Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arnhart in China

Today, I will be travelling to China for 10 days.

I will be part of a conference in Beijing on "Evolution and Ethics," which will include professors and students from the United States and China. Some of these people were participants in our previous seminar on this subject at Oxford University last January. Our papers for this conference will be translated into Chinese and published as a book in Chinese.

The title of my paper is "The Human Sources of Darwinian and Confucian Ethics." My argument will be familiar to anyone who has read my posts over the past few months, particularly those on Confucianism.

Can our lives have any meaning in a Darwinian world? That's the question in the debate over evolutionary ethics.

For many people, the one big problem with Darwinian science is that it denies that life has any meaning. If we are just animals produced by a natural evolutionary process that doesn't care about us, or for us, and if like all other animals, we live only for a moment, and then die, how can human life--how can my life--really matter?

Aren't we different from other animals in that it's not enough for us that we exist--we need some reason for our existence? And for many of us, the only satisfying reason comes from seeing our lives as part of a cosmic drama. Doesn't Darwinism deny that there is any cosmic drama, because it explains the history of life in the universe as emerging through impersonal forces that work without design or intelligence? Isn't that why Friedrich Nietzsche warned that Darwinian science was "true but deadly"?

Our search for meaning is a moral search. To live meaningful lives, we need to see our lives as good lives, conforming to enduring, if not eternal, standards of what a good life should be. For almost 2,000 years, Western culture was dominated by a cosmic model of the universal as a moral order. Combining Platonic and Biblical elements, this cosmic model provided a cosmological standard for morality: it taught that to be truly good, to satisfy our deepest longings, we must imitate the good order of the universe as the product of the cosmic Intelligent Designer.

But, then, in the 19th century, Darwinian science seemed to deny that our standards for a good life have any cosmic support. A Darwinian cosmos is not a product of morally intelligent design, and therefore human morality seems to be a purely human construction in a universe that has no moral order to it. If Darwin's universe has no cosmic moral order, doe that mean that human morality is merely a work of human fantasy?

Such ideas have consequences. Some of the atrocities of the past century have been attributed to Darwinian science by those who see, for example, a clear line of influence from Charles Darwin to Adolf Hitler. After all, weren't Hitler and the Nazis Social Darwinists?

Darwinism creates a similar kind of problem for the Asian tradition of Confucianism. Confucian philosophers have said that our search for the moral meaning of our lives is the search for the Dao--for the "way" or "path" of life. Which way should we go to find the right way or true way of life? They have said that to find our way in life, we must live according to the "Way of Heaven" (tiandao) and follow those moral and political leaders who have the "Mandate of Heaven."

But when Chinese intellectuals discovered Darwinism in the first half of the 20th century, many of them concluded that Darwinian scientific materialism refuted the belief in "Heaven" as a cosmic moral order, and thus refuted the Confucian tradition of morality. Then, having rejected the heavenly standard of morality, many Chinese Darwinians concluded that the only scientific standard for morality was "survival of the fittest" in the "struggle for life."

One of the Chinese intellectuals impressed by Darwinian thinking was Mao Zedong. Some historians have wondered whether the brutality of Mao's rule over China showed the catastrophic consequences of a Darwinian science that denies cosmic moral order.

And yet, I think this fear of Darwinian science as subverting morality is mistaken. We can find meaning--moral meaning--in a Darwinian world. To see this, we need to see that morality does not require a moral cosmology. Darwinian science can explain morality as rooted in evolved human experience--in the evolutionary history of human nature, human tradition, and human judgment--even without any support from a moral cosmos. A belief in a morally designed cosmos can reinforce morality for those who have such a belief, and Darwinian science leaves this open as a metaphysical possibility. But the moral meaning of our lives does not require such a cosmic ground for morality.

In my paper, I will lay out my reasoning for this conclusion in four steps. First, I will indicate how the debate over evolutionary ethics ultimately falls into two opposing positions. On the one side, the transcendentalists reject evolutionary ethics because it does not provide the moral cosmology that they think is absolutely necessary. On the other side, the empiricists accept evolutionary ethics because they see it as conforming to the purely human sources of moral order. Darwinian ethics will be rejected by those who belong to the transcendentalist tradition of Plato and Kant, who believe that ethics is a cosmological and normative science of categorical imperatives. Darwinian ethics will be embraced by those who belong to the empirical tradition of Aristotle and Hume, who believe that ethics is a humanistic and factual science of hypothetical imperatives.

