwinian evolution of altruistic cooperation (particularly, what they call "strong reciprocity"), they are supporting "the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments" as opposed to "the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations" (1, 199-200).

Insofar as Darwinian social science has been identified with "Social Darwinism," it has been seen as in the tradition of the selfish competitiveness of Smith's Wealth of Nations.  But insofar as the new Darwinian social science emphasizes the evolution of social cooperation, it seems to follow in the tradition of Smith's account of the social nature of human beings in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

I will argue, however, that the new Darwinian social science overcomes the Adam Smith Problem by supporting the fundamental idea running through all of Smith's writing--the evolution of unintended order--and in doing that, it supports Smithian liberalism, or what Smith calls "the system of natural liberty."  This is a remarkable outcome for people like Bowles and Gintis who started out their careers as neo-Marxists, and who originally seemed to be adopting a Darwinian science of cooperation as a way of arguing for a new Darwinian left.  In recent years, one can see how the research in Darwinian science has pushed people like Bowles and Gintis towards a Darwinian liberalism that vindicates Adam Smith.

That the evolution of unintended order is the unifying theme of all of Smith's writing has been well stated by Otteson.  He argues that Smith applies a "market model" to explain the origin, development, and maintenance of all extended human institutions as unintended orders.  What he calls "unintended order" is what Michael Polanyi and Friedich Hayek call "spontaneous order" and what Vernon Smith and others call "emergent order."  Otteson defines "unintended order" as "a self-enforcing, orderly institution created unintentionally by the free exchanges of individuals who desire to satisfy their own individual wants" (270). 

An unintended order is contrasted with an intentional order that has been rationally designed by some mind or group of minds for a deliberately planned purpose.  The contrast between these two kinds of order underlies a fundamental debate in social theory between the constructivists and the evolutionists: between those who think that a good social order must be deliberately and rationally designed for some foreseeable end-state and those who think a good social order arises through a process of free exchanges between individuals acting for individual ends with no overall end in mind.  Since the success of unintended order depends on individual liberty constrained only by rules of justice protecting life, liberty, and property, the idea of unintended order is the fundamental idea of classical liberalism in the Smithian tradition.

The importance of unintended order for explaining economic markets in Smith's Wealth of Nations is generally recognized.  But what is not generally recognized is how this same idea runs throughout Smith's writing.  Otteson presents this as a "market model" with four elements, which he applies not only to The Wealth of Nations but also to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith's essay on the origin of languages, his Lectures on Jurisprudence, and his essay on the history of astronomy.  In the following schema, I am using the language of Otteson for the first three texts and the language of Gavin Kennedy (in the first edition of his Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy [Palgrave Macmillan, 2008]):

1.     Motivating Desire

(i)                TMS:  the “pleasure of mutual sympathy” of sentiments (TMS, 13 and passim)

(ii)              WN: the “natural effort of every individual to better his own condition” (WN, 540; see also WN, 26-27, 341, and 343)

(iii)            “Languages”:  the desire to make “mutual wants intelligible to each other” (LRBL, 203)

(iv)            LJ:  protection of property, perfect and imperfect rights, punishment of offenders

(v)              “Astronomy”: desire to discover the connecting chains of intermediate events (EPS, 42)

2.     Rules Developed

(i)                TMS: standards of moral judgment and rules determining propriety and merit

(ii)              WN: the “laws of justice” (WN, 687), including in particular protocols protecting private property, contractual agreements, and voluntary exchanges

(iii)            “Languages”:  rules of grammar, pronunciation, and so on;

(iv)            LJ:  codified laws, due process, Habeas Corpus, presumption of innocence, verdict by peers, sentence by judge

(v)              “Astronomy”:  rules for the testing and debate of successive explanatory systems

3.     Currency (i.e., what gets exchanged)

(i)                TMS: personal sentiments and moral judgments

(ii)              WN:  private goods and services

(iii)            “Languages”:  words, ideas, and wants

(iv)            LJ:  argument, persuasion, judgment, and condign punishment

(v)              “Astronomy”:  hypotheses, ideas, and speculation

4.     Resulting Unintended System of Order

(i)                TMS: commonly shared standards of morality and moral judgment

(ii)              WN: economy (i.e., large-scale network of exchanges of goods and services)

(iii)            “Languages”:  language

(iv)            LJ:  relatively orderly living environment under imperfect but stable government and the rule of law

(v)              “Astronomy”:  “Introduction of order into the chaos of jarring discordant appearances” (EPS, 43-49)

 I will have more to say in future posts about how this structure of unintended order arises in Smith's writing and how the new Darwinian social science confirms it through a Darwinian view of the evolution and psychology of human social cooperation.

Here I will just make two points.  First, notice that each unintended order expresses a motivating desire.  This assumes that the good is the desirable, and thus the natural desires constitute the natural goods for human life.  Thus, these unintended orders are rooted in an implied hypothetical imperative:  if you want to live a desirable life, a happy life, then you should participate in those unintended orders that help you to do that.  Understood in this way, these unintended orders have no transcendental claims to conform to any cosmic order or to instantiate any categorical imperative.

