Biology and Liberalism

Kevin Drum wonders:

to the extent that you really do believe that cognitive abilities are (a) important, and (b) strongly biologically determined, shouldn’t you also believe that the poor are more unlucky than anything else, and haven’t done anything to deserve hunger, lousy housing, poor medical care, or crappy educations? If genetic luck plays a big role in making us who we are, then support for income redistribution from the rich to the poor is almost a logical necessity for anyone with a moral sense more highly developed than a five-year-old’s.

Long story short, belief in biological determinism should make you into a liberal. And yet, here in the real world it mostly does just the opposite. Go figure.

One can appreciate that liberals do not accept the conservative claim, but Mr. Drum fails to acknowledge what the conservative claim is.  Conservatives do not deny that unfairness exists in the world.  In the conservative view, however, the justice that humans can guarantee to themselves is limited to redress of injuries cause by one man against another: “injustices” worked by nature and nature’s God are beyond the limits of what man can properly redress.  This is what separates questions of morality, theology, and science on the one hand, from political theory and state power on the other.  Not all issues arising in the former categories are properly answered by the latter. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. I’m not sure to what extent conservatives belief this, or at least, the extent to which they would believe it without the qualification of your post’s last sentence.

    For example, I think most conservatives would sign on to the notion that we have an obligation to help those in our society who truly cannot help themselves–those with severe disabilities, for example–regardless of whether their situation arises from the injustices caused by others. And I imagine some conservatives support such measures as tax credits for faith-based charities on the ground that these charities help those who either cannot help themselves or are in need of temporary assistance.

    I do agree that conservatives probably–and consistent with their stated beliefs–oppose large-scale redistributive justice to address income inequalities. But even that policy preference is predicated to some degree on the assumption that biology is not particularly deterministic. In other words, I imagine conservatives believe most people can and, if given the opportunity, will be able to live fruitfully and contribute to society even if they do not achieve super-wealth.

    • Pierre,

      Perhaps to some it would appear the distinction I am making is one without a difference. That is, I agree that we have “an obligation to help those in our society who truly cannot help themselves.” But I think it is absolutely vital that, in our efforts to meet that obligation, we disfigure the notion of “rights” versus “duties.” In the legal and political arenas, every duty has a corresponding right. In the moral or theological or biological arenas, “duties” do not necessarily come with any corresponding “rights.” And in fact, it might be argued that “injustice” can result without the violation of any right or the breach of any duty. We might say a person born with a disability has suffered “injustice.” Yet, no one has a “right” to be born free from disability.

      Even if we have an obligation, such as a religious obligation, to help someone who has suffered this sort of “injustice,” it is a mere accident of language that the word we sometimes use to describe this — i.e., “duty” — is often associated with the separate legal/political concept that carries with it a vested legal/political “right.” This is basically how we get to the idea of a “human right to health care,” or to a certain standard of living, etc. In fact, there is no such legal right or legal duty concerning these things, even though there most certainly are moral or religious obligations.

      And, incidentally, there should be no problem, conceptually anyway, with a people trying to fulfill these obligations through the law. I’m not reflexively opposed to RomneyCare, for example: I think there is a moral obligation to help others with unforeseen health care afflictions. But I will strenuously object to the idea that those who suffer such afflictions have any natural right to my person or property to meet their health care needs.

  2. I think hard biological determinism is and has always been a fundamentally progressive, liberal belief, and the politician I associate most with it is Woodrow Wilson, generally a bete noire of conservatives.

  3. Long story short, belief in biological determinism should make you into a liberal. And yet, here in the real world it mostly does just the opposite. Go figure.

    If X leads to Y in the real world, why would you argue that X *SHOULD* lead to not Y?

    How does that even make sense?

    • Same issue with Calvinism. In reality, people believe God made us free. Yet, Calvinism teaches you should believe your salvation is predetermined. It’s a seemingly useless doctrine (and, yet, I happen to believe it).

  4. What I can’t figure, having been transmogrified by fate and happenstance from a solid Conservative to a Liberal, is why Conservatives don’t look at society’s problems on a cost basis.

