Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Reply to Francis Beckwith

Francis Beckwith of Baylor University has written a review of Darwinian Conservatism for the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics.

The review (with the title "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver") begins and ends with some generous praise:

"Darwinian Conservatism . . . is a work marked by clarity of purpose, prose, and argument that one rarely finds in academic writing. One may disagree with Arnhart, but one cannot help but be impressed by the author's command of the relevant literature as well as his ambitious project to ground contemporary conservatism firmly in a well-respected scientific theory."

"Darwinian Conservatism is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation between scholars in politics, philosophy, religion, and the hard sciences. Although one can criticize Arnhart on some points, as I have, his project to offer a Darwinian account of conservative political philosophy should be taken seriously. Conservative critics of Darwin ignore Arnhart at their own peril."

And yet Beckwith fundamentally disagrees with me. Against my argument for Darwinian natural right, Beckwith appeals to what he understands to be the traditional conception of natural law as based on natural teleology. "Human beings have a certain end or purpose (or good) that is intrinsic to their nature. Inhibiting the achievement of that end, whether by accident or by intent, is wrong. But this judgment is only possible because we have knowledge of certain first principles and moral precepts that we call the 'natural law.' But 'law' implies a lawgiver, and designed natures imply a designer. Therefore, the natural law and our human nature have their source in Mind."

In the light of this conception of natural law as guided by Mind, Beckwith offers two criticisms.

"(1) It seems to me that Arnhart is correct that certain sentiments (e.g., love of family, children) are consistent with a conservative understanding of community. But these sentiments themselves seem inadequate to ground moral action or to acount for certain wrongs. For example, Tony Soprano's love of kin nurtures sentiments that lead to clear injustices, e.g., rubbing out enemies, about which Tony and family do not seem particularly troubled. In that case, the wrongness of the act is located not in the sentiments of its perpetrators (or even its victims, if the victims, for some reason, were convinced that they deserved to be rubbed out) but in a judgment informed by moral norms that stand above, and are employed by free agents, to assess acts and actors apart from their sentiments."

"(2) As I have already noted, Arnhart's account of morality is, at best, descriptive, for it does not provde the reason why I ought to follow it. Granted, it may very well provide us with an accurate description of what behaviors in general were instrumental in helping the human species survive. For that reason, it may very well explain why each of us may have certain moral feelings on occasion. But it cannot say why citizen X ought to perform (or not perform) act Y in circumstance Z. For example, it may be that the trditional family, as Arnhart argues, best protects and preserves the human species if it is widely practiced. But what do we say to the eighty-year-old Hugh Hefner, who would rather shack up with five twenty-something buxom blondes with which he engages in carnal delights with the assistance of state-of-the-art pharmaceuticals? Mr. Hefner is no doubt grateful that his ancestors engaged in practices (e.g., the traditional family) that made his existence and lifestyle possible. But whey should he emulate only those practices that many people today (e.g., Arnhart and I) say are 'good'? After all, some of our ancestors were Hefnerian in their sensibilities. . . . Because we have always had in our population Hugh Hefners of one sort or another, it is not clear to me how Arnhart can distinguish between good and bad practices if both sorts may have played a part in the survival of the human race, unless there is a morality by which we assess the morality of evolution. But this would seem to lead us back to the old natural law, the one that has its source in Mind and that is not subject to the unstable flux of Darwinian evolution."

Finally, Beckwith objects to one sentence in my book about religion. Beckwith writes: "In one place he writes: 'God intervenes in history to communicate his redemptive message to human beings, but he does not need to intervene to form irreducibly complex mechanisms that could not be formed by natural means'(90). I do not know how Arnhart knows this. . . . he needs more than stipulation to show why anyone else should think he is right about the limits of God's activity."

Since Beckwith does not summarize the arguments of my book, his readers cannot imagine how I would respond to his objections. But those who have read Darwinian Conservatism can easily understand how I would reply.

First, the quotation about God's intervention in history is taken out of a paragraph about the Bible. I write: "Notice that in the Bible, once God has created the universe in the first chapters of Genesis, God's later interventions into nature are all part of salvation history. God intervenes in history to communicate his redemptive message to human beings, but he does not need to intervene to form irreducibly complex mechanisms that could not be formed by natural means. The Bible suggests that God created the world at the beginning so that everything we see in nature today could emerge by natural law without any need for later miracles of creation" (90). If we look to the Bible as a divinely inspired record of God's activity, we would have to conclude that God is primarily concerned with salvational history, and that He does not need to constantly create bacterial flagella and other irreducibly complex mechanisms of life. Does Beckwith have another reading of the Bible?

My response to the Tony Soprano example should be obvious. Murder is condemned in every society throughout history because there is a natural human sentiment of indignation against unjust killing. No society could survive if the moral sentiment against murder were not strong. So when the God of the Bible commands the people of Israel to kill all the people in captured towns--even innocent women and children--we know that this cannot be correct (Deuteronomy 20:10-20).

My response to the Hugh Hefner example should also be obvious. Although there is a natural desire for sexual mating, there are also natural desires for conjugal love, parental care, familial bonding, and enduring friendship. Mr. Hefner might satisfy his desire for promiscuous mating, but his pleasure will be shallow and momentary. Marriage and family life promote our fullest happiness over a whole life. And that's why the image of an 80-year-old Hefner surrounded by his bunnies evokes both disgust and pity among mature people. We know that such a life is deeply unsatisfying in its shallowness and thus bad because it's undesirable for any sensible human being.

