Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Thoughts on Darwinian Politics

The Sock Thief has a pointer to Dennis Dutton's review of Paul H. Rubin's Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Some thoughts in response:

Firstly, evolutionary psychology is a useful project. It is extremely useful to understand what sort of animal we are, and working out what psychological baggage we've inherited from our savannah-dwelling ancestors can inform our understanding of what makes us happy, what pisses us off, and what sorts of societies and political arrangements we might want to live in. Unfortunately, from the sound of it Rubin falls into the all-too common trap of using evolutionary pschology to confirm his prejudices - namely, that western democracy (and in particular, US democracy) is the best way to satisfy our inherited preferences. Why is this a mistake? Because Rubin's scheme of multiple inherited psychological preferences is a pluralistic scheme, and therefore has many possible solutions which balance the preferences in different ways. The best we can say about western democracy is that it is one way of balancing our preferences, which seems to work reasonably well; but that is not to say that it is the best way, or that there are no other solutions which would work as well, or better.

Secondly, while there's a lot of effort expended on investigating the nature of our inherited preferences, there seems to be a studious avoidance of the obvious question: "are those preferences good?" What comments there are along these lines (particularly on the topics of envy and "welfarism") take the position that our inherited preferences are irrational (standard question: under what axiom-set?) or blind us to the benefits of capitalist society. But judging from the conclusions there's no question that these preferences must be satisfied; there's no question of whether or not they are good.

Frankly, I'd expect a philosopher of Dutton's caliber to make more noise about the naturalistic fallacy and the fact-value distinction and the problems they pose for the whole project of evolutionary psychology. While we can establish facts about the way we are, facts do not imply values; the way we are is not necessarily the way we (morally) ought to be.

By way of example, imagine that evolutionary psychology showed that we had a deep-seated and evolved prediliction for racial discrimination - or for rape. Should we design our societies to fulfil those preferences?

This is a real problem for evolutionary psychologists (and Naturalists in general). Accepting our evolutionary heritage as a moral guide is effectively throwing your hands up at the whole moral project; it entails blandly accepting whatever facts prevail at the time as the moral state of affairs. But the other position - Dawkins' "that's very interesting, but is it really how we want to live our lives?" - subordinates evolutionary psychology to existing moral theories, and radically undermines its value as a tool for informing political theory.

In his comparisom with Pinker near the end of the review, Dutton claims that Rubin subscribes to the latter view; inherited preferences can never justify slavery or discrimination. But this undercuts his conclusion that western democracy is anointed by evolution as the perfect political system. At the same time, Dutton tries to have his cake and eat it too, by warning that "we ought not to try in politics to achieve the impossible". This is good advice, but at the same time, what happens if we have a serious clash between strong but undesirable inherited prejudices and the moral notions we judge them by? Should we give in to human nature, or struggle to overcome it?