Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Response to John Hare's Kantian Critique of Darwinian Natural Right

One of the best critics of my "Darwinian natural right" is John Hare, a professor of philosophy at the Yale University Divinity School. (He is the son of the famous British moral philosopher R. M. Hare.) He is the author of The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God's Assistance (Oxford, 1997), which is an excellent book that interprets Kant as a proponent of the divine command theory of ethics. As the title of the book indicates, Hare believes that human beings cannot be moral without God's assistance in overcoming their sinful nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hare rejects my argument for a Darwinian ethics rooted in human biological nature, because he denies that morality can be based on human nature.

Hare first developed his critique of Darwinian Natural Right in his paper "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Reduction of the Ethical Demand," which he presented in 2000 at a conference at Baylor University on "The Nature of Nature." I met him at that conference and at some subsequent conferences where we debated. He has restated his arguments from that paper in two books--Why Bother Being Good? (2002) and God & Morality: A Philosophical History (2007)--and in two book chapters--in Evolution and Ethics, ed. Philip Clayton and Jeff Schloss (2004) and in Religion in the Liberal Polity, ed. Terence Cuneo (2005).

I have written many posts on why I reject the divine command theory of ethics. One of those can be found here. So I won't add anything here on that point.

Here I will clarify the fundamental conflict between Hare's Kantian view of ethics and my Aristotelian/Darwinian view. I will answer some of his particular criticisms, and in doing that, I will have to admit that he has forced me to correct what I now see as a mistake in Darwinian Natural Right where I argue against Darwin's "moral idealism."

Kant's account of ethics rests on an a priori rationalism and a Gnostic dualism that I reject. Kant argues that ethics must be based on purely a priori reasoning that is independent of human nature or any natural experience. I think that such a purely rationalistic ethics that is not rooted in human nature and the natural human pursuit of happiness is impossible.

In Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he declares: "reason of itself, independent of all experience, commands what ought to be done." Thus, "all moral precepts have their seat and origin entirely a priori in reason." Consequently, "the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason." Moral duty, then, must be derived by pure logic from a moral law that is stated as a rule of purely formal self-consistency. Moreover, this a priori reasoning of morality belongs to a realm of freedom that is outside the laws of nature, which is what I identify as Kant's Gnostic dualism.

Such Gnostic dualism asserts that human nature is evil, and therefore that morality requires a transcendence of nature, so that morality demands a denial of all natural inclinations. For example, Kant says that people who do kind and benevolent deeds because they have a sympathetic nature that inclines them to take joy in the happiness of other people show "no true moral worth" at all. On the other hand, people who do kind and benevolent deeds for the sake of duty even though they have no sympathy at all for other people are truly moral.

To separate moral duty from natural human inclinations as Kant does is an error in human psychology, because moral duties always arise from natural inclinations or desires, which ultimately express the natural desire for happiness. Because this is so, Kant cannot consistently adhere to his a priori rationalism and Gnostic dualism. So when he speaks of the awe that human beings feel for the moral law, he implicitly appeals to the moral emotions of human nature, which he could not do if he were consistent in his a priori rationalism. Similarly, in the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes two inconsistent claims. He says that "to have any end of action whatsoever is an act of freedom on the part of the acting subject, not an effect of nature." But then he also says that "it is unavoidable for human nature to wish for and seek happiness." The contradiction between these two statements shows the impossibility of maintaining a plausible view of ethics that consistently separates moral freedom from human nature and moral duty from human happiness. As some Kant scholars have noticed, Kant's "pure ethics" of a priori reasoning is not plausible unless it is combined with an "impure ethics" based on human nature, which means that Kant's radical separation between reason and nature cannot be sustained.

Moreover, as I have said in Darwinian Natural Right and in some of my posts on this blog, Kant's rationalism has been refuted by modern studies of the neurological basis of moral judgment. Deliberate choice requires the union of reason and emotion. People with brain damage that deprives them of the normal capacity for social emotions cannot live well as social animals. Ethical conduct as utterly free from emotion is neurologically impossible. We use reason to determine how best to satisfy our desires, how to manage our desires, and how to justify our actions. But abstract reason by itself would never move us to moral action without the motivation of our desires. Psychopaths have no moral sense, not because they lack intelligence or the ability to reason logically, but because they lack the social emotions (such as sympathy, shame, guilt, and love) that support morality in normal people.

That Hare thinks Kant's account of ethics is defensible, while I think it's indefensible, is the fundamental disagreement between us.

To respond to Hare's particular criticisms, I need to offer a clarification and a correction. Hare attributes to me the claim that "lifetime monogamy is unnatural, a frustration of natural desires, and therefore presumably bad." In the passage that he cites to support this claim, I say that there is no justification for an absolute ban on divorce, because there are circumstances where divorce might be the most desirable resolution of marital conflict. I cannot tell whether Hare agrees with this or not. In any case, he does not notice another passage in my book where I state that most men are better off in monogamous marriages that satisfy their desires for conjugal stability and parental care, which requires that they restrain their impulsive desire for sexual promiscuity.

