Feature 05.12.2020 26 minutes

Make Nature Great Again


What If Rights Have Gone Extinct?

In early March—back before coronavirus wiped election season as we know it from the national consciousness—Joe Biden undertook to recite the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence in front of a fired-up crowd of Texas Democrats. It lasted all of about two seconds: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men and women are created by the…you know, you know—the thing…”

It is not clear whether Biden forgot that all men are created equal, or that God endowed them with inalienable rights. Neither slip would inspire a great deal of confidence. But alas, Biden is in good company: America is founded upon the self-evident “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” but how many Americans today—even and especially the most educated Americans—would agree with the founders that we can look to Nature as a principle to guide political action? How many Americans, pressed to explain what principles do guide our politics today, would do no better than the vice president did?

Progressives and conservatives are both more likely to define America in terms of its “values” or its historical traditions than by any natural principle. But in today’s divided political climate, it is clearer than ever that the Left and the Right disagree so deeply about the content of those values and the arc of that history that history and values can provide no basis for common action.

Make Nature Great Again?

One way to revive the political virtue of our nation would be to restore our confidence that Nature can be known, that it can give us purpose, and that it can guide our deeds—in a word, to make Nature great again.

A recent series of articles in The American Mind aspires to just such a restoration of Nature. In “Nature’s Algorithm,” Matthew Peterson identifies the question whether human nature varies as one of the most fundamental fissures between the Left and the Right. Eric Wise and Glenn Ellmers, for their part, make the case that Nature is rational (that it can be known) and teleological (that Nature discloses ends for action).

Admirable work. But something more is needed if these arguments are to persuade a modern audience. For to be modern is to doubt—to doubt whether Nature is knowable, to doubt whether Nature is teleological, but especially to doubt whether human nature is stable enough to serve as a guide for action. This last problem is a particularly thorny one that demands more attention. We may call it the problem of the plasticity of human nature.

The plasticity of human nature is an ancient problem, but it takes on a radical new importance as a result of developments in modern philosophy and technology. Even if we can demonstrate that Nature is rational and that man is by nature oriented toward ends, it does not necessarily follow that those ends are sufficiently stable to provide meaningful guidance for political action. Human nature could be teleological but infinitely plastic—necessarily oriented toward some end, but not necessarily oriented toward any particular end other than whatever is revealed by historical circumstances or fashioned by human artifice.

To make Nature great again, we must do more than argue that Nature is rational and teleological: we must find a way to argue that man’s ends are fixed, or at least that it is possible to set limits to the breadth of their variation. We must circumscribe the plasticity of human nature.

The key to this project, in my view, is to think humbly about the extent to which science and theory can solve the problems of political practice. In light of these limitations, I think we must consider the possibility that the restoration of Nature will require not only a new politics and a new science, but also a new art; not only a new practice and a new theory but also a new technology.

Excavating Natural Teleology

Modern philosophy and modern science each deny, in different ways, that Nature is accessible to human reason: modern philosophy denies that the objective certainty of human thought can be brought to bear upon subjective phenomena; modern science denies that experiments in the realm of facts can be applied to decisions in the realm of values. This twofold cleft in the structure of human thought makes it impossible to rest human action upon a natural foundation.

Ellmers and Wise have taken up the noble task of repairing this twofold fissure in human thought. They seek to excavate the older understanding of Nature bequeathed to us by our Hellenic forebears, dusting off from its surface centuries of disuse and disparagement. Together, their articles make the case that Nature is rationally intelligible, and that it exists in such a way as to disclose ends for the actions of human beings and other animals.

Wise makes the case that the demonstrative certainty which pertains to mathematics is seamlessly connected to the physical world. He uses a mathematical argument explicitly reminiscent (pun intended) of Plato’s Meno to argue that there is an intrinsic connection between mathematical thought, with all of its discursive certainty, and the science of nature (physics). One can reason with discursive certainty about mathematical matters, but we can discover by irrefutable perception that nature is mathematical; therefore, natural science or physics is accessible to and in some way naturally commensurate with human reason: Man’s reason is at home in the cosmos.

Ellmers picks up where Wise leaves off: provided physics is rational, it remains only to show that it is teleological, that is, that it discloses that man is directed toward ends. This means confronting materialism.

