Friday, October 29, 2010

John West's God

Here I add to my previous post on John West's article in The Intercollegiate Review.

At the end of The Origin of Species, Darwin writes: "Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual."

Then, in the final sentence of the book, he writes: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

In this last sentence, Darwin is echoing the language of the Bible in Genesis (2:7): "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Darwin thus suggests that a theistic belief in God as Creator of the first forms of life could be consistent with accepting an evolutionary account of natural history as due to "secondary causes." This is the position taken by theistic evolutionists--including people like C. S. Lewis and Francis Collins.

John West casually dismisses this possibility:

Strictly speaking, Darwinian evolution begins after the first life has developed, and so Larry Arnhart is correct that it does not necessarily refute the claim that there is some kind of "first cause" to the universe that stands outside of "nature." But this "first cause" allowable by Darwinism cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation. In the end, the effort to reconcile Darwinism with traditional Judeo-Christian theism remains unpersuasive.

But why should we accept West's assumption that God was unable or unwilling to execute His design through the laws of nature? Why shouldn't we read the Bible as presenting the Divine Designer as having fully gifted His Creation from the beginning with all the formational powers necessary for evolving into the world we see today?

Of course, any orthodox Biblical believer must believe that God has intervened into nature in miraculous ways. The Christian must believe, for example, that the dead body of Jesus was resurrected back to life in a way that could not be explained by natural causes. But notice that in the Bible, once God has created the universe in the first two chapters of Genesis, God's later interventions into nature are all part of salvational history. God intervenes into human history to communicate His redemptive message to human beings, but he does not need to intervene into natural history to form irreducibly complex mechanisms that could not be formed by natural means. The Bible suggests that God created the world at the beginning so that everything we see in nature today could emerge by natural law without any need for later miracles of creation.

Moreover, the miracles of salvational history--such as the resurrection of Jesus--add nothing to the natural morality required for earthly life. Rather, these miracles of salvation confirm the supernatural morality required for eternal life.

Theists believe that God designs every living being either through the ordinary laws of nature or through extraordinary miracles. So if Darwinian biologists can explain all living beings as products of a natural evolutionary process, theists can ponder this as a wondrous display of God's designing power working through natural laws.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John West in "The Intercollegiate Review"

The Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review has two articles on the debate over Darwinian conservatism. My article is entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism." John West's article is entitled "Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism." This issue of the journal is available online.

West works at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, where he leads the campaign for "intelligent design theory" as the alternative to Darwinian science. In response to my book Darwinian Conservatism, West wrote Darwin's Conservatives: A Misguided Quest (Discovery Institute Press, 2006). I have written many posts responding to his criticisms. Some of them can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Since West's article adds nothing to his earlier book, I see no need to add much to my earlier responses to his book. But I should make a few points.

West's main idea is that conservatives should reject Darwinian science because it represents "scientism," which he defines as "a credulous belief that modern science can answer all important questions about human life and that scientists have the right to dictate public policy merely because of their presumed technical expertise" (34). More specifically, he says that Darwinian scientism "refers primarily to the claim that the mechanism of evolution is an undirected material process of natural selection acting on random mutations, and furthermore to the reductionist corollary of this view that seeks to understand mind, morality, and religion as fully explicable by such a blind material process" (35).

West does not cite any passage in Darwin's writings that would support such a reductionist view of "mind, morality, and religion." In fact, West ignores Darwin's extensive comments on how cultural evolution, rational judgment, and religious belief shape moral history in ways that cannot be reduced to evolution by natural selection. In The Descent of Man, Darwin repeatedly indicates that although natural selection has shaped the social instincts of human beings, the primary causes of moral progress are "the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings" (Penguin edition, p. 163). This doesn't look like reductionism to me.

Moreover, throughout my writing, I have emphasized how explaining moral and political order requires a complex interaction of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and deliberate judgments. West ignores all of this in his claim that Darwinism requires genetic reductionism.