On another point raised by Hare, I now see that I need to correct a mistake that I made in Darwinian Natural Right, and so I must admit that Hare is right in drawing attention to my mistake. Darwin sees a history of moral progress in which the natural human capacity for sympathy--sharing the feelings of others--has been extended from the family to small tribes, then to large nations, and eventually to all of humanity. The most recent advance of sympathy extends it even beyond humanity to include the lower animals, so that now we can see "the most noble attribute of man" in the "disinterested love for all living creatures." In my book, I reject this as showing a "utopian view of morality." Hare rightly criticizes me for refusing to consider the moral claims of such universal humanitarian sympathy. Now I think I was wrong, and Darwin was right.

My earlier rejection of Darwin's appeal to universal sympathy arose from a mistaken reading of what Darwin says. I interpreted Darwin as taking a position similar to that of Peter Singer. Singer argues that the logic of ethical reasoning leads us to one fundamental principle--the impartial consideration of the similar interests of all sentient creatures. This means that we are morally obligated to care for all human beings equally without showing any partiality towards those close to us, such as family and friends, that would put them ahead of strangers. In applying this principle, Singer has argued that Americans are morally obligated to give away all their yearly income over $30,000 to help needy strangers around the world. He has also confessed that he acted immorally by spending money on special care for his mother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, because that money should have been given to needy strangers. He is also famous for arguing that favoring the lives of human beings over the lives of nonhuman animals is "speciesism," because it shows an immoral partiality for those creatures who belong to our own species. I rejected Darwin's morality of universal sympathy because it seemed to be moving towards Singer's principle of impartiality.

But as I now read Darwin, I think he would disagree with Singer. Our moral sympathy can expand to ever-wider circles to include our extended kin, or clan, or group, our nation, all of humanity, and perhaps even all life forms. But the the expansion to the wider circles will occur only in those cases where our provisioning of the inner circles is secure. We care first and most strongly for ourselves and for those bound to us by ties of kinship, friendship, and citizenship. Our sympathy for human strangers, or even for animals, can be strong. But generally, it will be weaker than our attachments to those close to us. Humanitarian sympathy does not eliminate the preferential treatment motivated by love of one's own. That this is Darwin's position is made clear in his comments on the treatment of animals. he campaigned against the cruel treatment of animals, and yet he defended the killing and dissection of animals for scientific research. He recognized that when human interests and animal interests were in conflict, human beings might properly prefer human interests over animal interests.

Darwin's extension of sympathetic emotion to support the Golden Rule requires an impartial concern for all of humanity, but this impartiality is not indiscriminate or impersonal. What is good for me is good for similar people in similar circumstances, but this allows for love of one's own. If it is good for me to care for my own children more than I care for my neighbor's children, then humanitarian impartiality demands that I see that it is good for my neighbors to care for their own children more than they care for my children. (As I have often observed on this blog, this was Adam Smith's understanding of sympathy as the foundation of moral sentiments, and this was adopted by Darwin in his account of the natural moral sense.)

For Singer to think that it is immoral for him to spend money on his sick mother rather than to give that money to need strangers, he must deny natural human emotions as morally worthless. This is consistent with Kant's a priori rationalism, but it is not consistent with the moral experience of human beings.

Darwin's understanding of how we extend sympathy to all of humanity would also explain his opposition to slavery, which has been a frequent topic for this blog. Darwin appeals to moral emotions of sympathy in insisting on the mental similarity of the races as manifesting the unity of the human species. he thus calls up that sense of fellow-feeling that people have toward those like themselves, a fellow-feeling that arouses indignation against masters who exploit their slaves and compassion for slaves who suffer this exploitation. This natural capacity for sympathy supports the principle that slavery is wrong because it means treating some human beings as if they were not human. Kant's a prior rationalism would not permit this appeal to natural sympathy, because he would have to reject this reliance on sympathetic human nature as having "no true moral worth at all." By contrast, I think the opposition to slavery and other evil practices is necessarily motivated by moral sympathy as expressed in moral emotions of compassion and indignation.

Moreover, relying on divine command as the ground of morality--as Hare argues we must do--does not give us reliable guidance in the moral debate over slavery. If we look to the Bible as a revelation of divine command, we might conclude that slavery is sanctioned by God. As I have argued in some previous posts, the biblical morality of slavery challenges any divine command theory of morality.


Martin Hewson said...

This implies that there could (and perhaps should) be written a Darwinian history of morals that traces the expansion, but also at times too the contraction, of the circle of sympathy, over the past 10 k years or so; aiming to explain when, how, and why it has expanded (and contacted).

I wonder if it is "sticky downwards" ie if, having expanded, the circle is more likely to further expand than it is to contract.

I also wonder how it is bound up with the expansions, and contactions, in the scale of the other aspects of life (political, economic) that have happened over the same scale of time.

Larry Arnhart said...

Martin Hewson,

What you have suggested has been done by Robert Wright in his book NONZERO. He presents all of human history as showing an ever expanding and ever more intricate series of nonzero sum games, in which human beings have discovered new ways to benefit from reciprocal exchange.