The modern materialist prejudice is that simply because animals respond to external stimulae, their actions are therefore just as mechanistic as the collision of billiard balls. Ellmers chooses the best weapon against this argument—Aristotle’s account of the four causes, of which efficient cause is but one. The actions of animals are directed by another kind of cause, namely, final cause: animals do things for the sake of ends that lie beyond themselves, and their doing of these things is coextensive with and identical to their awareness of the goodness of those ends.

Following Aristotle, Ellmers identifies a distinction between ensouled beings or animals on the one hand and all other beings on the other: ensouled beings have a principle of motion in themselves; they initiate actions toward ends, and this is a different sort of cause than the efficient cause of materialism. By pointing to this teleological difference between animals and other beings, Ellmers makes a case for a teleological physics—or at least for a teleological psychology—that could serve as the basis for political action.

Together, Wise and Ellmers’s complementary accounts form a wise and noble argument worthy of their surnames (Ellmers means ‘noble’ in Gaelic). Wise shows that discursive reason can say something about nature, connecting math to physics; Ellmers shows that physics can set apart the ensouled from the soulless and say something about ends, connecting physics to politics.

These arguments are courageous, not only because they are ambitious in scope, but because they represent a break with Leo Strauss, the “great German,” to paraphrase Robert Penn Warren, “who is father of us all.” Strauss begins Natural Right and History by considering natural teleology as a solution to the crisis of natural right, only apparently to reject it:

Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modern natural science (emphasis added).

Ellmers and Wise rush in where Strauss fears to tread: they mend the broken body of teleology. Strauss apparently decided against turning back to natural teleology because he was concerned that modern science has refuted it. Would Ellmers and Wise’s argument assuage his concerns?

The Limits of Classical Teleology

Strauss seems to tie his concerns about natural science to Aristotelian astrophysics, that element of classic natural science that was refuted by modern science earliest and most decisively: “From the point of view of Aristotle—and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?—the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved.” Tying the failure of teleology to ancient cosmology makes intuitive sense: if the idea that man is a rational animal is part of a larger idea that the whole cosmos is a big enclosed circle with the Earth at the center, then it’s an idea whose sell-by date has passed.

But Strauss is being disingenuous here. This is indicated by his footnote, which refers to a passage in the Physics that is concerned not just with the motion of the heavenly bodies, but also with the generation of the kinds of animals: “For it is not any chance thing that comes from a given seed but an olive from one kind and a man from another.”

It is because like comes forth from like, and not by chance, that we can say that nature is teleological. The principle that like comes forth from like has implications for at least two aspects of nature, those that modern natural science studies under the names of particle physics or quantum mechanics (when the beings that are coming to be are “simple”) and genetics (when they are complex and living).

Strauss’s footnotes suggest that his concern about natural teleology goes far deeper than the superficial and obvious inaccuracy of ancient astrophysics: he is concerned that modern science, and modern thought generally, has showed that sometimes things really do come to be out of something other than themselves, that forms that most ancients would have regarded as eternal really are susceptible to change, and that the form of man as a rational animal is among them.

One of the more disquieting suggestions of modern particle physics or quantum mechanics, insofar as I am capable of describing it, is that things are capable of being or not being as it were at the same time and in the same place—or to put it another way, that the underlying structure of reality is probabilistic rather deterministic in character. Quantum mechanics suggests that we ultimately do not know whether a particle is, but only to what extent it might be. It suggests moreover that the fundamental structure of sub-atomic particles is nonbinary. Taken together, these suggestions may challenge the Aristotelian principle that like comes to be from like.

At present, the experts tell us, this challenge to Aristotelian physics appears (providentially?) confined to things that are too small to see. This does little to alleviate one’s anxiety: if today’s mysterious dispensation of the cosmos can cause like to come forth from unlike at the quantum level, who is to say that tomorrow’s dispensation will not cause my espresso suddenly to be replaced by another espresso—apparently the same, only decaffeinated? Blaise Pascal put it best: the decaffeination of these infinite spaces frightens me.