West's article is organized around five questions: "(1) Does Darwinism support or subvert traditional morality? (2) Does it erode or reinforce the basis of capitalism? (3) Does it promote or undermine limited government? (4) Does it nurture or weaken religious faith? (5) Finally, is the evidence for Darwinism so overwhelming that all rational people must accept it?" (35).

(1) TRADITIONAL MORALITY. "According to Darwin," West claims, "specific moral precepts develop because under certain environmental conditions they promote survival. Once those conditions for survival change, however, so too do the dictates of morality" (36). West doesn't cite any passages from Darwin to support this sweeping assertion.

Survival surely is important for morality. Or does West deny this? Whenever Moses has to give a reason for the people of Israel to obey his laws, he says that obeying the law will allow them to live and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1, 4:40, 5:29, 6:1-3, 24, 8:1, 11:8-9, 20, 22:7, 23:9-14, 25:15, 30:15-20). Does West disagree?

Of course, survival is only a minimal condition of morality. I argue that the natural desire for life is only one of 20 natural desires that constitute the natural standards for moral order.

Through experience and reasoning, Darwin declares, we can conclude that the Golden Rule--doing unto others as we would have them do unto us--"lies at the foundation of morality" (Descent, 151). West doesn't comment on this claim or explain how it can be part of a crudely reductionist view of morality.

West complains that Darwin recognizes that polygamy has been practiced in many societies, which West interprets as an attack on monogamy. Would West say that that the Old Testament and the Koran are immoral because they teach the propriety of polygamy? Thomas Aquinas noted that polygamy was "partly natural," although it was "partly unnatural" in that the sexual jealousy of the co-wives promotes disorder. A Darwinian view of marriage would support this same conclusion in favoring monogamy over polygamy, while acknowledging that in some circumstances polygamy might be justified. It's not clear to me why West rejects this.

Like many of Darwin's critics, West is deeply disturbed by Darwin's suggestion that if bees had morality, their morality would differ from human morality. But does West mean to suggest that bee morality should be exactly the same as human morality?

(2) CAPITALISM. West claims that Darwinism cannot support capitalism, because a Darwinian understanding of commerce would require a Malthusian view of economics as a zero-sum game. But in making such a claim, West has to ignore all of the Darwinian research on the evolutionary benefits of cooperation and reciprocity. Robert Wright's book Nonzero summarizes much of this research.

(3) LIMITED GOVERNMENT. West argues that Darwin promoted a utopian eugenics, which subverted the conservative principles of limited government. To do this, West has to denigrate Darwin's insistence that utopian eugenics (like that proposed by Francis Galton) violated our "sympathy," which is "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent, 159). The only form of eugenics that Darwin ever endorsed was laws against incestuous marriages.

Darwin observes that in civilized societies, we "check the process of elimination" by protecting the weak and disabled. This "must be highly injurious to the race of man." This is what West quotes as evidence that Darwin favored the sort of eugenics that would later be practiced by the Nazis.

But West acknowledges that this passage is immediately followed by Darwin's warning that we should not practice such eugenics. Darwin writes:

"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

This seems to be a clear rejection of eugenics--to "neglect the weak and the helpless" would be "evil," because it would violate that "sympathy" that is "the noblest part of our nature." Amazingly, West dismisses this casually with the comment that "such misgivings represented a lame objection at best." "A lame objection"? How could it be a "lame objection" to see eugenics as violating "sympathy," when Darwin insists, again and again, that "sympathy" is the foundation of our natural moral sense? Here we see West straining in his effort to distort Darwin's text to get the conclusions he wants.

(4) RELIGION. I have argued that Darwinian science leaves open the question of religious belief. In searching for the unexplained ground of all explanation, we can either invoke "Nature" as the final ground, or we can look beyond Nature to "Nature's God." Darwin suggested this when he spoke about the "two books"--the Book of God's works, and the Book of God's words--as the two sources of understanding. He ended the Origin of Species with a vivid image of God as the Creator of Nature's laws. It is possible, therefore, to be a theistic evolutionist.

