Friday, August 21, 2015

A Libertarian View of Global Ethics

I think libertarianism offers the only tenable approach to global ethics... While it's not without problems, it's certainly less problematic than other left-leaning approaches. Home-base consists in "self-ownership," the "non-aggression axiom," and universal voluntariness. In terms of global issues, libertarianism, embraces a non-interventionist foreign policy and global free market capitalism. 

For libertarians all universal human rights are negative rights. That means that global ethics is more about what you "ought-to-not-do" than what you "ought-to-do." Ultimately, there's only one universal moral rule... the "non-aggression axiom," which states that individuals (and groups) are absolutely forbidden to harm others, except in self-defense. The argument for free markets goes like this: if it is true that I own myself, then (logically) I own the fruits of my labor. So if you unjustifiably use coercive force either against my body or my property you've violated it and I have a right to protect myself and my property. If I willingly give you my property or sell it to you...there's no violation... even if it's a bad deal. In short, if you get "suckered" into a bad deal, its your own fault. Call it the "buyer beware principle." Thus, even, if you willingly sell yourself into slavery for a mutually agreed upon amount of time, in exchange for some other good or service (or out of beneficence) ...that's fine too. However, slavery is (almost by definition) perpetuated by force (or threat of force) and rarely (if ever) voluntary. Although, you have a right to voluntarily sell yourself into slavery, I have a "right" (if not a "duty") to point that it's a bad deal. But I can't use force to prevent you from becoming a slave. If you have an extremely low IQ, if you're an underage child,  or if you are suffering from a mental disease, some libertarians (J.S. Mill) might paternalistically intervene, at least temporarily. I might intervene just long enough to determine your rational status, or just long enough to point out that it is irrational. 

The non-aggression axiom also applies toward cultures. If your culture has a rule that says that it's OK for men to sell adult women (or children) into slavery without their consent...then that culture violates the non-aggression axiom. The problem here is that in many cultures, women willingly allow men to sell them, because they believe that their God created them to serve males. So what duties does libertarianism impose upon us as observers of culturally-induced harm to women? I might present those women (and men) with compelling rights-based and/or utilitarian arguments in favor of female equality. But I wouldn't be very optimistic. We all know that culture (especially religious culture) can be a powerful liberty-limiting force in the world. However, I would argue that we libertarians (individually and collectively) are morally bound to NOT advance the interests of any aggressive individuals or cultures; that is we have a negative duty to not cooperate with aggressive persons or cultures. We also have a "negative right" (based on freedom of speech) to point out  that individual P and/or culture X violates the non-aggression axiom and is therefore immoral.

Now what if I convince a particular woman (or a group of women) that servitude is morally wrong and they REQUEST my assistance in either escaping from an aggressive culture or transforming it into a non-aggressive culture? As a libertarian I can choose to either assist or not assist, based on how much I'm willing to risk in providing that assistance. If I could (in fact) free those women by donating $1000. to a certain private military group that defends women...I might do it. But's my money, my time, and my effort. In short, I do not have a positive duty to intervene in terms of either speech or actions. Now if I promise to intervene, I must keep my promise. Now the hallmark of left-leaning morality is the idea of positive legal and/or moral rights. However, thoughtful libertarians observe that there are many ways to intervene short of violating the non-aggression axiom. And that if we employ aggression in order to stifle aggression we perpetuate more aggression, toward not only the persons or groups that we intend to help, but also pose risks for the intervener. And, of course, there are so many aggressive cultures in the world, we can't intervene in all of them without going bankrupt. Therefore, a rational libertarian will intervene only in those cases where there is a probability that intervention will succeed...and not make things worse.

OVER-THE-LONG-RUN the best libertarian strategy is to teach all individuals and groups in the world to accept the non-aggression axiom. But we, obviously, can't force everyone to do it. The problem with liberal statism is that governments often intervene in cases where aggressive intervention is futile, and likely to make things worse. Minarchists like myself argue that aggressive political intervention (especially within civil wars) almost never yields a positive utility ratio. Therefore, we advocate non-interventionist foreign policy. But that doesn't prevent us from engaging non-aggressive intervention.

As non-aggressive culture spreads throughout the world (via teaching and learning) aggression will (eventually) become less common, and ultimately extinct. But remember...we libertarians can't engage in non-defensive aggression, but we must actively refrain from supporting aggressive individuals and cultures. That means that the non-aggression axiom prevents us from advancing the interests of aggressive individuals and cultures. Now I might forge a defensive agreement with certain individuals or groups and promise to defend them from aggression, but libertarians must be leery of pre-emptive defensive strikes.

