Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolution and Thomistic Natural Law: A Reply to Stephen Pope

I have often argued that a Darwinian view of evolved human nature supports traditional natural law reasoning, particularly as developed by Thomas Aquinas. I have laid out my arguments in many posts, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here. and here.

My position has been challenged by Stephen Pope in his book Human Evolution and Christian Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pope's general argument is that "our growing knowledge of human evolution is compatible with Christian faith and morality, provided that the former is not interpreted reductionistically and the latter is not interpreted in fundamentalist ways." He also argues that the tradition of Thomistic natural law can be brought into harmony with Darwinian science. I agree with all of this.

Considering our fundamental agreement, I am confused by Pope's criticisms of my position in Chapter 11 of his book, where I am considered along with Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean Porter, and Lisa Sowle Cahill, under the title "Natural Law in an Evolutionary Context."

He offers at least five criticisms. First, he seems to agree with John Hare that "if every satisfaction of a natural human desire is good, . . . then Arnhart is not entitled to render a moral condemnation of slavery because it is produced by what he calls our natural human desire for dominance" (274). But I never say that every satisfaction of a natural human desire is good. In fact, much of my writing in Darwinian Natural Right is about how conflicts in our desires lead us to see that what we happen to desire at any one time is not necessarily truly desirable for us over a whole lifetime. Moreover, I devoted a long chapter in Darwinian Natural Right on slavery as showing a tragic conflict of desires that can only be resolved by prudence and the recognition that slavery violates our natural moral sense. Pope does not explain what he thinks is wrong with this reasoning.

Pope's second criticism is that I ignore the importance of history and variation in the moral codes of different cultures (276-77). But, again, in Darwinian Natural Right, I offer elaborate studies of cultural diversity in the handling of moral issues surrounding slavery, infanticide, female circumcision, marriage, and other topics. And, again, I emphasize the importance of prudence in deciding what is best for particular individuals in particular cultural circumstances.

His third criticism is that "acting 'according to nature' in an evolutionary sense may be immoral from a human standpoint" (277). But this ignores my Darwinian account of how the emergence of the human capacity for moral deliberation allows us to reflect on our natural desires and decide how best to manage those desires to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived.

His fourth criticism is that I am a biological reductionist, because I say that "biological goods" are the only goods, and thus I depart from Aquinas, who sees the "rational goods" as superior. But Pope does not cite any passages where I dismiss the "rational goods" of life. In fact, I include "practical reasoning," "intellectual understanding," and "religious understanding" as natural human desires.

His final criticism is that "Arnhart's 'naturalization' of ethics ignores completely the Thomistic view of human life as a journey to God" (278). But this ignores the fact that in Darwinian Natural Right (265-66) and elsewhere, I have recognized that Aquinas sees the highest ends of human beings as directed to eternal happiness with God. My point here is that such supernatural happiness belongs to divine law rather than natural law, and thus it depends on revelation that goes beyond natural experience. Pope seems to agree: "Natural law is necessary but not sufficient for Christian ethics. The good calls for the transformation of our motivations, attitudes, and intentions, and in a way and to a degree that surpasses our natural human capacities" (296). If Pope agrees with me about this Thomistic separation of natural law directed to natural ends and divine law directed to supernatural ends, then I don't understand what he is criticizing.

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