Friday, December 18, 2009

Prudence or Transcendence?--A Reply to Carson Holloway

Carson Holloway is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He earned his Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University, where I had the great pleasure of being one of his teachers. As often happens with good students, he challenged his teachers; and in particular, he has made disagreeing with me a big part of his career. His book The Right Darwin? is a critique of my Darwinian Natural Right. He has edited a book criticizing my article "Statesmanship as Magnanimity: Classical, Christian, and Modern." And he has written a critical response to Darwinian Conservatism as a contributor to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.

Now he has written two articles on Darwinian political thought for the Witherspoon Institute, which can be found here and here. In criticizing the political interpretations of Darwinism, he compares the Darwinian Left as represented by John Dewey and Peter Singer and the Darwinian Right as represented by William Graham Sumner and me.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, Dewey delivered a lecture on "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy." Holloway takes this lecture as the best statement of Dewey's Darwinian thought. According to Dewey in this lecture, Darwin exerted his greatest influence by refuting Aristotelian teleology. Aristotle believed that nature conformed to a rational design such that each thing served some purpose in the order of the universe, but Darwin showed that species evolved through the struggle for existence without any preordained plan or purpose. Therefore, Dewey argues, if we accept Darwinian biology, we have to reject Aristotelian political thought as it rests on an unscientific view of nature.

Holloway seems to accept Dewey's claim that Darwin necessarily denied all forms of teleology. I don't agree. On the centennial anniversary of Darwin's Origin, John Herman Randall delivered a lecture on "The Changing Impact of Darwin on Philosophy." Contrary to Dewey, Randall concluded that, as a result of Darwin's influence, "nature is once more for us, as for the Greeks, full of implicit ends and ideals." Randall argued, "When Darwin led men to take biology seriously once more, they had to reintroduce these functional concepts that physicists had forgotten--means and ends, function, teleology, and time." Obviously, there is confusion among Darwin's interpreters as to whether evolutionary biology denies Aristotelian teleology (as Dewey says) or confirms it (as Randall says).

I have argued that to clear up this confusion, we need to see that while Darwin denied cosmic teleology, he affirmed immanent teleology. The natural evolution of living beings does not conform to any cosmic design. But that natural evolution does produce species that show an internal teleology in being directed to ends or goals. For example, a mammalian species is naturally adapted for parental care, so that mothers caring for their offspring can be explained teleologically as goal-directed behavior. Such species-specific, immanent teleology is the only kind of teleology that Aristotle saw in the living world, and modern biology confirms such Aristotelian teleology.

Holloway is not satisfied with such immanent teleology, however, because he is a metaphysical conservative who believes that the moral order of the universe requires what he has called "religiously-informed cosmic teleology." Although this is not explicitly stated in these two Witherspoon Institute articles, it's clearly stated in Holloway's other writings.

Although Holloway agrees with me that Darwinian science might go far in explaining the range of natural human desires, he argues that this cannot explain human morality, because moral choice requires a ranking of desires--preferring some as good and rejecting others as bad--which requires normative principles that go beyond empirical science.

I have argued that a full Darwinian account of morality requires understanding the complex interaction between natural moral sentiments, customary moral traditions, and individual moral judgments. So, for example, to understand the moral order of property in human life, we need to explain not only the natural propensities to property, but also the customary traditions of property claims and the formal laws of property rights. Resolving conflicts over property or conflicts between the desire for property and other desires requires prudence or practical judgment in deciding what is best for particular individuals or particular societies in particular circumstances. Natural human desires or propensities constrain but do not specify how property is to be defined or arranged in specific cases. I elaborate this point in my chapter on property in Darwinian Conservatism.

This appeal to human prudence is not enough for Holloway, because he believes that morality is impossible without some appeal to a transhuman, cosmic principle of goodness grounded in the divine. In his contribution to the Disputed Question book, he insists that a Darwinian morality of human nature cannot provide any ranking of our natural desires that allows us to choose the good over the bad. "Our ability to distinguish between the good and the bad in human nature depends on some principle that somehow transcends human nature itself. It is this higher source of principle that the older version of natural law could supply and that Darwinian conservatism cannot" (l67).

