Thursday, March 23, 2006

Darwinian Conservatism and Natural Law: A Reply to J. Budziszewski

Many conservatives regard natural law as the moral ground of their conservatism. Against moral relativism or subjectivism, they believe that there are some natural standards of right and wrong, good and bad, which are universal because they are rooted in human nature. Some conservatives look to the medieval tradition of natural law defended by Thomas Aquinas. Others look to the Aristotelian tradition of natural right defended by Leo Strauss.

In developing my Darwinian conservatism, I agree with this conservative reliance on natural law or natural right. But I argue that this ethical naturalism can be defended as grounded in the natural desires of the human species as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. In an article in Social Philosophy and Policy (Winter 2001), I elaborated this idea under the title "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right."

But some of the conservative proponents of natural law regard my position as preposterous. For example, J. Budziszewski has attacked me in a paper entitled "The Rivalry of Naturalism and Natural Law." The paper was first published in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, edited by William Dembski (ISI Books, 2004). Recently, the paper has been published again in another book edited by Dembski (with a Foreword by Senator Rick Santorum)--Darwin's Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (Inter-Varsity Press, 2006). Both books are part of the "intelligent design" movement, and Budziszewski's paper shows how important it is for the proponents of "intelligent design" to reject Darwinian conservatism.

Budziszewski makes many points worth discussing. But his main idea is that for "natural law," one must "regard nature as the design of a supernatural intelligence." By contrast, for "naturalism," one must "regard nature (in a physical or material sense) as all there is." What I defend, he argues, is not "natural law" but "naturalism." And he criticizes me for my "determined attempt to make natural law safe for atheists."

First of all, I should stress that I have never defended atheism. On the contrary, in all of my writings--including Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism--I have argued that religious belief--particularly, Biblical religion--is both morally healthy and intellectually respectable. The religious appeal to God as the uncaused cause of nature cannot be refuted by reason. All natural explanations of the world--including Darwinian science--must assume that ultimately the order of nature is the final ground of explanation. But there is no way to deny the possibility that nature itself is the contingent product of nature's God.

And yet in our moral experience, we can appeal to a natural moral sense that does not depend upon religious belief, although religious belief can often reinforce that moral sense. When Thomas Aquinas defends the natural law as distinct from the divine law, he explains that natural law as "that which nature has taught all animals," because it is rooted in the "natural inclinations" or "natural instincts" of human beings and other animals. The divine law of the Bible can reinforce the natural moral law. But that natural law can stand on its own natural ground, and thus it can be known even to atheists. Darwinian science confirms this by explaining how this natural law could have evolved naturally to become what Darwin recognized as the natural moral sense implanted in human beings.

Budziszewski rejects this, because he believes that Thomistic natural law depends upon belief in God as the supernatural designer of nature. But if this were so, then there would be no distinction between divine law and natural law. This would deny the whole point of natural law reasoning, which is that human beings can agree on certain natural moral principles even when they cannot agree about religion. This has been a fundamental idea for conservatives who believe in religious liberty. We can tolerate religious diversity as long as we are confident that we share a natural moral sense that does not depend upon religious doctrines.

In criticizing my position, Budziszewski contradicts what he said in his book Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (1997). In that book, he wrote that natural law is "a standard for believers and unbelievers alike," and that's why it is "especially pertinent to politics," because it provides a moral standard that all human beings can know because it is "written on the heart" (p. 11).

Far from absolutely depending upon the divine law of the Bible, our natural moral sense allows us to correct the moral mistakes in the Bible. For example, Budziszewski says that recognizing "the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life" is part of the natural law. And yet, according to the Bible (Genesis 22), Abraham showed his faith in God by being willing to obey God's commandment to murder his son Isaac. Christians such as Kierkegaard have seen this Biblical story as teaching us "the suspension of the ethical" in our faith in God. We must obey God's commands even when they seem unethical. But most people see this Biblical teaching as wrong, because we recognize the wrongness of killing innocent children, and thus our natural moral sense corrects the Bible.

Another example would be the wrongness of slavery, which Budziszewski says is part of natural law. Darwin and others could condemn slavery as contrary to our natural moral sense. And yet in every Biblical passage where slavery is specifically mentioned, it is endorsed. Saint Paul taught slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). In the debate over slavery in the United States, the slaveholders in the South quoted the Bible in their defense. As Eugene Genovese indicates in his book The Mind of the Master, the Southern slaveholders had a much better Biblical case for their position than did the abolitionists. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States--The Southern Baptist Convention--was formed to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. So, here again, we can correct the Bible because we can see that slavery violates our natural moral sense.

