Sunday, August 17, 2008

Religious Transcendence and Natural Evolution

As I continue to write my response to the seven commentators for the second edition of Darwinian Conservatism, I see a fundamental division between those who look to natural evolution and those who look to religious transcendence.

Neil Blackstone, Lauren Hall, and Timothy Sandefur seem to agree that we can fully understand human beings as products of natural evolution, and so we can base our moral and political reasoning on evolved human nature. Carson Holloway, Peter Augustine Lawler, Richard Sherlock, and John West seem to agree that no evolutionary account of human nature is sufficient, because we need to see that human beings have a supernatural or transcendent end, and that's why we need religion to reveal that cosmic end.

I argue that our evolved human nature includes at least 20 natural desires that constitute the range of universal or generic human goods for all human beings in all societies throughout history. The concrete expression of these goods varies for different individuals in different circumstances. Prudence or practical judgment is required for individuals to judge how best to rank and integrate the generic goods of life in an individualized way that fits the contingent and particular circumstances of each individual.

One of those natural desires is the desire for religious understanding. But the individual expression of this desire as balanced with other natural desires will vary across individuals. A crucial issue is the balance between the desire for religious understanding and the desire for intellectual understanding. For some individuals, the desire for ultimate explanation will be satisfied with taking nature as the uncaused cause for all explanation. But others will move beyond nature to some supernatural uncaused cause. This choice between reason and revelation--Athens and Jerusalem--runs throughout intellectual history.

There are moral and political implications to this issue. While I believe religious longing has to be recognized as part of evolved human nature, and while I think religious belief often supports morality, I think that natural morality as rooted in the generic goods of our 20 natural desires can stand on its own natural ground without religion. Here is where the "transcendent conservatives" disagree with me, because they deny that any healthy morality is possible without the support of some "religiously-informed cosmic teleology" (Holloway's phrase).

After all, they ask, how do we settle conflicts between the natural desires? Doesn't this require some ranking of those desires in some hierarchical order? To do this, don't we need some cosmic teleology of transcendent ends in the light of which we can determine the summum bonum or best life for human beings? Once we can identify the best life as conforming to the transcendent end or purpose of human life in the cosmos, then, they argue, we can resolve our moral conflicts by ranking our human goods from lowest to highest.

Here we come to a fundamental disagreement. My critics assume a dominant-end conception of human goods--the idea that all human goods and ways of life can be hierarchically ranked with one human good or way of life at the top. We might think of Aristotle's claim in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics that the highest and best life for human beings is the contemplative life of the philosopher, because this is the human life that is the most divine. Christian theologians saw this as a pagan intimation of the teaching of revelation that the highest life--the ultimate end for which all human beings strive--would be eternal contemplation of God.

Against this dominant end conception of human goods, I argue for an inclusive-end conception. There is a range of human goods that correspond to my 20 natural desires--goods such as familial bonding, friendship, social status, political rule, wealth, health, aesthetic pleasure, intellectual understanding, and so on. Human flourishing or happiness is constituted by these goods, so that any life without one of these goods would be less than fully happy. For example, a life without any deep friendships would not be a fully flourishing human life. But the importance of friendship as balanced against all the other goods will vary in the lives of different individuals. How one should combine and rank the goods of life requires that each individual exercise prudential judgment in deciding how to arrange and integrate these goods in a way that is appropriate for the contingent and particular circumstances of the individual and for that individual's propensities, abilities, and history. In this view, the end of human life is inclusive of all the human goods, and the ranking of goods will properly differ for different individuals with different forms of life.

Much of what Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric seems to support this inclusive end view. According to this view, the philosophic life might be the best life for someone like Socrates. But for other human beings, with different temperaments, abilities, and circumstances, a different kind of life might be best. And yet, since intellectual understanding is a generic good for all human beings, any individual who would be utterly ignorant and lacking any intellectual understanding would not have a fully happy life.

Abraham Lincoln was a deeply intellectual man. This was evident in early years when he engaged in long, philosophical discussions with his friends, and he wrote a long essay questioning the authority of the Bible and its theology. But he did not devote himself to the philosophic life. Instead, he became a lawyer and politician. His love of honor drove him to a life of striving to do something great enough for his country that he would be remembered for ever.

Those like Leo Strauss and his students who think the philosophic life is the highest life for all human beings would say that Lincoln's life was inferior to Socrates', and that the goodness of any human life is to be measured by how far it approximates the life of a Socratic philosopher. Or they might say that the merely moral and political lives of people like Lincoln are good only instrumentally insofar as they serve to secure the conditions for the contemplative life of those few people like Socrates.

This makes no sense to me. Why can't we say that both Lincoln and Socrates led flourishing lives insofar as they satisfied a wide range of natural human goods, even though they ranked and integrated those goods into two different kinds of life?

My inclusive end view of human flourishing is close to what Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen would call "individualistic perfectionism." Den Uyl develops this idea in his book The Virtue of Prudence (1991). Den Uyl and Rasmussen develop it in their book Norms of Liberty (2005). Like my account of "Darwinian natural right," their "individualistic perfectionism" recognizes both human nature and human individuality. Human flourishing manifests human nature in the generic goods of human life. It also manifests human individuality in that human flourishing is the individual flourishing of particular individuals. The basic or generic goods of life--such as health, wealth, friendship, honor, and knowledge--constitute the natural end of human life. Full flourishing requires all of these goods in some form. But the ranking and integration of these goods must properly vary for different individuals, and that's why prudence becomes the supreme moral virtue because it must judge how best to rank and integrate these goods for each individual life. This supports a moral and political argument for societies of ordered liberty as securing the conditions in which human individuals are most likely to achieve humanly flourishing lives.