West rejects any possibility of being a theistic evolutionist. He doesn't even mention that Michael Behe--the leading biologist supporting "intelligent design"--suggests the possibility of theistic evolution in his book The Edge of Evolution. Behe says that treating the Bible as a science textbook would be "silly" (166), and he insists that there should be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams" (233). If one does not read the Creation Story literally as six-days-of-creation, then it is possible to combine belief in an intelligent designer with belief in the natural laws of science. "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws" (232).

West concedes that Darwinian science leaves open the possibility of God as "first cause." "But this 'first cause' allowable by Darwinism cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation" (40).

But notice that West here is silent about something he acknowledges in some of his other writing: the "intelligent designer" of "intelligent design theory" is not the Biblical God. That's why many "creationists" have rejected "intelligent design theory" as a new form of atheism. After all, West rejects "biblical literalism" (41). As Behe says, intelligent design theory does not tell us "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity" (238).

(5) SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE. In claiming that scientific evidence denies Darwinism, West cites an article by Douglas Axe, who is an employee of the Discovery Institute. West doesn't tell his readers that some biologists have disputed the way West uses Axe's article. For example, in one analysis of the article, the author concludes: "the claims that have been and will be made by ID proponents regarding protein evolution are not supported by Axe's work. As I show, it is not appropriate to use the numbers Axe obtains to make inferences about the evolution of proteins and enzymes. Thus, this study does not support the conclusion that functional sequences are extremely isolated in sequence space, or that the evolution of new protein function is an impossibility that is beyond the capacity of random mutation and natural selection."

I have debated John West on various occasions. A few years ago, one of our debates received coverage in the New York Times, which can be found here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Plato in China

Whenever I speak with professors of philosophy, I am often surprised by how many of them embrace a Platonic rationalism in their thinking, particularly in moral philosophy. What I mean by that is that they assume that all of morality must rest on an intuition of a cosmic order of goodness or badness, right or wrong, so that moral thinking is like mathematical thinking in being concerned with grasping some eternal patterns of universal and eternal truth.

For many philosophers, this Platonic conception of morality is so strong that they cannot even comprehend how morality could be understood as rooted in the empirical reality of human nature, because for them moral philosophy is not an empirical study at all, but rather a purely normative study, and the standards of normativity transcend any empirical reality of human experience. One can see this in their method of thinking, which relies heavily on thought experiments based on purely imaginary scenarios beyond anything we could know by ordinary experience or historical study. John Rawls' conception of the "original position" is one example of this.

I saw this at the conference on "Evolution and Ethics" last week at Peking University in Beijing. The conference brought together Chinese philosophy professors and students with American philosophy professors. All of the American philosophy professors were members of the "Society of Christian Philosophers." I was the sole political scientist at the conference.

As a political scientist who studies the history of political philosophy and the application of Darwinian science to political philosophy, I tend to think of moral and political order as arising from human history, and I use Darwinian science to illuminate that history as part of human evolutionary history. This sets me against those moral philosophers who assume that moral order--the normative order--must transcend human history as being "merely empirical." I find this scorn for the empirical reality of human history and the striving for a transcendent world of utopian normativity to be strange.

I suspect that I am missing something--that I am overlooking something that would explain why this Platonic transcendentalism is so appealing to modern philosophers. I would be grateful if anyone could explain this too me.

In my keynote lecture for the conference, I spoke about "The Human Sources of Darwinism and Confucianism." As I have indicated on this blog, I see six possible sources for moral order: 1. cosmic God, 2. cosmic Nature, 3. cosmic Reason, 4. human nature, 5. human culture, 6. human individuals. The Platonic philosophers assume that moral order must be grounded in the cosmic sources, so that moral standards are somehow written into the structure of the universe, and human morality is judged by how well it imitates the moral cosmos.

