A comment on a previous post expresses a common set of views among conservatives:
Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.
This confuses natural selection with social selection, which are very different processes. Nevertheless, this view that historical selection (either in general or in some specific set of societies) selects for what works, so gives what we inherit presumptive legitimacy, is a common view within conservative and prudential liberal circles. (Western conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, are generally mostly prudential liberal in outlook.) The general argument goes at least as far back as Edmund Burke, but was revitalisatised by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.
Limitations versus limiting
As a point about the limitations of human knowledge against Adam Smith‘s “men of system” (such as, for example, the disastrous official advocates of dogmatic laissez faire during an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine), the argument has real power. The failure of the command economies–including the revolutionary socialist contempt for millennia of struggling with how to make political responsive to the interests of governed–provide an even more dramatic example.
But the power of the “product of historical selection” argument is easy to exaggerate. After all, every single form of oppression you might care to mention was the result of some social selection process. Mere persistence does not stop oppressive arrangements from being oppressive. It just makes them well-entrenched. The notion that, if people like you lost out in the past, you lose out forever–that history never selects for entrenched wrongs–puts enormous moral weight on the processes of historical evolution, which are morally a very mixed bag. The above argument could be (and was) used against democracy, for example, providing another case of the “eternal now” that conservative arguments often seem to live in.
The problem comes when the argument is used, not to highlight the limits of human knowledge, but to ignore or block knowledge; to actively limit knowledge. Specifically, the experience and aspirations of those who suffer from said oppression. It was precisely to convey understanding of that sort that the famous Wedgeword anti-slavery medallion and plate had a kneeling black slave with the words “am I not a man and a brother?”.
Which is why the equalising of consumption in Western societies since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has seen a series of longstanding oppressions lose their purchase on public policy.
Part of what is going on is simply that the lowering of Adam Smith’s “immediate necessity“:
A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.
has seen the ability to organise politically spread throughout society. The rise of the union/labour movement was quite directly based on this, but so were all the emancipation movements, starting with the anti-slavery movement. (Which was more a product of the Commercial Revolution than the Industrial Revolution, as that did not get underway seriously until the 1820s.)
This ability rests on several aspects, starting with having a buffer against immediate need which gave both time and resources to organise. But it also rests on broadening access to all the things one needs to politically organised–including the ability to compose and disseminate one’s case. To spread the experience of oppression and social restriction more widely in politically effective ways. The more one’s experience can be ignored, the more socially vulnerable you are. And vice versa.
This change in the capacity of the hard-done-by to organise against the social restrictions and exclusions imposed on them by historical processes may also have been aided by a change in social outlooks; though disentangling the two effects is a somewhat analytically fraught exercise. Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature grapples with this question, though as part of a wider question over a much wider historical ambit. Equalising consumption may also have a role here: both in the sense of making lives more alike and more accessible–so easier to empathise with–and also being associated with more potential positive-sum interactions.
Note, I am not peddling some form of historical inevitability. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan intimates, that is condescending to the opponents and belittling to the supporting activists of the various emancipations. What the rising equalising of consumption did was create historical possibilities; activists for the various emancipations then struggled to make the possibility of equal protection of the law real.
Which brings us back to the problem with using the “result of historical selection” argument to actively block knowledge. We cannot understand the nature of social arrangements unless we are willing to consider all aspects of those arrangements, including the experience of those oppressed by them. Hence the importance of the “your experience does not count” premise–or, even more simply, “your experience is invisible to me” or “your experience is unconsidered by me”–in upholding traditional oppressions. It is a weaker form of the crippled epistemology (pdf) that Russell Hardin argued was a feature of political extremism.
As an aside, that is precisely the problem with “moral arguments against homosexuality”: even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as “proper” form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people. Hence the “sexuality is a choice” nonsense (really?, tell us all about when you chose to be heterosexual)–it is a way of pretending that such is not happening, of discounting experience and the burdens being imposed.
It is one thing to caution against over-confidence in our knowledge, in our understanding. It is quite another to use that injunction against over-confidence to block knowledge, to block understanding. To buttress an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing. A great thing about living in a society with expanding mass consumption possibilities is precisely the expanding ability to connect to each other; to both the like-minded and to the possibly persuaded.