Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics

Aristotle was a biologist. Of all of his writings that have survived, over one-quarter are biological treatises. These include The History of Animals, The Parts of Animals, The Generation of Animals, and The Movement of Animals. Even On the Soul is actually a work of biological psychology.

So it's remarkable to me that the scholarly students of Aristotle's moral and political philosophy almost never consider the influence of Aristotle's biological thinking on his moral and political thought. By contrast, it's very common for scholarly commentators and translators to look for connections between Aristotle's moral and political works and his Physics and Metaphysics. This is odd, because in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins by rejecting Plato's metaphysical conception of the Idea of the Good, and he indicates that metaphysics has little relevance to ethics (1096a11-97a12). He also dismisses physics as irrelevant to his inquiries in the Ethics (1155a33-55b15). But Aristotle repeatedly in the Ethics makes observations on human biology and on comparisons with other animals that reflect the influence of his biological research.

There is a crucial dispute here that separates Aristotle from Plato. While Plato and Plato's Socrates find it hard to understand the human good--the moral and intellectual virtues--without appealing to some moral cosmology, Aristotle sees the human good as grounded in a moral biology that needs no cosmological or transcendent grounding. This is, I think, the ultimate truth behind Raphael's famous depiction of Plato and Aristotle in the "School of Athens"--Plato holding the TIMAEUS in one hand and pointing up to the sky with his other hand, Aristotle holding the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS in one hand and gesturing downward with the palm of his other hand. The TIMAEUS is the source of the cosmic model that dominated Western culture for two thousand years. The NICOMACHEAN ETHICS is the best statement of an ethics rooted in human nature and ordinary human experience.

My initial interest in biopolitical philosophy, going all the way back to my undergraduate days at the University of Dallas, came from my curiosity about this biological foundation for Aristotle's political philosophy and about whether this might be confirmed by modern Darwinian biology.

This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Rhetoric. I'll be thinking more about how Aristotle's biology influences these books and how this compares with Darwinian science.

I will be writing a series of posts on various topics related to Aristotle's biological ethics and the connections to modern evolutionary biology.


Troy Camplin said...

Sounds great. Makes me wish I could take your class. :-)

So, you have a Dallas connection? I didn't know that. I live in Richardson and got my Ph.D. in the Humanities from UT-Dallas. I have a good friend who got his M.A. in philosophy from UD.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, that Aristotle's ethics and politics are grounded in his biology is a commonly accepted fact among scholars - at least the ones I've spoken to. In fact, it's also considered a given that his physics and metaphysics are based on his understanding of biology. So I'm not sure in what sense this is supposed to be news.

But what I'm puzzled by is that this has anything to do with an ethics based on Darwinism. Do you not realize that Aristotle's biology stands in opposition to Darwinian thinking?

Troy Camplin said...

Arnhart isn't just a Darwinian. He integrates systems and process theories as well, making up very up to date on evolution. Aristotle's theories were pretty impressive systems work at the time -- one can easily take out the things that were factually wrong and still have some interesting insights. Systems biology doesn't actually contradict Darwin; they are complementary.