In sum, libertarians cannot support the mantra: "When in Rome do as the Romans do." The libertarian manta would be:  "When in Rome, do as the Romans do...but don't harm anyone; even if its legal and/or moral in Rome." Better yet..."Don't go to an aggressive Rome, unless you're going to crusade against aggression." So if you own a multi-national corporation, and have employees in Rome who are victimized by an aggressive culture, you cannot support that culture. If you choose to teach them non-aggression, the host culture (or government) probably wouldn't like it. Nevertheless, we libertarians have a negative duty to not assist in the advancement of aggressive individuals or groups. So, if you want to assist the world's it with your own money...or with money voluntarily contributed by other like-minded individuals and groups. Governmental interventions that use tax money is immoral because involuntary taxation is a form of theft, and because state intervention rarely works. One final note on legality... Libertarians are (at best) minarchists, and therefore oppose the expansion of national and international legality. Our policy is to advance morality, which is limited to advancing non-aggression. In can't force people to be good. And finally, being good is about what you "don't do." Don't kill, don't steal, and don't break voluntary contracts. Ant thoughts?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Global Ethics: Objectivism, Relativism, and Skepticism.

As communication technologies advance, so does our exposure to what is going on in other cultures around the world. Most business today is conducted internationally, between different nations with different cultural beliefs. So, given a world of conflicting beliefs, how should we think about legality and morality this diverse, global context? First of all, let's acknowledge that many differences between cultures are "matters of taste," that really have no moral relevance; such as rules governing food, clothing, hair style, music, or art. However, sometimes enforcing rules that govern "matters of taste" cross over in the domain of ethics. For example, cannibalism is NOT just a matter of taste. But how do we draw those lines between ethics and taste? Let's also recall that there is a difference between legality and morality . Just because X is legal in a certain culture, doesn't mean that its moral and visa verse. So in this blog let's focus on morality...not legality. I suggest that there are three (longstanding) philosophical positions that dominate debates over moral rules in a global context: Objectivism, Relativism, and Skepticism. Let's look at them one at a time. 

MORAL OBJECTIVISM: There are at least some universally, objective moral rules that comprise global morality Many philosophers call these moral universals "hyper-norms." However, exactly what counts as a hyper-norm is a matter of philosophical debate. So if you are traveling around the world, or if you are conducting business in another culture what moral rules, if any, do you obey? If you are an objectivist, your rule of thumb would be: “When in Rome, do what’s right.” But how do you "know" what's right? Historically there are two theories that are often invoked to justify objectivism: Kantian Ethics (act on universal rules)and Utilitarianism (act based on positive utility ratios). 

Kantian Ethics is based on one rule, The Categorical Imperative (or the "Golden Rule"), which argues that there are some timelessly universal rules that are true (and have always been true or justified) and that those rules trump any individual or cultural beliefs that violate those rules. The basic Kantian position is that all human beings (or persons) are beings endowed with rationality and free will. Thus (at a bare minimum) all rational, competent adults deserve to be treated with dignity. One formulation of Kant's categorical imperative states that we should "always treat persons as ends and never as means." Ultimately...that's what dignified treatment entails. Thus, slavery is universally wrong because it "treats persons as means and not ends," and therefore ALWAYS is a violation of universal human rights. 

So if there is a violation of universal rights, what is our duty? Kant would argue that if you KNOW that X is morally wrong (violates universal human rights), then you have positive duty to intervene, regardless of the costs of that intervention. However, some interventions are more likely to be successful than others. Kant really doesn't help us decide which intervention to pursue. Another problem with Kantian Ethics is that universal moral rules often conflict with other universal moral rules based on rationality. There are many classic conflicts that arise in the context of Kantian Ethics: beneficence v. utility, utility v. justice, liberty v. utility etc.

Utilitarian Ethics argues that cost-benefit analysis provides a timelessly, universal moral standard. Rule utilitarians  argue that some moral rules (actually) express timelessly universal utility functions; that is, some rules (ultimately) lead to positive utility functions (love thy neighbor) and some rules always lead to negative utility functions (steal from your neighbor). Slavery poses a challenge to any ethical theory. A rule utilitarian would argue that slavery is timelessly and universally wrong because the costs (always have and always will) outweigh the benefits. Costs to slave-owners include: feeding and clothing slaves, training them, maintaining their health, and preventing them from escaping. In contrast to Kant's call for duty-based moral intervention, utilitarians would argue that you do not (necessarily) have a positive duty to forcefully intervene if the costs of that intervention outweigh the benefits, or if intervention is futile. For example, U.S. intervention in China over most human rights violations has proven to be (mostly) futile. One might argue that the protection of human rights in China would require aggressive intervention or warfare. But war with China may not be winnable. Therefore the best (and only) strategy for improving human rights in China (over the long run) might be to argue to Chinese leaders that specific rights violations cost more to China than the benefits are worth. For example, we might point out to China that it's one-child policy per family is too expensive to monitor and enforce, and that it has resulted in the abortion of most females. Consequently, China is now experiencing the "unanticipated consequence" of having greatly imbalanced in sex ratios. Hence, most males (especially in rural areas) will never be able to date a woman, get married, or have kids. Ultimately, China figured that out and is no longer enforcing that one-child policy as much. 

The problem with utility is that cost-benefit analysis can be enormously complex, and experts often disagree over whether certain future ratios will turn out to be positive or negative. Thus, cost-benefit analysis is often invaded by both positive and negative unanticipated consequences. Are the utility ratios of capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, or the drug war positive or negative. Wars are notoriously complex and wrought with unanticipated consequences.

