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Guest Post: Aaron Kenna on Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers”

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Primates and Philosophers, Frans de Waal writes:

Social contract theory, and Western civilization with it, seems saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Aristotelian view by proposing that our ancestors started out autonomous and combative, establishing community life only when the cost of strife became unbearable. According to Hobbes, social life never came naturally to us. He saw it as a step we took reluctantly and ‘by covenant only, which is artificial.’ More recently, Rawls proposed a milder version of the same view, adding that humanity’s move toward sociality hinged on conditions of fairness, that is, the prospect of mutually advantageous cooperation among equals.

These ideas about the origin of the well-ordered society remain popular even though the underlying assumption of a rational decision by inherently asocial creatures is untenable in light of what we know about the volution of our species. Hobbes and Ralws create the illusion of human society as a voluntary arrangemwnt with self-imposed rules assented to by free and equal agents. Yet, there never was a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors – a long line of monkeys and apes –we have been group-living forever. Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out – if a starting point is discernible at all – as interdependent, bonded, and unequal. We come from a long lineage of hierarchical animals for which life in groups is not an option but a survival strategy. Any zoologist would classify our species as obligatorily gregarious.

This passage very nearly opens de Waal’s piece “Morally Evolved” in Primates and Philosophers, and serves more as a stepping stone toward a discussion of morality rooted in social behaviors than it does a fully fleshed out critique of modern social contract theory. That being said, this passage gave me great pause as I read; how could it be that evolutionary theory is so at odds with social contract theory, when both so heavily pervade our scientific and political frameworks? Special thanks to Aaron Kenna for lending his expertise and his ideas in this pithy guest post. Enjoy!

The history of social contract theory shows a remarkable story of success: the very foundations of western liberal democracies rest upon the contractarian ideas of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Social contract theory, however, often meets with the criticism that it somehow fails to account for the essential social nature of humans. Take, for example, Frans de Waal. In Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, de Waal claims that social contract theory is ‘saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us’ (de Waal p 3)[1]. Hobbes, the paradigmatic contractarian, in particular is criticized by de Waal for supposedly asserting in his state of nature analysis that humans historically rarely maintained social ties until the individuals costs of social non-cooperation made asocial behavior unattractive.

However, Hobbes never intended that his state of nature analysis be taken as an historical description of mankind, and asserts as much explicitly in Leviathan chapter 13, paragraph 11. Moreover, through his criticism of Hobbes de Waal ipso facto conflates the political with the social.  That is, Hobbes argues that political arrangements qua political arrangements are artifices (more on this below), but he recognizes the social nature of humans. Throughout the Leviathan, but in particular chapters 11 – 13, Hobbes identifies the primary causes of conflict in the absence of a civil authority:  “So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrel. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory” (L 13.6). If, as de Waal contends, Hobbes intended to proffer an asocial account of human nature, why did Hobbes identify glory as a primary motivating factor of conflict? It is meaningful to seek glory amongst your fellows only if one is firmly placed within a context which conduces to the development of such desires, viz., a social context.

For Hobbes (and more so for Grotius, Locke, and Rousseau) any political arrangement is a construction of our own creation, but social relations are not. Certainly this is true, now more than ever: nation-states rise and fall, are reformed, borders redrawn, and individuals migrate, but yet people do not cease to maintain social relations. Hobbes nowhere denies this; rather, he argues that social relations would lead to significantly less happiness if there were no constraints on individual action. One ought not to criticize social contract theory unless one understands social contract theory, and de Waal reveals a profound ignorance concerning social contract theory in general, and Hobbes’ work in particular.  To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms to be made against both social contract theory and the work of Hobbes, but de Waal has not made any.

-Aaron Kenna.


[1]    The Greek view of the social nature of humans is compatible with a social contract view of political justification. See, for instance, Plato’s Crito, wherein Socrates gives a crude social contract argument to justify his acceptance of his punishment.

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  1. October 25, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    Social contract theory is nonsense rationalization for a privileged state elite. I never consented to be governed.

    ” rather, he argues that social relations would lead to significantly less happiness if there were no constraints on individual action.”

    Because governments, in all forms, not just the absolutism Hobbes was defending, have been so successful at protecting the happiness of individuals? Where does anyone find ANY evidence for this?

    Spooner, Rothbard, Hoppe, and others have all laid waste to the social contract theory of government. Hobbes and Locke were mistaken, as well as many in our current age our.

  2. Aaron
    October 26, 2011 at 1:14 AM

    Mattheus,

    Social contract theory is not incompatible with market anarchy. For instance, Jan Narveson and Randy Barnett are both anarcho capitalists and a contractarians. There are anarcho-capitalistic treatments of Robert Nozick and David Gauthier, both contractarians. Moreover, I am a market anarchist and I am a contractarian. I reject Hobbes’ conclusion that a civil authority is necessary for economic transactions and the maintenance of peace, but I do so on contractarian grounds.

    That aside, that ‘[s]ocial contract theory is nonsense rationalization for a privileged state elite’ is not at all true. Rather, such a claim is more akin to base assertion than anything which approximates criticism via honest inquiry.

    Re: ‘Spooner, Rothbard, Hoppe, and others have all laid waste to the social contract theory of government.’

    I find much of merit in Hoppe, Spooner, and Rothbard, but neither ‘laid waste’ to social contract theory. Neither of the gentlemen understood Hobbes sufficiently to offer good criticisms. Ironically, contractarianism is not simply a political theory, it is also a meta-ethical theory; one, in fact, which does a far better job at establishing libertarian ethics than Kant, Rothbard’s natural law theory, and Rand’s Objectivism.

  3. AlturaPark
    December 16, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    Is Aaron Kenna aware that his commentary doesn’t engage with de Waals’ point? I’m pretty sure de Waals wasn’t writing a monograph on Hobbes. Kenna’s smugness makes it difficult to tell if he thinks he’s saying something germane or just posturing like one of de Waals’ primates.

  4. Aaron
    December 17, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    Altura Park,

    De Waal’s thesis in the excerpted portion is this: ‘Social contract theory, and Western civilization with it, seems saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us.’

    De Waal then proceeds to offer an argument to substantiate his thesis, beginning with a reference to (what de Waal thinks is) Hobbes’ essential view on human nature. Of course de Waal did not intend to write a monograph on Hobbes; he was rather trying to offer a substantive criticism of social contract theory by way of showing how sociologically untenable Hobbes’ view of human nature was. But, as I show, de Waal did not understand Hobbes- to say nothing of Rawls, Nozick, Locke, and Rousseau- and thus his remarks against social contract theory really miss the mark.

    When Hobbes rejects Aristotle’s zoon politikon view of man, what Hobbes is doing is (1) rejecting the premise that any particular political arrangement is requisite for a peaceable existence and (2) noting that a political arrangement is not justified in and of itself, but rather it is justified only to the extent to which it conduces to the satisfaction of the desires of the individuals who comprise the political unit for peace and protection of self and property.

    In short, de Waal has no idea what he is talking about. Do you?

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