July 26, 2010


Darwinian Liberalism (Larry Arnhart, July 12th, 2010, Cato Unbound)

Libertarians need Charles Darwin. They need him because a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.

In his review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, Thomas Huxley declared, “every philosophical thinker hails it as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armory of liberalism.” The Whitworth gun was a new kind of breech-loading cannon — a powerful weapon, then, for liberalism.

In 1860, liberalism meant classical liberalism — the moral and political tradition of individual liberty understood as the right of individuals to be free from coercion so long as they respected the equal liberty of others. [...]

I have argued that Darwinian science is compatible with a classical liberal understanding of how moral order in a free society arises from natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. But does Darwinism make any unique contribution to liberal thought — something that could not have been derived from the moral and political thought of liberalism without the help of Darwinian science?

Yes, I think it does. Evolution provides a purely naturalistic grounding for liberal thought, so that there is no necessity to appeal to the supernatural. That’s important, because if liberal thought required supernatural beliefs, this might seem to require a coercive enforcement of those supernatural beliefs, which would subvert the individual liberty of conscience.

From Locke’s Two Treatises of Government to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Spencer’s Social Statics, liberal thought has justified equal liberty as an expression of the unique dignity that human beings have as created in God’s image. For Locke, our natural desires give rise to natural rights because they have been implanted in us by God, and we are all naturally equal in our rights to life, liberty, and property, because we are all “the Workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” For Jefferson, looking to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we can hold it to be self-evident “that all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For Spencer, since God wills human happiness, He also wills that human beings should have equal liberty as the condition for satisfying their desires.

If liberalism requires such religious beliefs, then the liberal doctrine of religious toleration cannot include tolerating atheists. This was Locke’s conclusion, because he warned that denying the existence of God as the Creator of human beings and of the moral law dissolved the moral bonds of human society.

The idea that individuals should be free obviously requires repudiating God, but it less obviously requires repudiating the Republic. Which is why libertarianism is anathema to conservatism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2010 4:23 PM
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