2.) MORAL RELATIVISM: There are no universal, rationally objective rules that govern global ethics. There are   culturally-bound moral standards, but no universal hyper-norms. So if you travel worldwide, and the culture that you are visiting has different moral rules, then what do you do. The rule of thumb for cultural relativism is: “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” There are three forms of relativism: historical relativism, cultural relativism, and individual relativism.  

Historical relativism observes that ethics is relative to time and place, and therefore, one cannot compare the moral views of past with that of the present. For example, historical relativists argue that during the early 19th century, slavery was morally acceptable (or even good) but today it is wrong. Therefore, we can't justifiably blame plantation owners. In short, historical relativists deny the timelessness of ethics. "The Good" changes over time. 

Cultural relativism states that, ultimately, ethics is a matter of cultural agreement. If any culture (at any given time or place) believes that x is good and y is bad, then that's the standard. In short, ethics is a matter of social agreement. So if I disagree with what my culture says is wrong, then I'm wrong. If one culture believes that slavery is morally acceptable...then it is (as a matter of fact) acceptable within that culture. Thus, the views of one culture cannot trump the views of any other culture. Relativists call moral intervention in other cultures "cultural imperialism." Therefore, the virtue associated with cultural relativism is toleration. So if a given culture believes that the enslavement of women and/or children for sexual purposes is morally acceptable, then relativists argue that we have a negative duty to not interfere. All culturally based moral beliefs are incommensurable. Just because Western cultures have moral rules against sex slavery, doesn't mean that all cultures must accept those rules. Ethics, therefore, is contextual. Our views on sex slavery are incommensurable with their views. So, the cultural relativist's rule of thumb is: "When in Rome, do as the Romans Do."
So if you want to own a sex slave (or two) go to another country. The problem here is that if you take a vacation in Thailand to have sex with children, make sure that the rest of us don't find out... bad things might happen to you.    

Individual relativism holds that morality is whatever an individual believes it is. Therefore, there are no hyper-norms or cultural norms. If an individual believes that murder, theft, lying, cheating, and slavery are morally acceptable, and I believe they are not...there is no contradiction. In other words, ethics is entirely a matter of "individual taste".... like food. The problem here is that ethics is about living in groups and individual relativism doesn't address that issue. And, as a matter of fact, if you murder, steal...etc. other individuals and cultures will hold you morally and/or legally blameworthy. So let's forget about individual relativism for now.      

3.) MORAL SKEPTCISM: There are no rationally objective moral rules either within cultures or between cultures. Morality is "in the interest of the stronger;" that is, the exercise of the strong over the weak. “Might makes right.” or “When in Rome, do whatever you can get away with.” Most philosophers that I know acknowledge that this is a real problem and that it's very difficult to disprove. For now, let's focus on either objectivism and relativism.

Obviously, both objectivism and relativism pose serious philosophical problems. Does the U.S. have a positive duty to defend universal human rights all over the world, even if it entails costly military intervention? Do impoverished nations governed by corrupt, totalitarian military regimes that harm their citizens, have a right to exist free from external moral condemnation and/or intervention?

The libertarian view on global ethics involves all of the above. First of all, the only moral rule that all libertarians are obliged to accept is the non-aggression axiom or the "harm principle." More on this in a subsequent blog.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Libertarianism: Encyclopedia Entry

 Libertarianism is a social and political philosophy in the Western liberal tradition committed to the advancement of  personal liberty. It is distinguished from egalitarianism by its views on property rights and the use of force. Although the term libertarianism first appeared in political discourse in the 1950s, its conceptual framework was firmly established in the 18th and 19th centuries by political economists and philosophers in the “classical liberal” tradition, most notably John  Locke and John Stuart Mill. Despite marginal theoretical disagreement, most libertarians agree that the principles of self- ownership and nonaggression are foundational.

The most influential 20th-century libertarian theorists are in the Lockean deontological (rights-based) moral tradition. Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard defend liberty via rights, independent of utilitarian considerations. Other recent scholars are in the teleological (consequentialist) moral tradition of John Stuart Mill. Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek argue that increased personal liberty and small, decentralized government also produces greater individual happiness and social utility than highly centralized government. In the 20th century, libertarian theory was also shaped by outside influences such as Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.


For Lockean libertarians, all rights are property rights rooted in John Locke’s principle of self-ownership, or the idea that we own ourselves in the same sense that we may own property (natural resources and/or artifacts). Self-ownership limits sets objective limits on what others can do to bodies and our property without our consent. Entitlement to property is based on historical principles or how that property was originally acquired and voluntarily passed on to subsequent owners.  Initial historical ownership of undeveloped natural resources resulted from a human person mixing his or her self-owned labor with that previously unowned resource. So, if we own ourselves, then we have a right to the fruits of our labor. The institution of involuntary slavery, for example, is universally morally wrong because it violates the principle of self-ownership and involuntarily deprives individuals of their natural right to what they produce.

