Saturday, August 28, 2010

Darwinian Natural Law: A Reply to Paul Allen

I have written a lot on how a Darwinian science of human nature could support a Thomistic understanding of natural law as rooted in natural desires and prudence.

In recent years, some Catholic philosophers have endorsed this idea--people like Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean Porter, and Stephen Pope. But they are also ambivalent about this idea, because they don't like my argument that while religious belief can reinforce our natural moral experience, religious belief is not absolutely necessary, insofar as morality can stand on its own natural ground even without religion. But then, when they argue that religious belief is absolutely necessary for moral understanding, they move towards a divine command view of morality that denies natural law by denying that there can be any natural moral law independent of divine law.

This problem is evident in a paper by Paul Allen (a theologian at Concordia University in Montreal) entitled "Pride, Envy, and Human Nature: Beyond Darwinian Conservatism.". Allen argues that to fully understand human nature, we need a "theological anthropology" (10). Although evolutionary science confirms some elements of that theological anthropology, this science fails to recognize the full truth of what human beings are like as created in God's image and ruined by original sin.

Allen takes up my position as "the most prominent evolutionary version of natural law" (9). He agrees with me that Darwinian evolution can explain human morality as a joint product of natural desires, cultural traditions, and prudential judgments. But at the same time, he criticizes me for failing to see the need for "a cosmic hierarchy of good," a "metaphysical teleology," and a theologically informed understanding of human nature, which support a "transcendental notion of value" (11-17).

It's hard for me to understand exactly what he is saying because he doesn't develop any specific examples of precisely how his "transcendental notion of value" would differ from my understanding.

The only specific example he mentions is divorce, but he gives it only one sentence (12-13). In Darwinian Natural Right, I argue that marriage satisfies the natural desires for parental care and conjugal bonding. Although it would be good for marriage to be perpetual, there are circumstances where divorce might be justified by prudence. Consequently, I suggest that the Catholic Church's prohibition of divorce is contrary to the natural pattern of human mating, because the Catholic Church considers marriage not only a natural institution but also a sacrament that conveys a supernatural teaching. Allen implies that he disagrees with me about this, but he doesn't explain what he has in mind. Does he believe that divorce should never be legally permitted? Does he believe that this illustrates the need for theology to teach us that divorce is wrong?

Allen's "transcendental notion of value" seems to depend on religious belief in God's will--rather than natural law--as the ultimate source of moral law. If so, then Allen would be agreeing with people like John Hare that there is no true moral standard except God's command. So, for example, we must accept God's command to Abraham to kill Isaac as illustrating God's absolute authority unconstrained by natural standards.

Allen says: "Natural law and divine command ethics seem to be at odds with one another. But they are not" (24). So, on the one hand, he endorses "divine command ethics," but, on the other hand, he thinks this is compatible with natural law. It's not clear to me how this works.

Apparently, he thinks natural law is a partial truth about morality but not the whole truth. For the whole truth, we need divine revelation to teach us that we are infected with original sin, and that we will never be truly good until we "root out cardinal sins such as pride and envy," and thus achieve absolute "selflessness" (23-24). To do this, we must see "the loving relationship with God" as providing "the conditions of possibility for moral goodness" (25). But if this means that moral goodness is impossible without a "loving relationship with God," then it would seem that there is no natural ground for morality at all independently of divine revelation.

If moral goodness depends on divine revelation, where do we go for that revelation? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? Does this mean that religious traditions outside the Bible don't provide grounds for moral goodness? As a Catholic Christian, Allen implies that the Old Testament is insufficient. Does that mean that Jews cannot be morally good?

As I have suggested in my many recent posts on Confucianism, there is no clear theological teaching in Confucianism at all, and there's certainly nothing like Christian theology. So would Allen say that there is no moral goodness in the Confucian tradition, because it fails to see that "the loving relationship with God" is the condition for the possibility of moral goodness?

For the proper divine revelation, do we have to go beyond the Bible? Allen cites the Catholic catechism's description of sin. Does this imply that we need the revelation coming from the traditions of the Catholic Church? Would this mean that Protestant Christians cannot be morally good?

For example, consider a great moral issue like slavery. The Bible explicitly endorses slavery, which is why the American proslavery advocates were often devout Christians who believed they were following God's commands. How do we judge them to be mistaken without appealing to some natural standards of justice that go beyond God's commands in the Bible?

According to Allen, a theologically informed morality would require absolute "selflessness" and a rooting out of all pride and envy. What exactly would that mean? Would this require Christian socialism and pacifism--like that of the utopian Christian communities that I study in Darwinian Natural Right? Would this require the abolition of family life and private property? After all, don't family life and private property keep us from being "selfless"?

My argument is that while religious belief can reinforce natural morality, that natural morality can stand on its own even without religious belief. I recognize that the natural desire for religious understanding leads some human beings to believe that the full satisfaction of human longings will only come in a supernatural reunion with God after death. In that supernatural realm, human beings might become absolutely selfless and free of pride and envy. But I don't see how this heavenly redemption is possible on earth. I don't see how that belief in supernatural salvation changes the natural conditions of human life, in which attempts to enforce absolute selflessness and the abolition of pride and envy is foolishly destructive of what is required for the human good in this life.

Some of my blog posts on Darwinian natural law can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Posts on divine command ethics can be found here and here.

One of my posts on Biblical slavery can be found here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am confused; I thought that Aquinas implied that moral goodness is quite possible without the Christian religion, but incomplete. I thought, but perhaps I am mistaken, that most Catholics took the story of the Garden of Eden to be an allegory, whose moral is that we don't have a complete knowledge of good and evil, especially in regards to the sacred and divine. I am surprised that Allen didn't make any distinction between the profane and the sacred; I think his argument would be a lot more plausible if he argued that for profane, mundane things, mere natural law is enough, but as for the divine, our knowledge of that comes from God. At the very least he wouldn't fall into the contradiction of saying that there is a natural basis of morality and that the only basis of morality is God's will, such that even when God does things in the Bible we all know to be wrong(i.e. ordering the killing of innocent people) we can understand it to be so. The story of Abraham and Isaac is so much richer anyway if you read it as God ordering Abraham to do something inhumane without ever intending to let it come to pass. I always wonder, when people stress that the will of God is the only measure of right and wrong, if they aren't driven by a biological drive to support the unquestioned power and authority of God's representatives here on earth. That is to say, Allen isn't honest enough to see that he isn't actually arguing for a certain understanding of god, but rather he is attempting to strengthen the power of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. I bet if he were to be pressed on the subject, his spontaneous response would indicate just that.