Sunday, October 13, 2019

How does liberty promote peacefulness?

People who understand that self-direction is essential to their own flourishing have no difficulty grasping how liberty has potential to promote peacefulness. Such people usually advocate the non-aggression principle, which requires them to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. They are likely to see that principle as an application of the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated, the Kantian imperative, the ancient virtues of justice, temperance and loving-kindness, a matter of honor and integrity, the ethics of respect, norms of reciprocity, or some combination of the above.

The extent of adherence to the non-aggression principle is a determinant of both liberty and the peacefulness of a society.  A society in which 100% of the population adhered to the principle would be entirely peaceful. A democracy in which 90% of the population adhered to the principle could be expected to be more peaceful than one in which a lower percentage of the population did so, other things being equal.

The proviso is important. One “other thing” that also has an important influence on the peacefulness of outcomes is the way perceived aggressions are dealt with. In particular, outcomes in countries where do-it-yourself (DIY) justice is the norm are likely to be less peaceful than those in countries governed by rule of law. The problem with DIY justice is that it is often perceived to be biased, and hence results in family feuds and further retribution.

John Locke recognised DIY justice as a flaw in his vision of humans being “perfectly free …  subject only to limits set by the law of nature”. He noted that it would be seen to be “unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases” because:
 “self love will make men partial to themselves and their friends; and on the other side, that ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow: and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men” (Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2).

In writing that, John Locke was possibly mindful of the historical experience of DIY justice in England and Europe.  

Historical explanations of the growth of peacefulness

In attempting to explain the long-term decline in homicide rates in Europe, shown in the accompanying graph, Steven Pinker follows the reasoning of Norbert Elias who suggested that the advent of centralised monarchies, replacing a patchwork of baronies and fiefs, played an important role in encouraging people to display greater self-control (a modern word with a similar meaning to the ancient virtue of temperance). In England, King Henry I, who reigned in the early 12th century, redefined homicide as an offence against the state rather than as a tort. That changed the rules of the game. As Pinker puts it:
A man’s ticket to fortune was no longer being the baddest knight in the area but making a pilgrimage to the king’s court and currying favour with him and his entourage” (The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, p 75).

The advent of centralised monarchies also improved incentives for mutually beneficial trade by penalising plunder. When people are engaged in mutually beneficial trading, they have an added incentive to refrain from murdering their trading partners. Given appropriate incentives, the ancient virtue of prudence helped people to exercise the Christian virtue of loving their neighbours rather than murdering them.

In case anyone is wondering, the thought in the preceding sentence wasn’t borrowed from Steven Pinker. Pinker doesn’t claim that the Christian virtues played a positive role in the civilisation process. He suggests, with some justification, that in the middle ages Christianity was more concerned with saving souls than with the sacredness of life. Nevertheless, at a couple of points in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker acknowledges the importance of the various versions Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions.

If you are sceptical about the ability of an autocratic monarchy, a Leviathan, to play a positive role in defending rights and promoting peace, it may help to think of the advantages of stationary bandits replacing roving bandits, as suggested by Mancur Olson. Even if the motives of a stationary bandit are entirely selfish it can still be in his interests to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with his subjects. In exchange for taxes he may use his power to give them the incentive to attempt to accumulate wealth, for example by recognising property rights and enforcing contracts. There is further explanation here.

In historical terms, monarchies that were prepared to use their coercive powers to defend the rights of citizens were a step in the direction of rule of law – a set of institutions protecting individual rights and ensuring that no-one is above the law.

Steven Pinker notes that a humanitarian revolution occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries resulting in a reduction in barbarity of punishments, a greater willingness to allow heretics to go to hell rather than to persecute them to save their souls, and a reduction in the power of kings. Pinker attributes this revolution to enlightenment humanism. I have previously argued that Pinker is broadly correct to present this as a coherent world view in terms of its impact on public opinion, despite the disparate views of leading thinkers.

