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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Oh, Those Lofty Elevations!

The combination of lower temperatures for Arizona and several days of precipitation have changed the looks of the higher mountains. Both the Chiricahua and the Pinaleno ranges are now capped with snow on their highest peaks. When the forecast called for “snow at higher elevations,” my heart soared, and now as we drive from Wilcox back to Dos Cabezas, for a long stretch of road we can see snow on both mountain ranges, one off on our left and the other ahead of us. The high desert world looks “right” again to me, that is, it looks as I remember it from the first winter we spent here. 

It’s strange how what is familiar can so often seem what is right and how the unfamiliar can seem wrong. It’s part of humanity’s near-sightedness, I suppose, perhaps the result of our short life spans as individuals. Even history, the bigger picture, we are all too often eager to justify as the only right way events could have transpired, simply because that is the way they did transpire. From this moment, everything that preceded it was necessary for us to get here, but back there, was it necessary that we take this path?

And so, back to the history of our species. I’ve put it off long enough, spending my days walking the dog, riding around with the Artist, doing little household errands and tasks, concocting meals (all very simple — nothing ambitious), getting more acquainted with neighbors and the neighborhood, and reading about the natural habitat of southern Arizona. Would you believe that a large, multi-armed saguaro cactus can take on over 1,000 pounds of water in a heavy rain? Of that they can live to be 150 years old? More about that sort of thing another time. 

For today -- I hope you can bear with me -- I return to Adam Smith.

The second chapter of The Wealth of Nations, “Of the Principle Which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labor,” pursues Smith’s thoughts about the division of labor he introduced in the first chapter. Human beings did not intentionally set out to achieve the great advantages conferred by the division of labor, he says. They did not envision “the general opulence to which it gives occasion.” Early man was not, that is, seeking to advance his simple society to some lofty level of industrialized civilization. No, the division of labor is simply an “original principle” of our species, hard-wired into us, or, more probably, a consequence of language that human beings naturally exchange and cooperate. 

Certainly, one human being may fawn on another to attract attention in hopes of being given a handout, but it is not our first recourse, when we have other means at our disposal. Instead we address one another’s self-interest. 
Give me that which I want, and you shall have that which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.
Even a beggar, Smith writes, has “the greater part of his occasional wants supplied” by exchange rather than begging. With coins tossed to him, he buys food. Clothes tossed his way he may exchange for others he likes better. Etc.

This kind of exchange is the first division of labor. 

When one member of a tribe of hunters makes better arrows than another, he is able to exchange arrows for game shot by his companions, and thus his work becomes a specialty “business” by which his wants can be supplied. Other men [always men, I notice, though one can easily imagine an outstanding seamstress achieving similar standing] specialize in other kinds of work, encouraged by success in their respective fields.
[W]ithout the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted.
But as human beings — or, as he has already noted, as a species that developed symbolic language — this natural “disposition” develops in a way that “the most dissimilar geniuses” come to be “of use to one another….” Different men, so alike at birth, develop a diversity of talents and bring those talents to form 
…a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for.

Smith’s general claims about human beings in this chapter seem fairly uncontroversial. The omission of women from his account is standard for his time. Also, we might note that at this early stage of social exchange (in Smith’s theoretical reconstruction of history), men have not yet become machine parts. They are more artisans than industrial workers. The maker of arrows that Smith asks us to imagine fashions each arrow himself, from start to finish, and no doubt takes pride in his work. The “division,” therefore, is between one kind of work and another, not the breaking-down of one kind of production into component steps.

What I have said so far, other than the observation on the omission of women, is fairly strict exposition of Smith’s chapter. I would like now to take a few moments to look more closely at a few sub-claims, one about human beings but first those about non-human animals. 

Other animals, Smith asserts, never exchange peaceably, and neither do they intentionally cooperate to achieve a greater goal than one could achieve alone. 
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.
Study of animal behavior has advanced by leaps and bounds since Adam Smith’s time; nevertheless, I will not take up an argument against his denial of peaceable exchange in nonhuman species. I don’t know enough to take that on. When it comes to the question of cooperation, I feel on more solid ground. 

It’s interesting that Smith denies the theoretical Hobbesian man, that “solitary” individual, with his “nasty, brutish, short” life. Even in the early tribal societies he imagines, he sees exchange and cooperation as essential to survival. While not going as far back as John Locke to see the family as the first society, with two equal adults sharing responsibility and cooperating for the sake of their offspring, his account avoids the “war of all against all” envisioned by Thomas Hobbes. In a way, his is a kind of middle ground between the Locke and Hobbes. As did Locke, he sees cooperation as part of group life from the beginning for human beings; like Hobbes, however, he sees self-interest as the sole motive. 

The whole business of attributing motives, whether to individuals or groups or species, can be highly suspect, so let’s leave it to one side. The question I want to address is whether cooperation is uniquely human, and I will assert here, against Smith, that it is not. 