This aspect of modern natural science gives rise to a nagging suspicion that the connection Wise identifies between the discursive certainty of mathematical thought and the phenomena of physics is only true as it were “locally” or on a “macro” level, not ultimately or universally.[i]

If quantum physics may pose problems for Wise’s argument, which attempts to reconnect discursive certainty to Nature, then modern genetics certainly poses a problem for Ellmers’s argument, which attempts to connect teleology to Nature—and specifically to human nature. If the form of man arises through evolution, how can he be said to have a nature?

Ellmers argues that just because something takes an action with respect to an external thing does not mean that its action is explicable solely in terms of the mechanics of efficient cause. One cannot understand the actions of living beings—including their evolution—without considering them as internal sources of action that reach beyond themselves, to ends.

Ellmers’s argument is persuasive. The more the science of genetics advances, the less mechanistic it seems.[ii] Ellmers offers evidence that geneticists are slowly coming around to recognizing what classic natural scientists have long known: the animal is more cause than caused, and insofar as the animal is subject to a cause, that cause tends to be an end.

Classic natural science can make the argument that men—and all animals, for that matter—have souls, and that they have a nature that is open to choosing ends of action. But showing that man is truly ensouled—truly an animal—does not suffice to demonstrate that his nature can be the basis for political action. For classic natural science held that man was not merely an animal but was also a rational animal, directed toward the Good. The classical position, in other words, was that man’s nature had not only a specific form (teleological), but also a specific content (rational, or toward the Good). Man’s nature was not merely directional in form; it was also stable in content, and it was arguably the stability of this content that distinguished man from the other animals.

Evolutionary genetics undercuts classical teleology by suggesting that because man’s nature can change, the content of man’s ends can change. The advance of technology ups the ante by making it possible for us to modify human nature on our own, extensively and swiftly. Modern genetics confronts us with a sort of conventionalism on steroids, in which it isn’t just human laws or “values” that vary everywhere—it’s the very facts of human nature that vary, too. What can the classical science of Nature do to overcome these hurdles?

Did Strauss decline to revive classical natural science because he anticipated these conclusions? Did he foresee, as it were in his spare time, all the findings of 21st-century genome research and particle physics? The suggestion would strain the credulity of even the most reverent Straussian. But Strauss did seem to have harbored doubts as to whether ancient natural science could really show that like does not come forth from like. The progress of modern natural science appears to some extent to have validated those doubts, especially when it comes to the question of the plasticity of human nature.

Whatever doubts he may have had about classical physics and metaphysics, Strauss made it quite clear that he was very concerned indeed about whether human nature can serve as a guide for action. Strauss chose to address this question not as a problem of natural science but rather, as is indicated by the title of his book, as a question of Natural Right and History.

Our crisis of confidence in the ability of human nature to serve as a guide for action manifests itself in the collapse of a previously shared understanding of human rights as rules for politics. To understand how we can recover human nature as a guide, it is therefore essential that we understand how the edifice of rights has collapsed, and why.

The Ground of Rights Politics: Science or Art?

Rights frame today’s politics. The political philosophers of the Enlightenment fashioned the structure of rights as a low, sturdy alternative to the lofty ivory towers of classical and Christian politics. We were to take men as they are, not as we wish them to be; to make laws for devils, not for angels; and to look to experience rather than theory to guide political action.

The focus on taking experience rather than some sort of lofty theory of Nature as a starting point does make modern politics look very similar to the modern natural science of Francis Bacon, and many of the early Enlightenment political philosophers were keen to emphasize the kinship between their political science and new modern natural science: Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, among others, frequently characterized their own works as dissertations on political forces. Hobbes goes farthest in this direction, presenting his Leviathan as a sort of political equivalent of Newton’s Principia in which the fear of violent death replaces gravity as the centripetal force of political nature.

Hobbes and Locke argue that one can use a scientific reflection on human nature to circumscribe the ends of politics, restricting its focus to producing security and prosperity. This scientific insight into human nature is presented as the first and ruling principle of the politics of rights: science discovers that man’s most urgent needs are life and property and establishes the State to pursue and secure these goods.

Our present crisis of confidence in human nature arises at least in part because the rights-based regimes of the West are the victims of their own success: security and prosperity are now sufficiently widespread that the fear of violent death and the pain of extreme penury no longer unite humanity in a common cause. The people of the West no longer feel the urgency of these motives, the general will softens, and questions arise concerning rights: our basic needs for security and prosperity having been met, why should the state not turn its attention to satisfying other needs, as well?

