Saturday, June 17, 2006


On January 9th, I posted a response to Carson Holloway's book The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy, which criticizes me and other Darwinian conservatives such as Francis Fukuyama and James Q. Wilson.

The Washington Times has published an interview with Holloway about his book. Here he repeats the general point of his book. He argues that Darwinian conservatism cannot properly support morality, because it relies on natural moral emotions rather than religious belief. The moral emotions are not reliable guides to moral judgments, he says, because "you need some principle that transcends our human nature," which comes only from religion, and particularly its teaching that "every human being has certain moral obligations to every human being, and no matter how much your interests may conflict with someone else's, you still have to respect their basic rights."

As I have indicated in my responses to Holloway and other religious conservatives such as Peter Lawler, these folks do not explain clearly how we derive moral principles from religion without appealing to our natural moral sense. For example, Holloway assumes in his book that religion teaches that slavery is immoral because it violates the moral dignity of human beings as created in God's image. But as I have said, the defenders of slavery have been able to support their position by citing the Bible. I assume that Holloway would say this is a misuse of the Bible. But how does he know that? When Paul in the New Testament tells slaves to obey their masters, how do we know that this is not a moral endorsement of slavery? How do we know that the Southern Baptists were wrong to believe that the Bible sanctioned slavery in the American South?

Charles Darwin denounced slavery because he thought it violated our natural moral sense that teaches us that human beings have a natural desire to be free from exploitation. The rhetorical attempts of slaveholders to justify slavery show that even they were sensitive to this injustice and felt the same moral emotions as their opponents. In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long chapter on how slavery violates the evolved moral desires of human beings.

Is it really true that religion--particularly, Biblical religion--gives us an authoritative, clear, and reliable moral teaching that allows us to see the injustice of slavery? Or is it rather the case, as I argue, that we have to pass the Bible through our natural moral sense, because otherwise the Bible could support immoral practices such as slavery?


wmr said...

I can't help but wonder if Mr Holloway has ever read Plato's Euthyphro.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, he's read the EUTHYPHRO. But that wasn't enough to persuade him that morality could be independent of divine command.

Anonymous said...

He might be on to something, however, when he is uneasy about the possibility that 'Darwinist' theories like yours are attempts to sell subjectivism as a theory of objective human goods. I have serious reservations about the possibility that any appeal to 'moral sense' can stand on its own, simply because it seems to be saying: well, most normal human beings feel this way, or would feel this way if they were to think rationally about some other ways that they feel, and so ought to feel this way; therefore, this way is the right way. That shouldn't require an argument to show how it is just not a form of moral realism. So long as your, and anyone else's, theories appeal to emotions and desires as themselves foundational, they will look like attempts to establish moral principles by having a popularity contest among subjective desires, with an (arbitrary?) preference for the desires that most normal human beings have. The differences between Aristotle and Hume on this score are tremendous, and the major source of my bafflement at your claims that their views on ethics are compatible, since Aristotle clearly holds that we desire things because they seem good to us (and ought to desire what is good for us), whereas Hume (and you) hold that what is good for us is good because we desire it. Lawler and Holloway are not going to get any further by appealing to mysterious transcendent truths or to religious texts, but their worries about the approach that you and some others take may be warranted after all.

Larry Arnhart said...

Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume all ultimately agree on the thought that "the good is the desirable." What is naturally good for human beings is what most fully satisfies the natural desires over a whole life.

Now, of course, what we happen to desire at any moment might not in fact be desirable for us, because we can be mistaken about what is truly desirable for us.

So, for example, sexual mating, familial bonding, and parental care are good for human beings because they satisfy natural desires of the human species.

If human beings were not sexual, familial, and parental animals, these would not be human goods. That's why Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hume all stress the biological nature of human beings as sexual, familial, and parental animals.

The human virtues are those dispositions of thought and action that allow human beings to live their lives so that they can satisfy their natural desires.

After all, if we ask, why should we be good? The only ultimate answer is that we must be good to be fully happy.

Darwinian science helps us to understand the natural ground for morality by understanding the biological roots of those natural desires that sustain the natural moral sense.

For example, when Hobbes rejects Aristotle's claim that human beings are social and political animals by nature, we can see that Darwinian science supports Aristotle against Hobbes. In fact, this was a fundamental theme in the work of the Scottish moral sense philosophers that influenced Darwin.

Anonymous said...

As a liberal, Darwinian Conservatism which I just got acquainted with over the last 30 minutes is very interesting. I expect that I do believe that humans develop in such a way to maximize species survival and therefore we reflect nature. Got a lot of reading to do.

Memetic Warrior said...

Be aware that the religious incentives for moral are the same as nature´s darwinian drives for moral: prizes and punishment. But the religious drive for moral is just a bigger prize/punishment alternative. In this sense, from even the darwinian point of view, the moral drive of religion is very well designed as a long term prize/punisment at the end of the life, and, as such, is very compelling for anyone that accept such religious beliefs.

