Sunday, May 16, 2010

Federalist No. 7 and Alexander Hamilton's Practical Argument for a Strong Union

Whereas in Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton based his argument for a strong federal government on philosophical anthropology, in Federalist No. 7 he gives an argument almost entirely based on facts particular to the situation of the fledgling United States of America. He does open with a nod to the Hobbesian anthropology of Federalist No. 6, asserting that a "full answer" to the question is merely to observe human nature and consider that the people of the United States are no different than other people throughout history (¶1). Nevertheless, Hamilton is willing to humor those of his readers who hold that humanity is capable of nobility in addition to reprobation. Hamilton targets that audience with practical considerations over handling four different types of conflict that could lead to war between the states were there not a strong federal government to be the final arbiter: disputes over territory, disputes over commerce, disputes over public debt and disputes over conflicting laws. Left unchecked, these conflicts would embroil the United States into a war between the states. So, as a practical matter, the United States should retain a strong federal government so that its citizenry might live in peace.

The first of the conflicts over common assets, territorial disputes, Hamilton suggests is "one of the most fertile sources of hostility among the nations" (¶2) and, given the vast unsettled territory held by the United States collectively, would present a rather poignant and immediate problem to the states if there were no federal government which would control that unsettled territory. He points out that were the federal government to be dissolved that there would be immediate dissent between the states over the proper division of unclaimed land because each of the states would have equally good claim to title for the land once held by the (now dissolved) federal government. In fact, he points out that when independence was initially acquired, exactly this problem cropped up and it was solved only by granting disputed lands once belonging to the crown of England to the federal government rather than to individual states.

But unclaimed lands are not the only type of land involved in territory disputes. Hamilton points out the very real boundary disputes between Pennsylvania and Connecticut and between New York and Vermont in order to question how those disputes could possibly have been settled peacefully without a federal government to adjudicate. Without the coercive force of a strong federal government to require that the individual states accept a resolution, why would the states involve not resort to force of arms to decide the question if they cannot come to an agreement? Or if a third party arbitrator stepped in to help resolve the dispute, if either (or both) of the parties were not satisfied with the outcome, there would be nothing to prevent either side from rejecting the results of arbitration and, further, nothing to prevent one or both sides from turning to force of arms to settle the dispute.

Just as Hamilton saw assets such as land presenting a cause for friction between the states, he also saw problems with the liability of the national debt. Debt acquired by the fledgling United States during the war for independence presented a unique problem because there was simply no fair way to apportion the debt between the states. For any scheme that might be suggested, Hamilton notes that there are real and honest objections and that these objections are magnified by diverse interests among the various states (¶7). For, as Hamilton observes, some states felt morally obligated to pay off the war-time debt and other states had no interest in making any payment whatsoever. This situation, in Hamilton's view would lead to "hesitation" in payment which, in turn, would invite foreign powers to initiate war as a means to recover the money they loaned to the fledgling republic. Disputes over the handling of libabilities, then, lead not only to conflict between individual states but also potentially lead to war with foreign powers.

The real heart of the problem, Hamilton argues, consists of two distinct motivating factors. One the one hand there is a very real fear and jealousy on the part of each state of the possibility that other states will increase in size and power and, thus, relatively decrease their own size and power. On the other, within each state are "individuals of influence" (¶4) who have their own private agendas and seek territorial growth in order to satisfy those interests. In each of these cases, the proposed US Constitution provides a damper. Not only does the US Constitution create a form of equality between the states which reduces the concern over the growth of neighboring states, but it creates an unique environment where private interests can pursue their commercial agendas without the need to push individual states toward territorial expansion.

This point of Hamilton's, that one of reasons that a federal government is necessary is to prevent disputes between individual states from escalating into war, also applies to what Hamilton refers to as "the competitions of commerce" (¶5). Starting from the observation that the states are unequal with regards to natural resources and engines of commerce, Hamilton argues that states which have less would be keenly interested in sharing in the success of nations that have more. The implication he draws from this is that each state would effect its own system of commerce designed to maximize taking advantage of the success of neighboring states (presumably through tariffs, protectionist laws, and etcetera). If this were to happen, something exceedingly interesting would follow. These differing systems of commerce would lead to discontent between the states and end in each state calling "injuries" those things which are the perfectly reasonable acts of sovereign nations.