Other factors which Pinker sees as contributing to the peacefulness of societies include: growth in the power of women; an expansion in the circle of sympathy to encompass people in other communities and other countries; and ‘the escalator of reason’, which involves detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint. I have discussed those processes previously, so I will not dwell on them here. It is worth noting, however, that the circle of sympathy and escalator of reason also promote freedom via greater recognition of human rights and enabling widespread adoption of emancipative values.

So, has the greater liberty of the western democracies made them uniquely peaceful?

The answer isn’t obvious. Homicide statistics suggest that some countries with autocratic governments are also relatively peaceful. It seems likely, however, that may reflect suppression of violence rather than genuine peacefulness. That view is supported by the explosion of violence that occurred in eastern Europe following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.

Research by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti, using an extensive international data base, suggests that the level of lethal violence is heavily dependent on the rule of law, the extent of corruption, the level of democracy, and social and economic equality. High crime societies are characterised by stronger authoritarian and conservative moral views, more collectivist cultures, and short-term cultural orientations (‘Cross-Comparative Perspectives on Global Homicide Trends’,  Crime and Justice 43(1): 2014).

The relationship between rule of law and homicide rate, as depicted in the graph at the beginning of this post (borrowed from the article by Tapio Lappi-Seppälä and Martti Lehti) is particularly pertinent to the question of how liberty promotes peacefulness. The rule of law index used (the World Bank’s index constructed by Daniel Kauffman, Aart Kraay and Massimo Mastruzzi) captures “perceptions of the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence”. I have previously noted that the index covers similar ground to the legal component of an economic freedom index.


Liberty promotes peacefulness because it requires people to refrain from initiating or threatening any forceful interference with other individuals or their property. The rule of law that protects liberty also promotes peacefulness by enabling societies to avoid the violence associated with do-it-yourself justice.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

How can you believe in the existence of natural rights?

In preceding articles on this blog I have traced the evolution of the concept of natural rights from ancient reasoning about natural law to the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. The importance of the Declaration’s assertion of natural rights stems from the moral support its inspiring message has provided, and still provides, to people whose rights have been infringed or insufficiently recognised in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.

Not long after the U.S. declared independence, some influential philosophers began to cast doubt on the concept of natural rights. The famous British statesman and political philosopher, Edmund Burke, argued that “the primitive rights of man undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790).

Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, argued that only political rights – rights established and enforced by governments have “any determinate and intelligible meaning”. He viewed natural rights as “rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts” (Anarchical Fallacies, 1796).

Much modern questioning of the existence of natural rights stems from doubts about the existence of a Creator who could endow them in the manner suggested by the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Michael Birshan has suggested that although it is plausible that there is a system of natural rights instituted by a Supreme Being, “it is much less plausible that man could ever discover them through rational reasoning”.

Does it make sense to view natural rights as stemming from our human nature, without necessarily involving the intervention of a Supreme Being? I believe it does. I advance two overlapping lines of argument below to support the view that natural rights are inherent in the nature of humans.

The first line of argument stems from Aristotle’s observations about the natural potential for individual humans to flourish. As explained recently on this blog, an understanding of the nature of human flourishing implies that individuals have liberty to exercise responsibility for self-direction. In one of the first posts published on this blog I drew attention to the observation of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl about the role of liberty in protecting “the possibility of agency or self-direction, which is central to any and every form of human flourishing”.

However, that line of argument doesn’t fully explain why you and I have strong moral intuitions that we, and Mr Xi, should recognise that other individual humans have the right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing.

My second line of argument is that a capacity for moral intuitions is inherent in human nature and has evolved over time into the ethics of respect – the foundation of natural rights - as a consequence of natural processes of cooperation for mutual benefit.

In ancient times, the existence of such intuitions was recognised by Cicero, who argued that “respect for virtue” is a ubiquitous aspect of human nature and that “nature made us just that we might participate our goods with each other, and supply each other’s wants”.

In the 18th century, Francis Hutcheson also recognised such intuitions in discussing the “the right to natural liberty”:  “Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil of cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others, without necessity for some more general good”.