Once natural resources come under initial ownership, entitlement to those natural resources and the subsequently human-created artifacts may be transferred to others, if and only if the contract is informed and consensual. Once legitimate ownership is established, neither other individuals nor the government may coercively seize that property. Most libertarians reject all governmental policies that coercively redistribute property based on some patterned, or preferred, end state such as merit, need, equality, or utility.

Recent debate concerning the original status of natural resources has spawned a form of libertarianism known as “left libertarianism,” which, in contrast to “right libertarianism,” argues that natural resources are not initially unowned, but owned collectively by society in some egalitarian manner as public property. Therefore, those who want to acquire unowned natural resources must secure consent or reimburse society for their use. If “social-ownership” is interpreted as “public-ownership,” then and libertarianism’s commitment to “private-ownership” is may be eroded over the long-run, especially if political leaders dole out those natural resources to reward to political cronies and punish political enemies.


Libertarians argue that the non-aggression axiom serves as the universal foundation for both morality and legality. Unprovoked physical aggression is as a violation of property rights via self-ownership. Libertarians follow John Stuart Mill and distinguish between other-regarding acts (harms), which violate the rights of others without their consent, and self-regarding acts, which do not. The inviolable bounds of personal liberty lie within the sphere of self-regarding actions. Self-defense is the only justification for violation of the nonaggression axiom. However voluntary, mutual defense contracts between individuals and groups are possible, but problematic.

Rights impose duties not to kill others or to deprive them of their liberty or property. According to libertarianism, the nonaggression axiom imposes a negative right to life, which posits a duty not to kill others or deprive them of their liberty or their property. There are no positive rights that obligate us to assist others and therefore, there is no “positive right to life.” However, most libertarians are willing to forge mutually-beneficial, voluntary contracts with individuals and voluntary groups that support a positive right to life. All libertarians agree that positive rights might emerge on the basis of contractual mutual benefit, and that a right to life would be more efficiently secured by individual charity and cooperative, nongovernmental organizations than by tax-supported redistributive welfare.

The nonaggression axiom applies to both individuals and governments. Libertarians disagree over the implications of the nonaggression axiom for the nature and scope of the state as it limits government’s ability to raise revenue via coercive taxation or raise an army via involuntary conscription. Most libertarians today are “minarchists,” who support limited government that protects citizens (via an all-volunteer army) from external threats posed by aggressive nations and from internal threats (via a criminal justice system) posed by murderers and thieves. Some radical libertarians are “anarchists” or “anarcho- capitalists,” who argue that all governments (by their very nature)  violate the nonaggression axiom or that all governmental functions can be more efficiently served by private individuals, voluntary, nongovernmental associations, and the free market.

Libertarianism, Social Issues, and Global Affairs

Libertarians hold that most social problems are worsened, if not caused by government and therefore seek to empower individuals to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Most libertarians are free market capitalists who opposed to any government redistribution programs intended to serve the greater good, such as: social welfare, socialized medicine, affirmative action, minimum wage laws, public schools, or urban planning.

Libertarians resist any attempt by powerful individuals or governmental central planners to coercively impose any one moral or religious view as a legal obligation. Therefore, they stand opposed to governmental regulation of marriage, birth control, pornography, and recreational drugs. Libertarian views on abortion, stem cell research, and cloning are contingent on internal arguments over whether self-ownership applies to zygotes, fetuses, and/or clones.

In terms of foreign policy, libertarians hold firm to the nonaggression axiom and therefore declare war only in self-defense or perhaps the defense of non-state allies. In global economic affairs, libertarians embrace free market economic policies and laissez-faire government. Minarchists limit the role of government (national and international) to protecting consumers against theft and fraud, while both minarchists and anarchists oppose governmentally enforced monetary policy, protective tariffs, and anti-sweatshop legislation. Both argue that foreign aid, when appropriate, is best provided by private individuals and nongovernmental organizations (but not governments) to benefit private individuals and groups (but not governments).

On the contemporary political landscape, libertarians are classified as “social liberals” and “economic conservatives.” They are united in their opposition to any individual or group that is willing to violate the non-aggression axiom for the “greater good” (communitarians, egalitarians, and utilitarians). Libertarians, however, disagree among themselves as to whether it is possible for minarchists to maintain small government over the long-run, without expanding into totalitarian statism; and, whether it is possible for anarchists to rely on private, police, judiciaries, and armies for self-defense.

—Ronald F. White

See also Anarchism; Egalitarianism; Friedman, Milton; Hayek, Friedrich A.; Liberalism; Nozick, Robert; Self-Ownership; Shareholder Model of Corporate Governance; Statism

Further Readings

Boaz, D. (1997). Libertarianism: A primer. New York: Free Press.
Friedman, M. (1962). Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1944). The road to serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Narveson, J. (1988). The libertarian idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Narveson J. (2008) You and the state: A short introduction to political philosophy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Rothbard, M. (1982). The ethics of liberty. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Smith, George H. (2013) The system of liberty: Themes in the history of classical liberalism. New York: Cambridge University Press

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Minds and Animals

One of the traditional lines of metaphysical inquiry entail drawing lines of demarcation between various classes of entities and/or systems. From an evolutionary standpoint, one of the most venerable lines on inquiry involves the line of demarcation between the various species of living things, especially between humans and animals.