Enough studies have been made of, for instance, wolf packs that my denial should be practically unnecessary. One pair of wolves, the alpha male and alpha female, is the breeding pair in a small, extended family. When the pack goes out on the hunt, the alpha female may well be one of the hunters, leaving her young behind in the care of a lesser hunter. That wolves cooperate strategically on the hunt is also well documented. It is not, as Smith speculates in his example of two greyhounds, “the accidental concurrence of their passions” focused on the same object at the same time. 

Other species exhibit cooperation in different ways, and scientists since Smith’s time have also made studies of interspecies cooperation. They may not speak to one another in symbolic language, and they certainly do not write books and entertain philosophical theories, but nonhuman animals have much more active brains than was commonly thought in the eighteenth century. 

All of which, of course, is completely irrelevant as far as addressing the “wealth of nations” is concerned. Nonhuman animals are not Smith’s concern. My objections are, therefore, moot, are they not?

Another strand in Chapter II that I want to pick up may be somewhat more to the point, but here I make no argument at all. I only stop on the passage because it amuses me so. As Smith points to different specialties taken up by different mature adult men, musing that as they came into the world they were, “perhaps, very much alike,” he cannot help pointing to “the philosopher” as one of the specialized adults. 
The difference between … a philosopher and a common [sic] street porter … seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.

Further down the page, 
By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, as a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species, are of scarce any use to one another.

Okay, maybe I do have an argument to make. (My mother used to say, “You would argue with St. Peter himself!” That is what it means, I’m afraid, to be a philosopher.) I have no difficulty seeing what use a street porter might be to a philosopher, but I have a great deal of trouble coming up with an idea of the philosopher’s usefulness to the street porter. And I am, by inclination and education, a philosopher! How are we philosophers, I wonder, useful to others in society? How does philosophy further the cause of “progress”? Of what use are my ramblings here, to anyone, myself or others, except as I divert myself (and perhaps one or two others) for a little while?

I said above that I would leave motivation to one side, but I want to renege on that statement. Smith’s philosophy, we might remark, serves well as justification for behaviors stemming from the self-interest motive he has singled out as the driving force of humanity and the very motor of civilization. But as Kant realized, any individual’s motives are opaque not only others but even to the individual himself, and I would ask, if one accepts that, how can the motives of a group or a species be any more transparent? 

I also said that nonhuman animals are irrelevant to Smith’s argument, but my thoughts will not leave the animals out of the picture, either. I never can leave what I see as derogatory or at least dismissive observations on dogs without making objections.

When Smith looks at a species whose members are “of scarce any use to one another,” he not only singles out dogs but looks at individual dogs of different breeds — a very problematic proceeding, in my opinion. First of all, the breeds he chooses — mastiff, greyhound, spaniel — have been developed by human choice, not by natural selection. Each breed’s characteristics were selected by man, so why should the character of one dog breed be useful to a dog of another breed? In many cases, it is the cooperation of dogs of a particular breed with their owners or handlers that has been bred for. That is probably relevant to Smith’s argument only as it shows yet another human specialty, but does not the specially bred and trained dog do its work for man out of self-interest, too, just as he says human beings trade work out of self-interest? And wait — what of the working dog (and there are such) that is not happy unless working? It may be housed and fed, but its spirit languishes. How would that be explained? A dog with “mind” or “spirit”? Not helpful to the distinction Smith is eager to make. No, he has certainly given dogs short shrift. And human beings, I think, too, in the process. 

The case of nondomesticated animals would be more pertinent to Smith’s discussion of “nature,” but here he leans back, without evidence, on his original statement:
Each animal is … obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. 
Well, we must proceed carefully here, it seems. A herd of buffalo on the Great Plains, for example, may derive advantage from the simple circumstance of being together, but do members of the herd exhibit a “variety of talents”? If not, Smith might say we cannot call their being together cooperation, that they are simply a congregation of “separate,” “independent” individuals. If cooperation is defined in that way, has the deck been stacked? Or has the philosopher assumed a conclusion to use it as a premise?

Back to those wolves for a moment, please. Some are better hunters than others, and some are more successful breeders. All, moreover, are products of natural selection, not human breeding programs. That dogs of different breeds do not naturally cooperate with each other proves nothing, either of dogs or of humans. Wolves might better illuminate the discussion, had Smith been privileged to have a knowledge of wolves not available in his time. Since we do have that knowledge, we need not accept his every statement — and denying statements here and there may have an effect on how we evaluate his overall claims and conclusions. Time will tell.

As for philosophers and their specialized work, one could easily claim, I think, that philosophy has wrought as much ill as it has brought benefit to human society. That aside, we might ask more immediately, what advantage does a plumber gain from exchange with a philosopher? Clearly, it would be nought, if not for money. But we are still two chapters away from the development of money in Smith’s account, so perhaps those philosophers will earn their keep, after all. Stay tuned! 

But never fear, we will take many breaks along the way for the natural world, travel adventures, and scenes from ghost town, high desert, and mountain landscapes. I would not tax the patience and forbearance of my handful of readers too far by imposing philosophy in every post.


Deborah said...

I can see that I need to re-read The Wealth of Nations and then read your blogs again. Glad there's a used bookstore close by!

P. J. Grath said...

Deborah, I think I'm going to have to read two or three chapters at a time and condense my reflections, if I'm ever to get through the whole book.