More recently, intuitions about ethical treatment of others have been studied by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, in The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, 2012.  The basic idea of his moral foundations theory is that our moral intuitions are related to adaptive challenges of social life that have been identified by evolutionary psychologists. Moral foundations are innate, but they are expressed in differing ways and to differing extents in different cultures. I have high regard for Haidt’s moral foundations theory but, as noted previously, in my view his survey methods exaggerate the extent that people who give high priority to liberty are undisturbed by feelings of empathy and disgust.

The best philosophical discussion I am aware of about the evolution of the ethics of respect is that by Robert Nozick in Invariances, 2001. Nozick began his earlier, and more famous, book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by assuming a state of nature in which individuals are in a “state of perfect freedom”. He noted that he was “following the respectable tradition of Locke, who does not provide anything remotely resembling a satisfactory explanation of the status and basis of the law of nature in his Second Treatise”. Chapter 5 of Invariances does seem to me to provide a satisfactory explanation of how moral intuitions might have evolved naturally to support the ethics of respect.

Nozick’s argument can be briefly summarised as follows:
  • The higher capacities of humans, including capacities for conscious thought, control of impulses and planning, have been selected for by evolution because of the benefits they bring e.g. in enabling adherence to ethical norms.
  • The use of norms to guide behaviour enables humans to extend the realm of cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit beyond what would otherwise be possible.
  • Cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit includes, among other things adherence to norms of non-interference – refraining from murdering, enslaving and stealing from others – provided they are willing to reciprocate. 
  • The impetus to extend the sphere of voluntary cooperation for mutual advantage beyond the immediate family or group is the perception that this brings benefits greater than can be obtained otherwise e.g. by involuntary exchanges. That has been an important component of the history of ethical progress, even though there has been much backsliding
  • Evolution may have shaped humans to enjoy cooperative activity. A reputation for adhering to norms of cooperative behaviour brings rewards by attracting further cooperation, and may have conferred reproductive advantages.
  • The internalisation of norms enables them to be followed even when no-one is watching who can sanction deviations. Internalisation brings ethics into play. Something other than (or in addition to) punishment by other people must support rules if they are to become ethical principles or values.
  • The evaluative capacities of humans enable them to generalise from different experiences of cooperative behaviour for mutual benefit and to identify common properties in a range of experiences. In turn, those abilities make persons less prone to the push and pull of desires and more prone to feel uncomfortable when their evaluations are discordant. (An example of the latter is conflict between a desire to enforce traditional norms relating to religious observance and to advance norms of non-interference.)
  • Moral progress involves, among other things, shrinkage of the domain of mandatory morality to enable a domain of liberty and personal autonomy to be established, and for the ethics of respect to emerge. 

Nozick sums up:
 “if conscious self-awareness was selected for because it makes us capable of ethical behaviour, then ethics, even the very first layer of the ethics of respect, truly is what makes us human. A satisfying conclusion. And one with some normative force” (p 300).

Since the ethics of respect entails recognition of Lockean rights, Nozick’s naturalistic explanation implicitly recognises that such rights are natural.

It makes sense to believe that natural rights are inherent in the nature of humans. Individual humans have a natural right to exercise the self-direction that is central to their flourishing. Natural rights have normative significance as an outcome of a long evolutionary process involving development of moral intuitions, social norms and evaluative capabilities. That process explains why you and I have moral intuitions that we, and Mr Xi, should abide by the norms of liberty that maximize the opportunities available for all to flourish.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Why did the US Declaration of Independence specify an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness?

Given that the United States was founded by politicians, is there is any point trying to understand why any particular words were included in the Declaration of Independence? I think there is.
The politicians who drafted the Declaration in 1776 seem to have been more thoughtful and principled in their approach than many contemporary politicians engaged in similar constitutional issues e.g. Brexit. More importantly, even if we  think the founders were engaged in a self-interested bid for power, in preparing their Declaration they were seeking the support of American colonists, so it was in their interests to express sentiments that would attract widespread support within those communities.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of the Declaration, maintained later that “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind”:
“All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

A copy of an extract from Jefferson's draft:

The words relating to an unalienable right to pursuit of happiness were unchanged in the various drafts of the Declaration. Rather than pondering whether those words were borrowed from one source or another, it may be more illuminating to focus on why the ideas expressed by those words would have appealed to the intended audience of American colonists and their sympathisers.

