Friday, September 21, 2007

Darwinian Natural Law: A Reply to Gavin Colvert

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have suggested that a Darwinian naturalism can support a conception of "Darwinian natural right" that is similar to traditional natural law reasoning. I have also elaborated this point in my paper "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right," published as an article in Social Philosophy & Policy (winter 2001)and in Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosophy (edited by Ellen Frankel Paul et al. for Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Recently, Gavin Colvert, a philosopher at Assumption College, has published a response to my reasoning--"Back to Nature: Aquinas and Ethical Naturalism"--which can be found here.

Although Colvert praises my efforts at providing a Darwinian grounding for natural moral law, he argues that there are serious defects in my position. Actually, I think that he and I are even closer than he realizes. He writes: "Aquinas holds that the normative force of the natural inclinations to various goods must be integrated through the consideration of reason. Humean sentimentalism does not provide for this possibility" (49). He concludes: "Natural inclinations are normative within a practical grasp of our nature and possibilities for human fulfillment. In other words, a genuine theory of practical reason is needed. Sentimentalism is not enough" (59). I agree! But Colvert doesn't see this agreement because he does not notice my emphasis on prudence as essential for moral deliberation. See, for example, Darwinian Natural Right (17-21, 44-49, 80-81, 152-60, 166-70,188-89, 224-30) and Darwinian Conservatism (10, 15, 23-25, 32-33, 41-45, 110-11, 133, 142).

The good is the desirable, I argue, but what is desirable is not the same as what we happen to desire at any moment. What is desirable for us as human beings conforms to our happiness or flourishing as a deliberate conception of the harmonious satisfaction of our desires over a whole life. As Darwin indicates, only human beings can be moral beings in this sense, because only they have the cognitive capacities for reason and language that allow them to formulate a plan of life, so that they can judge present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations. Pure reason by itself cannot move us to action. But practical reason can move us when it is linked to natural desire or inclination. I agree, therefore, with Colvert's claim that "reason must integrate the objects of natural desire into a coherent understanding of the human good" (37).

Colvert identifies me as a "Humean sentimentalist." This ignores the emphasis I give to practical reasoning. It also ignores Hume's point that morality requires a conjunction of reason and sentiment. I and Hume would agree with Darwin's conclusion: "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."

Colvert relies on Carson Holloway's critique of my position. I have responded to Holloway on various occasions. One of my posts on Holloway can be found here.

Like Holloway, Colvert appeals to Tocqueville in stressing the importance of religious belief for morality. I agree with Tocqueville's claim that "considering religions from a purely human point of view, one can say that all religions derive an element of strength which will never fail from man himself, because it is attached to one of the constituent principles of human nature" (quoted by Colvert at p. 53). After all, I stress the natural desire for religious understanding and the ways in which religion reinforces morality. But I also argue that the natural moral sense can stand on its own natural ground in human nature even without religious belief.


Anonymous said...

The natural moral sense, as you argue, has an independent existence from religious belief. But can it really "stand alone"? Does it not need convention to give effective form to the matter of natural right--convention that develops through history, and usually takes the shape of "religion", especially in the West?

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes. As indicated in the quotation from Darwin in this post and in other posts, I would say that morality requires habituation and cultural learning. Morality moves through three levels of order--natural desires, cultural learning, and individual judgment. Religion is rooted in the natural desire for religious understanding, in cultural traditions of religious belief and practice, and in individual judgments about religion.

Anonymous said...


"Does it not need convention to give effective form to the matter of natural right--convention that develops through history, and usually takes the shape of "religion", especially in the West?"

This seems to assume that humans were originally non-moral and it was only through history, including the development of religion, that they became effectively moral.

Actually, as science has found, humans in the original hunter-gatherer societies had moral conventions, and furthermore, this morality was not based on religion.

By the way, one of the reasons that so many religionists go wrong on these matters is that the Bible is highly inadequate as a picture of the social history of the human race. In particular, most of the types of societies that have existed receive no mention at all or only a very brief and inadequate description.

-- Les Brunswick