The Dim Light of Academic Orthodoxy on the Gold Coin of Philosophy

James W. Springer

The appearance of the sixth edition of Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman, and Peter Matthews Wright, published by Oxford University Press, provides an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary liberal arts and sciences education. This book began its career in 1974 as Seven Theories of Human Nature, by Leslie Stevenson. Subsequently it was expanded to Ten Theories of Human Nature, with the two additional authors and chapters added, deleted, or revised based upon the authors’ views on the importance of various theories in intellectual history. The current edition, published in late 2012, has been adopted in approximately 124 colleges and universities, many of which have a religious affiliation.

The book’s ambition and breadth of coverage are appealing. It intends to provide an introduction to a great variety of influential philosophies, including several ancient and non-Western ones. One chapter each is devoted to Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible (Old and New Testaments), Islam, Kant, Marx, Freud, Sartre, and Darwinian theories (including contemporary Darwinians). It is encouraging to see that some contemporary academics are even willing to consider the existence of human nature and the importance of studying it. It is a welcome relief from the usual academic doctrines of relativism.

The very idea of such a book is good news for those who believe that the liberal arts and sciences are still viable and teachable. Every educated person should know something about Confucianism, for example, and if the treatment is necessarily somewhat superficial, the diligent student will be stimulated to pursue the subject on his own. The chapter on Darwinian theories, which comes closest to my own background, touches on a series of controversies on the role of heredity, environment, learning, biological evolution, and cultural tradition. Despite its brevity, it manages at least to direct the student to the major personalities, doctrines, and schools of thought, and to suggest further readings.

Twelve Theories of Human Nature contains two serious failings, however, that reflect the unfortunate condition of the liberal arts and sciences in today’s universities, namely their tendency to accept uncritically the current academic orthodoxy as the standard by which everything must be judged. Throughout their summaries of the philosophies, and in a concluding chapter, Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright moralize about the shortcomings and bad attitudes of the thinkers they summarize. Predictably, the moralizing is directed at racism, sexism, social class, and capitalism. The index shows thirty-one pages dealing with “women,” seven pages dealing with “feminism,” and six pages devoted to “racism.” Twenty-five pages are dedicated to “capitalism,” and they are almost invariably hostile, either presenting Marxist criticisms or offering the authors’ own, which are indistinguishable from the former. For example, the authors inform us that “many people” want to reform capitalism “to make it serve widespread human needs and not just enrich those who are already rich.”1 Meanwhile, the horrific record of Marxist regimes, including the suppression of intellectual freedom, is dismissed in a single sentence: “Marx himself cannot be held directly responsible for the failings and atrocities of the communist regimes that came to power after his death” (187). That Marx’s ideas might well have had something to do with those atrocities is never considered. The possibility that “capitalist” regimes might be superior—not only in the production of wealth but in intellectual freedom—seems not to have occurred to these authors.

By subjecting all of the philosophies discussed to the current academic orthodoxies, Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright beg the question: Is this their business as scholars? Race, class, and gender were not the consuming subjects for Confucius or Aristotle that they are for contemporary academics, and it is a solecism to scrutinize ancient works for politically incorrect comments. Issues such as citizenship and legitimate authority that these ancient thinkers do address are relevant to modern institutions, but Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright do not discuss them.

Numerous areas of the liberal arts and sciences necessarily touch on values and institutions very different from those of contemporary American society. Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright properly deplore slavery, for example, but given the ubiquity of slavery until recent times, a scholar must be able to discuss it dispassionately, in a sober and objective fashion. Even within Western civilization, the varieties of slavery and its connection to economics, law, religion, and other areas of culture are enormously complex, not to mention its applicability to metaphor and symbolism. To be informed and objective enough to put the institution in its proper context is not a justification of slavery. The same applies to scholarly studies of totalitarianism, religious persecution, and other complex or controversial topics that scholars frequently address. The current academic mandate for “trigger warnings” on such topics—alerting students that the material to be addressed might be disturbing—is another unfortunate expression of lack of scholarly objectivity. Allowing personal values to shape their scholarly opinions, the authors discuss certain topics in a predictably politically correct fashion. The chapter on Islam, for example, gives no hint that there is anything in Islam that consigns women to an inferior status. The one Koranic passage discussed is construed to require equal treatment of men and women.

The larger failing of Twelve Theories of Human Nature is what is left out. The possibility that any intelligent person has made an argument for a philosophy of limited government, federalism, private and voluntary associations, private property, or the market economy has apparently not occurred to the authors. The nearest thing to an exception is provided by the chapter on Kant, but the discussion of Kant’s philosophy concentrates so strongly on individual ethics that any social or political implications appear minor and revolve around such naivetés as universal peace.