Historically, one of the most common methods for drawing these lines has been to construct hierarchies.  In human affairs, these hierarchies have always been used to justify our behavior toward different classes of entities. The most familiar hierarchies draw lines of demarcation between: living and non-living things, human and non-humans, males and females, and a wide variety of lines between human groups, such as: tribes, religions, races, social classes, and overly-zealous fans of competing high school football teams. As a moral mechanism, one’s place within a hierarchy determines how you are treated by those situated both above and below you. (It’s great when you’re on the top of a hierarchy and not-so-great when you’re on bottom!)

One major bone of philosophical contention here is whether these hierarchies are “real” in the sense that they actually correspond to an external natural order, whether hierarchies are “real” in the sense that they correspond to internal brain programming, or whether they are “real” in the sense that they are “social constructions” that mask and enforce natural or unnatural relationships of power. 

In the history of human inquiry, the most replicated hierarchical organizational schemes are variations of the “Great Chain of Being,” a longstanding line of inquiry that hierarchically arranges the various kinds of living organisms. There are many different ways to organize these hierarchies. We can set them up as food chains (who-eats-who). We can set them up based on degree of complexity from small, relatively simple microscopic organisms (bacteria) to large, more complex, macroscopic animals (whales and humans) etc. Religions often set up hierarchies based on proximity to God. Germs occupy the lower rungs of the hierarchy and are situated a long way from their creator! Therefore, don’t feel guilty when you take your antibiotics.

As stated earlier, many religions trace the origin of the living and non-living aspects of the universe to a deliberate act of creation by a God, which in turn affects their hierarchical taxonomies. In the Western theistic tradition, God the creator is endowed with superlative attributes such as: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and goodness. God, therefore, stands at the top of the Great Chain of Being, which sets us up for theological inquiry into the precise relationships between God and various living and non-living components of the universe. Non-living systems, or things, are usually situated at the bottom of the Great Chain.  Within the class of non-living things God is sometimes associated with systemic order of those things, such as the motion of the planets. All of this raises questions concerning the line of demarcation between non-living and living things. There are, however, many pantheistic and deistic non-Western religions that are less anthropocentric and less committed to these rigid hierarchies. Some religions even situate animals and plants on an even plane, or above us! India protects a lot of high-ranking cows.

 Animal psychology, according to seventeenth-century philosopher, Rene Descartes’ is straightforward and obviously amenable to the prevailing Newtonian methodology.  He argued that animals are simply machinelike material entities, or automatons, that lack mind or consciousness. Their behavior, therefore, can be explained entirely in terms of the Newtonian laws that govern their material bodies. So their biological existence is programmed by innate reflexive neurological activity. Logically, it followed that if animals are strictly finite, machinelike, temporal creatures, it’s because they lack an eternal soul.

Obviously, the bodies of human beings resemble the bodies of animals, and therefore, are also subject to Newtonian analysis, and can be reduced to the interaction of material entities and processes at the microcosmic level. However, consciousness itself, according to the Cartesian tradition, cannot be entirely reduced to those material entities and processes. Bodies are one thing and minds are something else. Hence, Descartes invoked a pluralistic, mind-body ontology, which had been a longstanding staple of Western philosophy and theology. It is predicated on the ontological reality of both material systems and mental systems. Material systems change via material causes and spiritual or mental systems change via spiritual or mental causes.

Descartes argued that all living things are complex machines and that although human beings have machinelike attributes, we are qualitatively different from the rest of God’s creation.  The presence of an eternal soul (or mind or consciousness) was invoked to draw that line. The soul, being Godlike, therefore, elevates human beings to the upper rungs of the Great Chain, just below angels. Human males are usually situated above women and children, but below angels. Just below human beings we have various classes of animals and then plants, which are just above non-living things. (Americans and Europeans seem to rank their cats and dogs well above third-world humans on the Great Chain. Most of our pets eat a lot better than most non-Western humans.) But contemporary biological evolution casts serious doubt on the veracity of these traditional hierarchies and the hard lines of demarcation that they seem to imply.   

Today, evolutionary biologists argue that in order to explain the emergence of the human species body (including our large brains and distinctive feelings, thoughts, percepts, and behavior) we must conduct genealogical research on our closest evolutionary forbears. According to long-standing orthodoxy, the human species Homo sapiens are genealogically descended from the primate order. More recent discoveries have divided the various species of primates into two main branches the Old World Primates, which evolved into Old World Monkeys (Baboons and Macaques) and the Great Apes (Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, and Orangutans). About 35 million years ago, New World Monkeys (Capuchins, Muriquis, and Squirrel Monkeys) branched off of the Old World Primates.

