Sunday, March 23, 2014

Individual Autonomy and Evolutionary Psychology: Thin or Thick Theory?


The fundamental theoretical consideration among libertarian social and political theorists is whether libertarianism requires a “thin theory” or a “thick theory.” This, obviously, includes the corollary questions of: “How thin is thin?” and “How thick is thick?” In this paper, I shall extend that same distinction to the Theory of Autonomy. Hence, the basic question becomes: “At a bare-minimum, what kind of a Theory of Autonomy does Libertarian political theory require?” I will argue that, although a rigorous and relatively complete “thick theory of autonomy” is both desirable and possible over the long run, libertarianism requires only a “thin theory” grounded in the Non-Aggression Axiom. Any thicker theory, I shall argue, must be able to generate both descriptions of human nature consistent with evolutionary psychology; and justifiable normative prescriptions. However, any Theory of Autonomy must also be consistent with libertarianism’s central tenet; the so-called “Non-Aggression Axiom.” Indeed, the first order of business for any evolutionarily-centered political theory must be to generate both facts and values about the use of human aggression. But regardless of those facts, libertarians must embrace autonomy as a value and flush out exactly which (if any) legal and/or moral duties are entailed by the Axiom.


  Before I get too far along, let’s agree on some basic concepts. Human inquiry is about asking questions and posing answers. Theories are answers to questions. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of theories. Descriptive theories answer questions involving “matters of fact” (what is True), while prescriptive theories (or normative theories) answer questions about “matters of value” (what is Good). Any theory of individual autonomy will involve BOTH descriptive and prescriptive inquiry. All political regimes employ two ways of monitoring and enforcing prescriptive values: morality and legality. Both involve the imposition of duties.  While positive duties prescribe that we ought to “do something,” negative duties prescribe that we ought to “not do something.”

Since the eighteenth-century, there has been widespread acknowledgment within the Western liberal philosophical tradition that autonomous individuals (rational, competent adults) are (in fact) capable of exercising “self-rule,” while non-autonomous individuals (young children, mentally ill etc.) are (in fact) incapable of self-rule and therefore are (in fact) heterologous, and therefore,  ought to be to “ruled by others.” In that tradition, the foundational question of political philosophy is” “Which normative values are to be enforced by morality and which by legality (legal coercion), and whether those duties are “positive” or “negative.”

The Classical Liberal (libertarian) theory of individual autonomy is rooted in its own distinctive theory of human nature, which includes the following elements: individualism (humans are individuals and ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such), self-ownership (human individuals “own” their bodies and/or ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such); rationality (humans are rational and ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such), self-interested (humans employ rationality to advance their own interests and/or ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such), freedom of the will (humans are free to choose to act or not act and/or ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such), and responsibility (humans are morally and/or legally responsible for their freely-chosen actions and ought to be treated legally and/or morally as such). If any human lacks one or more of these elements, he or she is deemed non-autonomous, incapable of exercising self-rule. In these cases, those individuals are labeled as heterologous, and therefore subject to “rule by others.” But who draws that autonomous/heterologous line and on what basis is it drawn and/or ought to be drawn?

Historically there have been two lines of empirical research that scientists have offered in opposition to any theory of individual autonomy: cultural evolution (nurture) and biological evolution (nature). Many social scientists argue that individual autonomy (the capacity for self-rule) is undermined by the fact that humans are “social animals” programmed (determined) by culture via teaching and learning. Many biologists argue that autonomy is undermined by, what Rawls called the “Natural Lottery;” that is, the fact that the natural attributes that constitute natural “advantages” and “disadvantage” are distributed unfairly. Between these two lines of causal determinism, scientists argue that at least some (if not all) humans are non-autonomous, and therefore, subject to rule by others.      

In recent years, with advancements in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, we now know a lot more about how that “natural lottery” works. Communitarian critics of individual autonomy conclude that (taken as a whole) the newfound “facts” undermine both the “facts” and “values” associated with the Classical Liberal theory of autonomy. But as Scott James persuasively demonstrated; the reduction of ethics to biology “can mean different things to different people.” (James 2). In short, the relationship between “facts” and “values,” raises daunting philosophical complexities, so daunting that I’ll let Scott sort out those issues. Nevertheless, I’ll simply point out that any theory of autonomy raises mind-boggling fact-value complexities and that knowledge of “facts” does not necessarily tell us everything we need to know about “values.”  

