Monday, December 28, 2009

Darwinian Ethics and the Moral History of 20th Century Barbarism

As I have indicated in a previous post, I agree with E. O. Wilson that the debate over the origins of ethics is ultimately between transcendentalists and empiricists, and that Darwinian science supports the empiricists. The transcendentalists believe that moral standards arise outside the human mind in some cosmic moral order of God, Nature, or Reason. The empiricists believe that moral standards arise as products of the human mind as shaped by moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.

In many posts, particularly over the last six months, I have responded to the warning of the transcendentalists (from Plato to Kant to the later Nietzsche) that denying a cosmic moral law--the "death of God"--makes morality impossible and thus brings a collapse into nihilism. This warning might seem to have been confirmed by the moral history of the twentieth century. As I have suggested in a previous post, Jonathan Glover's book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century is an indispensable study of the immoral brutality of the 20th century and an attempt to defend an empiricist view of morality against the transcendentalist claim that such brutality is the inevitable consequence of denying cosmic moral law.

Proponents of Darwinian ethics like Marc Hauser and have shown how scientific research using game theory and artificial moral dilemmas (like the "trolley problem") can support the moral psychology of Darwinian ethics. But such attempts to design laboratory models of moral choice are too contrived and artificial in their abstraction to capture the concrete complexity of real people making real choices in the real world. The ultimate test of Darwinian ethics is to see whether it can account for the real moral psychology of human experience. And for that, we need Darwinian moral history. Glover's book is a big step in that direction, because it provides an empirical moral history, although he does not see how this confirms Darwinian moral psychology.

Glover writes his history as a response to "Nietzsche's challenge"--if we reject the "idea of a moral law external to us," does that mean the collapse of morality in the face of nihilism and the rule of the stronger (11)? Glover's answer to this challenge is "ethics humanized": "If there is no external moral law, morality needs to be humanized: to be rooted in human needs and human values" (405-406). The question then is whether such a purely empirical ethics of human design can be sustained against the brutal history of the 20th century--from Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pol Pot to Slobodan Milosevic. I agree with Glover's answer, but I think his answer would be stronger if it were framed in the context of Darwinian ethics.

Glover shows how the history of the 20th century illustrates the three great sources of cruelty: war, tribalism, and Belief. He uses "Belief" with a capital B to designate transcendent beliefs--religious or quasi-religious--that are taken as articles of faith beyond question. For Glover, the cruelty of modern war is manifested in trench warfare and the British naval blockade of Germany in World War I, in the area bombing of Germany and Japan and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, and in the atrocities of the Vietnam War. The cruelty of tribalism is manifested in the tribal conflicts in Rwanda and in the conflicts between Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. The cruelty of Belief is manifested in the regimes shaped by the utopian ideologies of Marxism (Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot) and Nazism.

Glover also recognizes that the cruelty of war, tribalism, and ideological belief systems usually depends on the work of ambitious politicians who use war, tribalism, and utopian ideology as instruments for their Machiavellian power-seeking (123-28, 132). This points to the need for institutional structures of countervailing power so that ambition counteracts ambition.

War and tribalism show that there is a "moral gap" in the moral restraints on cruelty, because "outside the boundaries of a single community, both self-interest and the moral resources have serious limitations" (28). Although Glover is reluctant to embrace a sociobiological explanation of the innate propensity to group conflict, he does actually accept the idea that human moral psychology has been shaped by evolutionary group selection that favors group conflict (41, 140-44). And yet he thinks that such group conflict can at least be moderated by extending our moral emotions of sympathy and by recognizing the long-term advantages in cultivating cooperation between groups and nations.

Glover thinks that the final solution to the cruelty of military and tribal conflict would be a "proper world police force" to act as a global Leviathan to enforce an international rule of law (149). But Glover never explains how this could be done without risking global tyranny. In at least one passage, he recognizes the problem: "The Hobbesian trap of mutual fear suggests the Hobbesian solution. To police the global village, we could create Leviathan. We could all agree to submit to the power of the strongest. In the world after the Cold War, the emerging approximation to Pax Americana is a bit like this. But the Hobbesian solution has always been a second best. There is no justice in an inequality of power based on mere strength. The power may be used altruistically and wisely. It may also be used selfishly and at whim. And there are dangers in giving anyone total power" (225).