If there is a right to freedom from bondage and absolute poverty, why is there not a right to freedom from moderate poverty, or from ignorance, or from sickness, or from sexual dissatisfaction, or from Western cultural norms? Why not, indeed, a right to elective abortions at public expense, or a right to use surgery and drugs to transform the sexual characteristics of one’s children, or a right to contract marriages under Islamic law? Rights politics has “progressed” from the rights to life and property to the rights to abortion, genital mutilation, and religious intolerance in under 300 years.

The speed with which political rights have proliferated must make us suspect that when Hobbes and Locke restricted the scope of politics to security and prosperity, this action of restriction must have been provisional, not to say arbitrary. Hobbes, Locke and the other Enlightenment founders of rights politics argued or implied that their circumscription of human teleology was grounded in natural science. But was this really true?

Leo Strauss argues that while the early moderns present rights politics as founded on scientific principles, it actually stands on foundations entirely independent from natural science. In The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Strauss argues that while the Leviathan’s argument looks like a deduction from natural science, it is really a scientific façade constructed around the very teaching that Hobbes had already expressed in a non-scientific form in earlier works like De Cive. The true origin of Hobbes’s teaching is not science, but rather a certain reflection upon human history. In other words, Hobbes didn’t come up with the State of Nature by analyzing the biochemistry of the human brain: he found it in Thucydides (of whom Hobbes’s English translation remains the best today).

To say that the foundation of Hobbes’s politics is a historical reflection rather than a scientific proof does not mean that Hobbes is wrong, but it does rob his argument of some of its persuasive force. If the fear of violent death were the political equivalent of gravity, then the laws that follow from it would be just as ironclad as the laws of physics. But if the fear of violent death is really just the passion that one Thomas Hobbes has seen fit to highlight for our benefit, this is much more doubtful. Why should we take the fear of death as our starting point? Why not instead the desire for glory? Why not, indeed, the desire for immortal or eternal glory?

Now, to identify a multitude of human ends, as Hobbes does, does not necessarily imply that there is no criterion for choosing between them: classical political philosophers had identified such a multitude of ends as well, and they took this multitude as the starting point for an inquiry into the Good. Socrates famously said that he sought “to know whether I am a monster more complicated and furious than Typhon, or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.”

But this multiplicity of human goods, which is the beginning of the road for Plato’s Phaedrus or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is a dead end for Hobbes, who vehemently denies the existence of any “summum bonum.” Whereas the politics of the ancients took the plasticity of human nature as a starting point for an inquiry into the Good, Hobbes’s new politics begins by foreclosing such an inquiry, arbitrarily limiting the scope of human ends to security, and reducing the pursuit of all other ends to a ministerial status.

The doubts that Strauss raises concerning Hobbes apply just as well to John Locke: in his political works, Locke presents the desire to acquire and to transform the value of nature by the investment of one’s labor as the universal desire of mankind. But in his more philosophic works, Locke notes that some men are driven by other desires, such as an appetite for “quarrel and contention,” or a desire for contemplation.

Locke is careful not to state explicitly that he regards human nature and the ends of human action as plastic. But like Hobbes, Locke declines to provide proof that that the pleasures of “quarrel and contention” or of idle contemplation are intrinsically less choice-worthy than those involved in the production and transformation of Nature.

In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he also subtly indicates that he regards reason as a power that is contingent upon certain biological factors. Locke goes so far at one point as to observe that some particularly unintelligent human beings appear to have less rational capacity than some particularly intelligent members of other animal species. According to Locke, not only is there no limit in principle to the ends of human action; there is not even a bright-line distinction between the range of human ends and the range of ends available to other animal species. It is difficult to reconcile this teaching with the notion of inalienable rights to life and political liberty.[iii]

The classical political philosophers had regarded politics as its own type of thinking, one that proceeded by way of deliberation about the ends of human action in light of the Good. Aristotle called this mode of thinking practical (praktikē—having to do with praxis or modes of action).

For modern political thinkers beginning with Locke and Hobbes, the elimination of the Good transforms the character of political thought from practical reason into purely instrumental reason, in which the consideration of ends is foreclosed from the beginning and the structure of rights is used to work out the logical consequences of this starting-point. Aristotle called this way of thinking poetic or technical (poiētikē or technikē—having to do with poiēsis, creation, or technē, craft).

