Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Darwinian Conservatism of Transcendent Morality: A Reply to Bob Cheeks

Bob Cheekshas written a review of Darwinian Conservatismfor the IntellectualConservative.com website. He begins:

"Dr. Larry Arnhart, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, is on a mission to save conservatives from the curse of ignorance that afflicts those who have adamantly refused to yield to the revealed wisdom of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. It is Arnhart's salvific purpose then to act as a modern John the Baptist and proclaim the inerrancy of 'Darwinian conservatism' that will allow conservatives to embrace 'modern science' and not be mocked as Luddites, and (God forbid)fundamentalists."

Hey, I think he's being sarcastic!

Cheeks goes on to make the criticism that I would expect from many conservatives--that a Darwinian science of human nature cannot be truly conservative because it denies the "transcendent moral worldview" that supports conservative moraltiy and politics. He refers to Thomas Aquinas and Richard Weaver as affirming this "higher, transcendent morality" of conservatism.

But if Aquinas was right to defend a "natural law" as rooted in the "instincts" or "natural inclinations" of human beings, and if he was right to distinguish this "natural law" from the "divine law" of Revelation, then why shouldn't a Darwinian biological science of human nature help us to understand that natural moral law?

After all, Darwin believed that the enduring principles of traditional morality were ultimately rooted in a natural "moral sense" of the human animal. Darwin also saw that this traditional morality was often supported by religious beliefs.

As I indicate in my book, conservatives like Edmund Burke have insisted that "religion is the basis of civil society," and that "man is by his constitution a religious animal." But as is clear from Burke's praise for ancient Greek and Roman religions, he affirms the practical truth of religion without presuming to decide the theological truth of any particular religious tradition. Isn't that the proper attitude towards religion for the conservative?

Weaver argued that every healthy culture rests on a "myth" that is a product of the human "imagination." The traditional "image" of man as created in God's image is an example of such a "myth." But the truth of this "myth" is poetic rather than factual, and its practical truth comes from is success in sustaining the traditional order of a culture.

The Darwinian explanation of religion as a means by which human beings bind themselves into cooperative communities would seem to be perfectly consistent with the conservative stance of Burke and Weaver. From this perspective, the Darwinian conservative can affirm the practical utility of any religious tradition that sustains the good order of civil society.

Does Cheeks disagree with this? Does he think that to be a conservative one must affirm the doctrinal truths of Christianity? Can Catholic conservatives and Protestant conservatives agree on these doctrinal truths? Does this exclude Jewish conservatives? Muslims? Presumably, it would exclude skeptics and atheists. If so, then skeptical conservatives like Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich Hayek are not really conservatives.

Wouldn't it be more sensible to say that conservatives must respect the practical truth of any religion that supports social order, regardless of whether we can agree on the metaphysical truth of that religion?

3 comments:

Anthony Freeman said...

Cheeks writes: ‘Darwinian conservatism fails to address the question of a higher or transcendent order, and its biological view of human morality lacks any apodictical finality; it is constantly in flux and presumably at times unstable as the specie continues to evolve. All of which are in opposition to St. Aquinas’s teaching that the natural desires of men are to “seek the truth about God and to live in society.”’

To which Arnhart replies: ‘But if Aquinas was right to defend a "natural law" as rooted in the "instincts" or "natural inclinations" of human beings, and if he was right to distinguish this "natural law" from the "divine law" of Revelation, then why shouldn't a Darwinian biological science of human nature help us to understand that natural moral law?’

Point 1. Aquinas saw no opposition between natural and divine law, nor between revealed and naturally acquired knowledge. Revelation was there (a) to supply information about the natural order, that in principle man could have worked out for himself but in practice would have taken far too much time; and (b) to supply information about the transcendent order (including God himself) that was in principle beyond the power of the human mind to discover unaided. So Aquinas would agree with Arnhart that a biological science of human nature (Darwinian or otherwise) should be able to help us to understand that natural moral law; but he would also agree with Cheeks that there is a transcendent order beyond the grasp of human empirical science (Darwinian or otherwise).

Point 2. Contrary to what Cheeks claims, it does not follow from Darwinian conservatism’s failure to address the question of a higher or transcendent order, that it is ‘in opposition to St. Aquinas’s teaching that the natural desires of men are to “seek the truth about God and to live in society.”’ The natural human desire to live in society is certainly not dependent on the existence of a transcendent order, and I would say (more controversially, perhaps) that neither does the natural human desire to seek the truth about God depend on the existence of a transcendent order.

Moral and spiritual values such as the Ten Commandments may have either a natural origin, in the imagination and insight of human minds, or a supernatural origin in the mind of God (as the Bible claims). But whichever is the case, we cannot actually trace them back beyond the point at which they entered human consciousness; and at that point they were necessarily constrained by the limits of human understanding and expression. And the same is true — in various ways — of all claims to have received or experienced a divine revelation, including the existence of God and of a transcendent realm at all. It is therefore perfectly proper to seek a natural scientific explanation (Darwinian or otherwise) for all these things.

Point 3. More generally, speaking as someone with degrees in both natural science and theology, I am suspicious of any viewpoint (scientific, religious, or political) that finds it necessary to rule out in advance any line of enquiry on the grounds that its results might prove unwelcome.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree with Anthony Freeman's good statement.

When Aquinas identifies the "natural inclination to know the truth about God" as part of the natural law, he is referring to natural religion as distinguished from revealed religion. Natural religion is rooted in a "natural instinct" to reverence that will be diversely expressed in religious practices. Human laws will promote such natural religions insofar as they serve the moral end of binding people together into cooperative groups. By contrast to such natural religion, revealed religion depends on an experience of faith that goes beyond natural experience. (See SUMMA THEOLOGICA, I, q. 12, a. 1; I-II, q. 3, a. 8; q. 99, a. 3; II-II, q. 81, a. 5; q. 85, a. 1; SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES, I, 11; III, 119.)

Darwinian science should be able to explain natural religion as an expression of natural traits of the human species. But revealed religion depends on claims of faith that transcend natural experience.

Conservative social thought can recognize the moral importance of natural religion in sustaining social cooperation. But conservatives cannot judge the transcendent truths of revealed religion. Probing the mysteries of revealed religion must be left to the free inquiry of individuals and groups in civil society.

I plan to say more about this in the near future in reponse to a thoughtful critique from a Thomistic theologian--Marc Guerra--in his article "The Limits of Darwinian Natural Law," in PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICAL SCIENCE, Summer 2005, pp. 144-52.

kralizec said...

You said, "Weaver argued that every healthy culture rests on a 'myth' that is a product of the human 'imagination.' The traditional 'image' of man as created in God's image is an example of such a 'myth.' But the truth of this 'myth' is poetic rather than factual, and its practical truth comes from i[t]s success in sustaining the traditional order of a culture."

If our doctrine of man's likeness to God is a practical truth, then much depends on our continuing to believe our doctrine. Yet it seems our becoming persuaded that our doctrine were not simply true would amount to our no longer believing it, and it seems a doctrine no longer believed has lost its practical truth, in the language of the argument.

Yet it seems the doctrine of man's likeness to God can survive the encounter with evolution. In the the Biblical accounts, God reveals himself as seeing, hearing, deliberating, making, speaking, and doing. According to the evolutionary doctrine, man has evolved as seeing, hearing, deliberating, making, speaking, and doing. It seems, then, that man is in the likeness that God has revealed himself to have, in which case the evolutionary doctrine does not impair the doctrine of man's likeness to God. Rather, it seems evolution has brought about the characters such a likeness requires.