For many years, scientists struggled to scientifically establish the precise genealogy of the "Great Apes," especially the hominids, which eventually evolved into modern humans. The sociopolitical problem has been that evolutionary biology postulates the interrelatedness of species. This belief conflicts with longstanding non-scientific religious beliefs. For monists, this can pose a problem. If you believe that genetic theory is approximately true, then, (logically at least) you’ll have a hard time rejecting the idea that all living things are genealogically related and that humans are closely related to chimpanzees. In short, the scientific evidence in support of biological evolution is about as overwhelming as it can get: but still far short of mathematical certainty!       

In 1984, Sibley and Ahlquist developed a procedure called DNA hybridization. It involved extracting single strands of DNA from the blood of two different species, then allowing the nucleotide sequences to bind or "zip" together, thus creating a hybrid. When heated, the strands of DNA in the zipper separated. The greater the melting temperature required to achieve separation, the closer the relationship between the species within the hybrid.

When they tested the Great Apes they concluded that orangutans first diverged from the hominid line about 10-16 million years ago and that gorillas, bonobos, and humans all evolved from a common ancestor about 5 million years ago. Chimpanzees branched off of the bonobo lineage about two million years ago and are more closely related, genetically, than to any other primate species. When the testing was over, it turned out that we humans are indeed more closely related to chimpanzees than we are to gorillas or orangutans, and that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are gorillas. As Jared Diamond put it, we are the "Third Chimpanzee."  Imagine how disconcerting that discovery must have been. For centuries, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have defended that inviolable line of demarcation between man and animal. Predictably, many scientific and non-scientific inquirers reject either their methodology or conclusions.  Let the ad hoc explanations begin!

According to modern evolutionary theory, human beings actually evolved rather quickly in comparison to what we know about the evolution of other species. During this relatively short 5 million year interval, we evolved from a "Rainforest Ape" to "Woodland Ape," and through several pre-human species including (Australopithecus (4 million years ago), and Homo erectus (1.7 million years ago). According to Wrangham and Peterson, we are only about 150,000-230,000 years old.

The main difference between modern humans and other primates seem to be the relative size of our brains and our cerebral cortex. The average human brain today weighs about 3 pounds and contains about 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons.  In humans, that cerebral cortex contains about 30 billion neurons and one million billion connections, or synapses. Brain scientists like to argue that the human brain is the most complex system on earth. Actually the higher level systems that “emerge” out of our brain activity, such as popular culture and market economies, are much more complex. Remember, we’re dealing with open-systems!

Although the human brain has evolved slowly over millions of years, the idea of brain localization theory has evolved much more rapidly. Historians can explore how contemporary brain theory evolved out of earlier intellectual systems by observing cultural artifacts such as old scientific books and articles on neurology.  When future intellectual historians look back on the history of biological inquiry, they will be hard pressed to explain the persistent intellectual, sociopolitical, and economic conflicts that arise out of our current beliefs about the relationships between animals and humans.
 At this point I must reiterate that our evolving descriptive beliefs concerning the status of animals in relationship to humans influence our evolving prescriptive moral beliefs concerning the borders of the moral universe. Today, many animal rights advocates argue that it is immoral to treat sentient and/or non-sentient animals as things, property, or resources. This animal rights movement, therefore, seeks to break down and reorder these longstanding anthropocentric hierarchies. But how does the possession of something that resembles a cerebral cortex signify membership in the moral universe? Why is extending the boundaries of that universe to include mammals (mammalpocentrism?) morally superior to anthropocentrism?       

Minds and Machines

In the twentieth century, the hope of reducing mentality to matter and/or energy was revived by advances in artificial intelligence and the rise of increasingly powerful computer technology. This reductionist vision led to the widespread belief that the human mind is nothing more than an extremely powerful computer with a huge hard-drive. The laptop computer that I am now writing with has been programmed to perform a number of tasks including, word processing, number crunching, making web pages, and playing music. Although they are separate modules, they can work together. According to the strong artificial intelligence theory (Strong AI) of the human mind, the brain is similarly programmed, but with a lot more modules and a more efficient processor.
Back in the 1950s, Alan Turing argued that the ultimate confirmation of the Strong AI Theory would will arrive when a computer is invented that is powerful enough to manufacture mentality. Hence, a machine with enough storage capacity to seamlessly network with a human being, would be regarded as an intelligent being and a person. When this technology is developed, we’ll be able to communicate with our computers as if they are human. In fact, we would not know if we are communicating with a computer or a human. Of course, today we have no problem drawing lines of demarcation between computers and humans, but as computer technology inevitably advances this line will be blurred. I would argue that intelligence is a necessary condition for personhood, but not a sufficient condition. Empirical tests would have to prove that machines possess not only intelligence... but also self-awareness and sentience. Many argue that other species possess intelligence, sentience, and self-awareness; especially primates.  So the most puzzling questions here are whether technology can over time close the gap between human (and animal) intelligence and artificial intelligence? At what point will artificial intelligence cease to be artificial? If it is no longer artificial intelligence, does that mean that computers would then become members of the moral universe? Would they have rights and obligations? Will we send bad computers to digital prisons, or reprogram them? Will you need a license to practice computer medicine? Will it become illegal to buy and sell computers? Will there be a computer-based heaven and hell? Will computer viruses go to hell, or could they be morally rehabilitated?