The rise of these perceived injuries might begin with individuals within some states pursuing private commercial interests in other states and ignoring large portions of the various commercial laws of those other states. This leads to direct infractions against the commercial laws of those other states. Those states then respond with efforts to halt such infractions. These efforts to enforce the law lead to even greater disparities in the systems of commerce between the states. These disparities would only serve to strengthen the larger states. As an example, Hamilton looks to New York. Left unchecked, New York could (and would) levy import taxes not only on international goods but on the goods of the various neighboring states that desired to use the ports of New York. States like Vermont and Connecticut would end up paying taxes to New York. Over time, this would essentially lead to a tributary relationship with the weaker states paying taxes to the larger states. This, in turn, would lead to competitions for spheres of influence between larger states with smaller states jockeying between this state or that state against other large states. Such relations, in Hamilton's view, would eventually lead to the sort of tensions that lead to war.

Moreover, these separate systems of commercial law lead to the violation of the rights of citizens in one state by the government of other states. A private contract between two parties might be legal in one state but not in another. If one of these parties is a citizen of a state where the contract is legally void, he or she might appeal to that state to strike down the contract. The violation of such private contracts between the citizens of various states amount to various affronts to the rights of those individuals. Hamilton points out that his readers need to do no more than to consider the various retaliatory laws between Connecticut and Rhode Island as an example of exactly this type of behavior and observes that, `we do not expect a liberal and equitable spirit to preside over the legislators of individual states in absence of Federal checks' (¶9). In Hamilton's view, it is only the threat of the overwhelming force of a federal government that prevents states from trade wars and retaliatory legislation against each other. Absent that threat, he implies that the various states would engage in a patter of trade wars and retaliatory legislation that would eventually culminate into hostile action by force of arms.

This chain of events, of course, would be entirely avoidable under a strong federal government where a federal court system could address grievances between the state and provide the coercive force necessary to ascertain that the "losing" state both complies with the ruling of the judge and does not seek to redress perceived wrongs through force of arms. The most intriguing element of this argument is that it suggests that natural rights of nations necessarily lead to conflict. It is the suggestion that the particular interests of a given nation will at some point necessarily conflict with the particular interests of other nations. While Hamilton does not develop this argument, the specter of Hobbes is hanging in the background. The Hobbesian state of nature, the war of all against all, may be rectified within a state by the abrogation of some rights (and by `some,' Hobbes would understand "all save for the right to self defense in the face of a direct threat to one's life") from the individual in exchange for the protection of the state (the Leviathan). Yet, in Hobbesian thinking, this state of nature remains at the level of international relations. Hobbes does not provide a mechanism by which various nations can cede their rights to a larger international body in the same way that he presents a mechanism for individuals to cede their rights to the state within a nation. Without explicitly saying so, Hamilton is effectively taking Hobbes to the next level by putting the federal government into the position of the Leviathan with relation to the individual states.

Further, Hamilton argues that history shows that this is the proper solution to the problem. Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the various colonies of North America ceded many of their rights as sovereign bodies to the Crown of England (and the other various colonial powers). During and immediately after the Revolutionary War, the newly sovereign states did the same with the fledgling national government. Giving up these rights halted many of the behaviors between the states which would have led to war had they occurred between fully sovereign nations. Consequently, if the federal government were to be dissolved and replaced by a weaker confederation of states, America would find itself engaged in the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hobbes' Anticipation of Nietzsche's Critique of Science

One of the most misunderstood aphorisms of the postmodern tradition is Nietzsche's infamous slogan that God is dead. Typically this statement is taken out of the context in which was made and sawn in half to be used solely as evidence of Nietzsche's impiety and, consequently, the basis on which to condemn not only his writings, but the post-modern project in its entirety. But Nietzche's statement about the death of the Deity was less a critique of religion than a critique of science. What Nietzsche was getting at becomes more apparent if one examines the modern critique of religion in Chapter xii of Hobbes' Leviathan.

Hobbes begins his account of religion by noting the attributes that separate man from the beasts: to be inquisitive about the causes of things [¶2], to believe that everything that has a beginning has a cause [¶3], and to posit causes from imagination to those events which causes cannot be explained [¶4]. Hobbes claim that the first two of these cause anxiety because no single human being can be so well versed in the facts so as to be completely certain of the future [¶5]. That is to say, he holds that the limits of human knowledge prevent any individual human being from being able to predict the future with certainty and the price of this is a constant anxiety about what the future may hold. This anxiety then becomes a motivation which drives the third tendency above and results in the positing of all sorts of invisible powers and agents [¶6]. These imaginations are then combined with three other factors: the lack of knowledge of why things are the way they are [¶7]; high esteem for that which is feared [¶8]; and mistaking repeated correlation for causation [¶9]. And hence, the seeds for religion are laid.