For Strauss, the technical turn of rights politics reaches its denouement in Heidegger, for whom human nature arises out of the arbitrariness of history and all thought is essentially technological. The political consequence of Heidegger’s position is the crisis in which we find ourselves today: we now question whether there are any theoretical or practical grounds for circumscribing the plasticity of human nature, and this means that we lack any principle for restricting or specifying what is and is not a human right.

If Strauss is correct, then the modern politics of right is really history all the way down, and it is not founded upon any theoretical or scientific insight into Nature: rather, modern politics is founded upon the decision, the will, to conduct human affairs artfully without any guidance from theoretical principles. Modern politics is an art, not a theory, and the politics of rights are founded in history, not in science.

To repeat: if Strauss is right, then our current crisis arises neither because modern politics lacks a teleology nor because the theoretical understanding of Nature that guides that teleology is flawed. Rather, the current crisis arises because modern politics is an experiment in teleology without theoretical guidance, an experiment in guiding human affairs by way of art alone, without any certain knowledge of human nature or Nature at large. Modern politics is defined, from the beginning, by rejecting theories of Nature as a standard for human conduct. The structure of rights defines modern politics, but that structure is purely formal—purely technical.

If the first principle of modern politics is to reject scientific theories of Nature, then how can a theory of Nature be used to correct the errors of our politics? Perhaps it was difficulties such as these that made Strauss hesitate to advocate reviving classical metaphysics and classical physics as a solution to the crisis of natural rights, and to choose instead to approach the problem by re-founding classical politics in a new form, independent of classical metaphysics and physics.

Toward a New Art of Politics

Political philosophy in its classical form enlisted theory in support of practice. Practical reason took the plasticity of human nature as a starting point for its inquiry into the human good: theoretical reason supported practical reason, with technical reason playing a purely ministerial role in the pursuit of ends chosen by theory or practice. For the ancients, theoretical and practical reason worked together to circumscribe the plasticity of human teleology.

Political philosophy in its modern form can be understood as an experiment in making technical progress stand on its own, without the assistance of any theoretical or practical ends. Political rights constitute the technical apparatus of this experiment. Although some moderns appear to circumscribe the plasticity of human teleology by appealing to modern natural science, these appeals appear upon closer examination to be disingenuous: the modern circumscription of human ends appears to be altogether arbitrary or historically contingent. The growing awareness of the arbitrary grounds of human rights constitutes our present crisis.

Strauss’s response to the crisis of rights is to turn back to practical reason. But unlike the ancients, Strauss does not connect his practical reason to a teleological physics or to a formal teleological metaphysics. If modern philosophy was an attempt to make technical reason stand alone, without the support of theoretical or practical reason, Strauss’s philosophy would seem to be an attempt to make practical reason stand alone, without the support of either theory or art.

Strauss’s student Harry Jaffa used his mentor’s teaching to recover the American Founding’s roots in classical political philosophy, reinforcing the modern technical structure of political rights with an understanding of the Good borrowed from classical practical reason.

Jaffa’s fusion of the praxis of classical practical reason with the technē of modern rights is the most coherent and powerful defense of freedom and political virtue today. But the crisis of rights has not gone away: modern critics of Jaffa see his appeal to classical practical reason as a covert attempt to appeal to a debunked classical teleology, or even to theology, and the average American hears Jaffa’s rhetoric of the American Founding as nothing more than an appeal to the values of the past.

Ellmers and Wise try to bolster Jaffa’s solution to the crisis of rights by using a science of Nature to argue that man is indeed teleological in nature. But in light of the non-theoretical character of modern politics, it is not altogether clear to me how this actually addresses the crisis. Unless it were possible to use theoretical physics or metaphysics to discover not only that human beings have ends but also which ends are highest and that these ends are always highest, such theory by itself cannot solve our practical problems.

There is another possible interpretation of our present crisis of confidence in Nature: What if political rights themselves are the problem? If rights no longer provide a meaningful framework for political action, this may suggest that the whole technical apparatus of rights politics has simply reached the end of its life cycle.