As I argue in Darwinian Conservatism, conservatives see traditional religious belief as important for supporting traditional morality. But they can also recognize the moral mistakes in religious beliefs that violate our natural moral sense.

Monday, March 13, 2006

ISI's Encyclopedia of American Conservatism

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has just published AMERICAN CONSERVATISM: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA. I have post the following review on the Amazon.com website:

No other book provides such a rich survey of the intellectual history of American conservatism. With almost 1,000 pages of entries written by some of the most prominent American conservatives (such as Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, and Murray Rothbard), this is now the one book that must be studied if one wants to understand American conservatism.

This comes at a good time, because American conservatives are wondering about the future of conservatism in America. The current debate over whether George Bush and his neoconservative supporters have betrayed the conservative movement manifests this new period of conservative self-examination. This book will help conservatives to reconsider their complex history and their possible future.

My judgment might be biased because I was involved in the original launching of this project by Greg Wolfe in 1990. I have five articles in the book--on "Intelligent Design Theory," "The Scopes Trial," "Social Darwinism," "Sociobiology," and "Herbert Spencer." My articles reflect a desire to persuade conservatives that Darwinian science supports conservative social thought. But that is a minority view in this book. The more common conservative scorn for modern science is stated in M. D. Aeschliman's article on "Science and Scientism."

The one weakness in this book is that it does not really cover the full history of the American conservative movement. It stresses the intellectual or academic side of conservatism as dominated by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and NATIONAL REVIEW. It give no attention to the most populist elements of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, there is not a single reference to Billy James Hargis, to John Stormer's book NONE DARE CALL IT TREASON, or J. Evett Haley's book A TEXAN LOOKS AT LYNDON. Hargis was a Christian conservative who once broadcast his radio program in the 1960s on over 200 radio stations. Hargis's book A COMMUNIST AMERICA, MUST IT BE? was widely distributed. The books by Stormer and Haley sold millions of copies in 1964, during the Goldwater presidential campaign against LBJ. People like Hargis, Stormer, and Haley were far more popular than William Buckley or Russell Kirk in the 1960s.

I understand, however, that the editors of this encyclopedia want to make the history of American conservatism intellectually respectable by concentrating on the more purely academic levels of the movement.

In any case, no one can think seriously about the intellectual history of American conservatism without reading this book. And in helping us to understand the past history of conservatism, this book can also help us to foresee the future promise of conservatism in America and around the world.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Transhumanism and the Future of Human Nature

"Transhumanism" has become a popular term for the idea that technological enhancements of humans, animals, and machines will create a superhuman species of beings. Transhumanists believe that advances in genetic engineering, robotics, computer science, pscyhopharmacology, and nanotechnology will improve the physical and mental capacities of human beings to produce a new stage of evolutionary history. A new species of beings far superior to Homo sapiens might evolve from such technologies. Some of the best statements of transhumanism come from Nick Bostrum, James Hughes, and others in the World Transhumanist Association.

As I indicated in my chapter on biotechnology in Darwinian Conservatism, I am skeptical about transhumanism for two reasons. (I am now working on a new book that will elaborate my case against transhumanism.) My first reason is that transhumanism suffers from a Nietzschean utopianism that lacks common sense, because it ignores the ways in which the technologies for altering human traits are limited in both their technical means and their moral ends. My second reason is that I favor a stance of libertarian conservatism in response to technological changes that would allow improvement in human life but without the transcendence of human nature expected by the transhumanists.

The technology for enhancing human powers will be limited in its technical means, because complex behavioral traits arise from the intricate interplay of many genes interacting with developmental contingencies and unique life histories to form brains that constantly change as they respond flexibly to changing circumstances. Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible.

Consider, for example, the matter of human intelligence. One of the central assertions of the transhumanists is that we will soon create "superintelligent" beings that will be as intellectually superior to humans as humans are today to chimpanzees. Notice the extraordinary claims implicit in such an assertion--that we know what "intelligence" is in all of its complexity, that we can reduce intelligence to material causes that can be technically manipulated in precise ways, and that we can use this technical power to increase intelligence beyond anything ever achieved by living beings.

If we ask transhumanists to justify these claims, we get vague assertions about what might happen in the future. For instance, James Hughes, in his book Citizen Cyborg, says this about the future of computer intelligence: "Since computers powerful enough to model human brains should be common in thirty years, those computer models may then be able to run software simulations of our brains and bodies. Presumably these backups of our minds, if switched on, would be self-aware and have an independent existence. This is the scenario known as 'uploading.'"