Against this moral cosmology, I argued for a moral biology that sees moral order as rooted in the human sources--human natural desires, human cultural traditions, and human prudential judgments. I indicated how this moral biology could be seen in both Darwinian ethics and Confucian ethics. I used some historical examples--such as the debate over slavery and the Asian debate over filial piety--to illustrate my points.

I anticipated that this argument would be rejected by almost everyone in the audience, and that's what happened, because almost all of the philosophers in the audience were so dominated by Platonic rationalism that the thought of studying morality empirically, scientifically, and historically, was incomprehensible to them.

Platonic philosophers want a morality of eternal truth, absolute rules, and universal love. By contrast, a Darwinian moral biology offers not eternal truth, but historical contingency, not absolute rules, but prudential judgment, not universal love, but tragic conflicts.

Darwinian moral psychology accepts the historical contingency of morality as shaped by the genetic history of human nature, the social history of human culture, and the personal history of human individuals. The generic goods of human nature--the 20 natural desires--are stable and universal across all of human history, for as long as the human species exists. But the human species and the generic goods rooted in that species-specific nature are evolutionarily contingent. Human cultures are also contingently variable, although they are constrained by the generic propensities of human nature. Human individuals are unique, as shaped by their unique life histories, and so they must judge what is best for them as adapted to their individualized lives, but this individuality of moral judgment is constrained by human nature and human culture.

As far as my audience of philosophers was concerned, what I talked about was almost completely irrelevant to moral philosophy, because my "merely empirical" claims offered no access to the "normative" standards sought by moral philosophers.

I was encouraged, however, by the fact that the other keynote speaker--Ryan Nichols, a professor of philosophy at Cal State-Fullerton--took an empirical approach to morality that provoked the audience of philosophers almost as much as my speech. Nichols offered an empirical study of how the Confucian teaching about filial piety has shaped a disposition in many Chinese children to allow their parents to dictate to them their choice of mates for marriage. He put this in the context of parent-offspring conflict (as understood by Robert Trivers), and showed how the teaching of filial piety had become a cultural tradition used by parents to manipulate their children to serve the interests of parents. Nichols's historical study of the culture of Confucian teaching was thus put within the context of Darwinian science applied to the study of a cultural tradition.

Nichols argued that philosophers should engage in experimental and historical studies for testing scientific hypotheses about moral conduct. He recognized, however, that most philosophers today will not be inclined to do this, because their preference is for "armchair philosophizing"--that is to say, reasoning by purely a priori standards in ways that cannot be open to empirical study.

Like me, Nichols was challenging the Platonic rationalism of the philosophers. And, like me, Nichols was frustrated by an a priori rationalism that scorns science, history, and empirical studies as irrelevant to true moral philosophy.

Part of the explanation for this might be that these philosophers were all Christians, and traditionally Christian philosophers have been attracted to Plato and Platonic thinking because it seems to support the moral cosmology that many Christian philosophers think is necessary.

I am also reminded of E. O. Wilson's claim in Consilience that explaining ethics ultimately turns on the debate between empiricism and transcendentalism. Wilson sees the biological explanation of ethics as taking the side of the empiricist tradition from Aristotle to Hume. By contrast, he sees most contemporary philosophers as taking the transcendentalist side--either religious transcendentalism or secular transcendentalism.

Conference on Science and Virtue, Nov. 4-5

Peter Augustine Lawler and Marc Guerra are directing a series of conferences on "Science and Virtue."

The first conference will be at Berry College (Mount Berry, Georgia), November 4-5. Some of the details for the conference can be found at their website.

I will be presenting a paper on "The Darwinian Science of Aristotelian Virtue." My argument will be that a Darwinian science of human nature supports Aristotle's understanding of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics. I will be elaborating some of the points that have appeared in some of my recent posts.

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.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Philippa Foot, 1920-2010

Philippa Foot died a few days ago on her 90th birthday.