Transcendent conservatives like Holloway, Lawler, Sherlock, and West reject such a view of morality. According to West, we need some "transcendent standard of morality" rooted in the cosmic order of an intelligent designer or eternal nature. According to Holloway, we need "revealed religion" to provide a transcendent ranking of goods so that we can see one particular form of life as conforming to the cosmic end of all human striving.

For this to work, the transcendent conservatives would have to persuade us to accept a transcendent, religious conception of the universe that is authoritative, clear, and reliable in its moral teaching. How would they do that?

Holloway has appealed to Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life in Book 10 of the Ethics. He has suggested that Aristotle's arguments show the influence of "revealed religion." But is it clear that Aristotle believed in "revealed religion"? He does invoke some conception of divinity in the Ethics in saying that philosophy is the most divine activity--the human activity most loved by the gods--but it's not clear what exactly he means by this, or even whether he is really serious about it.

Holloway also invokes the tradition of Christian religion. But then it's not clear whether he thinks all human beings can be persuaded to embrace this religion. At times, he speaks of "Catholic Christianity" as though this would be his favored form of religion. But, again, how does he expect to persuade everyone to adopt this religion?

As an alternative to Holloway's appeal to Christian religion, transcendent conservatives might turn to West's argument for an intelligent designer. But as West himself indicates, the intelligent designer is not necessarily the same as the biblical god. And even if we were to accept West's arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer, he never explains why we should attribute any moral authority to this intelligent designer. In fact, Behe worries about the apparent immorality of the intelligent designer in deliberately designing living mechanisms--like malaria, for example--to kill millions of innocent people. But then Behe decides that we cannot know "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity," and after all, "from the bare conclusion of design, I see no necessary major implications for our daily lives." So if Behe is right, recognizing the intelligent designer is not going to give us any moral guidance.

If we are left, then, with Holloway's Christian religion--and perhaps, more specifically, Catholic Christianity--as the only way to provide the transcendent hierarchy of cosmic goods that we seek, how exactly do we enforce this morally and politically? Does this point us to theocracy as the only answer? If so, then transcendent conservatism must reject any free society in which individuals have religious liberty. This seems to be exactly what Sandefur fears in traditionalist conservatism.

If the transcendent conservatives are not implicitly arguing for theocracy, then how exactly do they expect a free society to foster a healthy moral order without a shared devotion to a revealed Christian religion that enforces a cosmic hierarchy of goods?

The inclination of transcendent conservatives towards theocracy was suggested last year in Dinesh D'Souza's book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. D'Souza is trying to persuade American conservatives that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims" (287). He claims that the moral debate today is divided sharply between two positions. On the one side, conservatives believe in a religious morality rooted in "an external moral order" and "external commands." On the other side, liberals believe in a secular morality of the inner self, "the morality of self-fulfillment" (18-20). The liberals' secular morality of self-fulfillment promotes moral corruption through hedonistic self-indulgence and materialism. Traditional Muslims believe that this liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life. American conservatives, D'Souza insists, should admit that they are right. America really is morally corrupt insofar as liberal morality has prevailed in American life. American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against the corruption of such secular morality.

Do the transcendent conservatives--like Holloway, Lawler, Sherlock, and West--think D'Souza is wrong? If so, why? If we need "revealed religion" to support a transcendent, cosmic hierarchy of goods, why doesn't Islamic theocracy provide what we need?

3 comments:

RBH said...

Larry Arnhart wrote

How one should combine and rank the goods of life requires that each individual exercise prudential judgment in deciding how to arrange and integrate these goods in a way that is appropriate for the contingent and particular circumstances of the individual and for that individual's propensities, abilities, and history. In this view, the end of human life is inclusive of all the human goods, and the ranking of goods will properly differ for different individuals with different forms of life.

To the contrary, he says, West, et alia, claim that

According to West, we need some "transcendent standard of morality" rooted in the cosmic order of an intelligent designer or eternal nature. According to Holloway, we need "revealed religion" to provide a transcendent ranking of goods so that we can see one particular form of life as conforming to the cosmic end of all human striving.

This is essentially a 'one size fits all' view (that of West and Holloway) vs. a pluralist view (Arnhart) that allows for individual differences.

When the 'one size fits all' folks argue against the pluralist view, they virtually always do so with a slippery slope argument, saying that to admit individual differences and a pluralist view is tantamount to admitting that there are no real moral standards at all. Their theocratic leanings -- which imply that the one size that fits all is to be imposed on all -- are an expression of their desire to execute that imposition in order to avoid the moral chaos enabled by the pluralist position. After all, if you know (from irrefutable revelation) what's right for everyone, it's only reasonable to require everyone to conform to what you know is right.

Paul Decelles said...

You write about Behe:

"But then Behe decides that we cannot know "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity," and after all, "from the bare conclusion of design, I see no necessary major implications for our daily lives." "

Of course Behe is going to say this because they want ID to be accepted as a legitimate scientific idea and in order to avoid religious entanglements that have to say that the designer can be any number of things aside from a transcendent god.

I wonder if Behe understands the implication of the claim that there are no moral implications in ID for daily life.

Doe he not understand that he's really saying that ID is less useful than evolution in dealing with moral questions?

Of course from my perspective, ID is useless for anything except as an outmoded prescientific idea.

leadpb said...

Whether the "transcendent conservative" viewpoint is theocratic or not, I don't see the need to employ the winner-take-all mentality as an ultimate end. These things always shift on some time scale. It is more about the cultural dominance that allows any belief or religion to provide for an ordered (and prosperous, happy, etc.) society. When that dominance is upset or threatened, as in Islamic societies or in the devalued Christian European tradition, the vagaries of human nature flourish once again.