Political philosophy ought to build theories that can explain how political organization has arisen in humans and why it has taken the forms that it has. To that end, it seems prudent to consult evidence from the earliest stages of the evolutionary process at a simple level all the way up to the human animal and see what comes out of it. In seeing what the historical facts are, a theory can be generated to explain those facts and better understand human life and its various organizations. Here is my synthesis.
Evolution and Hedonism
Evolution has two primary characteristics, random variance and selection. Random variance generates multiple traits that are more or less adaptable in a given environment. The more adaptable to the environment, the more capable an organism is of being selected for by the reproduction process. Simply stated, unadaptable organisms die off and adaptable organisms survive and reproduce.
Successful organisms are both lucky and able to avoid noxious stimuli. This is true all the way down to bacteria. Movement is one of the first traits selected for in avoidance of noxious stimuli. Movement also makes it easier to secure necessary resources for survival. In both its avoidance and seeking functions, movement is a highly adaptive trait and has been selected for in many organisms.
Evolutionarily speaking, any trait that allows an organism to survive and reproduce will be passed down. This ability to avoid and seek can be viewed as primitive hedonism. In this sense, life is fundamentally hedonist, whether plant or animal.
Sociality and Intelligence
As life evolves on the back of hedonism as a selection tool, it becomes more complex. The growth of complexity in organisms makes them more adaptable to a wider array of environments and therefore better able to survive and reproduce.
Going beyond movement as an evolutionary advantage, two other traits that are highly adaptive are sociality and intelligence. Bacteria can adapt to an environment by moving to and fro, but are not complex enough to cooperatively work together and intelligently solve problems. However, many organisms have gained one or both of those traits.
Ants are highly social animals and are often considered to collectively respond to the environment as a superorganism. This single trait, social coordination, makes ants one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. They are not very intelligent as individuals, but as a species they have adapted amazingly well to multiple environments and have survived for millions of years.
Defining intelligence has a long and difficult history, but a working definition that serves the purposes of this discussion is the ability to solve problems. This definition works well because it allows us to discuss intelligent algorithms and intelligent robots without much difficulty. These man-made tools are created and valued specifically for their intelligence and are able to solve very complex problems, often faster and better than humans are.
The above discussion should make it clear that traits like hedonism, sociality, and intelligence are all separate traits and not unique to humans. However, we do have a fairly unique mixture of these traits, with exceptionally more intelligence than any other organism, and the three of them together allow humans to adapt remarkably well to every environment we’ve found ourselves in so far.
Hedonism, sociality, and intelligence all play equal roles in contributing to the rise of humans as the dominant animal on the planet.
The aspect of human nature that is most puzzling is not that we are social, which is in our nature as primates, but moreso the fact that we are consciously aware at all. It is perfectly possible to imagine a reality in which we are highly intelligent and social without being aware, much like computers that are solving problems across multiple processors. As far as we know, computers are not conscious (yet), but they are intelligent and able to work together on parallel tasks. Being hedonist (bacteria), social (ants), or intelligent (computers) does not require consciousness at all.
This difficult problem of explaining consciousness is referred to as the “hard problem” and we currently do not have a satisfactory answer for it. The best current hypothesis is that it will turn out to be an emergent property that is useful for modeling by a complex brain processing lots of information. This would mean there is no fundamental “telos” for consciousness in any cosmic sense, but consciousness results from other aspects that are useful for our survival. In that respect, consciousness turns out to be teleonomic, but not teleological.
Moving to Utilitarianism
Being conscious means that we are psychologically aware of incoming signals. I don’t like the experience of feeling pain, present moment suffering, or worrying about the possibility of suffering in the future. I want to avoid all of these conscious mental states and have every reason to assume others do, too.
If we all wish to avoid pain and suffering, we have all the reason we need to make agreements not to harm one another. We also have every reason we need to make agreements to establish security from other harmful forces in the natural world, be they predatory animals, natural disasters, or bad luck. This comes very natural to us as band-level social animals and kin do this spontaneously in normally functioning cases.
Furthermore, I like feeling pleasure, joy, and ecstasy and have every reason to assume others do as well. This gives us all the reason we need to make further agreements to enhance the “good”, i.e. mental and physical states that result in pleasure, joy, ecstasy, and well-being.