Second, I will indicate why the empirical account of the human sources of morality provided by Darwinian science is sufficient, without any necessity for a moral cosmology.

Third, I will contend that the Confucian moral teaching is an example of a great moral tradition that can be explained through Darwinian empiricism without any need for a transcendental appeal to "Heaven" as a moral cosmos.

Finally, I will argue that a Darwinian ethics supports a Confucian liberalism, in which moral order arises from the spontaneous order of civil society through social persuasion rather than governmental coercion. A Darwinian liberal Confucianism would secure a free society of individuals freely pursuing their social lives in families and voluntary associations, in which they would be free to explore the ultimate questions of the meaning of life in the universe.

There is some practical urgency for China today in reconsidering the Confucian tradition. As I have indicated in some previous posts, there is a growing sense in China that Marxism is dead as a source of moral or political legitimacy in China; and consequently, many Chinese intellectual leaders are wondering whether China might have to revive Confucianism as the ground for moral and political order.

I will be interested to see what the Chinese professors and students at our conference think about this.


Greg R. Lawson said...

Mr. Arnhart:

I hope you have an excellent trip to China and I look forward to additional posts. In a previous response to another posting you asked me:

"Are you saying, for example, that our love for our friends, our families, and our fellow human beings has no intrinsic value?"

My response is yes.

While I am cognizant that we may place subjective value on our families, friends and fellow human beings, through our love, I have to emphasize the term subjective.

It seems to me impossible to find ultimate meaning without finding an external reference point, be it deity or something else that transcends the merely biological.

Again, I can understand how a "morality" and an ethics can be generated through a Darwinian process as you elucidate. I simply do not think it has any meaning external to the meaning we create for it ourselves on a subjective basis.

In other words, I can see how ethics and morality can be explained in a Darwinian fashion, but it always seems as if it is mere utility and nothing more.

How can that be escaped?

Larry Arnhart said...


I think I understand your point.

But I don't agree with the way you use the words "subjective" and "objective," suggesting that what is "subjective" has little or no weight.

That human beings have the natural desires that they do, and that frustrating these desires unnecessarily will lead to human unhappiness seem to me to be "objective" facts about the human condition. Or, we might say that they are "intersubjective" facts of our human psychology.

For you, this is not enough. You want some reference to an external cosmic order. Well, let's say that this is God's moral law. But, then, we might as well say that this is merely "subjective," in the sense that it's merely the command of God's will. A divine command view of moral order quickly collapses into the nihilism of divine willfulness.

Even if we had a cosmic God issuing moral commands, wouldn't we have to judge whether those commands were humanly good as conforming to our human needs and desires?

So even if we thought that a cosmic God had commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac, we could judge this wrong in the light of our natural moral sense.

John Farrell said...

Best of luck on the trip, Larry!

Anonymous said...

"In other words, I can see how ethics and morality can be explained in a Darwinian fashion, but it always seems as if it is mere utility and nothing more.

"How can that be escaped?"

Ethics and morality evolved to enable us to live and work together without killing each other too often. The underlying enforcement of Darwinian morality is that one wants to associate with good people, and avoid, exclude, or kill bad people, because bad people are apt to stab one in the back.

Why do you want to "escape" something that is the major topic of fairy tales?

A fairy tale often corresponds pretty well to a sociobiological scenario about the ancestral environment.

E said...

Can you add a link to the paper: "The Human Sources of Darwinian and Confucian Ethics."? Thanks!

Chip said...

In the darwinian model, all that we have and all that we are is a loose compilation of random mutations cobbled together by unthinking, uncaring natural selection.

Pick any feature we possess—not just physical ones, psychological ones too—and ask why it exists in a darwinian framework. Why, for example, are some inclined to rape, while others prefer altruism? The answer is identical in both cases: each characteristic was arbitrarily generated, and subsequently selected in order to facilitate my or my ancestor’s survival. There is no other reason. Is one better or more “moral” than the other? Absolutely not. Natural selection isn’t even capable of making that distinction.

A naturalist can stand on the top of Mount Improbable and claim that his life has meaning or purpsose only through a complete denial of his most fundamental presuppositions about the processes through which he came to be.

Enjoy your conference. I’ll be interested to see what the others think too.