Today, it is a fact that throughout the Western world individual autonomy assessed in terms of greater and lesser degrees. Psychiatrists (and psychiatrists) are legally empowered to assess variable degrees of autonomy: individualism, rationality, self-interestedness, freedom, and responsibility. Their authority is often justified based on the findings of social science and/or biological science. But to what degree is the legal empowerment of experts, morally (and/or legally) consistent with libertarianism’s central value, the Non-Aggression Axiom?        

As Andrew Sneddon has clearly shown, any theory of autonomy builds upon a well-trodden body of Western liberal thought. However, many theories fail to distinguish between various contexts of “autonomy,” including:  autonomy of choice, autonomy of persons and/or autonomy of actions. There is also a menagerie of other notoriously ambiguous, overlapping terms that haunt these theories, such as: non-autonomous, (not autonomous) heteronomous (ruled by others presumably for the good of those who are non-autonomous), coercion (the use of aggression to force individuals to do or not do certain things), and perhaps incompetence (the inability of an individual to rationally decide what to do or not do.) And, of course all of these distinctions are subject to both legal and moral monitoring and enforcement.     

Again, the basic question of all post-eighteenth century social and political philosophy revolves around the concept of “sovereignty;” or “who rules?” And, under what conditions might “rule by self,” “rule by others,” and/or “rule of law” be justified?  Prototypically, young children and mentally ill adults are classified as non-autonomous, and therefore, are labeled heteronomous (subject to paternalistic intervention by others). In the case of “rule of law,” utility-based libertarians argue that we must weigh the costs and benefits of paternalistic intervention exercised by various classes of benefactors. Whose interests ought to be advanced by any given legal intervention and whose interests are (in fact) advanced by that intervention? In the case of “rule by others,” rights-based libertarians question which specific class of “others” (if any) ought to rule on behalf of non-autonomous persons: family, friends, medical experts, corporations, or government (executive, legislative, or judicial branch).

Here it is important to note that individual autonomy is only part of the post-eighteenth century philosophical landscape. Political philosophers have also raised questions concerning group autonomy; that is, autonomous and/or non-autonomous interrelationships between macro-groups (large groups) and micro-groups (small groups). Thus, political philosophers argue endlessly over which groups are (in fact) autonomous, and which groups ought to be autonomous; and which groups are (in fact) heterologous, and which groups ought to be heterologous. While this issue will not be addressed in this paper, it does reveal the complexities associated with “self-rule.”

Within libertarian theory, the relationship between individual autonomy, non-aggression, and heteronomy is, obviously, complex. All libertarians (by definition) reject the use of aggression (physical force) in pursuit of individual and collective goals. Rights-based libertarians postulate non-aggression as a self-evident, unproven axiom, while utility-based libertarians justify non-aggression based on the negative utility ratios that result from the unbridled use of aggression. Some utility-based libertarians argue that there are some exceptions to the Axiom, and that we occasionally have a positive duty to employ coercive force in order to provide unwanted benefits or remove harms from non-autonomous individuals (known as individual paternalism). However, most utility-based libertarians reject state paternalism (legal intervention by any branch of government); and are at least suspicious of individual paternalism (legal intervention by other parties such as family, friends, etc.). This essay will argue that we libertarians need to flush out what we mean by non-autonomy and heteronomy, and identify the duties (positive or negative, moral or legal) that are entailed by Non-Aggression Axiom.         


So how might recent research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience elucidate and/or resolve some (or all) of the classic questions of sovereignty: most notably “who rules, and why?” And, “Who ought to rule, and why?” There is an overlapping consensus among evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists that, if there are (in fact) any autonomous individuals (decisions, and/or acts) they must be consistent with what we know about the structure of the human brain. Evolutionary psychologists now agree that the human brain is comprised of “modules,” which have evolved over the last 3.5 million years to solve specific problems associated with reproducing and surviving in groups. Neuroscientists agree that individual brains are not only computer-like organs of “reason,” but complex adaptive systems, or “neuronal networks” that address these problems. The primary goal of neuroscience research, therefore, is to identify those specific modules, “locate” the brain structures that underlie these modules, and ultimately generate explanations, predictions, and perhaps facilitate internal and/or external control over brains. Most scientists agree with Bickle that the ultimate explanation, and most likely the ultimate target for generating useful predictions and facilitating useful control of these networks lies at the microcosmic level. In short: brain science ultimately aims at the reduction from living entities (neurons and genes) to non-living entities (molecules atoms).      

Scientists have long observed that individual modular brains also have the natural propensity to collectively “network” with other modular brains, but argue over how networked brains contribute to human reproductive success (transmission of genes between generations), and/or the survival of individual humans, groups of humans, and/or the human species etc. So how might this emerging body of scientific knowledge about “networked,” brains enlighten “autonomy theory?”      