These simple premises are all we need to begin to develop a political state. This state is not based on inalienable or natural rights, but simply utilitarian calculus of what we wish to avoid and what we wish to strive for in terms of experiencing greater well-being.
As humans made these social agreements, we learned that exchange and trade via cooperation are not just beneficial within our own band and tribes, but with all the tribes around us. This realization of mutually beneficial trade with both tribal kin and all surrounding tribes begins the process of state formation.
Larger cooperative trading groups have several positive consequences. We make ourselves more secure from the things we wish to avoid. Through ever more complex specialization and trade, we are able to experience an ever greater variety of pleasurable experiences as we exchange with a larger pool of others.
Of course, we may find that some of our pleasures are mutually exclusive to others’ pleasures and well-being within a large group like a state. This is where a state “leviathan” becomes of greater importance. Removing the ability to solve disputes from the hands of the disputants and instead putting it into the hands of an impartial arbiter with a monopoly on violence makes for a more peaceful society with far less violence.
Yes, the individual cannot actualize 100% of every pleasures he or she desires, but surely the ability to enlarge the number of possible pleasures through cooperation and trade in an organized society is better than living in constant poverty, insecurity, and alienation from others as would be the case for an individual that chose to leave society. This calculation of the overall costs and benefits is utilitarianism and is exactly what we hope our impartial leviathan does when arbitrating and setting policy.
At this point, we have moved from a state of anarchy into an organized society with rules that are enforced by the state. This is done for the mutual benefit of all involved. Even the individual who is worse off at the margin is better off overall than an individual living in a totally isolated state of nature with no security from pain and suffering.
Moving beyond this state-organized society would require every individual to realize and fully understand that trade-offs are a necessary part of life, that some pleasures must be forfeited for the greater well-being of both self and society. If this realization were to occur, the state could be done away with entirely. People would be in an enlightened state of understanding in which there were no uses for force and violence. We could and would disarm overnight and do away with all weapons of blunt violence.
There would of course still be pain and suffering that results from accidents, natural disasters, illness, and even the small percentage of the population that are psychopaths and do not function properly in society. However, if the ninety-eight percent of the population that aren’t psychopaths were to reach this enlightened state, the vast majority of resources and human intelligence would be applied to solving these non-superficial problems with no need for a state.
This would be a utopia, not in any ideal sense, but in the reality that the maximum amount of well-being is experienced with the minimum amount of pain and suffering.
There would still be pain and suffering, but it would be experienced with the full knowledge that any less personal pain and suffering would simply be transferred to some other person without any consequent enlargement in overall welfare. For the economists, this utopia would essentially be pareto optimal, “a state of allocation of resources (suffering and well-being) from which it is impossible to reallocate so as to make any one individual or preference criterion better off without making at least one individual or preference criterion worse off”.
Evolution selects adaptable traits that arise from variance in organisms trying to reproduce within environmental constraints. This naturally produces organisms at the simplest level that are hedonistic in the sense that they avoid harm, seek resources, and in maximizing security and resources are better able to live and reproduce.
As more advanced problems of security and scarcity of resources are overcome, organisms evolve sociality and intelligence. These traits allow humans to flourish in a wide array of environments and adapt to almost any problem they encounter.
Recognizing that cooperation in the form of trade is positive sum, humans begin forming more complex systems of specialization and exchange to insure access to scarce resources, while also creating states to insure security from violence. As these productive forces become larger, scarcity becomes less of a threat to survival and perhaps one day will be replaced entirely by a state of abundance.
Upon achieving abundance, there would be no need to fight over scarce resources and a central reason for the state to exist would disappear. The final reason for the state to exist, security from violence, will only disappear in a state of resource abundance if humans figure out a way to manage their own emotions and prejudice to force. Until then, a state will always exist to enforce security and manage scarcity.
In the end, we return to the opening sentence at the top of this writing that claimed political philosophy needs to explain how political organization has arisen in humans and why it has taken the forms that it has.
By following the evolution of humans, we see a state isn’t much different than other human traits that allow survival, a slowly evolving advantage that ensures survival and reproduction. One that we can, as conscious beings, try to design design in such a way that it benefits as many people as possible by alleviating the most suffering and providing the greatest well-being possible. This does step out of the evolutionary process in that it no longer relates strictly to reproductive advantages, but is a result of it nonetheless.