My second point is to note that Otteson is not satisfied with this.  He wants to find some cosmic normativity in Smith's teaching.  But this creates a big problem in Otteson's interpretation of Smith's "marketplace of life."  While Otteson presents the evolution of unintended order as the pervasive theme in Smith's explanation of social order--including morals, markets, languages, laws, and the sciences--Otteson argues that Smith does not extend this kind of explanation to cosmic nature or human nature, which require explanation through intelligent design by God.  The very possibility of unintended order presupposes a certain constitution of human nature and certain recurrent circumstances of social life--such as the dependence of children on adult care.  This presupposes an order of nature, including human nature, that cannot itself be explained as unintended order, because, Smith suggests, it shows evidence of intentional design by an intelligent, benevolent, and omnipotent God.  Otteson can supply plenty of textual evidence for this from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, because Smith often refers to God, the Deity, or the Author of Nature as ordering nature to His benevolent ends.

Otteson thinks this intelligent-design theology serves two purposes for Smith's account of morality.  People are more likely to obey the most important moral rules if those rules are regarded as sacred duties.  And if morality is understood as rooted in divine commands manifested in the cosmic structure of nature and human nature, then morality takes on a transcendent character, because it is based not just on hypothetical imperatives but categorical imperatives.

Otteson acknowledges that many scholarly interpreters dismiss Smith's theological language as a rhetorical appeal to popular religious beliefs that Smith himself does not share.  Otteson rejects this position by pointing to the language of moral theology in The Theory of Moral Sentiment.

But while this textual evidence does seem to support Otteson's interpretation, I think Otteson is wrong to ignore the evidence from Smith's intellectual friendship with David Hume and the threat of religious persecution that has led many scholars to conclude that Smith largely agreed with Hume's skepticism, but he thought that he could not risk provoking religious believers the way Hume had. 

When Hume was dying, there was intense public interest in the possibility that the great atheist--who had denied the immortality of the soul and the judgment of souls in the afterlife--would show his fear of death and divine judgment.  Smith wrote a long letter to William Strahan (November 9, 1776) describing Hume's illness and death and presenting him as facing death with tranquillity.  He concluded: "Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." 

This provoked a great controversy in the press, and Smith was denounced as an infidel.  A few years later, in a letter to Andreas Holt (October 26, 1780), Smith lamented:  "A single, and as, I thought a very harmless Sheet of paper, which I happened to Write concerning the death of our late friend Mr. Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain."

Before his death, Hume asked Smith to take the manuscript of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and supervise its publication.  Smith promised to preserve the manuscript, but he did not want it to be published in his own lifetime, presumably because he feared the persecution it would provoke.

In the Dialogues, Hume wrote the most devastating attack on the reasoning for natural theology that anyone has ever written.  He also suggested that the apparent design of the universe could be explained by undesigned, unintentional processes of nature, and some of what he said looks remarkably like what Darwin would develop later as his theory of evolution.

Otteson insists that while Darwin's evolutionary theory might provide an alternative to intelligent-design theology, this Darwinian theory was not available to either Hume or Smith.  While it is certainly right that neither Hume nor Smith were able to elaborate anything like Darwin's theory, Hume did clearly foreshadow the theory in the Dialogues; and even Smith has a few passages in The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he speaks of species as naturally adapted for survival and reproduction (77, 142, 219), and this looks like at least a vague  foreshadowing of Darwin.

Darwin agrees with Smith about how religious belief can be important for reinforcing moral conduct.  But he also thinks that religious belief is not absolutely necessary for morality, which can stand on its own natural ground as rooted in our evolved human nature.  This position is important for liberalism, because religious liberty--including the liberty of atheists and skeptics--can be defended only if we see that there can be a common natural morality that does not require that religious belief be coercively enforced.

Darwin also agrees with Smith that the mystery of the origin of the laws of nature leaves an opening for religious belief in a Creator as First Cause.  But even so, Darwin would argue, we do not need special miraculous interventions by the Creator to explain the origins of species, including the human species.

The new Darwinian social science would support Darwin on both of these points, I think.  Darwinian science can explain the evolutionary psychology of religious belief, but this by itself cannot refute the possiblity that such belief is true.  Darwinian science can also recognize the role of religion in the evolution of morality, but without denying the naturalness of morality even for those who are not religious believers.

On all of these points, Darwinian social science supports the core of Smith's teaching about the evolution of unintended order and thus supports the classical liberal tradition that grows out of that teaching.


bjdubbs said...

"Trinkers of frivolous utility" resemble the "oeconomy of the rich" and the "system of natural liberty" as well as the "system of the universe" and certain philosophical systems. All share an alluring order which is the source of the most serious designs of private and public life, to paraphrase. Smith puts the imagination at the center of his philosophy, in this respect not unlike German idealism.

Unknown said...

I think Darwin would turn in its grave if he would read how the theory of evolution is politicised. Left Darwinism? Liberalism explained by Darwininian reasoning.
I hope one of the things that will turn out difficult to explain will be that altruistic memes overrule selfish genes....