Today, a growing number communitarian scholars, like Michael Sandel, Peter Corning, and Franz de Waal have long argued that (what I call) this emerging “network ontology” provides empirical disproof of one or more of the traditional components of classical liberalism (individualism, rationality, self-ownership, self-interestedness, freedom, and/or responsibility). They argue that human beings are (by nature) sympathetic, cooperative, heteronomous, social animals, and therefore, “are” and/or “ought to be” be ruled by external others or forces. But is there really a compelling argument in support of the claim that networked modular brains ought to be subject to “rule by others” (or “rule of law”) based on the evolutionary biology and/or neuroscience?  

My argument is that although this emerging “neuronal network ontology” appears to undermine the various components of the classical liberal theory of human nature, that ontology does not, (and cannot), undermine the Non-Aggression Axiom. Therefore, libertarians may choose to develop a “thick theory of autonomy” that might someday “prove” that individual brains are (in fact) autonomous. But that line of research assumes that non-autonomy is purely at matter of fact. My argument is that, regardless of the future pronouncements of evolutionary biology, we must continue to embrace the Non-Aggression Axiom as a normative value. However, we must also more rigorously flush-out exactly which duties (positive or negative) that are imposed by the Axiom.   


For better or worse, many recent Western Liberal social and political theorists embrace John Rawls’ original distinction between a “thin theory of the good” and a “thick theory.” (Rawls) In that original context, Rawls argued that Western liberalism (welfare liberalism and libertarianism) must defend “individual rights” (or justice) over “communal conceptions of the good.” (Forst p. 30). Thus, liberalism (both left and right) implies both a “thin theory of the good;” “and “ethical neutrality of the law.” The relative “thickness” or “thinness,” refers to the degree to which any liberal theory (liberal left or libertarian right) can justify laws that advance specific social commitments and/or values beyond what’s required by the non-aggression axiom. Rawls went on to develop a theory of “primary goods,” which he argued justified a short list of “positive rights” that all civilized societies would voluntarily provide the “least advantaged;” most notably “equal liberty” and “the difference principle.” Thus, under Rawlsian theory “beneficence” (the provision of benefits and removal of harms) is regarded as a positive duty.       

The Non-Aggression axiom states that “No one has the right to initiate aggression against the person or the property of anyone else.” (Boaz p.74) Again, thoughtful libertarians observe that the Axiom applies to, not only relationships between individuals but also: relationships between individuals and groups, relationships within and between micro-groups, and relationships between macro-groups and micro-groups. For libertarians the Axiom implies at least a negative duty that forbids us (individually or collectively) to use (or threaten to use) physical aggression against anyone who has not initiated it. This negative duty serves as the basis for the corresponding negative right of individuals and groups not to be subjected to aggression or threats of aggression.

The Non-Aggression Axiom is also subject to “thinner” and “thicker” analysis. In fact, libertarians disagree over which “acts” are specifically forbidden by the Axiom and therefore might justify aggressive legal or moral intervention. Some actions violate negative duties, and are obviously morally (and legally) wrong: murder, rape, assault, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud. (Boaz 75). In these cases, it is easier to justify the use of defensive aggression. Other “acts,” that might also justify aggressive intervention are open to debate, such as: defense of the non-autonomous (legal paternalism), defense of friends or allies, or the defense of weak persons (poor, sick). Another core dispute (which I won’t discuss) is whether taxation violates the Axiom.    

Defenders of a “thin theory” argue that libertarianism is a moral and/or political theory based on non-aggression, and nothing more. Thus, (what I call) Thin-Theory Libertarianism tends to resist the expansion of legality (government) to include specific, socially embedded concepts of the good. Thus, thin theory libertarians oppose Rawls’ attempt to justify any “positive rights.” In contrast, proponents of a “thick(er)-theory” might argue that it is also possible (and/or necessary) for libertarianism to employ aggression in support of other legal and/or moral values; especially beneficence (the duty to provide benefits and remove harms on behalf of others).  Left-leaning, minarchist, libertarians (like F.A. Hayek), therefore, support laws that provide for a (very basic) social safety net, a minimum wage, or even engagement in a “just war.”        

We can also employ the thick-thin distinction in the context of a Theory of Autonomy.  A “Thin Theory of Autonomy” will defend any individual’s “negative right” to pursue his/her concept of the good, as long as that pursuit does not violate the Non-Aggression Axiom. In contrast, a “thicker theory” of autonomy might seek to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for autonomous human persons (or groups), decisions, and/or actions. Thus, a “thicker” theory of individual autonomy might distinguish between autonomous, non-autonomous, and heteronomous individuals and groups. However, thicker theories might (but not necessarily) also legally empower experts (mostly psychologists, psychiatrists) to objectively distinguish between varying degrees of autonomy and thereby dole out variable degrees of moral and/or legal responsibility. The problem here is that the legal empowerment of experts to discern varying degrees of autonomy can violate of the Non-Aggression Axiom.