What would Beckwith say to Hefner? Mr. Hefner, don't you realize that your life of sexual promiscuity violates the commands of Mind? To which Hefner might respond: Mind? Are you suggesting some kind of Cosmic Mind? Would you please explain what that could possibly mean? And why should I obey the commands of such a Cosmic Mind? How would I know that the commands of this Cosmic Mind are good? Wouldn't I need to have some standard of goodness to judge this? But if I already have a standard of goodness independent of the commands, why do I need these commands of the Cosmic Mind? Is something good because the Cosmic Mind commands it? Or does the Cosmic Mind command it because it is good?

Whenever a moral philosopher like Beckwith tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why? And ultimately the only final answer to that question is, Because it's desirable for you as something that will fulfill you, make you happy, and allow you to flourish as a human being. And if I am right about my list of 20 desires as rooted in human nature, then this would constitute a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings, although prudence is required to judge what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances.

I have elaborated these and related points in my writing about "Darwinian natural law". and the Bible.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart-
Greetings. I have two questions. I haven't read your book yet, so I apologize if my questions betray that.
First, I'm curious how you see your answer to the Why? question explaining the issues of guilt and obligation to something beyond ourselves.
Second, you didn't respond to Dr. Beckwith's comments about metaphysical realism regarding essences. Would you comment on that?
Thanks for your time.

Larry Arnhart said...

Our feelings of guilt and obligation arise from our experience of regret when we realize that we have yielded to some momentary impulse that violates our more enduring social desires. We care about how we appear to others and feel guilty when we act contrary to what others would approve. This is what Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they spoke of morality as rooted in the natural moral sentiments of the "impartial spectator." More recently, James Q. Wilson wrote about this in his book THE MORAL SENSE.

Contrary to what Beckwith suggests, Darwinian science must reject any radical nominalism that would deny the reality of species. Species are real, even though they are not eternal.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart,

Thank you for your answers. Would you say a bit more about the nature of a species if it is not an eternal essence or radically nominalist? Also, what would you recommend reading on the subject? Thanks again for your time.

Larry Arnhart said...

I would recommend chapter 9 of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT.

Anonymous said...

I will do that. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart,
I read Dr. Beckwith over at Right Reason, and followed his link to your post here. Two observations:

I agree that social instincts play a part in our determination of morality, yet I find it difficult to see how justice (which is a strong social instinct) can have a meaningful role in classic liberal society. Our preeminent symbol of justice is the blindfolded lady holding a scale. This implies a basic concern for balance. But the social order you espouse creates a justice system where those who have achieved economic success have no obligations except non-interference to those without success. The problem with that position is that economic power normally seeks to eliminate competition rather than merely sustain it, so interference is the default activity. Furthermore, as Marc Hauser explains, the tribal mechanism of preserving social balance by shaming those with great success cannot work once a group has over 150 people. So it seems to me like a coercive form of government is the only means available to fulfill the role of justice in a large population.

Just like Adam Smith used the invisible hand to indicate the emergence of wealth from simple economic activity, the impartial spectator should also be sensitive to the fact that success is not limited only to what the actor did, but is related to the context of how well-organized the social order is, good fortune, and other unseen causes.

Larry Arnhart said...


That's why Smith's WEALTH OF NATIONS needs to read along with his THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS. A moral order is best enforced through the social sanctions of civil society--praise and blame that appeal to the natural moral emotions of love, indignation, guilt, shame, and so on.

Limited government is properly needed only to secure property rights and the rule of law so that the moral order of civil society can arise by spontaneous order.

Darwin saw his account of the evolution of morality through natural selection, cultural evolution, and deliberate judgment as confirming Smith's understanding of morality.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arhart

You wrote:

"Murder is condemned in every society throughout history because there is a natural human sentiment of indignation against unjust killing. No society could survive if the moral sentiment against murder were not strong."

I am afraid you are engaged in what I like to call "history by economists". For some reason, some economists (including eg von Hayek) tend to invent most of their history on the spot.

Murder is condemned in every society - but only murder inside the society. Traditional laws have nothing to say about those outside the tribe/polis. There were exceptions for some persons, of course - Germanic laws very strongly protected guests. Similarly, protection of merchants, at least while on roads and in marketplaces, was fairly universal.

This makes sense from the point of view of the game theory - when we take in account the game with indefinite number of repetitions.

But, anyhow, explaining the morality from Darwinian point of view completely misses the question. Yes, you can prove that following traditional morality is not contradictory with the survival of your traditional culture (since some traditional cultures survived). But that is really not in doubt.

The problem begin when we leave tribes and encounter states - which make no sense from the Darwinian point of view. But on this, read Voegelin.

Stanislaus B.

Larry Arnhart said...

Stanislaus B.

Voegelin is good. But I think the best survey of the anthropological history of killing is Westermarck's chapters on killing in THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE MORAL IDEAS, which confirm a Darwinian view.

As Darwin writes in the DESCENT, "No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, etc., were common; consequently such crimes within the limits of the same tribe are branded with everlasting infamy; but excite no such sentiment beyond those limits."

But then over history, the interaction of people across tribal boundaries can develop wider cooperation and sentiments of concern. Darwin writes: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent the sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races."

Robert Wright's book NONZERO shows how this works out over history as human beings discovered the advantages of extended, synergistic cooperation.

Troy said...

How does this jibe with Rummel's findings in "Death by Government?" He counts 170 Million murdered just by governments in the 20th c. -- that's not even counting good "old-fashioned" murders (and agg. assaults many of which would be murders without 911, ER trauma centers, cell phones, automobile ambulances, etc.) As humankind progresses shouldn't we kill less not more? Are the genocides of the 20th c. just a product of the Industrial Revolution and its technological advances, population growth, etc? Sympathies do not seem to be "extending to the men of all nations and races."