As I explained in a post that I wrote last spring, I see her arguments for the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness as one line of reasoning for Darwinian naturalism.

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics (8): Existential Friendship

In previous posts, I have suggested that what Aristotle calls "friendship" (philia) corresponds to what David Hume, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin call "sympathy"--as terms for every kind of "fellow feeling" or social bond between human beings.

For Aristotle, a friend is "another self," and thus one's own self-conscious awareness is deepened by seeing oneself reflected in one's friend as a mirror. The most profound form of friendship might be called "existential friendship." This is suggested in those passages of the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle uses the term to einai for "existence." "Existence is desirable and lovable for all" (1168a1-10). We love existing, and consequently we love those activities through which we exist, and we love other human beings in whom we can see our existence at work. Love of others is an extension of one's self-loving existence. Mothers love their children as extensions of their own self-loving existence, and this mother-child bond is at the origin of all social bonding.

The experience of existential friendship is most fully depicted in the following passage, where the term "existence" (to einai) appears four times (1170a25-b19):

It appears then that life in the ruling sense is sensation or thought. Now if living itself is good and pleasant (and it seems to be so from the fact that all desire it, and those who are decent and blessed most of all, since the life they lead is most choiceworthy and their living is most blessed), and if one who sees is aware that he sees, and one who hears is aware that he hears, and one who walks is aware that he walks, and similarly in the other cases, there is something in us that is aware that we are at work, so that whenever we perceive, we are aware that we perceive, and whenever we think, we are aware that we think, and if being aware that we are perceiving or thinking is being aware that we are (since our existence is a good thing by nature, and it is pleasant to be aware of the the good that is present in oneself), and if being alive is choiceworthy, and especially so for good people, because their existence is good and pleasant for them (since people are pleased by being additionally aware of something that is good in itself), and if a serious person is the same way toward a friend as he is toward himself (since the friend is another self), then just as one's own existence is choiceworthy for each person, so too, or very nearly so, is that of a friend.

But one's existence is choiceworthy on account of the awareness of oneself as being good, and such awareness is pleasant in itself. Therefore, one also ought to share in a friend's awareness that he is, and this would come about through living together and sharing conversation and thinking; for this would seem to be what living together means in the case of human beings, not feeding in the same place like fatted cattle. So if existence is choiceworthy in itself to a blessed person, since it is good and pleasant by nature, and that of one's friend is very nearly the same, then a friend would also be something choiceworthy. But that which is choiceworthy for him ought to be present to him, or he will be deficient in that respect. Therefore, for someone who is going to be happy, there will be a need for friends of serious worth.

Thus, as Aristotle says in the EUDEMIAN ETHICS: "To perceive and to know one's friend is somehow necessarily to perceive and somehow know one's self" (1245a35-38).

This full self-awareness of one's personal existence through activities of sensing and thinking shared with one's friends is said to be a "blessed" (makarios) state, the Greek term for the "blessed ones"--the gods--or for human beings enjoying a fully happy life of unimpeded pleasure in existence. This existential friendship is for Aristotle what the beatific vision of God in Heaven is for Christians (see Augustine, City of God, xxii, 27-30). In Thomas Aquinas's commentary on this passage, he feels compelled to add a qualification that is not found in Aristotle's text: "Here he is discussing the kind of happiness that is possible in this life" (sec. 1911). Obviously, Aquinas is worried that Aristotle's readers might conclude that this existential friendship brings the deepest happiness simply, and so they might fail to see the need for the beatitude of Heaven. Repeatedly, Aquinas has to tell his readers that Aristotle's account of happiness is restricted to earthly happiness, and is therefore inferior to the transcendent happiness of Heaven (secs. 113, 129). Of course, Aristotle never says this. On the contrary, Aristotle suggests that existential friendship achieves the deepest happiness of which human beings are capable, which comes through the full and unimpeded activity of sensing, thinking, and desiring.