American college students who read this book will remain unaware of the Madisonian theory of human nature on which their country was founded. Although the Founders were not full-time philosophers, they were reflective individuals who were well-read and experienced in the affairs of the world. Despite political controversies and sometimes animosities, they generally shared a coherent view of human nature that informed their writings and policies. They believed that republican government depended, in part, upon the right conduct of its individual citizens, for which religion and morality were the necessary supports, and recognized the powerful temptations of factionalism, sectionalism, demagoguery, and the use of government powers to promote particular material interests at the expense of others (“rent-seeking” behavior in contemporary terminology). At the same time, the Founders recognized that certain self-centered interests, such as the love of fame, might well lead to actions that promote the public interest. Finally, they recognized that even thoroughly self-seeking and self-promoting behavior might be directed, in a well-designed constitution, in a manner that would counteract other equally self-interested behaviors and thereby reduce threats to the public. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 51: “This policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.”2

Human nature itself provided the standard that could be used to evaluate institutions and practices, as when Thomas Jefferson said that King George III “has waged cruel war against human nature itself,”3 and John Witherspoon said that the American Revolution was the “cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”4 This idea survived well into the nineteenth century, when Abraham Lincoln used it in his Peoria speech of 1854 to protest the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the expansion of slavery: “Repeal the Missouri Compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the Declaration of Independence—repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature.”5

Even if the Madisonian school could properly be excluded, Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright’s treatment of the Scottish school of moral philosophy is inexcusable. They devote one page to Hume and occasionally refer to Adam Smith in the chapter on Marx, where they fashion Smith into a proto-Marxist. This treatment is radically deficient. The Scottish school was enormously influential on the American Founding and on Western social thought in general, and there is a large primary and secondary literature on this influence, which could easily be presented in a separate chapter of this book. Moreover, the Scottish school had a coherent and powerful theory of human nature, unlike Marx, who thought that all of the intractable moral and political problems of human life would disappear with the proletarian revolution. The Scots believed that human nature remains fundamentally the same and can serve as the source of generalizations about social life.

The Scots’ starting point was in the limitations imposed by human nature on what the scholar could know, and the advantages to the scholar of being the same sort of being as the subject of his study. According to David Hume, “In pretending therefore to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a compleat system of the sciences.”6 It was probably impossible to account for, or to justify, such basic human notions as causality, morality, fellow feeling, and desire for wealth, but their effects and expressions in particular circumstances could be analyzed. Adam Smith analyzed two of these fundamentals of human nature, wealth-seeking and the sense of morality, in separate books, and evidently saw the two as equally important in explaining human behavior.

The relative neglect of the Scots, compared to Marx, Freud, etc., is a general problem in the teaching of the liberal arts and sciences. Academic discussions of wealth or social stratification, for example, commonly refer to Rousseau as a source or a model of thinking. In truth, Rousseau’s understanding of these phenomena amounts to hardly more than a polemic against private wealth or any inequality of condition. By contrast, Rousseau’s contemporary, John Millar of Glasgow, treats the same subject in The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1778) in a sober, scholarly fashion. Millar discusses the status of women and the authority of the father, the chief, the sovereign, and the master. He cites examples from the historical and ethnographic literature, discusses what he took to be the universals of human nature, and traces their expression in different stages of cultural evolution. The contrast with Rousseau’s polemics and uncontrolled speculation is striking, and very much to Millar’s credit.

The most important subject with which the Scots grappled was the “commercial society,” or “great society,” as Adam Smith called it, then emerging in Western Europe, characterized by social and geographical mobility, personal freedom, the market economy, international trade, and unprecedented growth of wealth.7 This way of life was just beginning in their era, and we cannot look back through the lens of time and expect them to have been able to grasp fully its implications and consequences. Some of them had firsthand knowledge of the tribal, clan, and village society of the Scottish Highlands, and their appreciation of the contrast with the emerging commercial society gave some acuteness to their analysis. They tried to understand the new society as the latest stage of cultural evolution, undergirded by the commonalities of human nature and clearly in continuity with the past, while also reflecting a breakthrough in social life. Their most successful efforts were devoted to analyzing the production of wealth, as in the works of Hume and Smith. As with all issues concerning human behavior, the Scots were not uniform. Adam Ferguson, while a supporter of the market economy, expressed considerable reservations about the corrupting and enervating effects of wealth, a common view in the eighteenth century that Hume did not share.

Apart from their technical economic theories, the Scots attempted to analyze commercial society in terms of personal liberty, property, justice, and the virtues and vices (such as corruption) that were recognized by their contemporaries. They do not appear to have appreciated the extent to which their world was about to be transformed by an extraordinary increase in wealth and by a form of association in which strangers with radically divergent ethnic backgrounds were drawn together into a worldwide relationship of impersonal cooperation and trust. Even with these limitations, however, their accomplishments in analyzing commercial society far exceeded the invective of Rousseau and Marx.

The Scots’ perspective on their own society, while frequently critical, was scholarly, urbane, and temperate. It presents a strong contrast to the debunking and vilifying character of the analyses by Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre that are so popular with contemporary academics. This contrast in temperament is a critical contribution that this school of thought can make to a liberal arts and sciences education.

Twelve Theories of Human Nature is a valuable and instructive book, both for what it says and for what it does not. Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright have undertaken an extraordinarily important enterprise, namely to summarize adequately and fairly a great variety of views of human nature, in a manner appropriate for an undergraduate college audience. In the final chapter, they attempt a synthesis structured by such dualities as theism versus secularism, and free will versus determinism. I have no objection to such a synthesis, but it seems that the authors have missed an obvious philosophical system in which these dualities could be reconciled: the philosophy of natural law. That philosophy can accommodate man’s rational and irrational natures, his evolutionary background as a vertebrate, mammal, and primate with unique intellectual powers, and his capacity for a shared symbolically-based body of knowledge that is not confined to any individual and can be communicated throughout the entire species. In this system, Aristotle and Darwin can be reconciled8 and it should be possible to incorporate the legitimate insights of other philosophical systems.

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