             Weaker forms of AI argue that the computer "think" but the process is not identical to human thought; and perhaps will never be identical. However, the history of technology is rife with pronouncements like: "Technology will NEVER be able to do X." They used to argue that computers will NEVER be able to defeat the most skilled chess players. Today, the World Champion is a computer program.  

The Mind-Body Problem

So how do material entities relate to mental entities? Or to be more precise, how does neuronal activity relate to the intergenerational mental process of asking questions and posing answers? So far I have I outlined conflicting empirical traditions in the history of philosophy: materialism, which is based on the reducibility of belief to ‘material systems,” that can be directly observed via human perception; and idealism, which is based on the reducibility of belief to “mental systems,” that can be directly observed via “introspection” of consciousness. Our beliefs about the relationship between materiality and mentality have been influenced by a set of philosophical puzzles known as the mind-body problem. The various answers to this cluster of issues have involved drawing notoriously fuzzy lines of demarcation between: mind and body, internality and externality, introspection and external observation, and psychology and biology.         

The thread that binds the various manifestations of the mind-body problem can be historically traced to Rene Descartes, the great seventeenth-century rationalist philosopher. Most philosophy students immediately recognize his famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” Known as the father of “modern philosophy,” Descartes is historically accredited with having initiated an intellectual “revolution” that turned the course of continental European philosophy and psychology “inward” toward the introspective analysis of consciousness. Actually, what he did was postulate the existence of two interacting metaphysical subsystems: material substance and mental substance.  Since then, inquiry into the nature of this mind-body relationship has kept generations of psychologists and philosophers and their students busy inquiring. 

There is, of course, a longstanding tradition of mind-body dualism in Western philosophy that goes back at least to the early Greek philosophers and the early Judeo-Christian theologians that acknowledged that the physical bodies of all living things are composed of non-living material substance. Of course, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal laws that govern the motion of non-living material substance. Therefore, by the seventeenth century, most scientists were engaged in extending Newton’s mechanical metaphors into other areas of scientific endeavor, including psychology, politics, and economics.

In order to extend that materialistic paradigm into psychology many early psychologists adopted the high-level theory that the human body, like the rest of material nature, is more-or-less organized like a “machine;” that is to say, a closed mechanical system ruled by internally programmed deterministic laws. In order to discover these laws, philosophers and scientists agreed that they must observe the material processes that take place within the body’s various sub-systems and fit those observations into a mathematically elegant model.

In the quest to explain, predict, and ultimately control psychological phenomena, scientists aspired to identify the material and/or biological structures responsible for the traditional content of psychological inquiry: feelings, thought, perception, and behavior. According to the Cartesian formula, this “instinctive” and “reflexive” material aspect of living things could ultimately be reduced to the laws of physics as modeled by Newtonian mechanics. By the seventeenth century, Descartes and his successors believed that this research project entailed the empirical study of the human brain, the central nervous system, and the flow of matter and/or energy within that material system.

However, Descartes’ attempt to bring psychology and philosophy in line with the Newtonian worldview was complicated by the fact that he was unable to completely break away from the constraints of hundreds of years of orthodox theological and philosophical tradition. One of the most thoroughly entrenched beliefs in the Western philosophical and theological traditions has been the belief that human beings are unique among living entities. Traditional Christian theology is woefully anthropocentric in that it embraces the simplistic belief that human beings, by virtue of a divine act of “special creation,” possess a non-material eternal soul. (I’ll get back to the “human-animals puzzle” later.) This godlike soul provides the foundation for the Judeo-Christian concepts of individuality, rationality, free will and personal responsibility.

Much of the Judeo-Christian tradition is anchored in a theory of the afterlife. After you die your immaterial soul either transmigrates to heaven (only if you’ve been good) or hell, (only if you’ve been bad). The concept of sin is predicated upon the idea that human beings can know what is good, but do not always choose to do what’s good: hence the distinction between knowing and willing. Sin consists in knowing the Good but deliberately neglecting to do the Good. Although, God punishes sinners, he generously accepts apologies.  Western Liberalism reformulated many of these theologically-based concepts (such as free will, and responsibility) and injected them into the social and political philosophy of the Western Enlightenment.  Over time, philosophers and scientists gradually abandoned the old value-laden, theologically embedded, concept of “soul” in favor of the seemingly more value-neutral, objective, and scientific concept “mind.” Although, there was a change in verbiage, much of the traditional conceptual baggage remained intact. After all, intellectual systems do have a history!

According to Descartes, scientific knowledge of the subsystems of the human mind (in contrast to the brain) must be based on the “internal” observation of conscious mental entities and/or mental processes. (Again, why do we metaphysically conceptualize mind as internal?) This method of inward observation of mental substance is called “introspection.” Introspection is an individual, private, and, therefore, subjective experience. I can observe my own (so-called) internal consciousness, but I cannot directly experience your internal consciousness and you cannot experience mine. We can, however, get together and at least apparently share our common feelings, thoughts, and perceptions by describing those private experiences via our common language. Even if we speak different languages we can communicate via a translator. Cartesians typically maintain that the primary datum of psychology is inexorably internal and ultimately private. Subsequent Cartesians have sought to find the common ground that might serve as the basis for converting subjectivity into something objective and scientific.     

