Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics (3): Holloway on Courage and Nobility

About 15 years ago, I taught my graduate seminar on "Evolution and Political Theory" for the first time. One of the students in that class was Carson Holloway. Although he was interested in the idea of a Darwinian political theory, he was also skeptical about it, because he thought it did not rightly recognize the importance of religious belief for moral and political order.

By the second or third meeting of the seminar, the graduate students were clearly divided into two groups--those defending Darwinian political theory and those criticizing it. The two groups even sat on opposite sides of the seminar table. Those attacking Darwinian science called themselves "the priests," and they were lead by Carson. Those defending Darwinism called themselves "the scientists," and they were led by another student--Dave Ivers, who now teaches at Eastern Michigan University. It was an amazing class. Typically, I would start each class by asking a question. Then, the two opposing teams would go after one another for the rest of the class. I was little more than a referee. I always remember this as the best example of what a graduate seminar should be like.

Ever since then, Carson has elaborated his criticisms of "Darwinian natural right" in a series of publications, beginning with The Right Darwin? (Spence Publishing, 2006). Most recently, he contributed an essay to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question (2009). I have responded to him in that book and in various posts for this blog. But I don't think I have ever responded fully to Chapter 3 of his book--"Ennobling Democracy" (pp. 41-70).

Carson argues that Darwinian ethics reduces morality to "mere sociability or decency" and thus ignores what Aristotle recognizes as the transcendent longing for "nobility or beauty of character," which expresses a "natural religious longing" that requires a "publicly sanctioned revealed religion" (45-46, 58). Thus, "virtue as Aristotle understands it requires that we transcend virtue as Darwinism understands it" (51). In some of my other responses to Carson, I have questioned his appeal to "revealed religion" and his attributing this to Aristotle. But I haven't responded to Carson's comments on the nobility of true courage in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

In Book 3 of the Ethics, Aristotle takes up the virtue of courage. He defines it as a mean with regard to fear--and particularly, with regard to the fear of death. Death is the most fearful thing, "for it is the end of one's life, and for the dead nothing is thought to be either good or bad" (1115a27). Courage in the face of death is noblest in war. The cowardly person fears death too much. The rash person fears death too little. The courageous person faces death in the right way, at the right time, in the right circumstances, as dictated by reason. The courageous person fears death in war, but he also fears the bad reputation that would come from being a coward (1115a10-15).

Aristotle then goes through five ways in which the term "courage" is used. The courage of citizen-soldiers in war is first, and it most resembles true courage, because like Homer's heroes, the citizen-soldiers face death in war because they are afraid of being punished and being dishonored.

Aristotle later goes on to say that the truly courageous people are those who have complete virtue, and therefore happiness, and so life is most worth living for them. Consequently, they will be courageous in war, because they will want to be noble. But these truly courageous people might not make the best soldiers. The best soldiers might be those with less to lose, who might risk their lives for little gain (1117b1-20).

In The Descent of Man (Penguin, 2004), Darwin explains how the virtue of courage might have contributed to moral progress through evolutionary group selection.

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase. (157-58)

In Darwinian Natural Right, I quote this passage and compare it with Aristotle's account of courage as manliness in the face of death in war. Carson criticizes me, however, for not seeing that while Aristotle recognizes the courage of citizen-soldiers, he does not think that this is true courage. The courage of soldiers in war typically comes from a social concern for the good of one's group and a desire to be praised by one's fellow citizens and to avoid being blamed. But this desire for honor, Aristotle suggests, falls short of the desire for nobility, which moves the truly courageous. According to Aristotle, the love of nobility or moral beauty transcends the sociable concern for being praised or honored, Carson argues, and it points to a transcendent or religious conception of perfection that goes beyond the mediocre morality of social praise and blame.