Under this point of view, no doubt the religious transcendence is a unbeatable drive for darwinian moral instincts.

And so it has been the case in the course of history.

So may be that the logic of darwinian naturalism explains and certifies the superiority of religious beliefs as better than (atheistic) darwinism alone to support coservative values?

Do we the conservative darwinists cynically recommend religiosity?. That is something I find myself thinking about sometimes

Larry Arnhart said...

As I argue in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, there are good Darwinian arguments (developed by David Sloan Wilson and others) for the practical truth of religion in helping human groups to function as adaptive units by coordinating behavior and preventing or punishing cheating.

Conservatives--from Burke and Tocqueville to Hayek and Holloway--have made similar arguments about the moral utility of religion in promoting "social capital."

In judging the moral utility of religion, the theological truth or falsity of religious doctrines is irrelevant.

This practical stance is implicit in any talk about the moral importance of "religion" without specifying any particular religious doctrines, other than supernatural rewards for good behavior and supernatural punishments for bad behavior.

Anonymous said...

Larry, I can't bring myself to believe that you're really oblivious to the wide range of scholarship that has been done showing why Aristotle's (and Aquinas') moral psychology is not Humean, and why Humean moral psychology is a failure if taken to support any form of moral realism. MacIntyre emphasizes this fundamental point in Dependent Rational Animals, esp. chapter 8, pp. 86ff. For a brief but very good discussion of this, more strictly philosophical than exegetical, look at the first few chapters of John Finnis' Fundamentals of Ethics. Essentially the same criticisms, both as philosophical theses and as interpretations of Aristotle, have been coming from people like John McDowell, Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, and other Aristotelians for, well, more than 25 years now. Even if you can defend the Humean view in light of such criticisms, you are not going to be able to adequately present it as the view of Aristotle, who after all wrote: "we desire something because it seems good to us; it's not that it seems good to us because we desire it." (Metaphysics 12.7) The Humean says precisely the opposite. Everything else you say is spot on, but the Humean view of desire and good is flawed. Replace "satisfy natural desires" in your synopsis of your views above with "achieve their natural ends," and you'll be in much more Aristotelian, and much more defensible, territory.

Larry Arnhart said...

I don't see how one could explain what it means for human beings to "achieve their natural ends" without speaking about their natural desires.

In the striving for a good human life, reason and desire are mutually dependent. Without reason, we could not intelligently manage our desires for their satisfaction. Without desire, our reason would lack any power to move us to think or act rationally. Even the most abstract activities of reason depend on desires such as curiosity or wonder to motivate and guide our thoughts. "Thought by itself moves nothing," Aristotle rightly observes, because any human action that is deliberately chosen requires a union of reason and desire. A deliberate choice manifests either "desiring reason" or "reasoning desire" (NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, 1139a36-b6).

This view of ethics as arising from reason and desire--ethics as rooted in natural human desires, as requiring habits of right desire, and as guided by prudential reasoning in judging the contingencies of action--was originally developed by Aristotle in his ethical and biological writings. But other philosophers in the tradition of ethical naturalism, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, have defended a similar understanding. Just as Aristotle declared that "thought by itself moves nothing," Hume declared that "reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will."

Like Hume, Aristotle believed that the passions manifest a natural moral sense, which is particularly evident in moral passions such as anger and indignation (RHETORIC, bk 2). Aristotle identifies the moral passions as praiseworthy states of character. Although they are not "virtues in the strict sense," because they do not arise by deliberate choice, they are the natural dispositions to morality that become moral virtues through the cultivation of proper habituation and prudential judgment (EUDEMIAN ETHICS, 1233b16-34b11; NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, 1144b1-18). In this way, Aristotle recognizes, but does not elaborate, the psychological basis of ethics in the moral passions that is elaborated by Hume and other philosophers like Smith who argued for the importance of moral sentiments.

Darwin continued this tradition in developing his account of the natural moral sense in THE DESCENT OF MAN, in which he saw morality as arising from the distinctly human capacity for deliberating about one's desires and habituating oneself into virtuous states of character shaped by practical experience and social expectations.

Anonymous said...

Because it is simply different, conceptually, to say a) that x is good because someone desires it; b) that someone desires it because it is good; c) that x is good for someone whether or not he desires it. To see part of the difference, simply think about a person who, because of some unfortunate chemical interaction in his brain, has lost all motivation to do anything (I am told that this kind of psychological state can be induced by certain drugs which affect testosterone levels, though I don't know that for certain). It is true to say of this person that he has no desires, but it is not true to say of him that there is nothing that it would be good for him to do, to have, to be, or to desire to do, to have, or to be. The fact that he would otherwise normally desire these things is beside the point; what the example shows is that for something to be good for an animal is not identical to any kind of desire that the animal might or might not have. If the good is not conceptually prior to the desirable, we will have no coherent way to explain why it is not good for someone to fail to desire certain things -- appeals to the statistical regularity of human desires won't cut it.