The empirical question, therefore, arises: “How can we transform a ‘private internal mental event’ into something that can be publicly verified and/or falsified via long-term collaborative observations performed by a scientific community?” Or simply, “How can there be an organized cooperative scientific community of psychologists that objectively study feelings, thoughts, percepts, and behavior when the scientists are locked into their own individual subjectivity?”       

This puzzling logical relationship between the perceivable external material world and the conceivable internal mental world drives the traditional mind-body problem. Since the seventeenth century, the materialist tradition, essentially, has taken the existence of the external material world (more or less) for granted and has assumed that at least some of our feelings, thoughts, and percepts are (more or less) copies of material things and that originate in that external world. So when we feel, think about, or perceive the world, at least some of those events originate in externality and/or “correspond” to what’s going on in that external “objective reality.” Unfortunately, not all of our feelings, thoughts, and percepts connect to the real world. Whenever I talk to my sisters I’m amazed at what they believe they remember about our childhood.  Are they manufacturing the past or do I just have a short memory? 

Subjectivists acknowledge that we (at least) seem to be experiencing the same world. But then again, everything that we experience is in our own private consciousness, and unfortunately, we have no obvious direct empirical evidence of that external material world or whether it is really “out there.” This same logic raises doubts as to whether we can know that other minds exist. “I know I exist, but I don’t know about you!” Cartesian subjectivism had serious implications for those who sought to establish psychology as an empirical science. Descartes’ critics argued that this idea of grounding psychology in privately experienced mental substance undermines the observational requirement for the establishment of scientific theories. Worse than that, how can there be a scientific community composed of individual minds locked into their own private worlds?         

Of course, the obvious problem here would be how to describe the mechanism by which material systems and mental systems interact to form a single, unified, mind-body entity? Descartes’ “solution” to the mind-body problem, usually called two-sided interactionism, seems intuitively plausible enough, even today. In acts of volition, the human mind causes changes in the human body (My mind commanded my brain to command my finger to touch letter “Z” on my laptop computer.); and, in sensation the human body causes changes in the human mind (When I touched the stove I felt something hot on my hand because my spinal cord sent information to my brain, which in turn relayed that message to my mind.) Since Descartes believed that animals lack mental substance, he concluded that animals lack consciousness, free will, and sentience (or the capacity to experience pain and pleasure).  He admitted that they possess a limited amount of intelligence. For centuries, this anthropocentric line of inquiry and the religious doctrine of special creation have justified unspeakable cruelty to both animals and the environment.  (Am I being cynical again?)

Of course, Descartes realized that if composite human beings constitute a single system, the mind must somehow connect to the body. He thought that the essential mind-body connection was located at the pineal gland, which contemporary psychologists summarily dismiss as simply empirically false. However refutation of Descartes’ theory is not quite that simple. The mind-body problem is really an epistemological puzzle. Even if Descartes is “really” right about the existence of a mind-body interface structure located somewhere within the human brain, how could psychologists know whether it is located at the pineal gland, or some other structure” After all, psychologists can’t observe a causal interface between material substance and mental substance? Think about it. How can we observe the causal interactions between a “material entity” that exists in a particular place at a particular time and has observable and measurable physical properties (size, shape, color, weight, etc) and a “mental entity” that has no observable physical dimensions, nor spatial and temporal coordinates? In short, how can these mental entities be located “somewhere” and therefore connect with the body, if they lack physical dimensions (size, shape, color, weight, etc). In fact, if you think about it, mental substance has exactly the same attributes as “nothingness.” So how can “something” interact with “nothing?” So here’s the mind-body problem in a nutshell: “How can we observe and subsequently describe causal interaction between a material entity and a mental entity?” 

Many philosophers and psychologists have focused their criticism of Cartesian dualism on this epistemological problem that arises in the context of mind-body causality: that is, how can we “know” that material causes produce mental effects; and, how can we “know” that mental effects produce material effects? But as far as the scientific status of psychology is concerned, the more basic question is: “How can we scientifically observe the connection between mind and body? Is it a material connection elucidated by the observation of external material entities and processes; or, is it an internal mental connection observable via introspection?”

Historically, the mind-body problem has proven to be enormously resilient. You can still buy philosophy books and journals that argue about these questions. It’s even in this book! For centuries, subsequent philosophers and psychologists have sought to reduce Descartes’ dualistic ontology to a single system. However, that effort has also spawned a variety of alternative schools of thought, which have made it very difficult for psychologists to organize their science and themselves under one single paradigm. Two forms of monistic reductionism have dominated the debate. Material reduction simply denies the independent ontological status of mental systems and therefore seeks to reduce mentality to material systems that exchange matter and/or energy. Hence, based on this paradigm, psychology must restrict itself to the empirical observation of material entities. Today, biology and neurology represents the most widely accepted forms of material reduction in psychology.