Now, Hobbes would make a key distinction here between true religion (Protestant Christianity) and false religions (Paganism and those forms of Christianity he considered to be infected by Pagan practices such as Catholocism). He makes this distinction not based on matters of doctrine but in their approach to the unexplained. For Hobbes, what makes Protestantism reducible to a question of natural science is that he does not hold that Protestant Christianity posits the existence God through the imagination in the same way that imaginary invisible powers such as angels or demons are posited. He also argues that Protestant ministers do not try to use various forms of magic ritual to try to control these invisible powers. Rather, Hobbes holds that Christianity in its pure form reasons to the existence of God in the same way that scientists reason to the existence of natural laws and its adherents are marked by their conformance to the laws of nature rather than the hope of goading God into changing those factors that lie outside of the control of humankind to its benefit.

The importance of this distinction is hard to overstate. In false religion, or superstition, any number of imaginary entities are posited in order to alleviate the natural state of angst in living in an uncertain world. In true religion, or natural science, ultimate causes are posited on the basis of reasons as falsifiable scientific hypotheses. In the former, the adherent attempts to control factors outside of his or her power through appeasing the various imaginary entities thought to be in control of this or that force of nature. In the latter, mankind actually develops control of those forces of nature through coming to understand the real causes of external events. In the former, one might be convinced by others of the reality of this or that invisible entity responsible for this or that natural event. In the latter, one is only convinced through the force of a logical argument combined with empirical evidence.

This is not to say Hobbes would argue that imagination is not important to the science. Quite the contrary, the imagination is very useful in a Hobbesian conception of science. In a comparison to scientists imaginatively postulating explanations of various phenomena to Rudyard Kipling's whimsical Just So Stories, David Barash and Judith Lipton explain how this works.
When it comes to "doing" science, just-so stories are used. It's not that science ends up being such a story, but it nearly always begins as one, emerging from curiosity, questioning, and uncertainty. It then progresses to reasoned conjecture—to asking, "What if?" and "Could it be?"—and then, if the proffered story seems worth pursuing—and is, in fact, pursuable—to validation, or, as the philosopher Karl Popper and his devotees would have it, to invalidation if not true, and to further refinement if it proves productive. Throughout, the enterprise is steeped in wonder—which includes, not coincidentally, both meanings of the word: as an experience of amazement and appreciation ("the wonder of it all") and as an act of imaginative inquiry ("I wonder if the continents moved" or "I wonder if matter is actually composed of tiny, irreducible particles"). [How the Scientist Got His Ideas]
Barash and Lipton echo Hobbes. They present the difference between such though experiments in the scientific method and mere imagination as being twofold. At the psychological level, the motivation of science in its purest form stems from curiosity. At the methodological level, the thought experiments of science are followed by study and experimentation designed to either support or disprove the imagined sources of causation. In contrast, superstition as understood by Hobbes is dependent on anxiety as a motivation and seeks to definitively answer questions rather than to open the doors to future research.

But what Nietzsche explored that Hobbes did not is the idea that science can fill the role of superstition no less than religion. The positing of this or that scientific explanation for the unknown may be no less superstitious than the positing of this or that invisible entity to explain the same phenomena. To one who has not done the research, there is is no epistemic difference between positing a weakened god of the underworld bringing an unusually mild winter and blaming man made global warming. If one follows the criteria set forth by Hobbes and expanded upon by Barash and Liption, for science to be different in kind from religion, one must have personally followed the arguments and have personally examined the evidence that results in this or that scientific conclusion. If one's opinion on the reality of global warming rests entirely on popular accounts in the news, or even on the direct reports of various scientists, then one's opinion is not actually founded upon on science any more than if one were to base one's beliefs on sermons given from the pulpit. This tendency to rest one's beliefs on the suppositions of others is the foundation of Nietzsche's famous aphorism about the death of God in The Gay Science.
After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave--a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. --And we still have to vanquish his shadow, too [§108].
The first part of this aphorism is legend. It caused an immediate sensation upon its publication much as Hobbes' Leviathan also caused a sensation upon its publication. But lost in the conservative reaction to the brute statement `God is dead' is any serious consideration of what Nietzsche meant by `his shadow.' In the popular discussions of Nietzsche, if the portion of the aphorism about the shadow of God is brought up at all, it is usually conflated with a remnant of religiosity that persists even after all belief in God has passed away. While it is true that in §125 Nietzsche puts into the mouth of his prophetic madman the question, ``What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?'' It is also certain that this later aphorism may be taken to be a rhetorical device meant to imply that the trappings of belief continue even though belief in God itself does not.