What is this "principle that somehow transcends human nature"? Holloway is not clear about this. But as far as I can tell, it's the Biblical principle of universal love based on the equal dignity of all human beings as created by God in His image. As I have indicated in my various responses to Holloway, I don't think he has gone far enough in explaining exactly what this principle means, how it is derived from the Bible, why he expects all human beings to live by it, and how it would guide our particular moral decisions.

Does universal love require an absolutely indiscriminate humanitarianism--so that we would love all human beings equally without any partiality at all for those close to us? Would this require absolute pacifism as an expression of the "love your enemies" teaching? Would this require the abolition of private property and private families? Are the Christian socialists and pacifists correct in their interpretation of universal love?

Or would Holloway concede that these positions would go against human nature? But how could he make this concession without falling back into the Darwinian naturalism that he wants to reject?

My elaboration of some of these points in other posts can be found here, here, here., and here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

I find this one of the most thought provoking blogs out there because it cuts to the core of so many philosophical issues.

Whether there is a fundamental teleology of man, or teleology of history as reflected in man, is the question upon which all significant existential questions rest. Does man have a transcendent purpose, or, as you clearly articulate an immanent teleology?

At the end of the day, I tend to agree with Nietzsche that without a cosmic order, morality is essentially meaningless. Even if you are correct regarding the Humean aspects of Darwin's thought and how man may "paint our world with the colors of our moral emotions," this raises the question of why?

Man wants to know why. Evolution gives no ultimate answers, offering only a multitide of "small answers" that respond to what can only be seen as trivial in relation to the grand scope of the universe at large.

Unlike many who believe is cosmic teleology, I agree that Darwinian insights abound when attempting to understand the variation and adaptability of different animals and even of man as he has confronted different climates, geographical barriers, etc.

However, ultimate meaning cannot be found in the immanent. If that is all there is, then the existentialists who expound upon the meaningless and even the absurdity of existence are actually correct and over time, that view will seep in to destroy our foundations of order. In many ways it already has.

You are to be commended for your efforts at grounding ethics and morality in a secular fashion, however, I do not think that man, overall, will accept this as the sine qua non of his existence.

Larry Arnhart said...

Mr. Lawson,

Thanks for this thoughtful statement.

Including "religious understanding" on the list of twenty natural desires is my attempt to recognize the naturalness of human transcendent longings.

I realize, however, that folks like Holloway would say this doesn't go far enough in acknoledging the need for transcendent principles.

Paul said...

While Halloway's argument may have gaps in it, he does point out there is always something unsatisfactory about the vagueness of prudence. Maybe it is nonsensical to ask without supplying a particular context, but how does one judge whether or not a particular law or policy or action is prudent? I guess that I am just worried that prudence is so vague of a concept that it ceases to be meaningful, or that it is so vague that it actually doesn't provide any reliable mechanism of judgment.

Perhaps, in the manner in which many ancient Greek philosophers argued, prudence is the result of the disciplining and active shaping of the soul. This might lead one to think that prudence lies not in the decision itself or action itself, but rather in the qualities of the person making it. It is easier to agree upon who is a prudent person than to agree upon what is a prudent decision.

Anonymous said...

I have read the Bible numerous times, and I've never found the "principle of universal love based on the equal dignity of all human beings as created by God in His image." This is a highly arguable interpretation of a small part of the Biblical text.

I would argue that this interpretation is more a product of natural moral sentiments and customary moral traditions than an actual close reading. As those sentiments and traditions have progressed over the centuries, interpreters of the Bible (like interpreters of any text) have read it through the lenses of their own sentiments and traditions.

A more objective reading of the Bible would not show the primacy of universal love and equality, but rather the ongoing battle in and among humans of a great variety of emotions and moral sentiments, good and bad.

Dr. Holloway claims that Darwinian Conservatism cannot distinguish between the good and bad in human nature. I would ask him in return, "how do you distinguish the good and bad in the Biblical text?"

The answer, of course, is that Mr. Holloway's own evolved moral sense and his education within the context of one particular culture has led him to choose one reading of the Bible. The very "principles" he allegedly uses from the Bible to distinguish good from bad are in fact themselves a product of Darwinian Conservatism.

I find it easy to pick between these two alternatives. A Darwinian moral sense as explained by Dr. Arnhart is a hypothesis that can be falsified, tested, and proven. A God-granted set of instructions in an obscure text cannot be falsified, tested, or proven.