    There was a day when Conservatives feared the poor, for they were likely to revolt. Poverty afflicts a society like frostbite: once the extremities freeze, the rest of the body is endangered by infection. It seems wiser, on a cost basis, to prevent crime than punish it, prevent illness than treat it, put a suture on a paper cut before it suppurates and goes septic.

    The poor are costly to any society. The goal for Conservatives, if their stated goal is redress of injuries caused by one man against another, is to view many of those injuries as preventable and thereby avoid the need for costly redress. This concept is seemingly beyond them, obsessed as they are by justice, as if the only approach to dealing with frostbite was amputation, not gloves.

    If today’s soi-disant Conservatives were honest, and they are not, they would embody actual Conservative principles of prudence and thrift, viewing every citizen as a taxpayer or a consumer of communal resources. It is more expensive to house a prisoner than send him to college. When we might have made a difference in his life as a child, changing a few of the variables which might have kept him out of prison, we did not. This is not a matter of charity, it is a matter of applying statistics and common sense to the problem, changing the oil in the crankcase, fixing the small problem before you have a large one.

    • Blaise,

      Very good points. I was with you up until you said that conservatives should “embody actual Conservative principles of prudence and thrift, viewing every citizen as a taxpayer or a consumer of communal resources.” I disagree that “principles of prudence and thrift” are so pervasive in conservative ideology that they even apply to regarding people as mere economic actors. There are principles of natural law and objective morality that govern the conservative approach to thinking about people. It is not merely a consequentialist approach, even though conservatives might take such a “by the numbers” approach when it comes to business or other private economic matters. I apologize in advance for so crudely simplifying your argument, but for brevity’s sake, I will say that treating humans as something like rats in a maze who respond favorably or unfavorably to certain stimuli is most certainly not a conservative approach.

  5. I think Kevin Drum is guilty of that quintessentially liberal error here of assuming that those with whom he disagrees politically MUST be morons. Conservatives may or may not believe in biological determinations of intelligence; that still doesn’t have anything to do with the fundamental conservative belief that culture – and NOT central, bureaucratic government – should generally be what solves society’s problems. Hence, the fairly vocal conservative opposition to society’s being organized along meritocratic lines.

    In short, this is disappointing coming from Drum, who usually isn’t a careless hack.

    • Christopher,

      I agree. But everyone’s a “careless hack” from time to time, so I wouldn’t pick on him too much.

    • Huh “Hence, the fairly vocal conservative opposition to society’s being organized along meritocratic lines.”

      Could you unpack that statement?

      • Many conservatives oppose meritocracy since it tends to take the best and brightest out of towns and communities and throw them into a select few urban milieux. This is also the reason why many conservatives oppose affirmative action.

  6. This might just be a subset of Blaise’s point about a cost analysis of these problems and maybe should go under that comment. But, for me, I’m not sure that larger questions of “rights” or “justice” enter so strongly into the consideration of the social safety net; it’s a more a question of the social order and how to keep it. I understand that society can only do so much to redress these grievances, but you can also go too far the other way- remove so much of the social safety net that the average person feels the society isn’t worth investing in and then they won’t. So, ugly as it might be, for myself, it’s usually just a craven question of, “If this assistance program is removed, will people be throwing garbage cans through windows?” If so, forget the larger argument.

    Again, I openly admit this is a craven way of looking at it, but I’m a bit wary of these liberal brain/conservative brain discussions. In Canada, we have plenty of Conservatives who discuss this issue in exactly the same way. It’s probably why there’s more consensus here about social assistance programs: liberals can see them as promoting justice and conservatives can see them as promoting stability.

    • Rufus,

      I think that’s a fair way of approaching it, craven or not. Again, my worry is that even if we approach it that way, the muddle-headed rights-talk has captured the imagination of courts such that policy makers cannot decide to adjust the safety net policy without giving a full blown evidentiary hearing. This is because, even though safety nets might have been implemented for structural reasons rather than as a matter of “rights” or social justice, the law still regards them as vested rights that cannot be taken away without due process. That was the Goldberg v. Kelly case in 1970.

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