My response to this criticism turns on two points--one about Aristotle and another about Darwin. First, I would note that what is commonly translated as "noble" in Aristotle's text is the Greek word kalon--the "beautiful." Occasionally, Carson acknowledges this when he speaks of nobility as "moral beauty." The concern for nobility, Aristotle suggests, is a concern for appearing beautiful in the eyes of one's fellow human beings. In our common speech today, we sometimes convey this when we tell someone who has done a noble deed, "that was a beautiful thing that you did."

Aristotle says that doing what is "beautiful" is "the end of virtue" (1115b13). Moreover, Aristotle repeatedly speaks of virtue as what is praised, and vice as what is blamed (1101b32,1103a10, 1109b30-35, 1155a17-21). Praise and blame are the common tests of virtue and vice. And thus our morality grows out of our sociality, because we are naturally concerned with winning social approbation and avoiding social disapprobation.

Of course, as Aristotle suggests in his account of magnanimity (in Book 4 of the Ethics), those with the greatest virtues are so confident in their knowledge of their virtue that they don't depend on the praise or honor coming from others. The truly virtuous are concerned not so much with being praised as with being praiseworthy. That might explain what Aristotle means by true courage as distinguished from the courage of citizen-soldiers.

A similar thought can be found in Darwin's Descent:

The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection. (682)

So while the "first foundation or origin of the moral sense" was in the "social instincts," including the sensitivity to social praise or blame, human reasoning and experience has led to moral progress so that for some human beings, individual conscience has become "the supreme judge and monitor."

Darwin seems to be pointing here to what Adam Smith identified as the "impartial spectator." We begin with a concern for how we appear to others--we want to look good in their eyes. But eventually, we can imaginatively conceive of how we would appear to a well-informed audience of spectators, and that becomes our conscience or inward monitor. We might then act in whatever way seems praiseworthy to us, even when our behavior is blamed by those around us.

Now, Carson might want to point to Darwin's appeal to "the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity" as supporting moral conduct that transcends ordinary praise and blame. This does show Darwin's recognition that religious belief can promote moral progress. But for Darwin, this conception of an "all-seeing Deity" can be understood as a product of human cultural evolution. "The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture" (682).

Aristotle shows the same respect for religious belief that supports morality. But there is no suggestion from either Aristotle or Darwin of a "divine command theory" of morality as impossible without some knowledge of God as the only source of moral norms. Instead, Aristotle and Darwin see religious morality as sanctioning the natural morality that arises from ordinary human experience and cultural evolution.

My previous posts responding to Carson Holloway can be found here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

I think I can follow the reasoning on both sides of the argument here, but I am still left with some questions. It seems that Mr. Arnhart is arguing that both Aristotle and Darwin recognized the need for some individuals to go beyond what is praised and blamed, to a conception of what is praiseworthy and blameworthy that is not wholly dependent on the mere opinions of others. In this, he seems to agree more or less with Mr. Carson. Both are saying, more or less, that mere sociability is insufficient for truly excellent moral character. Now, for most human beings, this probably isn't a problem. But what about the great-souled, or potentially great-souled, human beings, such as Alcibiades? The problem that I am conceiving is that there are human beings, who, not being content with the praise and blame of ordinary people, will need to find a different standard of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. If the standard that they find is not compatible with the standard of praise and blame relevant within society, it might undermine the natural sociability of the great-souled individuals, and lead them to callously harm their compatriots, just as Alcibiades and many other young Greek men did after being seduced away from the Homeric gods by sophists. Can societies last without an adequate cultural framework to properly socialize the morally ambitious? Is it possible to do so without some sort of socially sanctioned myth? Maybe the thrust of my counterargument/question is; if religion is nothing more than a socially sanctioned way of going beyond mere sociability without at the same time threatening sociability, won't complete virtue, which includes both sociability and virtues that go beyond mere sociability, absolutely need religion in order to flourish?


Troy Camplin said...

"Virtue aims at the beautiful" of course begs the question of "what is the beautiful?" How is one to define beauty? How, in reference to action?

Larry Arnhart said...

Moral beauty means looking good.

Tony said...