It has been almost exactly a year since my 50th Yale reunion. Two classmates, Joe Lieberman and John Ashcroft, participated in a public discussion of their views moderated by another classmate, Robert Kaiser, an editor for the Washington Post. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend the discussion, but have heard about a half-dozen reports on it. Ashcroft was apparently a surprise to this rather narrow audience of Old Blues. He was funny, engaging in sophisticated banter with Kaiser and very forthright about his position on the issues discussed. The reason I am writing this is because of a statement Ashcroft allegedly made that was reported to me by several of my informants (and denied by another). So, mind you, it is entirely possible that he did not say it, but it really doesn’t matter whether he said it or not.
The alleged comment, was something to the effect that the predominant principle guiding his decision-making as Attorney General was LIBERTY and not JUSTICE. I use this as prologue to this post’s subject, which is to place the two competing values of liberty and justice into the context of the blog’s philosophical framework of the evolution of our minds and motivations.
First off, we are here talking about liberty (certainly in Ashcroft’s ethos) as a value pertaining primarily to INDIVIDUALS and not groups. By contrast, justice is intrinsically RELATIONAL. It pertains to conduct between individuals, and therefore is a property of a group (in this case, the country).
Time for the cable news mind-gongs to go off:
Clarification: The justice that I am referring to here is not about equality; it is about notion of right and wrong.
To cut to the chase, my simple position is that the inclination for justice is a very highly developed capacity in humans, as opposed to the inclination for liberty, which is, at bottom, an almost reflexive, aversive response to being controlled by others. I claim that it is only after the establishment of justice that liberty (as opposed to mere dominance) becomes a possible existential state of being. Liberty is, quite simply, the fruit of justice. Ashcroft is (allegedly) focused on the flower and not the plant. In order to make the flower stay in bloom, all the more so if beloved, it is the plant that needs the tending. This is not an abstract, metaphysical position, but an historical one—including the deep history of human (hominid) evolution during which the uniquely human part of human nature was evolved.
Everyone can relate to freedom, particularly when it comes to the freedom to make money. In the celebrated 10th Federalist Paper, James Madison places his finger on the cause for violent factionalism as both the limitless inclination and the differing abilities of people to acquire what Alexander Hamilton refers to in Federalist #12 as “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.” Madison concludes that “The latent causes of faction are thus sewn [sic] in the nature of man.” This is an accurate portrayal of an endemic human problem, but as an assessment of human nature, it is woefully superficial. The much deeper question, which the Founding Fathers did worry about, is the source of virtue and morality. To what extent is this source of our faculty of reason by means of which we have deduced our constitutions? I suggest that it is the other way round: our facility of reason has been the agent of our naturally evolved sense of justice.
It is my belief that the meaning of the human experience—in both the recorded and unrecorded history of our own Homo sapiens species, and, more important, during the entire 6-million year history of our human “tribe”—has been the conversion of the laws of the jungle into the laws of right and wrong. Justice is not something that we just cooked up recently up by dint of reason or culture.
My proposal in this blog is that all that was to become human was set in motion when a fateful group of apes underwent a momentous natural conversion. Evolution by the natural selection of individuals in apes, which had produced dominance hierarchies, converted in early humans to the preponderance of natural selection at the level of associations between individuals, producing the singular dominance of communal authority. The struggle of human evolution all along has been the struggle to impose the laws of right and wrong by suppressing the antisocial components of the Darwinian struggle for individual survival in order to extract its productive power. And, of course, this struggle continues into our time. So, although we harbor our primate heritage of the will-to-dominate as individuals deeply within us, what sets us far above all the other beasts are millions upon millions of years of evolving to coordinate (notice I did not say cooperate) our behavior for-the-good-of-groups, subgroups, and groups-of-groups. And, all along, the granite foundation of this crucial adaptation to coordinate group behavior has been the innate knowledge-of-and-inclination-towards justice. It has been our finely tuned sense of justice that has been naturally selected and preserved over trackless eons for the benefits of its ever-increasing productivity and fecundity, i.e.: fitness.
Click→here←for a summary of the blog’s philosophy.
This post was initiated last week when I was touring Iceland, home of the oldest parliament in the world, and came upon this extraordinary diorama. It depicts a dramatic display of justice that took place about a thousand years ago. To me,the well-developed intricacy of this process (described below), and the fact that it had sprung up shortly after the Island was settled is evidence for the breadth and depth of a refined sense justice in human nature. They were establishing the roots of the “plant” that would, with time, bear the fruit of liberty for the individuals of succeeding generations.
↓This is a glacier.