If rights can no longer provide guidance for political action, then perhaps we need another technical framework to support the conduct of practical reason. Perhaps we need to combine classical practical reason, not with the modern art of rights, but with an alternative art of making accounts about the Just, the Beautiful, and the Good. Perhaps what we need is a new art that will circumscribe the plasticity of human nature and restore Nature to us as the principle of political action. To make Nature great again, perhaps what we really need is a new kind of making.

Discovering a new art of politics to replace natural rights is rather a tall order of business. But there are at least three promising ways to do this on our horizon today:

  • Recover the classical arts of rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar,
  • Recover the medieval art of politics, viz., natural law, or
  • Invent new arts that make use of modern technology to restore the full range of human ends.

A teleological science of nature could do much to support any one of these projects, but each of them would have to begin, not from the principles of a teleological physics, but from a critique of the technical structure of rights politics in which we live today.

Each of these new arts needs new institutions. To revive the classics, we need a new order of schools that teach students to aspire to virtue. To restore natural law, we need a new jurisprudence that finds its ultimate authority in natural law and natural reason. But returning to the classics and natural law may not be enough, because both of these traditions belong to an age when human nature was known to be fixed, stable, and expansive. But this is no longer widely agreed to be true. To confront the crisis of rights, we may need to find a way to use modern science and technology to recover this broad understanding of human ends. The next Aristotle may use experimental psychology to argue for moral virtue; the next St. Thomas More may use predictive modeling to rebuild the Church; the next Xenophon may use the tools of the global market to create more self-sufficient economies. To go beyond modern politics, we may have to co-opt modern technology.

[i] In the many years since Strauss wrote Natural Right and History, some of his students have made the still more radical suggestion that Aristotle himself did not really believe in his own teleological account of the cosmos. Most recently, David Bolotin has argued in his interpretation of the Physics that the work esoterically implies forms may arise out of that which is other than themselves. Were Bolotin’s argument correct, it would be a blow to the bridge that Wise has constructed between mathematics and the natural world, because it would incline one to the interpretation that even mathematical thought is a kind of unreliable epiphenomenon of physical phenomena, one that has only local relevance and validity. Bolotin’s argument may or may not be persuasive, and it has received what I regard as a rather commanding refutation in a review by James Carey of St. John’s College, as well as in Carey’s book. I do not buy Bolotin’s interpretation. But Bolotin’s radical argument may nevertheless offer some insight into Strauss’s own position on teleology—and, more to the point of our present inquiry, it may offer a caution to anyone who would rely solely on a turn back classical natural science to provide an unqualified or entirely self-confident argument for natural teleology.

[ii] As children in high school, we all learned that Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics explained biological variation between the species just as mathematically as Newton’s physics explained the movements of bodies—it was only that information on genetic changes was hard to find, because they all happened so long ago. With the mapping of the human genome, the secrets of the human being would be unlocked for all to see.

But with the completion of the Human Genome Project and the advance of genetic research, one is beginning slowly to suspect that the predictive capacity of natural selection and the matching of genes are often far outweighed by local selection pressure and epigenetic and adaptive phenotypic variation.

It is worth stressing, however, that even if we were to discover that the course of evolution is in practice influenced at least as much by the internal teleology of animals as it is by external efficient causes, this would not suffice to demonstrate that the animal natures generated by this teleological process are stable.

[iii] Thomas West argues for a gentler interpretation of both Locke and Hobbes, according to which their teachings on glory and the other various ends of human nature play a role analogous to that of the ethical phenomenology of the Ethics or the Phaedrus. West holds that Hobbes and Locke subtly give prudence, courage, wisdom and the other “hard virtues” their due, recognizing them as durable or inevitable features of human nature that must be incorporated into any tenable politics. But this defense only works so long as one takes human nature as static. If the ends of human nature are static, then the moderns have to make room for ends besides the ones arbitrarily selected as their starting points. But the other and perhaps more logical solution to this problem in modern terms would be simply to rewrite human nature using technological force—to transform it so as to remove these unsociable desires or unsociable individuals. Locke’s silence on the plasticity of human nature has real and immediate consequences today: it is unclear whether or on what grounds Locke would oppose the abortion of children with Down Syndrome, the euthanasia of the old, or the genetic or cybernetic modification of human nature, just as it is unclear whether or on what grounds Hobbes would oppose China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims, Christians, and other religious dissidents.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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