Monday, January 08, 2007

John West's Response, Parts 1-2

My previous replies to John West's book Darwin's Conservatives can be found here and here. West is now writing a response in four parts. The first two parts can be found here and here. I will comment now on these first two parts. I will comment on the second two parts as soon as they appear.

One remarkable feature of this continuing debate with West is that although we disagree strongly with one another, we can discuss our disagreements in a civil and reasonable way. This is rarely the case in the debates over Darwinism and intelligent design, because those on both sides of this debate are often so emotionally aroused that they cannot speak to one another in a tone of mutual respect and rational inquiry. I am grateful to John for his willingness to engage in a civil discussion about issues that deserve serious thought.

One of the characteristics of a civil discussion is that the participants often discover important grounds of agreement. That is the case here. As West indicates, he agrees with me that evolutionary explanations are persuasive in many respects. He also agrees with me that there are biological grounds for certain traits of human nature, which would support "biological conservatism," although he doubts that Darwinism provides a good explanation for such biological traits. And, finally, he agrees with me that Biblical religion is not necessary for morality, because there is a natural moral sense or natural law that can be known "through reason and conscience" without any necessity for Biblical revelation.

These points of agreement are not as clear in his book as they are in his blog posts. In his book, he refers to "traditional Judeo-Christian morality" (21) and the Biblical teaching "that human beings are created as the result of God's specific plan" (143), as if morality would not be possible without Biblical revelation. But his blog posts now make it clear that he believes in a natural moral law rooted in human nature that does not require religious belief. Although religious belief can often confirm or reinforce our natural moral sense, our natural morality stands on its own natural ground, even without religious belief.

This would seem to be very close to Darwin's position in The Descent of Man: "Ultimately, our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit." Moreover, Darwin suggested, "any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man."

But it is unclear to me whether West would fully embrace this Darwinian account of the natural moral sense, because he appeals to the "natural law/natural justice tradition" as if it were different from Darwin's "moral sense or conscience." He suggests that Darwinian morality cannot support "permanent moral standards." But he never explains exactly what he means by these "permanent moral standards," or how they differ from a moral sense rooted in human biological nature.

I would say that there are "permanent moral standards" insofar as there is an enduring human nature that supports morality as a condition for the fullest satisfaction or flourishing of that human nature. So, for example, marriage and family life are "permanent moral standards" insofar as they satisfy the natural human desires for sexual mating, parental care, and conjugal bonding.

I cannot be sure whether West would accept this or not. He seems to believe that the "permanent moral standards" are somehow rooted in human nature in such a way that they can be known naturally without any need for religious belief. He also agrees with me, however, that all universal moral rules require the variability that comes from practical judgment. "Deciding how to apply an abstract principle of morality to any particular situation can be difficult and requires the ability to engage in prudential reasoning."

Consider three of the moral issues that come up in our exchange--polygamy, slavery, and infanticide. A Darwinian account of morality woud suggest that although polygamy is common in human history, it is less satisfactory that monogamy, because of the disruptions that arise from the sexual conflicts of the co-wives. We can see this without any religious belief that monogamy has been divinely commanded. Would West agree?

Darwin condemned slavery as a violation of our natural moral sense, because it violates our natural desire for justice as reciprocity. The Bible allows for slavery. But West argues that this is only a concession to sin, and that in fact the Biblical teaching that all human beings were created equally in God's image implicitly condemns slavery as immoral. And yet, if West believes in a natural moral law that does not require religious belief, then he believes that the immorality of slavery arises from its being contrary to human nature, regardless of any religious teaching. So would West agree that slavery violates our natural moral sense?

The natural desire for parental care inclines human beings to feel deep attachments to their children. In difficult circumstances, however, parents have sometimes killed their infants. Our concern for protecting helpless offspring and our judgment that in modern societies there is no need to kill deformed newborns leads us to condemn infanticide as a crime. How would West account for this? He speaks of "the intrinsic value of handicapped infants or adults." I would explain this as an expression of our moral sympathy and our moral reasoning about the conditions for preserving respect for human life. Would West have a different explanation?

On the matter of explaining the origin of the mind, West rejects my claim that the mind evolves as an emergent product of the brain. But what is his explanation? And how can he explain this as a purely natural process of natural law that does not depend on religious belief?

On the matter of "free will," I repeat my claim that if "free will" means "uncaused cause," then human beings do not have "free will," because human beings are not self-subsistent beings that create from nothing. But if "free will" means only acting to satisfy our natural desires through our deliberate choices, then we are free in that sense. West does not explain whether he agrees with this or not.

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