But if one does follows this route, one has to ignore §109 through §124 in which Nietzsche presents an assault on the anthropomorphism of nature at the hands of scientists and philosophers in addition to religionists. Moreover, one has to neglect that §108 marks the beginning of Book III of The Gay Science and, consequently, is built on the aphorisms of Books I and II. And it is in Book I that mankind is described as being more evil In Nietzsche's day than in aeons past precisely because of the discovery of science [§33]. Further, Nietzsche describes modern science as having been built on three different errors: the hope to understand God; the hope to use science as a tool to perfect humanity; and the view of science as a value-free pursuit of knowledge [§37]. But perhaps the most relevant aphorism to the subject at hand is §46 where the amazement of modern man vis a vis science is explicitly compared to the amazement of men in ages gone by towards superstition.

To be fair to Nietzsche, he offered more than one critique of science in Book I of The Gay Science. The critique that this essay is highlighting that the distinction that Hobbes made between science and religion also applies to the acceptance of science itself. But it is also true that Nietzsche went far beyond this critique in his sustained attack on the value of science. Discussion of that further critique, while certainly important, is outside the scope of this essay. What is most relevant to this particular discussion is that, as Nietzsche so accurately observed, many people have placed science into the role that religion used to play and, consequently, those people are no better off than the hordes of the so-called `dark ages' with regards to the certainty of their beliefs.

Now, one could certainly argue that even if most people still have beliefs formed by hearing various authorities, it is a step forward if those beliefs are founded on the reports of scientists rather than the preaching of religionists. But this step forward is a chimera at best. Regardless of what one's inclination towards any particular issue might be, scientific authorities exist to which one might appeal to confirm one's beliefs. Take the issue of global warming. On one side of the debate there is an overwhelming consensus that global warming is a man made phenomena. On the other side of the debate there are allegations that the global warming consensus is manufactured. Unless a person is extensively educated on the subject, whether one believes the science of one side or the other has as much to do with the quirks of fate and the forcefulness of rhetoric as it does with the scientific method and the issue of objective truth.

The solution to this dilemma put forth by Hobbes is very clearly expressed by Malcom X in his Advice to the Youth of Mississippi:
One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you"re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you"re going west.
These words by the man born as Malcom Little and who died under the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz echo the very heart of the Hobbesian and Nietzschean projects. The first step to putting one's beliefs on a sound foundation is to learn to think for one's self and to learn how to evaluate information that comes from other sources. To blindly put one's faith in any authority, whether scientific or religious, is to effectively give that authority control over one's mind. The history of philosophy from Plato's Socrates to Nietzsche's Zarusthra is filled with various takes on this central idea and suggestions as to how best go about equipping oneself to found one's beliefs on a bedrock of certainty rather than on the shifting sands of other authorities.

But an an often overlooked proponent of this same method is Christianity. While the Christian religion is usually perceived as having an epistemology of "faith" by which each succeeding generation believes entirely because it received a tradition from the generation before, Christianity has also had a strong tradition of believers coming to believe on their own terms. The earliest depiction of the necessity of seeking out the evidence on one's own terms is in the Gospel of John which records the skepticism of Nathaniel upon Phillip's report that he had found the Christ. Nathaniel asked, ``Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'' Phillip's response was short and succinct, ``come and see'' (John 1:46). Phillip's appeal was not to an authority, a third party, or even his own witness. Rather Phillip appealed to Nathaniel to come and see for himself, to discover the facts for himself and to use his own judgment in the matter.

It is in this vein that Clement of Alexandria, writing in the early third century, pointed out that even children understand the difference between piety and superstition. Piety is something one comes to by seeking understanding. Superstition is something one adopts without critical evaluation in order to alleviate one's anxieties. In some aspects, this is not all that different than Hobbes argument that true piety reduces to the investigation of the laws of nature. Similarly, holding to what scientists say without the capacity to understand why it is that they have reached their conclusions leaves one no less superstitious than the adherents of religion who stop at receiving their faith from others without examining it for themselves. For those who receive science in this fashion, the shadow of God remains.