No one knows how to fully model human brains or how to replicate such models in computers. No one knows how brains and bodies could be simulated in computer software. No one knows how computer software could become self-aware. And yet Hughes can imagine a "scenario" in which all of this ignorance is dispelled based on what he thinks "should" or "may" or "presumably" will happen in thirty years!

Now, of course, there are ways that we can use biomedical technology to protect against mental disabilities. For example, we could completely eliminate the mental retardation from Down syndrome through genetic screening of embryos or other means so that parents could be sure that they would not have children born with an extra 21st chromosome. But although this would be an improvement in human life, it would not transcend human nature by moving us towards "posthuman" beings with superhuman intelligence.

When transhumanists like Hughes predict the coming of "posthuman" humans as the fulfillment of what they think "should" happen, they are expressing not scientific or philosophic reasoning from observable experience but a religious longing for transcendence. Hughes is a Buddhist, and he foresees that the transhuman future will fulfill his Buddhist vision of a "society of enlightened beings as an infinite net, laced with pearls and gems, each enlightened mind a multicolored twinkle that is reflected in every other jewel." Like Friedrich Nietzsche, the transhumanists profess an atheistic materialism, and yet they still yearn for religious transcendence, which drives them to project fantasies of "overmen" and "posthumans" who have escaped the limitations of human nature to enter a heavenly realm of pure thought and immortal bliss.

The transhumanists also ignore how the technology of human enhancement will likely be limited in its moral ends. Human beings act to satisfy their natural desires. The use of technology to enhance human life will be driven by these natural desires. Transhumanists implicitly assume the enduring power of these desires. But if that is the case, then it is hard to see how human nature is going to be abolished if the natural desires endure.

For example, Hughes speaks about "the human needs and desires these technologies will be asked to serve," which include the desires for long, healthy lives, for intelligence and happiness, and the desires for parents to care for the physical and mental flourishing of their children. (All of these desires are included in my list of "twenty natural desires" in Darwinian Conservatism.) But if human beings are always going to be moved by the same natural desires, how does this take us into "posthuman" existence?

If we were really going to enter the "posthuman" realm, we would have to create beings who lacked the natural desires of human beings and who felt no concern for human life as moved by such desires. Such creatures might be superintelligent. But they would also be superpsychopathic predators who would feel no guilt or shame in enslaving or exterminating human beings.

The transhumanists respond to this prospect by explaining that we will have to be careful to instill in these posthuman beings what Nick Bostrum calls "human-friendly values." Hughes explains that we will have to instill by technological devices "sociability and empathy for all sentient beings." For example, we might require the installation of "morality chips." Hughes is not troubled by the naive expectation that we can develop "morality chips" to control the posthumans without any harmful side-effects.

Even if we could solve the technical problems in reducing morality to a mere matter of mechanical engineering, we might still wonder why Hughes and the other transhumanists want to preserve human morality if their goal is an absolutely posthuman life. If human morality as rooted in the natural human desires is at the core of human nature, then posthumanity would require the abolition of that morality. If the posthumans are going to be moved by the same natural desires and moral emotions that have always moved human beings, then it would seem that human nature has survived.

As an alternative to the transhumanist stance, I would defend a libertarian conservatism rooted in human nature. I would argue for leaving people free to exercise individual choice in developing and using new technologies to meet human needs and desires. This would allow people to learn by trial and error what is desirable and what is not in the use of such technologies.

Some legal regulation of choice might be required to promote the minimal safety and efficacy of the new technologies and to protect people against force and fraud. But within such a modest regulatory regime, people would have freedom of choice.

The moral standard here would be that a technology is good if it promotes the flourishing of our human nature by satisfying our natural desires. We can best conform to that standard by allowing people free choice in satisfying their desires. Although there will be great diversity in the choices people make, there will be some enduring patterns in their choices that reflect the universality of natural human desires. For example, we can assume that the natural desire for parental care will generally motivate parents to use technology in ways that promote the happiness of their children.

My stance is close to the position taken by Ron Baily in his book Liberation Biology. But I depart from Bailey when he moves towards a transhumanist libertarianism that assumes that somehow human nature will be superseded by a new, superior form of life.

I welcome the prospect of technological changes in the human condition that will improve the physical and mental functions of life. But rather than expecting the emergence of a transhuman form of life, I foresee that human nature will not only endure but prevail.