Again, what I want to emphasize here is that libertarianism does not theoretically require a “thick theory of libertarianism, a “thick theory of non-aggression,” or a “thick theory of autonomy.” We do not need to “know” the necessary and sufficient conditions for autonomous personhood or autonomous decisions, or autonomous actions. Why? Because “non-aggression” is a prescriptive concept (a value), and therefore, cannot be “falsified” by the descriptive “facts” of evolutionary psychology or neuroscience. Moreover, as Hayek (Hayek) and Feyerabend (Feyerabend) have argued, we libertarians must be much more of legally empowering experts, to violate the Non-Aggression Axiom, even if violating it “benefits” certain individuals and/or groups (ourselves, our friends, our allies, or the weak).    

At a bare minimum, the Non-Aggression Axiom holds that humans are a priori morally obligated to treat humans “as if” they are autonomous, morally responsible agents; even if Science discovers that some (or even all) persons lack some (or all) of the neuronal capacities associated with effective, self-rule. So, even if Science “proves” that all humans are in fact non-autonomous, that would not necessarily imply that all persons and/or decisions are heterologous, and therefore “ought” to be ruled by “others” or ruled by “laws.” That’s because we’d still have the prescriptive moral questions remaining: “who ought to rule and why?” In short, if there are (in fact) non-autonomous persons or groups (decisions and/or actors), those persons or groups (decisions and/or actions) would not necessarily be heterologous. Treating some individuals (and/or groups) as heteronomous and subjecting them to beneficent coercive intervention by others violates the Non-Aggression Axiom.

On the other hand, let’s also admit that the Non-Aggression Axiom is inconveniently vague and that libertarians really need to spell out what it morally and legally entails. A “thin theory” might justify a moral right to employ aggression ONLY in defense of ourselves (individually or collectively). That would suggest a non-interventionist morality. A thicker theory might justify interventionism on behalf of (at least some) others (most notably: in defense of the non-autonomous (children and the mentally ill) and/or defense of friends and/or the weak) that are suffering from aggressive acts inflicted by third-parties. The more we libertarians thicken the Non-Aggression Axiom, and the Theory of Autonomy, the closer we move toward an interventionist, welfare-liberal social and political philosophy.  

In conclusion, I have argued that the Non-Aggression Axiom serves as the necessary condition for a Thin Theory of Libertarianism. The development of a “Thicker Theory,” that questions the human capacity to “know” and “do” what is in our individual and collective interests (based on the findings of biological evolution, genetics, and/or neuroscience) is perfectly acceptable if not desirable. However, it is imperative that we acknowledge that the Non-Aggression Axiom is a normative (moral and legal) concept and therefore, it is not (by definition) subject to empirical verification or falsification. Therefore, libertarians like John Bickle can continue to scientifically study the neurological basis of individual (and collective) autonomy. But those findings can neither confirm nor disconfirm the Non-Aggression Axiom, nor can they confirm or disconfirm any one social and political theory. Although scientists can certainly offer us useful information, products, and/or services the Axiom prevents those experts from forcing us to act on that information, and/or buying the products and/or services that they offer, for “our own good.”  The prescription “x is for our own good” implies that ultimately experts know more about what is good for us than we do. Moreover, these prescriptions, invariably, force us to conform to what others believe is good for us. Even if scientists could (in fact) differentiate between autonomous and non-autonomous brains, it would not necessarily imply that non-autonomous persons are heterologous or than any one person or group is more qualified to decide we want. In sum, if some (or all) human brains are (in fact) wired to be “ruled by others,” questions of value would remain unanswered, most notably: “Who” ought to rule those brains from the outside and “why.” These are ultimately moral and philosophical issues, therefore, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience will not (and cannot) shed much light on them.    
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Fairfield, Paul. Moral Selfhood in the Liberal Tradition (University of Toronto Press: 2000)

 Forst, Rainer. Contexts of Justice: Political Philosophy Beyond Liberalism and Communitarianism (University of California Press: 2002)

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Mulhall, Stephen and Adam Swift. Liberals and Communitarians. second edition. (Blackwell Publishers: 1996) 
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Sneddon, Andrew. Autonomy (Bloomsbury: 2013)
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