The idea of individuals being “endowed by their creator” with “unalienable rights” would have appealed to numerous followers of John Locke among American colonists. Unalienable (or inalienable) rights continue to exist even when not recognized by governments; such natural rights cannot be taken away, sold, or given away. Locke’s view that the existence of a natural right to liberty provided justification for the overthrow a tyrannical government added philosophical support to the desire of colonists free themselves from British rule.

Was “pursuit of happiness” included merely as a rhetorical device? You and I might argue that a right to liberty implies a right for individuals to pursue happiness in whatever way they choose. However, some historians have suggested that in 18th century America there could have been a tendency for liberty to be interpreted in terms of the classical republican tradition of political participation, rather than in Lockean terms of freedom from violation of natural rights (see Darrin McMahon, Happiness, a history, p 324). In that context it seems to me that recognition of a natural right to pursue happiness might have been seen to offer additional protection e.g. in discouraging governments from attempting to control religious beliefs.

Darrin McMahon’s discussion of the meaning of “pursuit of happiness” in 18th century America aids understanding of why it would have been widely viewed as a natural right at that time. He notes that John Locke wrote of natural rights to “life, liberty and estate” rather than life, liberty and happiness. Nevertheless, Locke saw pursuit of happiness as an important feature of a divinely orchestrated natural world in which individuals seek pleasant sensations and have differing tastes. Locke’s view of happiness combined hedonism with goodness, the exercise of practical wisdom, and spirituality. He suggested that the “constant pursuit of true and solid happiness” … “which is our greatest good” … frees us “from any necessary determination of our will to any particular actions”. Locke saw heaven as offering the greatest of all pleasures.

McMahon also notes the important influence of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Francis Hutcheson, in 18th century America. As noted in the preceding article on this blog, Hutcheson argued that humans possess a moral sense. We can obtain happiness by doing good!

Carli Conklin has suggested the English jurist, William Blackstone (1723 - 1780) as the source of another influential view about pursuit of happiness in 18th century America (‘The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness’, Washington University Jurisprudence Review, 7/2, 2015). The founders strongly disagreed with Blackstone’s belief that the British parliament remained a supreme authority over the colonies. However, they agreed with him about natural law and the pursuit of happiness, and may have seen advantage in drawing on those views to highlight an inconsistency in his position.

In his Introduction to Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone argues that individual pursuit of happiness is the foundation of natural law:
 “For [the Creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it can not but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, He has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, “that man should pursue his own happiness.” This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.”

The views of Benjamin Franklin about pursuit of happiness seem to draw together many threads of thinking on this topic in 18th century America. Carli Conklin quotes his views as follows:
‘Benjamin Franklin stated “[t]he desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it” and although men may attempt to achieve happiness in different ways, the reality is that “[i]t is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.” Therefore, according to Franklin, if we pursue happiness through passion instead of reason, we achieve only an “inferior” and “imperfect” happiness, because “[t]here is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct.” Indeed, Franklin argued “the Science of Virtue is of more worth, and of more consequence to [man’s] Happiness than all the rest [of the sciences] put together.” Furthermore, Franklin stated, “I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy”.’

The US Declaration of Independence specified pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right because the founders knew that sentiment would attract widespread support among American colonists and their sympathisers. “Pursuit of happiness” was more than an attractive rhetorical device in a context where an inalienable right to liberty might have been interpreted in civic republican, rather than Lockean terms. 
Given the meaning of the pursuit of happiness in 18th century America - influenced by Locke, Hutcheson, Blackstone and Franklin, among others – it is easy to understand why it would have been widely recognised as a natural right. 
Pursuit of happiness was widely perceived in terms that have a great deal in common with the activity of human flourishing, as perceived by Aristotle and his followers. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Where did Adam Smith's 'system of natural liberty' come from?