Moreover, the happiness of existential friendship does not come from a solitary life of contemplation, which casts doubt on the claim in book 10 of the Ethics that the life of solitary contemplation is the highest. This also denies the famous teaching of Descartes--derived from Augustine--that becoming fully aware of our existence requires a withdrawal from social life into a purely inward experience of one's existence as pure thought thinking itself. For Aristotle, each person's self-conscious existence is a social activity. I think with my friends, therefore I am.

The natural sociality of human intellectual existence is confirmed by the modern Darwinian idea of the "social brain" in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. The evolution of the primate brain was probably driven, not by the need to understand the complexity of the physical world, but by the need to navigate through the intricacies of the social world, which required the ability to read the minds of one's fellow primates in negotiating the terms of social cooperation.

The discovery of "mirror neurons" indicates that the primate brain has been designed so that a primate individual can enter the minds of other primates by mentally simulating their conscious experiences. The need of primate offspring for prolonged parental care, which included many years of social learning, created evolutionary pressures for the evolution of primate brains capable of what Aristotle describes as existential friendship.

A previous post on sympathy and mirror neurons can be found here.  Another post on the liberalism of Aristotelian friendship can be found here.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics (7): Friendship & Sympathy

The longest section of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to "friendship" (philia) (books 8-9). For Aristotle, "friendship" becomes a general term for all kinds of social bonding in which human beings show some mutual care for one another.

In this way, Aristotle's "friendship" coincides with what David Hume and Adam Smith called "sympathy"--any kind of "fellow feeling" among human beings. Charles Darwin adopted this idea and made "sympathy" one of the fundamental themes in his evolutionary account of moral and political order. More recently, biologists and psychologists have used the word "empathy" in a way that largely corresponds to what Hume, Smith, and Darwin would call "sympathy," or what Aristotle would call "friendship."

Running through all of this research is the idea that "friendship," "sympathy," or "empathy"--the psychological disposition that underlies social bonding--arises originally from the biological bond between parent and child, and particularly, mother and child.

Aristotle observes that human beings are not only political animals by nature but also household animals by nature. Indeed, the human coupling instinct is in some sense more natural than the political instinct, because human beings could exist in families even without living in political communities, as was the case throughout early human history when human beings lived in foraging groups of families. Moreover, the various forms of friendly feeling that unite human beings as individuals, as fellow citizens, and as members of the same species, radiate out from the natural affection between parents and offspring that human beings share with birds and other animals (1155a1-33, 1159a27-37, 1160b23-62a29). "Consequently, in the household are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of polity, and of justice" (EE, 1242b1-2).

Darwinian biologists have noticed that animals with the greatest cognitive capacities are often those with the longest periods of childhood dependence on adults. Aristotle agrees:

It would seem that nature wishes to provide for a sensation of attentive care for the offspring. In the lower animals, nature implants this only until birth; in others, there is care for the complete development of the offspring; and among the more intelligent animals [phronimotera], there is care for its upbringing. Among those who share in the greatest intelligence, there arises intimacy and friendship even towards the completely grown offspring, as among human beings and some quadrupeds. (GA, 753a8-14)

Through their love for their children as extensions of themselves, husbands and wives strengthen their marital bond because children are a common good, which is why childless marriages are more easily dissolved (1162a16-28). The parental affection of mothers is greater, however, than that of fathers, both because mothers must invest more effort in pregnancy and childbirth, and because they are more certain of their maternity than fathers are of their paternity (1161b16-29, 1166a1-9, 1168a20-27).

Beyond the bonds of kinship, unrelated individuals can develop friendly affection based on a reciprocal exchange of benefits. Rejecting any cosmological explanation of friendship as a force of attraction in physical nature, Aristotle argues that friendship must be a psychic relation among animals, "for there is friendship when like-mindedness [eunoia] is reciprocal" (1155b34). In the noblest friendships, people benefit others without expecting anything in return. But all or most people choose what is beneficial to themselves. In most cases, therefore, the recipient of a benefit is expected to return the equivalent of what he has received. Social conflict arises when people think this reciprocity has not been maintained (1162b22-65b37).