A Darwinian view of evolved human nature would suggest that military and tribal conflicts are inevitable, although we can look for ways to foster cooperative solutions to our conflicts. Such a view would warn against any utopian vision of perpetual peace through an international Leviathan as a recipe for tyranny.

Of course, the critics of Darwinian ethics like to tell the story of how Social Darwinism shaped Nazism to confirm their claim that Darwinism necessarily subverts healthy morality and promotes the immoral cruelty of "survival of the fittest." Glover tells that story. But he also shows that the story of Nazi Social Darwinism is not the whole story of Nazism, because it fails to explain the transcendental appeal of Nazism as a utopian ideology of communitarian morality that gave meaning and purpose to the lives of those who embraced it.

I will elaborate this last point in my next post.

2 comments:

Greg R. Lawson said...

I hope my responses to your questions from your last post were at least somewhat responsive.

As for the quote you use from Glover's work below is very appropriate.

"The Hobbesian trap of mutual fear suggests the Hobbesian solution. To police the global village, we could create Leviathan. We could all agree to submit to the power of the strongest. In the world after the Cold War, the emerging approximation to Pax Americana is a bit like this. But the Hobbesian solution has always been a second best. There is no justice in an inequality of power based on mere strength. The power may be used altruistically and wisely. It may also be used selfishly and at whim. And there are dangers in giving anyone total power"

This is indeed "a recipe for tyranny" as you state and is the central paradox of any universalist conception of peace in this world. We can't have a permanent peace of Kantian or Hobbesian derivation. Indeed it seems unlikely we can ever have anything permanent.

This should draw us back to the consideration of transcendentalism. This consideration should not be seen as a form of utopia (in its conventional as opposed to literal sense), but as a way of accepting the lack of perfectability in the corporeal world. Only through acceptance can we even approximate that which is temporary.

Paul said...

There are many different conceptions of what constitutes morality. I at the very least am convinced of Mr. Arnhart's account of how natural moral sentiments, at least in the present, can and do in reality sustain basic moral decency in the absence of belief in, and adherence to, transcendental principles. However, I do wonder what becomes of moral excellence in a world devoid of transcendental principles. Perhaps Mr. Arnhart has posted or written on this subject before, and I simply have not taken the time to read up on it.

However, since Mr. Arnhart is attempting to respond to the transcendentalist challenge to Darwinian ethics, I think that it is an appropriate response to his post to lay out another possible vision of what that challenge might be, and how it might not have been answered. To put it simply, within the context of the basic moral decency that has already been achieved within modern liberal democracies, moral excellence that goes above and beyond basic moral decency is not valued highly, and it is power, money, influence, and sexual attractiveness which people most worship. Which is to say, the rule of the stronger, especially when considered from a Social Darwinist perspective. I think that the behavior and the personalities of the most powerful and influential Americans provides anecdotal evidence of this. When moral excellence is not considered important by a culture, you get men like Karl Rove or Rahm Emanuel in the White House, who at the very least strike me as morally repugnant human beings because of their excessively fierce tribal natures.

Also, I don't want to be mistaken for denigrating basic moral decency. I think that the widespread moral decency found in liberal democracies is one of the most amazing and important human achievements to occur in history. However, being conservative by temperament, I do worry when I see people with the personalities of petty tyrants continually elevated to positions of power. Such examples might be morally corrosive, and endanger basic moral decency. Transcendental principles widely shared within and between populations probably help police such tyrannical personalities, and at least might be able to force them into the hypocrisy of not presenting an image of themselves which is corrosive to public decency. While I think that there are good arguments to be made that morality does not depend on transcendental belief, historically this has not been tested on a grand or national scale.