In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723 -1790) famously wrote that when all systems of government
preferment or restraint for particular “species of industry” are removed, “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord”.

He went on to explain what this system of natural liberty entails:
‘Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and to bring forth both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty [for which] no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society’. (WN, IV.ix.51).

Smith’s use of the value-laden term, ‘natural liberty’, seems to have been intended to convey that it is good for everyone to be free to pursue their individual interests, even in the absence of more tangible mutual benefits. That ethical connotation is even stronger in other passages in Wealth of Nations (WN) where Smith refers to violations of natural liberty as unjust.

Jerry Muller suggests that “the display” of the ‘system of natural liberty’ contributes to the great persuasive power of the WN, but might “lead many readers to overlook the complexity of Smith’s conception of the moral life and to conclude that liberty, in itself, was always a good thing” (The Mind and the Market, 2002, p 83).

In my view, it is likely that Smith would have been pleased to have readers accept his vision of natural liberty and limited government as unambiguously good. I think he would have wanted people to recognise that it was an unjust infringement of natural liberty for the powers of government to be used to assist some economic groups at the expense of others.

Nevertheless, as Nicholas Phillipson highlights in his biography, Smith’s political prescriptions for market liberalisation were pragmatic. He recognised the need for a gradual approach to the removal of obstructions to avoid provoking dangerous opposition from opposing interests (Adam Smith, An enlightened life, 2010, p 230-31).

The authors of the introduction to the 1976 edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments suggest that Smith’s reference to “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty” in WN reflects the influence on him of the Stoic concept of natural harmony. (The editors D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie acknowledge help from Walter Eckstein in writing the introduction.)

Smith’s reference to natural liberty could also reflect the influence of more recent philosophers, including Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746), who taught Smith moral philosophy at Glasgow university. Hutcheson’s philosophical interests included the nature of virtue, the meaning of sociability and natural rights. His teaching and writings were deeply respected in radical Whig circles in Britain and the American colonies.

Smith’s ideal of everyone being free to pursue their own interests in their own way seems to echo Hutcheson’s explanation of the right to natural liberty in terms of pursuit of happiness:
“As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness, and many tender affections toward others in some nearer relations of life, and granted to each one some understanding and active powers, with a natural impulse to exercise them for the purposes of these natural affections; 'tis plain each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labour, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods, while no more public interest necessarily requires his labours, or requires that his actions should be under the direction of others. This right we call natural liberty.”

Smith and his followers would want to redraft that a little to define the meaning of what is hurtful to others in terms of fair play, or respect for their rights. There is also the question of how to define the “public interest” that apparently has priority over private interests.

 Hutchison goes on to assert:
“Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil of cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others, without necessity for some more general good. Those who judge well about their own innocent interests will use their liberty virtuously and honourably; such as have less wisdom will employ it in meaner pursuits, and perhaps in what may be justly censured as vicious.”

Smith doubted that everyone is born with such moral instincts. He argued that individuals gained the perspective of an impartial spectator to judge their own actions via a socialisation process.

Hutcheson argues that people resent infringements of liberty:
“the sense of natural liberty is so strong, and the loss of it so deeply resented by human nature, that it would generally create more misery to deprive men of it because of their imprudence, than what is to be feared from their imprudent use of it."

Hutcheson doesn’t see any problem with persuasion:
“Let men instruct, teach, and convince their fellows as far as they can about the proper use of their natural powers, or persuade them to submit voluntarily to some wise plans of civil power where their important interests shall be secured.”

Francis Hutcheson sums up:
“This right of natural liberty is not only suggested by the selfish parts of our constitution, but by many generous affections, and by our moral sense, which represents our own voluntary actions as the grand dignity and perfection of our nature.”

(The quoted passages by Francis Hutcheson are from A System of Moral Philosophy, published posthumously in 1755, pp 293-5.)