Friday, September 07, 2007

Taking People for What They *Really* Are

The conception of the person (or self) which a political theory is premised upon can greatly influence the content of a theory. Thomas Hobbes, for example, based his account of the social contract upon a particular conception of the person. According to Hobbes, humans are asocial and naturally suspicious. And this account of the person plays an important role in Hobbes’s political theory. The same could be said for most of the greats in political theory: Locke, Rousseau, Marx….etc.

Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and we can still see this issue at play. The 1980’s and 1990’s was largely dominated by the so-called “liberal/communitarian” debate. An important issue in that debate concerned the conception of the self a theorist employed. To simplify things… many communitarians emphasized the importance of recognizing that we are *social* beings, not the unencumbered persons envisioned in a Rawlsian original position. And this (among other things) spurred many a debate between liberals and communitarians.

Reflecting on the importance the conception of the person has played in debates in political theory got me thinking….. what would happen if theorists took seriously the fact that we are the kind of biological beings we actually are? I don’t mean that to sound as trite as it might sound. We have only really begun to truly understand our biology- like the role genes play in the development of different phenotypes (like health and intelligence), why we develop cancer, why our capabilities decline with age, etc. And as this veil of ignorance is lifted, and we begin to really understand the kind of creatures we are (and could be), shouldn’t we expect our view of the moral and political landscape to also shift in significant ways?

I wonder what would happen if political theorists were to invest as much of their time and energies into the implications of our real biological nature as they have into our purported social/asocial nature? Interesting question. Is this likely to happen? I certainly hope so. But I believe there are a number of reasons why it might not. Probably the biggest obstacle is that contemporary academia makes such interdisciplinary work difficult, or at least it does not provide the kind of incentives needed to foster such intellectual pursuits.

This takes me nicely back to Hobbes. Hobbes really should serve as an example to contemporary political theorists. For Hobbes was greatly influenced by the science of his day. How many contemporary political theorists can truly say that science influences, in a very serious way, their work? The specialization of academic disciplines has, I believe, impoverished our intellectual pursuits in many ways. I long for the day when theorists are, once again, seriously engaged with science. For science will continue to progress, whether we pay attention or not. And I’d like to think that our chances of moving science forward in the right direction is more likely to occur if theorists contribute to (rather than ignore) the public debate concerning where we should take the future of humanity.