Not only personal friendships but also political communities are held together by a reciprocal proportionality of benefits (1132b33-33a5). People unrelated to one another can form associations based on calculations of mutual benefit. The political community arises from less associations to secure the common advantage of citizens for the whole of life (1159b25-62a34). Every community rests on some sense of friendship founded on the common advantage of its members. Although the strongest feeling of common advantage is among those who are biologically related, other bonds can arise as there is any reciprocal sense of shared needs.

As a consequence of his biological understanding of animal bonding, Aristotle sees the moral and political obligations of human beings as a series of concentric circles around the individual. Insofar as justice coincides with friendship, the claims of justice vary in proportion to the nearness of attachments (1155a16-29, 1159b25-60a8, 1165a14-36). One's obligations are stronger to closer relatives than to more distant ones, and stronger to close friends and fellow citizens than to strangers, although there is some friendly attachment to all members of one's species based on shared humanity (philanthropia).

As a biologist, Aristotle affirms the unity of humankind as one species, "simple and having no differentiation" (HA, 490b18). He believes there can be a kind of sympathy among animals of the same species, and this is especially true for human beings, so that "we praise those who love their fellow human beings" (1155a20-21). But the humanitarianism of human beings will always be difficult to cultivate and almost always weaker than their egoism, nepotism, and their patriotism. This explains the mistake of Plato's Socrates in proposing the community of wives and children and the communal ownership of property for the guardians in the Republic: it is unreasonable to ignore the natural love of oneself and one's own that makes it difficult for people to live together if they must share everything (Pol, 1262b22-25, 1263a41-b41). In fact, Socrates concedes that even in the best political community, the warriors would have to be taught that justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies (Plato, Republic, 332a-3, 375a-e, 469b-d; Cleitophon, 410b).

Aristotle's biological claim that parental care for the young is the root from which all other social bonds grow finds support in Darwinian biology. "The feeling of pleasure from society," Darwin believed, "is probably an extension of the parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the young remaining for a long time with the parents" (2004, 129).

This personal bonding between parents and their offspring distinguishes the vertebrates from the insects. Despite the functional similarities between insect and vertebrate societies, the crucial difference is that, in contrast to the impersonal character of insect societies, the vertebrates depend on personal recognition among members of a group. The efficiency of insect divisions of labor among castes was made possible by the evolutionary novelty of sterile castes, which means that the colony becomes the unit of natural selection. But vertebrates depend on individual reproduction. The cooperating castes among social insects are generally sterile, which lessens the genetic competition between cooperating individuals, which makes possible the evolution of self-sacrificial altruism. Among the social vertebrates, by contrast, genetic competition between cooperating individuals impedes the evolution of self-sacrificial altruism. As Edward Wilson has noted, the evolutionary path taken by the social vertebrates involves a trade-off, because it "enhances freedom on the part of the individual at the expense of efficiency on the part of society" (1971, 460). This explains whey the city described in Plato's Republic looks in some respects more like a bee hive than a community of human beings.

Modern ethologists have shown the importance of the mother-infant bond, especially for primates, as the root of all social bonding. Psychologists have noted the harmful, and sometimes fatal, effects of maternal deprivation on infants. We have learned much about the neural and hormonal changes during pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation that promote maternal behavior (as surveyed by Sarah Hrdy and Melvin Konner). Evolutionary psychologists have gathered evidence for the idea of Robert Trivers that, since females generally invest more in their offspring than do males, females tend to be more devoted to the raising of the young (Trivers 1985, 203-38).

On this, as on so many points, evolutionary psychologists are rediscovering what was originally discovered by Aristotle in his biological studies.

Some posts on the biology of friendship, sympathy, or empathy can be found here, here, and here.