The fact that we need to talk about desire in order to cash out talk about animals achieving natural ends does not show that achieving a natural end is identical to fulfilling a desire -- this is particularly the case in human beings, and in any other conceivable animal possessed of practical reason, because having a rational desire is simply not the kind of brute psychological fact that Hume took all the 'passions' to be. What I think you have missed in the difference between Aristotle and Hume is that Aristotle takes emotions to be cognitive in a strong sense and not merely brute 'feelings' at any level. Hume, on the other hand, takes passion to be separate from reason; he admits that emotions have some kind of intentional structure, so that fear is typically of something, repulsion is typically repulsion from something, etc. But Hume does not take emotions to be intelligent in the way that Aristotle does. Take a look at Fortenbaugh's Aristotle on Emotion for a good treatment of this.

To see the serious difference, think about what an Aristotelian and a Humean might say about the relationship between our 'natural moral sense' of injustice and why something is unjust. The Humean would say, as you say in DNR, that some paradigmatic injustice is unjust because the majority of normally functioning human beings feels a sentiment of disapprobation at the thought of the action. So, torturing children is unjust because we don't like the way we feel when we encounter it or think about it. Nothing could be more antithetical to the Aristotelian account, which holds that injustices are injustices because they involve one person harming another; torturing children is wrong primarily because it harms them, and secondarily because it involves a strong person harming a weak person. For Aristotle, the good and the fitting are simply objective parts of reality; the fact that we are endowed by nature with emotional capacities to identify such things and react to them appropriately is just another instance of nature's intelligence; it does not explain why anything is good or fitting.

It really is just scholastically irresponsible of you to continue to assert the agreement of Aristotle and Hume on these issues without engaging with the majority scholarly opinion which holds that they are in stark disagreement. I've cited a number of works that argue to that effect; I'll leave it to you to go read them and to adjust your argumentation in the hope that people will take you more seriously on this score. For all we know, you may be right; but it doesn't look that way.

Larry Arnhart said...

I am persuaded that, in contrast to Immanuel Kant's dualistic separation between morality and nature, Hume's idea of the moral sense as rooted in natural human desires belongs to a tradition of ethical naturalism begun by Aristotle.

If the choice is between Aristotle and Kant, both Hume and Darwin are on the side of Aristotle.

Anonymous said...

I dont't think that it is possible to be both moral realist and materialist.

Your whole moral building lies on the equation between good and desirable for human being.

But by doing so, you are commiting the naturalistic fallacy: you jump from some facts of the universe ( parental caring is desirable for most individuals) to a moral conclusion concerning the alleged GOODNESS of this practice.

But the following question is still open: why is it GOOD ( not in the current sense of the term, but on a metha-ethical level) to have ones own desire satisfied ?

Your position is in fact quite compatible with the anti-realist view that the belief in an objective morality is a delusion foisted in us by our genes, but that we can use our shared genetical heritage to optimize the organisation of our societies.

To refute the nihilistic view, you should PROVE that the human beings have an intrisic value and dignity which justifies that it is GOOD that they have their natural desires fullfiled.

But consider a moment our situation:

Our species is lost in a gigantic and indifferent universe, our whole being and our moral sense have been built by blind forces who absolutely don't care about our notions of right and wrong, we are nothing more than machines, our free will is an illusion and no matter how hard we could try we won't never be able to avoid our worst foe: the death.

Morover, there are several millions of species which have disappeared during the geological time, why should matter the survival of ours ?

If you claim to be a moral realist, you should PROVE that the survival of our species matters in our indifferent universe.

But there are a lot of people who don't think so WITHOUT BEING IRRATIONAL.

The French psychologist and philosophe Patrick Declerck said:

« The human being has the intrisic lust of destroying. And it’s not the politically-correct discourse which will end this curse, which we load in our DNA. The human junk is everywhere the same. Having noticed that, I don’t know other things to do than to insult mankind, to denunce its absurdity and cruelty »

For the French ecologist Yves Paccalet, who has written the provocative book "Mankind will disappear, good riddance!", mankind will soon destroy itself through nuclear power and war, afterwards other species will replace it, and it would be a nice thing, because there would be no more pollution.

You can truly provide a plethora of reasons for why you find that the survival of mankind is moraly right ( like love, art, intelligence, compassion and so on), but people like the ones I just quoted can also give you a lot of reasons for why they find it to be a bad thing.

And to my mind, it is arbitrary in both cases to derive a moral conclusion for facts concerning us.

I think that you are right to stress that our alleged evolutionary nature could provide some strong support for conservatism, but you are misguided in believing to belive that it would lead us to moral realism.

Larry Arnhart said...

My full response to your points can be found in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

My quick response is that morality cannot be a deduction from purely logical reasoning, because morality also depends on the psychology of the moral emotions. Here I follow Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. No matter what moral principles are presented to us, we can always ask, Why? And the only final answer is: This course of action will promote your happiness or flourishing as a human being, because it will satisfy your deepest natural desires. Why would anyone want to be good, if it were not desirable? Darwinian science helps to explain how our natural moral desires are rooted in our evolved human nature.